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Returning to Our Value System

12 Feb 2013

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The Wig & Skirt By Funke Aboyade. Email, olufunke.aboyade@thisdaylive.com

Two recent occurrences in the UK, as well as Europe got me thinking about our value system and cultural norms as a country and I believe should get all us all thinking as well.

I’ll start with the most recent - the resignation last Friday of German Education Minister, Annette Schavan, in the wake of charges of plagiarism against her regarding her Ph.D thesis. The Heinrich Heine University, Dusseldorf had days earlier voted to strip her of her doctorate following their review upon questions raised by an anonymous blogger about it. Her doctorate was then declared invalid and withdrawn from her. She has in the meantime declared her intention to fight that decision. Her resignation was even more poignant because she had been particularly scathing when just over a year ago German Defence Minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, had had to resign following allegations that he also had plagiarised his thesis. German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, praised her for putting her personal wellbeing behind the common good.

But all that was not the news, for me. What I found interesting was that the contentious doctorate had been awarded to her in 1980, a good 33 years ago. Neither the passage of time nor sentiments (for instance about her position, ironically, as Education Minister overseeing German universities or the fact that this is an election year for the government with Chancellor Merkel seeking a 3rd Term or perhaps even her age, 58, which might in some societies qualify her as an ‘elder’ worthy of respect or the fact even that she’d been a Minister since 2005) prevented the relentless course of doing the right thing. That is to say, applying sanctions evenly and across board irrespective of status or class; in plain terms and if one might say by way of analogy, the rule of law prevailed.

The second event, still ongoing and unfolding, is the Jimmy Saville abuse investigation in the UK. Though he passed on in 2011 aged 84, the celebrity television personality who was knighted in 1990 and held an entire nation spellbound for decades with his charisma and sheer talent has now in death been unmasked as a depraved, prolific ‘predatory, serial sex offender’ who had ‘groomed’ an entire nation for decades. 450 of his victims and still counting, mostly ‘vulnerable, institutionalised and young people’ have since his death, come forward with allegations to the police of his child and sexual abuse and rape.

Titillating as the saga might seem and as staggering as the breadth of the abuse is, what caught my interest particularly was the prospect of his being posthumously stripped of his knighthood. There was no precedent for it, indeed the system had not thought about this kind of eventuality but here it was being raised, so terrible were the allegations which were, even withn the inability of Sir Saville to defend himself from the grave, proving true.

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, described them as ‘deeply, deeply troubling’ and suggested that a Whitehall committee may look into the possibility of stripping him of his OBE amidst a contrary view by the Cabinet Office that people cease to hold titles after they die – in which case there would be nothing to revoke. The Sun Newspaper in fact launched a campaign to have his knighthood stripped.

Either way, the aim was agreed and the same: strip him of a title he had dishonoured; peradventure the course of nature, in this case death, had not taken the title away then it would be taken away from him in any event.

As it turned out, he cannot be stripped of his OBE because it’s a living order, upon death one ceases to be a member.

The Catholic Church also weighed in and said Saville should be stripped of his papal knighthood. The Archbishop of Westminster who heads the Catholic Church in England and Wales, has since subsequently formally requested the Vatican to withdraw Saville’s papal honour.

In other words, even death would not stop the relentless course of doing the right thing all the time.

Where is all this leading to? An introspection, an interrogation of our national values, of what defines us as a nation, of what our core values are.

Increasingly, we honour undeserving persons, people with questionable antecedents, dodgy pasts or who have done nothing to earn such honours or are quite simply unworthy of them. Take a look around. Our unwieldy national honours lists, Honourary Doctorates awarded two a penny by our universities, chieftaincy titles conferred on certified thieves, et cetera. Some of the persons so honoured have since been convicted of one corruption related crime or the other yet they still retain those honours and awards, no moves by the awarding authority to revoke or strip them of the honours. And other than a few muted voices here and there, no trenchant calls or moves for their forfeiture or revocation, no robust interrogations of our values, nothing.

The difference between the UK, Germany as well as other developed nations, and us is not that they are peopled by saints – as we have seen, all too clearly and all too often the human being will always be human, if they believe they can get away with a wrongdoing or crime they will. The difference is, one, investigating and unravelling the wrongdoing in the first place and two, how those countries, and us, handle the wrongdoers when they are caught. Or how when a person has dishonoured his position of trust and responsibility that person forfeits the right to continue to be held in high esteem by right thinking members of society.

Japan for instance is the land which takes honour to another level. We are all familiar with the concept of harakiri which traditionally was to die by committing a ritual form of suicide by the samurai to retain their honour or to die by capital punishment for bringing shame and dishonour to them. The ritual dates back almost 1,000 years and was officially abolished in the 19th Century, but hasn’t quite died out. As a child I was endlessly fascinated by comic books featuring stories from the Second World War with Japanese soldiers and civilians alike committing harakiri rather than fall into enemy hands. In modern day Japan it’s not unheard of for company CEOs to take their own lives for having led their company to ruin. So ingrained is the concept of honour and dishonour in Japanese society that government ministers and Prime Ministers routinely resign their positions at the slightest sign of bringing shame or dishonour or losing face. Only a few days ago Japan teen pop star and member of the J-pop singing sensation, Minami Minegeshi, shaved her head – a ritual act of contrition in Japan – and made a tearful public plea to her fans and the Japanese public for forgiveness for letting them down after it came to light she had spent a night with her boyfriend (the J-pop group in spite of the fact that they are usually sensuously attired and their performances sexually suggestive are required to keep up a virginal facade of their lifestyle). As I watched the incredulous sight on TV I was half amused, half incredulous, but completely admiring of Japanese society.

No surprises either that Japan is one of the most developed nations on earth. 

As those examples have shown, status, celebrity, age and even death do not stop those societies from expressing and enforcing their disapproval or their refusal to condone the crime, dishonour or wrongdoing. Even the fact that they may have been deserving at the time of the honour is irrelevant once subsequent events or facts occur that put that honour into question. The stripping of former Royal Bank of Scotland CEO Fred Goodwin’s Knighthood last year is a good example. He had been knighted in 2004 for his ‘services to banking’. Eight years later, for ‘bringing the honours system into disrepute’ the Queen revoked that honour – significant in a culture where honour is highly valued.

Said the Forfeiture Committee, ‘the failure of RBS played an important role in the financial crisis of 2008-09, which together with macroeconomic factors triggered the worst recession in the UK since the second world war and imposed significant direct costs on British taxpayers and businesses. Fred Goodwin was the dominant decision maker at RBS at the time’.

Over 45bn Pounds of British taxpayers’ money was pumped into RBS to save the bank from collapse and by extension, prevent a collapse of confidence in the British banking system.

An MP described Goodwin as a ‘reckless man playing with other people's money. 

‘He proved a huge disservice to the banking industry and I think what people wanted to hear was that this man was held to account.

‘Bizarrely there's been no criminal charges against the man, so he's not going to be in front of a jury and there was a sense that this guy had got away scot-free and the only thing left really to show the public opprobrium was for the knighthood to be stripped’, he said.

And that, precisely, is the point, for all I have been labouring to say – the need to show public opprobrium for the misconduct or criminal conduct of public servants, elected officials or those who occupy high positions of responsibility and trust in the land.

Whilst it would no doubt be personally painful for those concerned, it keeps the system sanitised. It’s no coincidence that these are also developed nations. Nations with a well developed value system. The whole point is not to gloat at the downfall of those unfortunate enough to be in that situation, rather it’s to emphasise that certain types of conduct will not, indeed cannot, be tolerated if society is to function well and that if you cross certain lines no matter who you are you will pay dearly for it.

Surely, we can borrow a leaf from that system?

Or perhaps more accurately: surely we can return to that system, that ethos, that culture?

Back home, most races and ethnic groups have their own traditional concepts of honour. The Yorubas for instance have the Omoluabi concept which encapsulates everything that is good and decent and honourable and dignifying about a well brought up, hard working Yoruba man or woman of character.

The question is: how did we as a nation - whose racial and ethnic makeup comprises variations of that concept of honour - deviate so much from that ethos that money (usually of the ill-gotten kind) and power (for its sake and not much else) have now become our mini gods? A nation where ex-convicts still keep and parade, with relish, the honours bestowed on them? A few right noises from government about stripping them of those honours and then…nothing. A nation where chieftaincy titles are now regularly bestowed on the highest bidders, something unheard of and completely unacceptable only a generation ago? A nation where honourary doctorates have often been conferred on the most undeserving and illiterate of individuals, making a mockery of the whole concept? A nation that tolerates, indeed sometimes celebrates, the indolent, the mediocre, the dishonourable, the corrupt?

It’s no coincidence that whilst we had that national ethos of hard work, honour, discipline and decency we were a developing country at par or ahead of the Asian Tigers. Now that we have enthroned corruption King we have fallen way behind, whilst the human development index of those Asian Tigers rivals or in some cases beats the West.

Think, Nigeria, Think!

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Love is in the air! The reading public may be surprised that even the toughest lawyers have a heart after all! This week, in the lighter mood we bring you our Valentine’s Day Special edition. Enjoy!

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