Revisiting “Two concepts of Ethnicity” By Teodros Kiros

December 27th, 2010 Print Print Email Email

In November 14, 2006 I published “Two concepts of Ethnicity,” in which I argued: The recent explosion of the politics of ethnicity in modern Ethiopia calls for a re-theorizing of the idea of ethnicity itself. The situation is so grave that it compels a philosophical intervention. I would like to argue that ethnicity could be viewed as positive and negative, which I would call positive ethnicity (PE) and negative ethnicity (NE). We need to salvage the positive merits of ethnicity, and avoid the strong temptation of divesting individuals and groups of the psychological and historically necessary need of investing in ethnicity

as a way of defending the differences that mean so much to those who believe in them. The unnecessary contamination of ethnicity need not force us to throw the baby with the bathwater.

The essential core of PE is the idea of diversity. The attributes of diversity are distinctness of experience expressed in language, customs, traditions and ways of seeing and doing things; individuality; dissimilarity of experience; constructive articulations of unique ways of experiencing the world; and openness. NE, as most people readily and conveniently understand it, holds the core ideas of blood and kinship, and the attributes of these core ideas are the naturalization of customs and traditions as peculiar to an ethnic group; the forging of alliances and interests on the presumed existence of a group that
shares those interests and passions; the similarity of experience; destructive articulations of ways of seeing, knowing and doing things; aversion of differences; denial of the formation of factions between groups perceived to be divergent, and finally and most negatively, bolstering and systematically defending closedness as a tool of argumentation.

In his well reasoned article in the Addis Tribune, Dr. Messay Kebede, has quite convincingly articulated the political dangers of NE, particularly, when unanimity becomes the sole criteria by which groups of people are put in a single basket as if there are no individuals who would like to reserve the right of choosing the baskets in which they would like to be. The obsession with NE denies existentially serious individuals the right to choose, the crucial right to be. Instead individuals are coerced to force themselves inside uncomfortable boxes of political inconvenience, the language of ethnic bureaucrats.

Diversity has been a virtue worth defending for millennia. A generation of philosophers has linked diversity with the foundational virtue of freedom. The flourishing of the individual is dependent on how free she feels to express her diverse desires. The nature to express diverse desires or how free we feel to express them is a true facet of personality only when one looks at human history naturally, as if we are not historical beings-born to a specific space, at a specific time, to a particular region of the world. In this special sense, humans are geographical beings. As children of time, space and geography, in the course of living their lives they develop ethnicity, which is an aspect of cultural diversity. As ethnic beings with diverse desires, they further develop distinct ways of knowing, seeing, and doing which are exemplified as customs and traditions. Ethnicity in this sense is extrapolated from the ethnos that history and geography saddle our fragile existence.

It is not only groups who are diverse, as we have been socialized to think. Groups that are diverse are groups with individual distinctions of desire. Within groups, there are further individual distinctions of desire, of passion, of individual culture, albeit implicitly. For the sake of fitting in, we suppress the yearning for freedom, the passion for life. Very few of us think of diversity in this deep and sensible way. However, unconsciously, all of us suppress this desire to be free from out attachment to our ethnicity, even when it is the cement of ethnicity that never fulfills us, that never leads us to happiness. PE, as an authentic love of ethnicity does not have to suppress the individual Eros for life.

An erotic relationship with our life, as existentially serious, ought to allow us to grow as genuine individuals with specific rights, the rights that safeguard us to be open to others and for others to be open to us. Openness gradually becomes a way of life, an ethics of living within the ethnic glue and toward those who are not part of our ethnic group. By using ourselves as measures of happiness and freedom acting, we can eventually learn to understand the needs of those outside the circle of blood and kinship. These self-imposed relations are profoundly complicating relationships among the Oromos, Tigreans,
and Amharas in modern Ethiopia. The ethnic makeup of our leaders is not helping matters either.

Doing what makes you happy and free will ultimately lead toward make others feel the same way. Developing empathy for your fellow man, whoever he may be, and you cannot help but open up to him. Once we develop this open disposition, we can
comfortably accommodate other human beings not as the “other” but as a human being made out of the same fabric, but who seems an other only because history and geography have determined the different ways of seeing and being. Difference itself becomes a historical product which can be accommodated by love and understanding.

The accommodation of difference does not require the death of the individual. The recognition of difference requires of us to emerge out of the cocoon of dealing with those who are like us. That is easy. Genuine recognition begins with the modest assumption that no other human being is outside the region of our understanding if we sincerely try. The catastrophes of the holocaust, ethnic cleansing in Rwanda, and closer to our home, the present situation in Ethiopia are caused less by the impenetrability of the other, and more directly by the overwhelming saturation of our modern consciousness with the negative
form of ethnicity, that sometimes blends itself with philistine nationalism. NE contaminates the current reality in Ethiopia to a degree that has hopelessly offended some of the minority ethnic groups, such as the Amharas that are not in power now, but were power holders not very long ago. Kebede is quite right when he astutely observes that “ previous Ethiopian regimes had ruled Ethiopia in the name of Amhara people while maintaining the people in a abject condition of poverty and silence, so too the new leaders rule Ethiopia for Tigray while shutting up and dislocating its people” (Addis Tribune, part 2, p, 8). This example is a classic illustration of the crass form of NE. There are more such appalling examples.

To hide real issues that continue to affect the lives of millions of Ethiopians, our leaders manipulate blood and kinship ties. Through these insidious tactics of NE, the Ethiopian masses are deliberately kept ignorant. Democracy is centralized precisely because ethnic leaders do not want them to see through it, to go behind the veil and unmask the machinations of power and intrigue. The willing members of these ethnic groups among the most numerous, the Oromos, and among the numerical minorities, the Tigreans, are bamboozooled by the myths of history and are defined by degenerate forms of difference that convince them that their needs, desires and passions can only be represented by their blood brothers and kin.

All that one has to do is roam the tin houses and plastic shelters of Addis where millions fester to realize the hollowness of the claim. If a blood member of these ethnicities dares to point out the miserable reality, she is hounded by the blood leaders, and silenced by intimidation, and when absolutely necessary is brutally killed, in the name of an atrocious ethnic solidarity, the back
waters of the abuse of ethnicity. African political reality is marred by this deliberate misuse of ethnicity as NE. If ordinary Ethiopian peasants, workers, civil servants and many others were encouraged to think for themselves, divisive ethnic leaders will be stunned by the emergence of independent thinking far removed from the coercive frames and fences of negative ethnicity. PE provides potent dosage of the desperately needed virtues of authentic individuality, dissimilarity of experience,
difference and distinct ways of experiencing the world. The peoples economic needs, their passions, their aspirations and plans for their children’s future will be guided by rationality and compassion consecrated in the formation of smart alliances. Again PE provides the necessary cushion.

The stagnant and shameful Ethiopian economic geography that has been dormant for centuries will begin to change precisely because the people will have discovered how to use ethnicity positively. When PE is used shrewdly the Oromo peasant and worker will immediately sense that there is a commonality of suffering and shattered dreams that ties with his Amhara peasant and worker, and with his Tigrean peasants and workers, and that in the end it is the most upright and morally and technically intelligent leader that she must choose. A leader will be chosen not because he is an Amhara or Oromo. His leadership qualifications and his moral makeup impose themselves on the voters. Once again Kebede is right, when he wisely advises that, “We Ethiopians must learn that when it comes to politics, it is better to trust aliens than kin, just as we must understand
that sane politics is a game resulting in everybody becoming a winner. The main requirement for instituting this kind of game is the use of Pan- Ethiopian standards” (p, 4). Wise indeed.

Much has happened since then, and my thoughts have also evolved considerably. At one point I thought that PE will outwit NE. That is not what is happening now. Our current regime continues to use NE at the expense of PE. The regime has gone mad and became an ETHNOCRACY using NE as a tool of the governance, and an instrument of domination. In contrast to Ethnicity in both its forms, Ethiopianity is the identity, which Ethiopians wish to wear.

What is Ethipianity other than syntheses of all the ethnics and language groups in modern Ethiopia? An Oromo is merely an Ethiopian who lives all over the vast stretches of the Ethiopian lands, so it the Tigrean, the Gambellan, the Shoan, the Gurage and the Southerners and all the others. The list is long but Ethiopianity is short. So my new thinking is that Ethiopianity is enough and ethnicity in both its forms is not necessary. What we need now is a new Federalism that should replace ethnic federalism and ETHIOPIANITY as a definitive displacement of ETHNOCRACY.

Teodros Kiros
Professor of Philosophy and English (Liberal Arts)
Berklee College of Music

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