The Cabal Gene: The real reason humans are bigots

By @woleolabanji

Leading up to the recent governorship elections in Lagos, the Oba of Lagos threatened to herd I(with a ‘g’)bos into the lagoon if his preferred candidate lost on account of their voting the opposition party. Majority of people realize of course that it was simply loose talk. Still, it is perhaps good that the Oba’s candidate won the election and Igbos resident in Lagos can get on with life on land.

Not so for non South Africans (many of who are Igbos) living in another coastal city on the other end of the continent. Although the Zulu King, Goodwill (ironically named) Zwelithini didn’t threaten to herd foreigners into the Atlantic ocean, he issued a ‘royal edict’ asking them to return to their own countries, and stop depriving citizens of economic opportunities. Unfortunately, in Durban, citizens didn’t think their king was being just a little too loose in the mouth; they have gone on rampage, burning, looting and killing foreigners; a pointer perhaps to what might have happened in Lagos.

The barefaced ethnocentrism that was on display as we approached the 2015 elections in Nigeria, and the ongoing xenophobic attacks in South Africa provide a useful backdrop against which we are compelled to examine why we as humans quite naturally slip into a we-against-them mode. What triggers the decision to resort to defining oneself strictly or predominantly by ethnicity or some other narrow identity marker?

A strong accent mixed with garlic scent

Indians sing English: indeed majority of Indians who converse in English do so in a heavily accented, singsong way that can be fun to listen to; or not. If you are squeamish about scents however, even the fun part of Indians singing English is often lost in the garlic fumes that are released when many Indians talk.

Indians eat garlic. Garlic doesn’t smell nice; but apparently, most Indians don’t seem to think so, or don’t mind the bad smell. Not so for many people who have to listen to Indians talk. As you stand talking with your Indian colleague who is otherwise an utterly brilliant geek, the thick smell of garlic that hangs heavy in the air makes it difficult to shake the baseless yet persistent notion that Arjun is some weird guy.

Unfortunately under the ‘right’ circumstances we go from weird to wicked in 10 seconds. Our perception of the harmless idiosyncrasies of people and groups different from our own can alter dramatically and dangerously in very little time. We can take a group practice totally devoid of moral value; like Yoruba people making stew with palm oil, and depending on the situation, alternate between using it as a cheeky tease or a distinctly bile-flavoured derogatory insult – ofe nmanu.

Although when we look back into history, we can find many bases for animosity towards others, but I find almost every time that upon real scrutiny, the only reason that stands is just the fact of their otherness.

Am I Java?

I don’t mean Java in Indonesia. I mean Java, the “general-purpose computer programming language that is concurrent, class-basedobject-oriented, and specifically designed to have as few implementation dependencies as possible.”

Can I be Java? If at some point in the future the Java programming language becomes a major way in which humans communicate, would we then describe ourselves as Java? That would be today’s equivalent of me describing myself as Yoruba, Igbo, French, Zulu or Kinyarwanda.

To use another illustration; in architecture, the first thing you learn is graphics. Graphics is a universal language used by architects and engineers to convey information about what is to be built, such that if you took a set of drawings from one part of the world to another, anyone sufficiently trained in the trade can interpret the drawings. Graphics is of course a part of other pictorial communications that humans have developed and used over centuries. Suppose there were people who for some reason are able only to communicate graphically, would they be so rigidly thought of as graphics?

Isn’t language a tool that humans develop in order to be able to communicate? What then is it about language that makes humans agree to define themselves so rigidly in reference to it?

To put it another way, apart from speaking Igbo, what is so exclusively particular to people from eastern Nigeria that anyone from there has to fit themselves to this most limiting definition? Are there values for instance that are unique and exclusive to people from western Nigeria that makes Yoruba the only practical definition for people from there? As I asked a friend recently, if during the civil war a Hausa soldier had found a toddler orphaned by the war and brought the child back to Sokoto, would that child have grown up Igbo?

Clearly being Hindi is not a genetic condition; both language and a taste for garlic are acquired traits. It can be said though that specific language groups have certain values predominating the population. Indians for instance have historically been family oriented. Nevertheless, it is also true that most of life is binary; where virtue is yin, you often find a vice as its yang.

Ironically, while people are willing to appropriate certain virtues for their own particular group, they are quick to protest being stereotyped, and insist that vices that are perhaps just as widespread must be treated on a case-by-case basis and not ascribed to the group.

The problem is not stereotypes

However, It is important to not conflate every act of stereotyping with the manifestation of the cabal gene. While it is indeed impossible to find any sizable group of people who fit exactly into any one descriptive mould, stereotypes can indeed be useful models for understanding and relating with the world.  In fact, without stereotypes, our ability to judge risks and stay safe will be significantly reduced.

In reality, stereotypes when properly built are data based models that help decision-making. The digital equivalent of stereotyping is an algorithm that can tell for instance what other book a person might like based on data showing what other books interested people who purchased the same book the person had just bought.

Stereotyping becomes a problem in contexts like our own when the data has been corrupted by the activity of the cabal gene. When the cabal gene has for instance made a value judgment about the preferences of a certain group and invented a grouse; the stereotypes we then build about such groups will be tainted by our value judgment. When we then have to compete with such groups, we justify our uncivil methods by the underlying negative judgments we have made.

Inventing an excuse

Indeed a certain language group may have some particularly redeeming values, problems only arise when such groups then attempt to strip those values of their universality and hitch them exclusively to their own group. Worse still, some groups imbue practices that are simply preferences with relative moral superiority, and so people that cook their soup with palm oil suddenly become inferior to those who use groundnut oil.

In reality, a shared language is just one of the many identity markers that people use to define a group and deny others access to the benefits accruing to the group. A particularly instructive example is one that played out in the Enugu state gubernatorial contest where the leadership of the Anglican Church came out to say they would not support a Catholic-Catholic ticket.

The issue here was not a shared language or even cultural heritage. It was simply membership of a particular Christian denomination that was used to define otherness. It is conceivable even that were the whole of Enugu state to be of the Catholic faith, competing interests would still have found some marker within that relatively homogenous group to define otherness, thereby limiting competition by excluding competing blocs.

Cultural differences are actually not the culprit: they are simply the convenient excuse that man uses to justify his primitive competitive strategy, which is driven by the primal desire to survive. Just like the primal instinct which makes animals hunt in packs in order to improve their success rate, the ‘cabal gene’ pushes man into “a group of people united in some close design together, usually to promote their private views or interests… often by intrigue”.

In essence all the division and conflicts that we see in the world arise from individuals wanting to get one over the other and inventing grouses around which they can galvanize a group. In simple terms, we just use others to get what we want.


Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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