10 shortcomings of a proverb

In this country, we use proverbs to facilitate conversations. We also use them to cut off conversations, kill meaningful exchange of ideas, smolder compassion, and strangulate our sense of national belonging. I will focus on the last point: proverbs as a slayer of collective national identity and shared humanity.  If I were an Igbo man and I rallied to the support of an aggrieved Yoruba man or group, some Igbo or Ijo person could berate me for weeping louder than the bereaved. Similarly, when a Hausa, Yoruba, or Bini person stands up for the rights of the Igbo when infringed someone could mock them that they are crying more than the bereaved. The point of the mocking, berating, or questioning is to “otherise” the aggrieved group, to say that they are not worthy of the compassion of their fellow Nigerians or human beings.

During the last governorship elections, Igbo in Lagos complained that they were subjected to vile anti-Igbo rhetoric, dehumanisation, demonisation, and physical violence by their fellow Nigerians. Some non-Igbo columnists, activists, and other well-meaning Nigerians came to the support of the Igbo.  Subsequently, we heard one of the familiar ethnicity-driven jingoistic refrains: (*10*) In the context of what happened during the February-March 2023 elections, this proverb is insidious, invidious, and insensitive to our collective sense of national belonging. My interpretation of this proverb—amid the pain of the physical and psychological violence of the last elections—is that for the conveyors of it there is no nationhood in Nigeria, nationhood is not worth developing, and what affects my neighbors is not my business.

My remaining task in this essay is to demonstrate the logical limitations of the proverb on its terms. When we engage it on its terms, expose the cracks within it, and uncover its weak empirical or experiential foundation, we will see it collapse under its weight. Or, at least, envisage its pernicious hold on popular consciousness to relax a little. We hope to nudge some of its conveyors to think twice about it before mentioning it in national political debates that border on our joint citizenship. I hope that those who like to haul it at other Nigerians who share the pains of their compatriots and think that they have a sound argument in the proverb might realise its acute limitations in the public square where Lady Wisdom patrols. The proverb does not pass logical muster; and its hackneyed usage does not stand up to the logos, ethos, and pathos of good rhetoric. In this essay, I will demonstrate its illogicalities, limitations, and out-of-touchness with hard reality. I will expose these shortcomings through the deployment of 10 heuristically playful, ridiculous, and provocative examples. These three categories will illustrate the intrinsic strictures and vacuity of the proverb.

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Compassion: Etymologically, compassion means sharing the other person’s pain, co-suffering. The citizen who feels compassion suffers painful emotion and now the original pain is doubled due to fellow feelings. Compassion is a process in which the suffering of one citizen is shared by another: hence the doubling. This co-sharing, which can and often does prompt us to treat others justly and humanely, is based on an evaluative judgment of the sufferer’s condition.

The proverb in question is thrown at us to challenge or diminish our compassion. Now those who use the proverb in the public square when national citizenship is at issue might say they are not calling us to have less compassion but to ensure it is not more than what is expressed by the aggrieved ethnic group. This is not just an argument to restrict our emotions, but also to constrict ourselves. Compassion broadens, educates, and stabilises elements of concern that we already have. It widens one’s circle of concern. To ask us to reduce our compassion is to ask us not to expand the boundaries of the self, to fold into ourselves, to recoil into our ethnic selves.

A major scholar, musician, or religious leader dies: There is no logical reason to argue that family members might feel their death more than outsiders. It is not easily discernible that the immediate family of Michael Jackson or any other famous person feels their death more. Given that the number of admirers or fans is likely more than the immediate and extended family members, there is generally more pain of bereavement from the outsiders than from the insiders. So, there is no point lecturing us in such a context that the outsiders are crying more than the bereaved.

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Egunje-brotherhood of a public figure:  Those who ate egunje (corrupt benefits) with the deceased, those whom he was protecting from the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, and those who had hoped to chop with him in the future are likely more pained than the bereaved.

Side-chicks: When a seasoned Nigerian sugar daddy dies many ex-and-current girlfriends weep because of his demise. Who is to tell them that they are weeping more than the bereaved—the surviving wife (wives) and children? The man was their breadwinner and possibly saved them from many embarrassing situations. They were technically part of his family of the bereaved. In this vein, let’s not forget Nigerians that financially or emotionally support persons who are outside their families or ethnic groups.

Household enemies: We have heard cases of successful persons who were hated by their siblings or extended family members. Some family members might even consider their well-to-do brothers or sisters as having stolen their good destinies to be successful. Once again, outsiders might cry for the deceased more than the immediate family.

Lenders to the deceased: Creditors of a deceased debtor have reasons to weep louder than the so-called bereaved.

Racial, national, or ethnic pride: When an accomplished person dies, people far and wide might weep louder for him or her than their close relatives because of racial, national, or ethnic pride. Harry Belafonte just died and many people who have never met him are weeping loudly. Some connected with him because of his music, and others due to his role in the American civil rights movement. Fela died and people all over the world wept for him—more people might have wept than his immediate family or ethnic group. So, does the proverb still make sense that only members of one’s household can feel deprived because of one’s death?

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Capitalist investment in a worker: If an entrepreneur had invested money to train a worker who was going to play an important role in his organisation, then he might weep for her more than her friends or even some family members. The outsider-insider distinction in bereavement does not always hold.

All proverbs are limited: No proverb fits all situations and when a proverb is offered in an inappropriate circumstance it falls apart, becomes offensive, or turns from the palm-oil which makes conversations palatable to sand in our mouths. The Bible recognises the general limitation of proverbs in its Book of Proverbs. Consider Proverbs 26:4 and 5. One verse says answer a fool according to his folly; the other says do not answer a fool according to his folly. They are not necessarily contradictory but implicitly advise you to apply each of them according to a situation. Proverbs do not work as universal quantifiers but as existential quantifiers. Thus, “crying more than the bereaved” does not speak to every situation, and it is wrong to apply it when an ethnic group in this country is smarting from perceived physical and ethical injuries.

Call to service: Finally, that proverb, “crying more than the bereaved” undermines our humanity because it urges us to suppress our human instinct to empathise. That is wrong. Wole Soyinka writes: “The man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny.” Okey Ndibe writes: “A story that must be told never forgives silence.” When there is political villainy in the land and there is a story about it that must be told, then the proverb under scrutiny is commanding us to shut up; and if we obey it our silence will never be forgiven. Don’t keep quiet in the face of oppression simply because you are not the “bereaved.”

  • Wariboko is a Walter G. Muelder Professor of Social Ethics at the Boston University, United States

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