By Kuir ë Garang*
Oligarchy: a government in which a small group exercises control especially for corrupt and selfish purposes; a group exercising such control. ~ Merriam-Webster
African American historian, Nell Painter, argues in her book, The History of White People , that what we believe depends on what our cultures and society has educated us to look for in anything we do. This is a social reality we tend to overlook; or we attend to it only when it becomes relevant.
The problem with contemporary social justice discourse in the west, especially in North America, is that advocates expect the target of their campaigns to know everything about anything; and they also expect them to believe things in their culture in the same way they believe social issues in other cultures. This is not only impractical, it is also a natural impossibility.
Discourse, as a social use of language, affects or changes how we perceives things. But that depends very much on the culture and the epistemological forces behind the use of language in this context. Take for example, how Americans and the western media describe wealthy and influential Russian billionaires and how they describe American billionaires. Russians billions are 'oligarchs' and western billionaires are, well, just billionaires. But morally, according to the western intelligentsia, western billionaires are philanthropists not oligarchs.
While western billionaires affect politics, cultures and social values globally, they are still not considered oligarchs. How many of us would refer to Bill Gates or Elon Musk as oligarchs? Maybe only a few. But this is not because they are not oligarchs but because our linguistic resources come from a defined western discourse that shape our thinking.
Here is another example about African history. In 1960, the father of African Studies in the United States, Melville Herskovits, describe Africa as a 'geographical fiction.' While this statement is true, I have always wondered why this statement is restricted to Africa when every country in the world, and I mean every country, is a geographical fiction. All borders in the world were arbitrarily created.
(I address this issue in "Birth of a State).
But many African historians and analysts have taken this Herskovitsian view that Africa is a geographical fiction without being critical of it. The reason? The discourses and epistemologies that influence our thinking about Africa and about ourselves are informed about what western scholars have written about Africa.
Our understanding of Africa and African issues is proscribed; it is determined by the linguistic resources, the historical and modern discourses coming the west or the legacies of slavery and colonialism. This is why postcolonial scholars attempt to rethink African history as UNESCO has attempted to do with the General History of Africa. It is also the very reason why The Empire Writes Back.
However the average man and woman in Africa has little luxury to rethink history so they rely on a group of people that French existential philosopher, Merleau-Ponty has described as 'the community of thinkers.' They believe a world that has already been structured for them.
This is the case with the oligarch epithet.
Even when it is factually accurate to describe Bill Gates as an oligarch, one would find oneself at the receiving end of the western media disparagement because the western culture has trained us to think of Bill Gates as a 'philanthropists'. He cannot possibly be an oligarchs.
We ignore these seemingly simple issues; but this is how the human mind is shaped internationally.
So, anytime you commit to a certain social issue, especially a social justice issue, always remember that people don't believe something because it is simply the right thing to do. They believe it because they have been convinced about its usefulness to them; or that social, political and legal conditions are such that they cannot do otherwise without being penalized.
We only doubt things because we have reason to doubt not because others expect us to doubt because they doubt it themselves.
So, is there any special fact why western billionaires are 'philanthropists' and Russian billionaires are 'oligarchs'? There is none; it's all about the discourses we have been raised or taught to believe.
*Kuir ë Garang is the editor of The Philosophical Refugee.'