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Published On: Thu, Dec 10th, 2020

Revisiting ‘Conscience of a lawless nation’ (27/Feb/20)

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Thursday Column with Mohammed Adamu

By Mohammed Adamu

David Emile Durkheim, the French social scientist reputed to be the father of Sociology, in his explanation of ‘criminal behavior’ said that ‘crime’ is a consequence of the existence of a ‘collectively supported morality’ –meaning that a conduct becomes offensive (or criminal) only because it has no place among other conducts which members of the society ‘collectively support’ as permissible within the context of what they hold to be morally tolerable.
It does not matter that a society has not formally coded a particular ‘conduct’ as unlawful. But it is sufficient that the collective will of the society rejects it because it is offensive.
And so it is in the totality of what the collective will of a people approves as tolerable or permissible conduct that the ‘conscience of a society’ is said to reside; so that a ‘crime’, by definition, is simply that particular conduct which is inconsistent with what gives peaceful repose to the conscience of the society. And it is the reason therefore that criminologists say that crime violates the ‘conscience of the society’.
Every reasonably organized society and which is guided by the ‘collectively supported morality’ is bound to be shocked or even outraged by the deviant behavior of any of its members which violates its collective conscience. And we notice that even the most primitive societies express this outrage by the enforcement of certain punitive measures which they also collectively instituted to serve both as retribution and as deterrence.
These punitive and retributive measures may range from the innocuous (such as ostracism) and even to the supremely gargantuan (which is death sentence).
A violation of Nigeria’s criminal laws represents an assail on our ‘collectively supported morality’ because it constitutes a violation of our collective conscience. Unless by the punitive and retributive measures we enforce, we manifest our collective outrage against these violations, we provide no verifiable proof that we find such conducts offensive or intolerable. Unless we are practically outraged by the conduct of the willful offenders in our midst, we provide no proof that we care at all that they violate our ‘collective conscience’.
On the contrary a wantonly permissive society betrays the absence of a ‘collective conscience’. Only a conscienceless or an unconscionable society is not jealous of its ‘collectively supported morality’ -to defend it no matter whose ox will be gored!
And it is the reason Durkheim said ‘a conduct does not shock the human conscience because it is criminal’, rather it is criminal ‘because it shocks the human conscience’. Meaning that it is whenever we are collectively and spontaneously shocked or outraged by a conduct, that such conduct is criminal –notwithstanding that our statute books have not documented it as such.
If it has the capacity to shock or to outrage the collective will or conscience, then it must be offensive enough to be called a crime –conduct such as gay marriage evinces such shock, or even outrage.
Spontaneous outrage is thus the quotient between the ‘law in statute’ and the ‘law in action’; or between offenses which are ‘mala inse’ (i.e. by their very nature repugnant e.g. murder), and offenses which are ‘mala prohibita’ (or those which are criminal only because the written law says they are). And so the basis of Durkheim’s understanding of ‘crime’ is that a conduct is not reproved (i.e. rejected) as a crime, rather it is a crime because it is reproved (rejected) -by the society.
And maybe it is the reason in Nigeria we still struggle with ‘corruption’, especially in the public sector, because although we have listed it as a crime in our statute books, in reality we do not collectively feel outraged when deviant members of our society wantonly perpetrate it. Or rather we appear to be selectively shocked and thus selectively outraged also, by corruption –depending on who is committing the offense, or who by the commission of the offense, benefits.
Just as we also appear to be selectively outraged by the mayhem and the wanton bloodletting that currently threaten our communities. In one breadth we are in profuse condemnation of some conducts, and another we are in wanton let, or sometimes even in defense, of others. When it is auspicious to play the victims of aggression we know all the theatrics necessary to criminalize even the silence of our political enemies. And when it is expedient to be the aggressors ourselves, we know all the law in the books to justify our right to bay for the blood of the enemy.
In fact it is how a people can easily be disproportionately –rather than collectively- shocked or outraged by the unspeakable conducts of the deviant members of their society, that should be of keen interest to sociologists. This should provide fresh grounds for the theorizing adventure of criminologists, because this attitude too is no less criminal. Our situation especially in Nigeria provides a middle –even if more insidious- ground between the collectively unconscionable and the collectively conscienceless society.
We are a cross between two undesirables because we are adept at playing only the ‘collectively hypocritical society’. In fact, how we are able to be boisterously shocked and outraged by a thing in the morning, and yet be equally amorously in bed with it at night, can only be exciting to the Durkheims of this world who apprehend it as a subject of academic enquiry and not as an existential problem to live with.
And this ‘collective hypocrisy’ is not helped by the fact that Nigeria is are already the ‘anomic’ nation also of Emile Durkheim’s other –no less self harming- theory of the ‘normless’ society; the acute state which he said a society inevitably finds itself after a long period of total breakdown of its normative and moral values. Durkheim called this situation ‘the state of normlessness’. It is the stage at which deviance and crime appear to upstage law and order so much that the patently abnormal begins to assume the garb of normality. It is the state when the law because it obviously can do no right at all, it therefore imposes it as a duty on itself not to attempt to bar any wrong.
The anomic society of Durkheim’s description is epitomized by a surfeit of laws existing in statute –but not in action. Shakespeare, in his tragic-comic play ‘Measure For Measure’ likens it to “an overgrown lion in a cave that goes not out to prey” –so that over time the king becomes more mocked at than feared. The anomic state, Shakespeare seems to suggest, is one at the stage when wanton “Liberty plucks Justice by the nose”; that stage when –because the law has elected to do no right- liberty insists therefore that it should bar no wrong. That’s the stage Nigeria is.
A nation which regresses from its ‘season of anomie’ (apologies to Soyinka), to one that is also unable to nurse a collective conscience, is the ultimate ‘failed state’. Such a nation cannot be shocked or outraged by the deviant conduct of its conscienceless or unconscionable members. What else will shock or outrage a nation that has seen Boko Haram at its beastliest -slaughtering or roasting innocent human beings alive or burning and bombing places of worship in which innocent, harmless, faithful have merely gathered to say doxology to God even for their longsuffering?
Or what else will shock or outrage a nation that has seen bandits, outlaws, marauders, gangsters and brigands at their beastliest, invading defenseless village communities setting on fire huts and barns, farms and farmlands and killing one and all –men and women, young and old, -including ripping the stomachs of pregnant women, perhaps in mock-heroic determination to reach the very jugular of innocence itself (the unformed human, an inchoate foetal right in the artistic hand of the creator), and by driving a dagger in its chest, perhaps to say to God ‘Nope! This one is staying back!’
Or what else will shock or outrage a nation if what happened at Auna recently did not, where bandits would set a bus (filled with strange, harmless innocent passengers) on fire, and they would wait so patiently to see it burn out, so that even when one of the hapless women in the bus threw her baby out in the hope that it might survive what was about to consume her, the bandits –with such terribly murderous animus that one cannot just understand- would throw the puny, innocent child back in the burning bus?
If these are not horrendous enough to unite our disparately selective consciences into one common hub of united outrage, one wonders, what else can? In fact how we are able to carry on as if nothing is amiss while such gory, barbaric acts take place almost every minute, speaks volume about our incapacity to nurse a collective conscience in Nigeria. Or maybe you wonder whether, the collective conscience of a people, with time, after a surfeit of gory spectacles and horrible occurrences, loses its critical vigor, so that what, at some time in the past had shocked, horrified or outraged it, may no longer evince even a modicum of empathy from it.
When then may we come out of this chasm? The abyss that we have trapped ourselves in, of collective consciencelessness?

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