How Can Africa Develop a Culture of Sceptical Inquiry? – By Leo Igwe
While there is a critical need for sceptical rationality in Africa, it has not been such a potent force in the region. Sceptical viewpoints are seldom visible in everyday talks and discussions, in public and national debates, in the mainstream media, in scholarly and popular literature. The mistaken belief that sceptical rationality is a Western idea persists. The dearth of these ideas is evident especially in discussions that are related to culture, religion, and tradition. Issues are presented as if questioning them is immaterial and of no consequence – that all the answers are already known, unable to be questioned.
In this piece, I address the question: How can sceptical rationality be mainstreamed in Africa? In other words, how does one extend sceptical insights and sentiments to all issues and across the continent? Spreading sceptical ideas is important for Africans because it is a vital resource in dispelling irrational beliefs, combating harmful traditional practices and religious extremism. Simply put, sceptical rationality is critical to African development and emergence. So, seeking an active and ubiquitous sceptical enterprise, I propose an idea: roving scepticism. I argue that this form is scepticism is suitable for Africa because it speaks to African experiences and life situations. It will facilitate unfettered expression of Africa’s critical possibilities. Given the harsh socio-economic realities in the region, roving scepticism is what Africa needs in order to realise a vibrant culture of inquiry. What is this form of scepticism all about?
Roving Scepticism: What is it?
Roving scepticism is an intellectual enterprise that stimulates critical reflection and inquiry, prodding and nudging people to question their assumptions and to rethink their views and positions. It draws its strength from its mobility – that is, the tendency to be taken from place to place and be applied in different circumstances and audiences. Roving scepticism can happen in the classrooms and in the public theatres, on the streets, shops, bars, parks and public squares. It can apply to students and teachers, traders, artisans, and technocrats, travellers and parliamentarians. Roving scepticism can also be described as peripatetic scepticism after the Aristotelian model of scholarship. Like the students of Aristotle, roving sceptics are wanderers, but they are wandering wonderers, critical idea bearing wanderers. They are not preachers of the sceptical gospel. They do not go from door to door trying to convert people to scepticism. Instead, roving sceptics are enlighteners and clarifiers. This form of scepticism traverses terrains and territories; countries, and communities provoking doubts and critical insights. It has its markers – some salient features and characteristics – and these distinguishing traits will be briefly explained.
A Matter of Choice
First, roving scepticism is cultural, it is a habit that is cultivated. It also highlights what is already in the human makeup, that is the ability to question, argue and investigate claims. To say that roving scepticism is human does not necessarily imply that every human being can be designated as a roving sceptic. In peripatetic scepticism, the human tendency to doubt is taken a little further. The ability to question manifests differently. Roving scepticism is a matter of choice. It is a wilful act. Although everybody is capable of being a critical thinker, individuals can choose to be or not to be sceptical inquirers. People may choose not to question or challenge any claim because expressions of sceptical impulses are sometimes deemed offensive, and elicit hateful and violent reactions. In roving scepticism, individuals choose to query and interrogate claims. They opt to get involved, to provoke people to think, reflect and reconsider their views and opinions.
Roving scepticism encapsulates these thoughts in a way that is easy to relate and connect by all. The fact that peripatetic scepticism is commonplace does not necessarily imply lack of intellectual sophistication or little rational worth and value. It does not make this form of scepticism an exercise for only laypeople. Its commonality lies in its tendency to be accessible to the general population. Roving scepticism is not obscurantist. It is not couched in vague esoteric terms or in terminological jargon that alienates the target audience. It is not elitist and exclusively meant for the learned, for those that are adjudged superior in knowledge, talent, power or wealth, those schooled in philosophy or logic. Roving scepticism is a critical inquiry for all. It is sceptical rationality presented in a way that the target audience can easily relate to. Sceptical rationality ‘speaks’ all languages-the language of the trader, the driver, and the mechanic. It also expresses itself using the language of the carpenter, the parlance of the cleaners and cooks. Roving scepticism speaks the language of the scientists and philosophers, lawyers, politicians, and policymakers. It uses analogies and narratives that persons in a particular audience can connect with.
Dynamic Process of Inquiry
Roving scepticism is capable of causing changes to people’s beliefs, views, ideas, and assumptions. It is disruptive and shocks people into sober, rational thinking, introspection and review. Roving scepticism can make Africans step back and take a second look at their positions, at the knowledge claims which they have taken for granted. Claims such as the belief that the body parts of people with albinism bring good luck, the belief that God intervenes in nature, that evil spirits and witches exist and cause harm; the belief in afterlife and so on. Irrational ideas feature in everyday discussions and reporting. They influence policies and decisions and inform legislation. Unfortunately, there is rarely a critical input to the day-to-day discussions and renditions of religion and tradition in the media. Africans share stories of divine intervention in their lives, and testimonies of encountering witches and Mami Wata as if they are entirely factual.
Roving scepticism is a short-lived intellectual engagement and a brief exercise of inquiry. Its value lies in it being a fleeting affair, a flash of critical intuition. The idea of being brief in this case is relative because momentariness ranges from doubtful retorts and outbursts during conversations that last for seconds to hours of back-and-forth exchanging of ideas.
These sceptical moments happen in bars and beaches, in the football field, during road trips, in the course of long-haul flights, train or boat travels and on occasions where people are unable to put with or could be turned off by formal talks. These moments of doubt interrupt, interject and intersperse narratives of dogma and superstition. Roving sceptical sessions aren’t long-winded lectures on sceptical philosophy and ideas; they are not extended seminars on valid and invalid reasoning or fallacies. Roving sceptical encounters are short-lived experiences of flashes of doubt and critical insight with sometimes long-lasting effects. In this era of social media, roving scepticism manifests itself on posts and news reports that cover a wide variety of issues on the Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
Spontaneity and Improvisation
Roving scepticism is characteristically unplanned and thrives on improvisation. That improvisation is involved in peripatetic scepticism does not detract from its substance and importance. Usually, both the roving sceptic and the audience have no pre-knowledge of an engagement or encounter. So it just happens. Roving scepticism occurs as a coincidence, and by accident. The roving sceptic springs a surprise highlighting largely overlooked perspectives. While roving sceptics are usually aware of this habit of bringing a critical perspective to issues, they do not know the where or how; what issues would come up for discussion in particular settings. Peripatetic sceptics are incognisant of whether any issue would arise that requires a sceptical touch, what the sceptical touch would be and how the sceptical flavour would be communicated to a particular audience. Expressions that point to the spontaneity of roving scepticism include questions, retorts, and outbursts such as: What? Really? Are you sure? But how do you know? What is the evidence? Were you there? Statements like ‘I do not agree with you’, ‘I don’t think so’, ‘I beg to disagree’ “Objection my Lord” as often said in courts. In fact, it could be a chuckle or some wry smile. Roving scepticism manifests through gestures with the hands or the head and whatever way and manner that people use – and can use – to communicate their doubts and objections, their opposition and disagreement. Such responses often unsettle audiences. They cause people to make a curious pause or take an intriguing glance at others.
In conclusion, roving scepticism is a critical thinking enterprise that befits 21st century Africa. It is cost-effective. That means, with its limited resources, Africans can afford it. Poverty does not constitute an excuse or an inhibiting factor. Roving scepticism can manifest in its fullness. It can facilitate the furtherance of the application of reason, science and free inquiry in all areas of human endeavour and to all segments of the African population. Roving scepticism can shake up the foundations of dogmatic and superstitious Africa and trigger the much-needed inventive and innovative reasoning for African renewal. Peripatetic scepticism has the potential of nurturing adventurous thinking. It can help mobilise other disruptive intellectual, moral, and sociopolitical imperatives for the realization of an African Enlightenment.