The Problem With Small Miracles
So, I was one of the cyberspace moralists that put in word for Okeoghene Ighiwoto, the now famous Nigerian patient who has been ‘saved’. How might one begin thinking of this matter in a post-salvation mode, now that we feel good, sigh gratefully, relish our success? But, as we find, success is often an imagined word. And that fact applies no less here, now that we walk the uncertain terrains of morality, sentimentality, and virality. We hear that Okeoghene’s matter has been taken over by the Delta State government. This is a triumph, obviously. It is the kind of triumph that happens when a first goal is scored. One must not be happy enough.
It has become Government matter. Government matter reminds me of how macrosystems often overwhelm micro-systems, so that no matter how much we try, we are faced with the need for an institutional overhaul. We cannot speak of a working health system, for instance, without the signing into Law of the Health Bill. Without, what is more, the justitiability of socio-economic rights, such as the right to good health, which is not included in the Nigerian constitution as a fundamental right. How can the right to life mean anything without a corresponding right to good health? How can the death penalty suffice as punishment if living corresponds to dying (unfortunately, Nigeria remains resolute on state-killing)? We keep creating microsystems — cyber-campaigns, rallies, walks, talks — focused on advocating for and ensuring good health, but the macrosystems are frustrating us.
The dots are easy to connect. We are successful in a limited sense. And our limitations mean more people are dying from a broader insensitivity. Our sentimentalities are not forming adequate constellations; the challenge is that the missing pieces are not within our reach.
Or are they?
First, let me make a point about the nature in which we exhibited our #saveOke sentimentality. In thinking about this, I am continually allured to the similarities between the recent Kony-mania and Oke’s case. We find, as Saratu Abiola aptly put it on Twitter, that there is an unfair lottery system in these cases. The dices are juggled and someone comes into the picture. In a manner that the problem is conveniently simplified into a video (as with Kony 2012) or a BlackBerry Messenger display picture (as with #saveOke). This comparison does not in any way suppose that the aforementioned causes are fundamentally akin in outlook — I dedicated a previous essay to proving otherwise. But it does suppose that there shouldn’t be a singularity of narrative, that the plot does not resolve in an individual, whether or not it is that individual’s capture or salvation being viralized. This is the sense in which I argue that there is a very big problem, especially in our continent, with small miracles. And that’s the point from which we must begin our activism, right there where an individual’s salvation ends.
Necessarily, how do we conceive of the right to help? These are age-long debates, I know, but they are brought to the fore given the implications/complications of viral propagandas. The question is how do we help without having an outward, condescending gaze? Most people I knew, even myself, helped Okeoghene because they knew him, or knew someone who knew him. That help becomes, in itself, founded on a separate premise, one apart from the problem at hand. But it doesn’t suggest that there weren’t those who helped purely anonymously, finding no need for earlier ties, nor does it impede on the sincerity of those of us who felt he was one of us.
Yet I consider the right to help is often misplaced as self-aggrandizement, one which I term a selfish selflessness, one which seems a universal curse. This is why there would always be a white saviour industrial complex, and a filial saviour sentimental complex, because people will feel the need to help without seeing the need to investigate, to listen. Because people often listen to themselves when the cries of others reach them.
Is this a fundamental problem? Is this an impeding inevitability? I cannot say. It is well bigger than a this-that, yes-no, white-black. What’s important is that we find ways to negotiate this tendency to read others from individual glances. In my thinking it is a projecting of this complexity into an institutional frame that will, in the final analysis, save us. We must, while attempting to save one of us, seek the salvation that works for others as well.
A cut from a newspaper lay on the ground while I walked hours before I wrote this. It had the photograph of a girl (boy?) who needed six million naira to survive. And that was a day after I had made my #saveOke contribution. I thought to myself, oh geez, how many can be saved?
In attending to the unfair lottery system that attends these viral causes, I find that to always be guided by the sixth sense – that instantaneous compassion that overwhelmed us when we read of Okeoghene – is to dig a well in a desert. There’s no logic, for example, in the presentation of needy cases. How many Okeoghenes are left unfeatured on Linda Ikeji’s pop-blog? How many voices can a single ear hear?
I can only speak of a culminative, structured, and targeted model of cyber-activism. To achieve this we could design a system hinged on three words — problem-identification, investigation, action. This, of course, is against the backdrop that millions of Nigerians are taking to cyber-energy, finding essence in the measureless depth of webpages. And against the backdrop of our recent successes using the web as a weapon (naturally, this model excludes cyber-listless Nigerians, who, very unfortunately, are in the majority. But this will suggest that the energetic ones will take the lead). So, once anyone identifies a cause (and there are always several), one projects such problem into the cybersphere, utilizing a coordinated social-activism platform, detailing several means to prove authenticity, and stating a means to take action. In essence, the model becomes a hub with which multiple causes can be projected.
But in whom lies the ultimate obligation to help? Certainly not the cyberspace moralist. Because the right of one supposes the obligation of another. Here I distinguish between a right to help and an obligation to help. The former will suppose taking wilful, compassionate action. But the latter will suggest taking formalized action, within the context and instructiveness of policy. The question that bears repeating is, how can we go past sentimental actionability to insistent dialogue? What models could we create to draw in our governments to the table, make them obligated to social security? That’s the nagging question I cannot answer.
What would be our choice were we asked to, as Teju Cole tweets, choose between saving the life of others and granting them their due dignity? Isn’t there a fused reading of the right to life as the right to human dignity? Have we wondered that it is possible to take away dignity while trying to save a life? I am simply asking — what becomes of Okeoghene’s dignity now that his suffering has become a national concern? Is this worth considering? And more importantly, how do we come to a place where salvaging a life is not viralized, projected into the public space? A place where there is commonality of salvation, of aid — no, support — because the system that supports understands that a fundamental right implicates a fundamental, justitiable obligation.
Here is the problem of small miracles, like Okeoghene’s — it reduces a universal problem to a need for individual salvation. That is what I’ve been trying to say.