Ruling through ‘soft-power’


Ethiopia is having more and more people whose self-imposed enslavement resulting from a naïve, uncritical, wholesale adoption of Western cultural values and ideals are spreading fast 

Taye Negussie (PHD)

An assessment study recently conducted on patterns of street advertisements in Addis Ababa has revealed that out of the 600 plus billboard advertisements posted on African Avenue (in-between Meskel Square and Bole Airport), more than 90 per cent were written either solely in English or English but in Amharic alphabet.

Even danger signals posted on roads under construction in the town with a considerable risk on the safety of people’s lives and property are often written in English, ironically in places where the overwhelming majority of the people hardly understand the language.

In a recent issue of an Amharic newspaper a private school teacher gave a depressing account of the situation that in some private schools students are strictly prohibited to communicate in their local languages while at the compounds of the school; if found communicating, they will be subject to some harsh and awkward punishment.  Oddly enough, this is happening in a country which prides itself on restoring the glory of the language, culture and history of its previously “oppressed” ethnic groups through the newly constituted Federal Government state structure.

Almost all local FM radio stations devote disproportionately larger amount of their air time reporting every trivial event concerning European soccer; recounting nonsensical stories of Western celebrities–about their sexual life, clothing style, food taste etc. Once, it was reported that the head of one of the largest religious faiths in the country, in unusual way, was on hand at Bole airport to welcome the ‘celebrated’ singer Byonce on her arrival to the celebration of the Ethiopian Millennium in September, 2008.

Critics view this obsession with the Western popular culture as a ploy to destruct public attention from the increasingly deteriorating economic and political crises unraveling in the country.

However, a deeper reflection will lead to the understanding of their much wider implications. In my opinion, they rather represent the newly emerging frontiers of Western domination thrown out on the developing world.

Some die-hard advocates of the current status quo may try to rationalize this as an inevitable consequence of the forces of ‘globalization’. But, what they fail to realize or attempt to conceal is the fact that it is, by and large, a homogenizing endeavor of Western values and ideals under the rubric of ‘globalization’.

‘Globalization’, in its present form, is indeed the latest form of Western domination that might be traced in the African context as a succession of three periods, roughly periodized: the first 15th -18thcentury period of Slave Trade, in which Africa served as the main source of slaves; the second,18th-mid 20thcentury era of Colonialism characterized by direct occupation and political control achieved through aggressive military action; and, now  the third contemporary period of ‘Globalization’, distinguished primarily by subtle Western domination effected through the ‘soft power’ of the Entertainment industry, the Global Media, and the Information Technology.

‘Soft-power’ domination

The ‘soft-power’ domination exhibits radically different features from its precursors. Unlike the older variants of domination effected by the ‘hard-power’ of physical coercion (through the barrel of the gun), the contemporary ‘soft-power’ domination is effected by changing peoples’ attitudes and transforming public consciousness–a type of rule which forces people to defeat themselves  mentally without any direct physical intervention by the supposed rulers.

For instance, by glorifying Western-oriented values, norms, behaviors, linguistic, and lifestyles, the Global Media and Entertainment Industry attempts to establish the myth of the cultural “correctness” of the West–depicting everything from the West as being “correct”. Meanwhile, the IT industry, asides from its positive contribution, also produces, in its own way, another new form of dependency, mainly in linguistic and technological terms.

The cultural transformation of the global media and entertainment industry is exercised through penetrating the systems of people’s everyday life which, in turn, shapes their disposition, imagined identities and day-to-day actions.

A typical example of this cultural domination would be the rapidly spreading phenomenon of the “commodification” of social life–the practice of transforming every human action or event into ‘sellable commodities’.

Consequently, such previously sanctified vital human phenomena and actions like identity, marriage, death, and social relations are increasingly being “commodified”. Thus, now people tend to conceive themselves not through their integrity and community contribution, but through what they own and consume; burial activities which were once communal duties, have now turned out to be ‘commodified’ services that one can buy from the burial companies according to his purchasing ability – deplorably an action that extends social stratification even after death. Nowadays, People think that the lavishness of their marriage ceremony or other vital social event would buy them a social status; even the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony which was purely meant for strengthening neighborhood solidarity has now been put for sale.

The effects of the ‘soft-power’ influences are largely subtle for they mainly operate at the sub-conscious level. They are to a greater extent self-imposed enslavement resulting from a naïve, uncritical, wholesale adoption of Western cultural values and ideals. They are spatially- expansive, sweeping far and wide; even those previously untouched areas by the colonial rule being prey to the new ‘soft-power’ of Western rule, think Ethiopia. In terms of time, it is far more long-lasting for it is a mental-bondage which renders it extremely difficult and monumentally challenging to do away with.

Be that as it may, however, it should be clear that this is not an argument for a return to tradition or complete isolation and divorce from the West; but rather to underline the crucial points of nurturing an assertive, competitive and thriving domestic intellectual and cultural capabilities, instead of simply yielding to uncritical absorption and celebration of what is everything West.

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