Ref # 12.2
March 11, 2013
Religious Values as Correctives for a Corrupt and Corrupting Culture
By Tedla G Woldeyohannes
ABSTRACT: The central claims of this paper are aimed at bringing out the moral consequences of some of the themes from the wax and gold tradition especially about interpersonal communication. Communication is interpersonal; so is the domain of morality. I’m not going to talk about the ethics of communication. My focus will be on the consequences of interpersonal communication for the domain of morality and human character or behavior. Accordingly, I want to explore the moral consequences of some of interpersonal communications since communications among moral agents such as us human beings cannot be morally neutral or indifferent. Furthermore, I’ll argue that widely shared religious values can play a corrective role in addressing undesirable moral consequences of the wax and gold tradition of interpersonal communication.
In the first section of the paper I’ll focus on an analysis of conceptual relationships among key practices of wax and gold tradition of interpersonal communication. I’ll particularly focus on “deception”, being “secretive” and “suspicious”, and “yelugnta and pretension”, as widespread modes of interpersonal communication in the Ethiopian society. In the course of doing conceptual analysis I’ll draw out the moral implications or consequences of the wax and gold tradition of interpersonal communication. In the second section I’ll show some important roles religious values or practices can play as a corrective to corrupting cultural values and practices that are directly related to the wax and gold tradition of communication that I discuss in the first section. In the third section I’ll conclude the paper.
Prof. Levine’s book, Wax and Gold: Tradition and Innovation in Ethiopian Culture, will serve me as a starting point for the central claims I’ll be making in this paper. I turn to Wax and Gold, the book, for examples of the tradition of interpersonal communication among the Ethiopian people, which is an extension of the Amhara culture, which is the subject of Prof. Levine’s work. I’ll mostly focus on the role of the following widely shared practices as key in interpersonal communication among Ethiopians: “deception”, being “secretive”, and “suspicious”, and allied concepts and practices such “pretension”, “lying”. My interest is not in the linguistic or poetic aspect of the wax and gold tradition. My project goes beyond description and descriptive analysis of the wax and gold tradition to an evaluation of the moral consequences for interpersonal human relationship and I’ll argue that the negative consequences outweigh the positive. My approach is distinctly philosophical in the sense that my interest is in the notions or concepts that play crucial role in the wax and gold tradition of communication.
Prof. Levine writes, “In essence, wax and gold is simply a more refined and stylized manifestation of the Amhara’s basic manner of communicating.”1 He also notes, “Wax and gold embodies this fundamental indirection in speech by means of the studied use of ambiguity.”2 Two things to note from the preceding quotations from Prof. Levine: (1) That wax and gold is a basic manner of communication, and (2) that wax and gold tradition prizes indirection as opposed to a direct manner of communication and hence it consequently prizes ambiguity. Let us take “deception” as our first example which is a widely held practice among most Ethiopians.
On Deception: Prof. Levine notes different manifestations and functions of deception. Some manifestations of deception are “for reasons of considerateness not wanting to tell the other person something that will offend him.”3 However, most of the time deception “is obviously being used to further one man’s interests at the expense of another’s.” Now let’s reflect for a moment on what it means to engage in deception in the context of wax and gold tradition and what the very idea of deception conceptually involves. In the context of the wax and gold tradition deception can be considered morally neutral. In the Ethiopian culture deception is embraced and widely practiced in its various manifestations. But embracing and practicing deception as morally-neutral makes it hard to figure out the demarcation line between the morally-neutral senses of deception from the morally-involved senses. This ambiguity is one reason for the perpetuation of deception and why it is widely embraced without much debate about the moral challenge embracing and practicing deception presents for a society.
The ambiguity about the function of deception opens a room for ambivalence towards lies as well. Generally, lies involve deception. Typically, a lie aims at distorting what is the case or the truth and in order to achieve this goal one must intentionally engage in distortion manifested as deception. Since a lie necessarily involves deception, deception becomes a modus operandi for a lie. Furthermore, generally, lying is morally wrong. If lying is generally morally wrong, and if the modus operandi for lying is deception, then in some sense deception is and can be morally wrong. But exactly it is this moral implication of deception that needs to be brought out beyond its apparently morally-neutral senses that are at the heart of discussions in the wax and gold tradition. A community that views deception without moral implications of deception can easily justify various manifestations of lies as well. The marriage between deceptions and lies finds a perfect niche in the wax and gold tradition.
Prof. Levine also notes that deception has a more subtle form as well that is achieved by “omitting the truth rather than committing a falsehood.”5 A moment’s reflection on this form or manifestation of deception would show that a practice in deception is a complex phenomenon that requires conscious decisions, being intentional, on the part of the one who means to engage in the act and process of deception. A person who intentionally omits some aspect of the truth in order to conceal the whole truth can do this for a variety of reasons. But the very exercise of engaging in revealing and concealing one aspect of the truth against the other aspect of the truth militates against a habit of speaking the truth, period. This habit of being selective about telling aspects of the truth is not conducive for development of human character traits such as personal integrity, transparency, honesty, and truthfulness, which are virtues that do not sit well with vicious or undesirable character traits such as deception, dishonesty, duplicity, and lying. It is commonplace to distinguish between virtues and vices in human characters and a tradition of interpersonal communication such as wax and gold that blurs such common distinctions in human character traits is not conducive for human flourishing. It is plausible to think that what kind of persons we are is largely constituted by our characters and a person’s moral character is a function of the kind of moral virtues or vices a person has or lacks. Let’s now take a moment to reflect on the moral implications of being “secretive” and “suspicious”, which Prof. Levine observes as part of the wax and gold tradition in relation to “deception.”
On being “Secretive” and “Suspicious”: We’ve seen the moral or ethical implications of deception. Now let’s take being “secretive” first. Being secretive does not appear to be morally-laden on the surface or it does not seem to have moral implications. But a reflection on the practice of secrecy can show that there is more to it than its appearance to be morally-neutral. Being secretive requires of a person to be suspicious of another person in the sense of intending to withhold information that could be shared otherwise. We don’t need to claim that a person should share any and all private information with anyone in order to avoid being negatively seen about his/her being secretive. That would be too much of a requirement and an implausible one to accept. But being secretive with respect to most people one encounters (except one’s personal friends and there can even be an exception even among close friends) in the sense of being suspicious of them requires one to judge others that they have potentially “hidden motives.” To judge others in the absence of any evidence that they have “hidden motives”, if and when they do not in fact have anything as such, is to hold potentially false beliefs about others.
To hold even potentially false beliefs about others in the absence of evidence is to practically hold false beliefs since there is no difference, practically speaking, in holding a potentially false belief from holding a false belief. One who acts on the basis of a potentially false belief, when one is suspicious of the other person without any evidence of hidden motives of the other, would act in the same way as someone who would act on the basis of a false belief. Now to hold a false belief about the other is engaging in distortions of the truth about the other person, and distortions of the truth about the other person since they are intentional amount to lying about the other and lying, generally, is morally wrong. Now a reflection on being “secretive” and being “suspicious” of the other brought us to a conclusion that such practices in interpersonal relations have moral consequences. That means, these widely practiced ways of interpersonal communications have morally undesirable consequences.
On Yelugnta and Pretense: Now let’s consider one widely practiced form of interpersonal relation among Ethiopians. I’m thinking about yelugnta and the role of yelugnta in the interpersonal relations among Ethiopians. I don’t know any equivalent word in English for yelugnta and the difficulty in finding an equivalent English word for it, I think, is due to the indigenous nature of the phenomenon or the culture of yelugnta. I’ll explain the phenomenon and will argue that it is closely related to “deception” and “pretension” but not identical to either of them.
I begin with what it means to be pretentious and argue that being pretentious is approximately functionally equivalent to yelugnta. Being pretentious and engaging in yelugnta seem to function the same way, more or less. They both require for a person to think and act in ways that are intended to hide the truth about the person with an intention to make others believe what actually is not the case about the person. Now when a person engages in an act mainly motivated by what others would think about him/her so that what he/she does would be deemed the" right" thing or "acceptable" by one's community I take that notion captures an act driven by yelugnta. But what has happened in this process is acting in such a way that others believe what was done was done simply because what was done was the right thing, period; no motivation to be "accepted" having driven the person to act as such. That is what I mean to say yelugnta is functionally equivalent to be that of being pretentious.
How do yelugnta and deception relate? I'm inclined to think that a careful study of this phenomenon, especially yelugnta, has a potential to provide a goldmine of opportunity about reasoning in moral psychology [=reasoning about interpersonal relationships] of the majority of Ethiopians. Both these modes of interpersonal relations, i.e., deception and yelugnta, are widely practiced in the Ethiopian culture. Now, we’ve already seen that deception is intentional; there is no deception without intention. We can also say that there is no yelugnta motivated act without intention.7 Therefore, both deception and yelugnta are intentional in a harmless or morally neutral sense, at least on the surface. But that does not mean they are identical. One can engage in yelugnta driven act out of a desire to do something good to the other person. Also, some acts of deception can also be done out of a desire to do some good to the other person. Earlier I’ve argued that lying requires deception and there is no lying without intentionally engaging in deception, or distortion of the truth. It’s argued that since, generally, lying is wrong and since lying requires deception at least some form of deception is morally wrong as well.
But what about yelugnta? It’s hard to think of yelugnta that does not functionally [not necessarily semantically or by way of meaning] involve some form of pretense. Now pretense involves some form of deception. Furthermore, pretense aims at making the other person believe about oneself what is not true of oneself. But to aim, intentionally, at making the other person believe something that is a lie or falsehood about oneself is itself lying. Though it’s not explicit yelugnta, in the way it functions as pretense, implicitly involves lying about oneself. Since lying is generally morally wrong, one can conclude that at least some forms of yelugnta are morally wrong.
Let me give an example to make the point rather concrete: This discussion about yelugnta would be just academic if we put aside what it practically means for an average Ethiopian to engage in yelugnta driven actions that cost so much financially and so much personal pain when one reflects on what a person does is largely to communicate something to the other: I’m not as poor as you might think, I’m doing alright kind of message which takes so many forms and shapes. Take an example of wedding in the Ethiopian culture. So many families, the ones getting married, their parents and friends usually go a long way to make the wedding a huge festival when in reality they can’t afford even the tiniest fraction of the amount of money spent on the wedding. Such lavish weddings usually are just face-saving acts pure and simple. The motive? Not purely the well-being of those who come to eat the feast. Not primarily, at least. “Keman anishe” [I’m no less than the other such as my neighbor] reasoning is the yelugnta-driven reasoning in its robust way. This is what I am trying to get at when I argue for a functional equivalence of yelugnta and pretense, which is posturing in a way that speaks something that is not true of the person. Those POOR families who throw a huge feast in the form of a wedding ARE NOT IN FACT RICH folks! They appear to be rich when in fact they are poor. This yelugnta driven act communicates falsehood about oneself with a hope that others would believe it as the truth. This face-saving act aims at seeking respect and dignity for oneself or one’s family but the manner in which the dignity is sought involves some form of deception or posturing or even pretense—to appear to others what is not, in fact, true of oneself. Examples like this are countless and they are part and parcel of countless Ethiopian stories.
From the preceding reasoning one can plausibly infer that to engage in yelugnta implicates one in a development of character that is, more or less, disposed to the development of either virtues such as personal integrity, transparency, truthfulness, and honesty or vices such as lack of integrity, lack of transparency, lack of truthfulness or dishonesty. It’s obvious that yelugnta-driven action is more prone to predispose a person to the development of more vices than virtues even if yelugnta by itself, arguably, is not a vice.
Below I’ll briefly argue that to engage in yelugnta can contribute to character formation in an undesirable way. But before that I want to say a few points about pretension as one widely practiced mode of interpersonal communication especially among educated Ethiopians. I single out especially educated Ethiopians because they are conscious that their society expects them to be in the know about many things. We have already noted that deception and yelugnta are both widespread practices in the Ethiopian society. In a society that is prone to deception and lies and yelugnta it is not hard to find a conducive environment for pretension, in its own right, to be equally widespread. One can hardly miss an opportunity with a bit educated Ethiopians about issues that are considered an educated person should have a say. These issues most likely would include politics, and religion and even science. One might want to talk about arrogance among a bit educated Ethiopians rather than pretension. I’m inclined to think that arrogance, no less widespread than pretension, is a function or an extension or a manifestation of pretension. A person who finds it hard to admit lack of knowledge could easily be an arrogant person as well. Of course, conversely, it’d be easy for a humble person to admit lack of knowledge about a particular issue since humility is consistent with open-mindedness and a desire to learn from others. On the other hand, one can argue that arrogance is consistent with pretension and closed-mindedness and a refusal to learn from others. These notions are closely related and they play a significant role in the interpersonal communication among many Ethiopians.
Now to a brief remark on character formation and the role yelugnta and pretension would play in character formation. Character formation is intentional, a person can’t be accidentally virtuous, and it requires a practice over an extended period of time. It is not implausible to claim that engaging in practices-- such as yelugnta and pretension-- that predispose a person to deception, dishonesty, speaking lies, etc are conducive for formation of character that is less than virtuous. Even if one should resist claiming a person who engages in yelugnta develops vicious character traits it’s not implausible to argue that yelugnta when it functions as pretense is more conducive for formation of some vices than virtues. As virtues are intentional and are formed as a result of habitual practices, so are vices. A person who engages in habitual acts of yelugnta and pretense is less likely to be predisposed to developing virtues that are central for the formation of virtuous character traits such as truthfulness, honesty, personal integrity, openness. Earlier I claimed that it is plausible to think that what kind of persons we are is largely constituted by our characters and a person’s moral character is a function of the kind of moral virtues or vices a person has or lacks. Again, the same reasoning applies to the habitual practice of yelugnta and pretension such that the moral character of those who engage in yelugnta and pretension is a function of the kind of moral virtues or vices they possess. That means a habitual engagement in yelugnta and pretension has implications for a moral character of those who practice pretension and yelugnta, especially when yelugnta functions as pretense. So far, we’ve seen the moral implications of some key interpersonal modes of communications, viz., deception, being secretive and being suspicious, and yelugnta and pretension. In the next section I briefly attempt to show some corrective roles religious values can and should play with respect to the moral consequences of the wax and gold mode of interpersonal communication.
The corrective role of religious values: Before I consider some core religious values as correctives to the corrupting cultural values I’d like to make a point or so about the religious values I mean to discuss in light of the wax and gold tradition or culture of communication. My focus in this part of the paper will be confined, generally, to the Christian tradition, both the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Protestant or Evangelical tradition because I’m more familiar with these religious traditions than Islam or any other religious tradition. Much of what I say will approximately be something like what the Christian worldview, generically understood, holds about particular issues than specific doctrines that belong to particular Christian tradition. Before I discuss the corrective role religious values can and should play regarding corrupting cultural values, I want to make the following claim for which I’ll not provide an argument in the present work. The claim is this: Orthodox Christianity has had centuries old marriage with the wax and gold tradition and as a result the role of religious values has largely been undermined by some undesirable values of the wax and gold tradition. In other words, the positive ethical message of Christianity has been held captive by and to the wax and gold tradition. Protestantism has often been offered as an alternative to the Orthodox version of Christianity. However, the success of Protestantism, in some sense understood as a corrective to Orthodox Christianity’s marriage to the wax and gold tradition, among others, has also started to wane as the ethical underpinning of Protestantism gave in to the subtle force of the wax and gold tradition. Hence, one can hardly fail to see the influence of the wax and gold tradition even on religious values. However, I argue that it’s still possible to overcome the corrupt and corrupting cultural values of wax and gold tradition by developing a robust ethical challenge from within the religious tradition that millions of Ethiopians profess to hold or actually hold and practice. My proposal is not tied to either the Orthodox understanding of Christianity or the Protestant understanding of Christianity. Rather, my proposal is generic to both the Orthodox and Protestant understanding of Christianity when these versions of Christianity are broad enough to accommodate what is common between them than what is different about them.
Now it is important to note that both the Orthodox and Protestant understandings of some fundamental teachings of Christianity are relevant to some of the issues discussed in the last section above. Broadly understood it’s plausible to argue that both the Orthodox and the Protestant believe that God is interested in how human beings should live in relation to God and among themselves. Both religious traditions are committed to the view that insofar as what is revealed in the Scriptures, the ones commonly held by both, there are sufficient instructions or directions for human life. Both the Orthodox and Protestant religious traditions are committed, among other things, to the view that human beings are created in the image of God, however they understand this. What follows from this fundamental commitment, among other things, is the view that human beings can tell what is good from what is evil, human beings can tell what is morally right from what is morally wrong, they know that doing good things to fellow human beings is a good thing. Also, both religious traditions hold, among other things, that being truthful is different from being untruthful or deceitful , and it’s better, all things considered, to tell the truth than falsehood; they hold that being honest is different from being dishonest, and it’s better to be honest than dishonest. Both religious traditions hold to the lesson communicated by such teachings as the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the example of Jesus in his Incarnation as an example that is an ultimate lesson on humility and putting the interests of others before our own interests. Also, the notion of God as all-knowing before whom all our thoughts and actions are revealed or known is generic to both Orthodox and Protestant religious teachings.
Now, paradoxically, prominent forms of interpersonal communication we’ve examined in the wax and gold tradition-- such as “deception”, being “secretive” and “suspicious”, and “pretension”, and “yelugnta” when it functions as pretense or posturing—are in some conflict with core teachings of the Christian religious tradition. Christianity does nowhere teach “deception” or “deceitfulness” as a virtue, nor does it teach “dishonesty” as a virtue or something to be practiced. But this is in direct conflict with the traditional wax and gold tradition of interpersonal communication that at least condones “deception” and embraces it as among “accepted” or “acceptable” features of interpersonal communication. Though one can argue that not all forms of “deception” are morally wrong, and hence the wax and gold tradition need not be seen to be in conflict with the basic teachings of Christianity, it’d be implausible to argue from this that all forms of lying is morally acceptable. I’ve argued above that, generally, lying is morally wrong and lying is intentional and involves some form of deception as a distortion of the truth. That means, since lying involves intentional distortion of the truth which is functionally equivalent with deception, not all forms of deception can be morally acceptable since all forms of lying involve some form of deception. Since lying is tolerated in the Ethiopian culture to the extent that deception is tolerated, it’d be hard to find a reasonable defense for the compatibility between the core features of wax and gold tradition of interpersonal communication and the basic teachings of Christianity.
Let’s briefly consider another form of wax and gold interpersonal communication in light of some teachings of Christianity. A Christian is committed to the view that God knows everything; that nothing is or can be hidden from God. That means, one cannot lie to God, one cannot be secretive towards God, one cannot deceive God, one cannot pretend before God, one cannot successfully engage in a yelugnta driven act before God. But we’ve already observed that the wax and gold tradition of communication provides a tolerant environment for all the preceding forms of interpersonal communications even among Christians, to one degree or another. Consequently, on careful reflection, forms of interpersonal communication in the wax and gold tradition are again in conflict with the basic teachings of Christianity. Though it’s possible to add more tensions or conflicts between the basic teachings of Christianity and core forms of interpersonal communication in the wax and gold tradition what we’ve observed so far seems sufficient for the purpose of this paper. Now what should follow from this?
I contend that one of the major religious traditions that is embraced, to one degree or another, by millions of Ethiopians has resources to counter the negative or corrupting cultural values and practices of the wax and gold interpersonal communication. Those millions of Ethiopians do not need to turn to another culture or tradition in order to correct the corrupting cultural values that they happen to hold, value perhaps inadvertently, and practiced for centuries. Millions of Ethiopians have solutions to some fundamental problems of their own culture within the religious tradition they profess and practice in one form or another. I’ve argued above that the wax and gold culture of interpersonal communication contributes to undesirable character traits for a society whose widespread interpersonal communication tolerates deception, lies, yelugnta that functions as pretense and being secretive and suspicious of others. I’ve also argued that the widespread yet undesirable character traits are in direct conflict with the basic teachings of the Christian religious tradition. The choice between the wax and gold tradition and its forms of interpersonal communication and the alternative presented by the basic teachings of the Christian religious tradition that itself is embraced by millions of Ethiopians is stark and live.
Now the key arguments of the present project present a dilemma for the majority of Ethiopians whose lives and actions have largely been shaped by the wax and gold tradition and that of the corrective values they happen to hold as presented in the Christian religious tradition. I contend that a solution is available to the widespread societal problems with respect to undesirable character traits. These widespread character traits are or could be shaped, at least, by one of the two traditions, the wax and gold tradition or the Christian religious tradition. I contend that character traits shaped by the values of the Christian tradition, which is presented as one of the two horns of the dilemma, when explicitly held and practiced, is superior to and more conducive for the flourishing of the society. To show how that can be achieved is another project for another day.
In this paper I drew out some moral implications of the key forms of interpersonal communication in the wax and gold tradition. Interpersonal communication is inherently moral; consequently, I argued that there are undesirable moral consequences of interpersonal communication of the wax and gold tradition. Also, I argued that the basic teachings of the Christian religious tradition, that millions of Ethiopians happen to embrace to various degrees, is in conflict with the moral consequences of the wax and gold tradition. I contended that the solution for the undesirable moral consequences of the wax and gold tradition of communication is within the Christian religious tradition. Therefore, the values of the Christian religious tradition can and should play a corrective role for the corrupting cultural practices of the wax and gold tradition. Ethiopia need not turn to an external tradition or culture for the widespread character problems in the Ethiopian society since the Christian religious tradition provides the needed solution. Working out the details for the proposed solution is a project for another day.
We would like to thank Tedla G. Woldeyohannes for allowing NEVIS to reproduce his article which first appeared in Wax and Gold site. Tedla is a PhD candidate in St. Louis University,Saint Louis, Missouri. He also teaches philosophy courses as a Graduate Teaching Assistant in the same university from 2009 to present.)