A country of honorifics, but no honour

Professor Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò/ Prof Olufemi Taiwo

Professor Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò

Professor Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò
Professor Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò
Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò

Not too long ago, a report in the social section of one of our national dailies caught my eye. One of the celebrants was identified as “Princess, Olori, Deaconess X”. Of course, I have been around long enough to know that such collocations are standard fare in my homeland. Yet, it caught my eye. More recently, I discovered via another public announcement that Town Planners, too, have joined architects, and sundry other professionals—pharmacists, engineers, etc.—in self-identifying as such in their designation in all spheres of life way beyond the confines of their professional memberships.

No doubt, we are too familiar, those of us who travel to other African countries and interact with other Africans in various situations across the globe, with the many jokes about our love of titles in this neck of the global human woods. Beyond the jokes lies the ugly fact that surreptitiously, and quite firmly, we have transitioned into a country drowning under the baggage of honorifics while the phenomenon of honour, the very idea that the honorific is designed to tag, to symbolize, to mark, has become less and less a presence in our personal, professional or, most importantly, collective lives. This is the theme I wish to expound upon in the rest of this discussion.

Time was, at least, in Yorùbá culture with which I am exceedingly familiar, when death was preferable to living in ignominy. There are multiple variations on this theme in the culture’s usages. It was said that when a military general was cornered, rather than capitulate, he would eat a leopard’s liver. The belief was that the liver was lethal. In both cases, what is under reference is an insistence that there was no substitute for honour—living your life above reproach, keeping your word, refraining from behaviour that would tarnish your reputation for clean, honest living, characterized by consideration for others, scruples and staying within the bounds of decency—even if you are the privileged owner of untold riches, high office, multiple titles, widespread popularity, and such like. The idea is that honorifics—the fact that you are a chief many times over, you are of the professional class, etc.—are no more than empty shells once they become bereft of the honour that is supposed to be their content, the real root of which the honorific flower is merely an adornment.

I argue that the proliferation of honorifics—chief, alhaji, Jerusalem pilgrim, town planner, architect, pharmacist, engineer, pastor, general overseer, supreme evangelist, bishop, archbishop, alfa, and so on, and so forth—in our life, public and private, is in inverse proportion to the increasing dearth of honour in our lives. Ordinarily, when you are styled a professor, for example, you are supposed to “profess” and be known for what you profess—a discovery, a method, a point of view, a specific theory, and the like. The honorific, “professor”, is only as good as the honour that is holder embodies. Otherwise, there is no difference between Professor Peller or Professor Y.K. Ajao and the professors who have earned their plaudits through the distinction that attends their strivings in their chosen fields. “Architect”, the honorific, is a hollow shell if its holder is a lousy professional, exhibits no professional ethics, and has no distinction whatsoever attaching to her commissions. The celebrated architects in the world are not so celebrated because they go by the moniker, “architect”; rather, the solidity, originality, beauty and utility of their works are the stuff of which their honour is made. When you are an officer in the armed services, you are supposed to be “an officer and a gentleman” whose bearing and acting are meant to be characterized by a recognition of bounds beneath which you don’t fall.

When you are a chief, honour demands that you be the head and not the sole of the feet dedicated to waddling in puddles or walking on the ground. When your interactions do not evince the superior etiquette and ethics identified with such a title, what we are left with is the monk-less hood.

Think of yet another honorific that the country is awash in: pastor. With a surfeit of pastors, the country is not comforted. All manners of hustlers, tricksters, beggars are not only “men and women of God”, called by whom we can’t be too sure but are all too ready to exploit the faith people have that pastors are imbued with honour that grounds their titles, of that we can be certain.

If any more evidence be needed, and this takes us back to the news that triggered off these reflections, that we no longer value honour but instead are fully vested in the vacuity of honorifics, here it is. Why is being a princess not enough? Apparently, the honour of being and living as a princess does not suffice; you must add to it “Olori” and “Deaconess”. “Professor” is no longer an embodiment of self-justifying attainment and attractor of requisite respect and honour in our society. All and sundry must know that you are also an “engineer”, a “chief”, and, as is increasingly the case in our society, “reverend” or “pastor”. The pride of a professor, when it is not a chieftaincy, is to have newly introduced acquaintances affirm: “You are the author of …” as they reel out those works\work of yours that make them feel honoured to be in your presence.

This unfortunate penchant has not left our “traditional rulers” unaffected. To take the Yorùbá example alone, it is no longer just enough for our oba to be designated “Aláyélúwà”. Such is their own addiction to honorifics that they do not realize how ridiculous to be tagged “His Imperial Majesty” when you or your predecessors never built much less ran an empire. Why do you need any more meaningless titles when, according to the legitimating principles of your autochthonous traditions, you are the owner of the world and being itself? But such is the lure of honorifics that every “oriadé” in Yorùbá is busy trying to outdo the other in terms of whose title is bigger than the others’.

There is no better metaphor for the decreasing role of honour in our lives than the proliferation of hoods at all levels and in all crannies of our society. The more people adorn themselves in ridiculous-looking academic gowns, the less educated we have become. What is more, as academic gowns multiply, so have academic dishonesty, sexual harassment, embezzlement of funds by all manner of functionaries at our institutions, examination fraud and motley other malpractices. Most of all, our knowledge repository keeps getting depleted.

What continues to befuddle me is how, instead of pausing and asking what is going\gone badly wrong, we continue to multiply our addiction to honorifics as the younger generation, too, begins to mistake the hood for the monk. The country is now home to a plethora of nondescript awards, prizes and dubious recognitions. Our illiterate functionaries revel in being dubbed “man of the year”, “governor of the year”, and so on. No one bothers to check much less establish the bona fides of the awarding outfits. Our bankers behave like primary school kids giddy with awards that a moment’s thought would have shown that theso-called recognition is an infantilization of their kind. When was the last time a South Korean Central Bank governor or his Belgian counterpart put on a dunce cap to accept some dubious “Central Banker of the Year” honours? No, they are busy adding content to their stations and having their honour thereby deepened without the distraction of meaningless honorifics. The only honour that should matter is that their policies work and they deliver on the promise of their office to make life meaningful for their people. It is also why some decline those prizes and recognitions because having people celebrate their work is more than sufficient for them. Think of all our multiple award-winning honorees who have been shown to be no more than common crooks, be they bankers, police and military officers, vice chancellors of universities and so on. Think of all the pastors who have betrayed the trust of their flock either in playing fast and loose with institutional funds or the bodies and minds of their followers that they have repeatedly abused. Sexual harassers in our academic institutions or at workplaces often have lofty titles that, heaven help you if you fail to address them properly, they think are emblematic of and deserving of respect. All too often, in our mistaking honorifics for honour, we mistake the hood for the monk.

Finally, eléèébúnimí, momọ èébúù mi, as the Yorùbá would say. For those who know me as ‘Malam” and might think that I, too, am invested in an honorific, I have a caveat. To the extent that it is an honorific either for a teacher or a gentleman, I plead guilty as charged. I hope that those with whom I interact in either or both respects come away thinking that I strive to be a good instance of that general kind. For the rest, ‘Malam’ is, for me, a nickname, no more. Absolutely nothing rides on it.

Is it too much to look forward to a time when, as a people, we might begin again to reacquaint ourselves with honour and dare to truncate our investment in honorifics? I can only hope not.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò teaches at the Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, U.S.A.