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HomeOpinionPolitical Rhetoric in Ethiopia: The Allure of Bullshit? 

Political Rhetoric in Ethiopia: The Allure of Bullshit? 

Image credit : Tigrai online

By Shimels Hussien (M.D.)
Updated on June 14, 2024 at 10:11 P.M. Toronto time. PM Abiy Ahmed’s picture was removed based on the request of the author.  

Ethiopia’s Longstanding Tradition of Political Discourse

Ethiopia boasts a rich and ancient history, yet its political landscape has long been plagued by a focus on ethnicity and tribal affiliation rather than on reasoned debate. For centuries, political discourse has prioritized shared ancestry over individual beliefs. This means a flawed idea from someone within a person’s group can be more readily accepted than a well-constructed one from an outsider. This emphasis on identity politics fosters an emotional attachment to ethnicity and religion, leading to a political environment dominated by passionate but unproductive rhetoric. Debates devolve into finger-pointing and conflict, with little room for genuine engagement with differing viewpoints. The result? A stifling of intellectual discourse based on evidence and logic. Many Ethiopian scholars, myself included, have found ourselves compelled to disengage from these flawed platforms. We do so not out of apathy, but rather to preserve our self-respect and avoid getting drawn into unproductive and often vicious debates fueled by emotions and shallow knowledge. Engaging with such discourse can feel like wading into a quagmire, offering little chance of progress or productive exchange.

However, the situation has taken a turn for the worse in recent years. A disturbing trend has emerged: the rise of political rhetoric that closely resembles “bullshit,” as philosopher Harry Frankfurt defines it in his book “On Bullshit.” This oped will delve deeper into the concept of “bullshit” and explore how it can shed light on the current state of Ethiopian political discourse.

Frankfurt’s Distinction: Lies vs. Bullshit

Philosopher Harry Frankfurt sheds light on a crucial distinction in the realm of deceptive language: lying versus bullshitting. A liar, as he explains, cares about truth and deliberately attempts to mislead. They craft statements they believe to be false in order to deceive their audience. A bullshitter, on the other hand, operates with a startling indifference to truth or falsehood. Their primary objective is to craft speech that sounds plausible and achieves a desired outcome, regardless of its basis in reality. Bullshitters are unconcerned with misleading listeners; their focus is on manipulating them to serve a specific agenda.

The Seductive Allure of Bullshit for Ethiopian Politicians

This indifference to truth can be a tempting tool for Ethiopian political actors navigating the country’s ever-shifting political landscape. When faced with complex challenges or accusations of misconduct, politicians might find it easier to resort to grand pronouncements, appeals to emotion, or unsubstantiated claims of progress. This tactic allows them to deflect attention away from pressing issues and avoid engaging in a nuanced and truthful discussion. Furthermore, political bullshit can be strategically employed to whip up public fervor around a particular cause, potentially leading to social unrest or hindering efforts at compromise.

The Corrosive Effects of Bullshit in Political Discourse

The pervasiveness of political bullshit can have a number of negative consequences for Ethiopian society:

  • Erosion of Public Trust: When citizens are bombarded with empty pronouncements and demonstrably false claims, their trust in politicians inevitably erodes. This cynicism can lead to apathy and disengagement from the political process, hindering efforts to address critical national issues like poverty reduction, ethnic reconciliation, and economic development. A citizenry that distrusts its leaders is unlikely to actively participate in shaping the nation’s future.
  • Hinders Productive Dialogue: When truth and evidence are cast aside in favor of emotionally charged rhetoric and empty slogans, it becomes difficult to have meaningful conversations about the challenges facing the nation. This is particularly detrimental in Ethiopia, where navigating complex issues like ethnic tensions, economic development, and democratic reform requires open and honest dialogue between political actors and the citizenry. Bullshit stifles constructive debate and hinders the possibility of finding common ground.

Citizens Reclaiming the Political Discourse: Building a Culture of Critical Thinking

However, Frankfurt’s work also offers a path forward. By recognizing bullshit for what it is and demanding that politicians adhere to a higher standard of truthfulness, citizens can begin to reclaim the political discourse. Here’s how:

  • Critical Evaluation Skills: Equipping themselves with the tools to critically evaluate political pronouncements is crucial. This includes demanding evidence for assertions and identifying inconsistencies between words and actions. Citizens should be wary of pronouncements that rely on emotional manipulation or lack concrete details. Fact-checking resources and independent media outlets can play a vital role in helping citizens discern truth from bullshit.
  • Demanding Accountability: Holding politicians accountable for their words and actions is another crucial step. Citizens can voice their concerns through various means including participation in town hall meetings, debates and discussions forums and supporting organizations that promote transparency and good governance. Social media platforms can be used to call out bullshit and promote constructive dialogue.

Beyond Frankfurt: The Nuances of Political Rhetoric

It is important to acknowledge that applying a theoretical concept like bullshit to the complexities of real-world political discourse has its limitations. Political rhetoric is rarely a straightforward matter of truth or falsehood. Context, nuance, and the art of persuasion all play a role. Politicians often employ language that resonates with their base or leverages historical narratives to garner support. Understanding these underlying factors is crucial for a comprehensive analysis of political discourse.

The Role of Media and Civic Education

The media landscape also plays a critical role in shaping political discourse. A media environment dominated by state-controlled outlets or partisan reporting can amplify bullshit and hinder the dissemination of factual information. Promoting a diverse and independent media landscape is crucial for fostering a healthy political discourse.

Furthermore, strengthening civic education at all levels of schooling can equip citizens with the critical thinking skills necessary to distinguish truth from bullshit. Educational curriculums that emphasize media literacy, critical analysis of information sources, and the importance of evidence-based decision making can empower citizens to become discerning participants in the political process.

Countering Bullshit: The Role of Political Actors and Institutions

While citizens have a crucial role to play in combating political bullshit, political actors and institutions also bear a responsibility. Politicians who commit to honest and transparent communication, even when addressing complex or controversial issues, can help rebuild public trust. Political parties can establish internal mechanisms to discourage the use of deceptive language within their ranks.

Institutions like election commissions can play a role by enforcing campaign finance regulations that limit the undue influence of money on political discourse. Universities can contribute by strengthening academic programs that focus on critical thinking, media literacy, and political communication.

Conclusion: Building a More Truthful and Engaged Political Landscape

The pervasiveness of political bullshit in Ethiopia, often employed by high-ranking figures themselves, poses a significant threat to the country’s democratic development. It erodes public trust, hinders productive dialogue, and ultimately weakens the foundations of a healthy political system. Citizens must become vigilant consumers of information, equipping themselves with the tools to critically evaluate political pronouncements and discern truth from bullshit. However, combating bullshit is not solely a citizen’s responsibility. Political actors and institutions must also play their part. Leaders who prioritize honest and transparent communication, even when addressing difficult topics, can help rebuild public trust. Strengthening media independence, promoting civic education, and enforcing campaign finance regulations are all crucial steps in fostering a political environment that values truth and evidence-based discourse. By working together, citizens, political actors, and institutions can reclaim the political discourse in Ethiopia, paving the way for a more informed, engaged, and democratic citizenry. Remember, in the battle against bullshit, critical thinking is our most powerful weapon. 

Dr Shimels Hussien is Ass. Professor of Public Health at St. Paul Hospital’s Millenium Medical College, Addis Ababa.  He can be reached at :  shimelsh@gmail.com

Reference

  1. Frankfurt, H. G. (2005). On bullshit. Princeton University Press.
  2. Marmion, J. F. (Ed.). (2020). The Psychology of Stupidity: Explained by Some of the World’s Smartest People. Pan Macmillan.
  3. Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Pantheon Books. 

Editor’s note : Views in the article do not necessarily reflect the views of borkena.com

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10 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks to the author, Dr Shimels. After reading this article twice, I’m now able to understand that so much bullshitting is going on in the in Ethiopian social and political discourses. It is very common to hear and read the ruling elite mentioning numbers, figures and stuffs out of blue. It is not only mentioning figures or saying something grand out of blue, it is also they couldn’t remember and repeat what they said earlier. I used to call these rhetoric lying but now i got it. It is not lying but bullshitting. I also applaud the recommendation of the author that we need be exercise critical thinking in the face of rampant bullshitting at top levels. The references indicated at the end of the article seem worthy of full reading.

    • Your comment seem out of context, not even understanding the pieces above. First, your statement ‘intellects sitting in the west’ is out of context because the author’s affiliation at the end of the document states he is in Addis Ababa currently. Second, don’t you know that Ethiopian election board has the authority to outline the scope of campaign narratives? In the last election, some parties were denied of campaign finance due to use religious centric campaign. Third, what is the problem with living in the west and writing about Ethiopia. Isn’t Ethiopia at mercy and aid of the West? Aren’t our folks in the west of better experience, exposure and education? You got to judge concepts independent of who and where the person is.

  2. Dear Editors,

    How do you let profanity ride on this esteemed website? The writer uses the vulgar term in the title of his piece. We take Borkena as a family show where we are free to write what is on our mind for the good of those noble people we all left behind. What was this writer thinking? Is that his way of showing us that he is civilized or more civilized? You need to vet out such profane street language. He could have used the phrase ‘bovine scatology’ instead. Please change it to that. You name any ethnic group in the old country. They don’t use profanities during discussions. I can’t believe this!!!

  3. Kindly, point to the profanity ? Borkena is shortstaffed, as indicated in the past. We do not go through every single comments. But profanity and course language is reported, action will be taken

    • Here is the link for you. Please rest assured that I will include a link in my heads-up notice to you in the future whenever I notice profanities used in the headlines of articles.
      https://borkena.com/2024/06/11/ethiopia-political-rhetoric-the-allure-of-bullshit/

      Please change the last word to ‘bovine scatology’ or delete the profane word altogether. It is a repugnant street language used by those eyal-al-souqs who grew unattended at bazaars in the Middle East and not an Ethiopian way. Please warn the author to watch his language and never use profanities on this esteemed website.

  4. Thank you to the author for bringing this crucial conversation to the Borkena audience. The author is absolutely right to call out the prevalence of bullshit in Ethiopian politics. It’s refreshing to see someone address this critical issue. As a fellow believer in critical thinking, I couldn’t agree more. We, the Ethiopian people, deserve better than empty promises and misleading rhetoric. We need to be discerning and hold our leaders accountable.

    The term bullshit is not vulgar as some commented above. It is a philosophical and scientific terminology. Professor Frankfurt’s work, “On Bullshit,” is a valuable resource. It’s fantastic that Princeton University makes it readily available on its website: press.princeton.edu/books/hardcover/9780691122946/on-bullshit. I did my MA in psychology at Princeton and it was one of our reference books.

    The increasing use of the term in reputable publications like APA (American Psychologists Association) journals, SAGE publisshing journals and MoneyWeek further validates its legitimacy.
    psycnet.apa.org/record/2017-18252-004,
    moneyweek.com/493933/modern-capitalism-and-the-rise-of-the-bullshit-job, journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/14747049211000317

    My comment as a psychologist, is including specific examples would have strengthened the argument. Perhaps in a future piece, the author could delve into concrete instances of political bullshit in Ethiopia. Seems the author avoided resorting to personal attacks by just focusing on the rhetoric itself. With clear examples, the article could empower Ethiopians to identify and reject bullshit, fostering a more informed and engaged citizenry.

  5. In his thought-provoking piece, Dr. Shimels Hussien (M.D.) delves into the intricate web of Ethiopia’s political landscape, shedding light on the longstanding tradition of prioritizing ethnicity and tribal affiliation over reasoned debate. With a keen eye for detail and a deep understanding of the historical context, Dr. Hussien paints a vivid picture of a society where shared ancestry often takes precedence over individual beliefs, leading to a stifling of intellectual discourse based on evidence and logic.

    The author eloquently articulates how this emphasis on identity politics fosters an emotional attachment to ethnicity and religion, resulting in a political environment dominated by passionate yet unproductive rhetoric. By highlighting the challenges faced by Ethiopian scholars who find themselves compelled to disengage from flawed platforms to preserve their self-respect, Dr. Hussien underscores the urgent need for a shift towards a more inclusive and constructive political discourse.

    Drawing on the insights of philosopher Harry Frankfurt, Dr. Hussien explores the rise of political rhetoric that closely resembles “bullshit” – a term Frankfurt defines as speech crafted with an indifference to truth or falsehood, aimed at manipulating listeners to serve a specific agenda. The author skillfully navigates the nuances of lying versus bullshitting, illustrating how the latter can be a tempting tool for Ethiopian politicians navigating complex challenges and accusations.

    Moreover, Dr. Hussien masterfully articulates the corrosive effects of political bullshit on Ethiopian society, highlighting the erosion of public trust and hindrance to productive dialogue. By emphasizing the importance of citizens reclaiming the political discourse through critical evaluation skills and demanding accountability from politicians, the author empowers readers to become vigilant consumers of information and active participants in shaping the nation’s future.

    The call to action presented by Dr. Hussien is both compelling and urgent. By recognizing bullshit for what it is and demanding a higher standard of truthfulness from political actors, citizens can begin to reclaim the political discourse and pave the way for a more informed, engaged, and democratic society. The author’s emphasis on the role of media and civic education in shaping political discourse underscores the interconnected nature of these institutions in fostering a healthy political environment.

    Dr. Shimels Hussien’s insightful analysis serves as a rallying cry for citizens, political actors, and institutions to come together in the battle against political bullshit. By prioritizing truth and evidence-based discourse, holding politicians accountable, and strengthening critical thinking skills, Ethiopia can embark on a journey towards a more transparent, inclusive, and democratic political landscape. Dr. Hussien’s work stands as a testament to the power of informed dialogue and collective action in shaping a brighter future for the nation.

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