You will never fully convince someone that he/she is wrong; only reality can!
On February 1, 1960, at 4:30 pm, something strange happened. Four black students from North Carolina, A & T College, went to one of the most popular restaurants in town and sat on forbidden seats. The restaurant was configured in such a manner that divided it into two distinct sections. The first was painted and adorned in a way that appealed to whites and was reserved for them only. The other section –wherein less decoration was performed, was left to the blacks. So what the four students did that day was to violate the social norm of the time by seating where they weren’t supposed to.
Ezell Blair, one among the four, said to the waitress: “I will like a cup of coffee, please”. “We don’t serve Negros here,” she replied, angrily. Another restaurant employee, a black lady, who served those in the section reserved for blacks approached the students and tried to warn them away. “You’re acting all foolish, stupid! Leave this place”. But the kids didn’t move an inch.
By 5:30pm, the front doors to the restaurant were locked. The four students still didn’t move. They had brought their school work and by the time the doors got closed, they were busy studying. Both the whites and blacks within the restaurant all gazed, perplexed over what was going on. Meanwhile, out of the restaurant, a little crowd with a photographer among began to gather. At the end of the day, one of the students outside shouted; “I will be back tomorrow with A &T College”.
By 8 am the following morning, the protest in front of the restaurant had grown to 27 men and 4 women, most of them from the same class as the four inside. On Wednesday, word about the protest circulated in other universities in the town and by 10 am secondary school students, joined in the protest, swelling the number to 80. By Thursday, the protester numbered 300 with three white women in the crowd.
By Saturday, the number of protesters was so large, they counted six hundred at that point. And with the growth in number came the white teenagers with firecrackers and the A&T football team dubbed the “wrecking crew”.
The following Monday, news about the protest crossed town lines and went to places like Salem (25km away); Durham (50km away). The day after that, students from Fayetteville State Teachers College and at Johnson C. Smith College and Saint Augustine’s College joined in. on Thursday and Friday, the protest crossed state lines and students from other states, kilometres and kilometres away, joined the protest. In total 70,000 students took part in that protest. Michael Walzer, the political theorist who documented this protest in Dissent added that: “I asked every student I met, what the first day of the sit downs (strike) had been like on campus’ the answer was always the same: ‘It was like a fever. Everyone wanted to go’”.
Thousands of students were arrested and untold thousands were radicalized. These events in the early 60’s became a civil-rights war that engulfed the country for the rest of the decade. And this all happened without Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, WhatsApp or a hashtag.
The world in general and Cameroon in particular, we are told is in the midst of a revolution. And the new tools of social media have somehow reinvented the nature and form of social activism. With the proliferation of social media platforms –Facebook, Twitter and the like –the traditional relationship that existed between political authority and popular will has been updated, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, voice their concerns and plan a course of action; if nothing is done. When Black Lives Matter and EndSARS, led tens of thousands to the streets, many dubbed it the twitter revolution, because of the means by which the demonstrators were brought together –the hashtag #BlacklivesMatter #EndSARS. Twitter receives praises galore for enabling movements, which they say, without twitter would never have happened. Others have even gone as far as calling for twitter to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
But have we ever really sat to consider the real influence of these social media tools? Unlike many who sing the praises of social media or are being carried away by the flurry of praises that accompany these social media platforms, the scholar Evgeny Morozov has been a staunch digital evangelism critic. He has investigated enough of the so-called social media revolutions to point out that their influence–especially that of Twitter– during revolutions is scant; since very few Twitter accounts actually exist in the different countries wherein the revolutions are taking place. He adds that the people tweeting about hot issues and having the most replies are hardly ever in/from the said countries – they just do it because of social proof. Take the case of Nigeria with END SARS, who were those everyone was citing as having retweeted the hashtag: Ozil the German footballer (not Nigerian), Anthony Joshua (US-based Nigerian boxer), Chris Brown (US artist) etc. They kept on calling for the end of SARS, but to who was their message addressed? And how was their retweet of the hashtag going to push the agenda forward? What about the president and his government officials, are they really on Twitter?
Most often, some native celebrities post about these hot button issues, not out of desire but out of guilt or fear of shame (for not having done it). What happened to social activism? How and when did the world shift from a place where activists were defined by their causes, to a place in which activists are now defined by their social media tools?
Societies run by risk takers, not risk transferors
3,800 years ago, there was a law posted in the most public of places in Babylon. It was placed there so that everyone who could read will read it; or, read it to those who couldn’t read. It was called Hammurabi’s law and it contained within it 282 laws. One of the most popular laws – the one that got the people talking, which is of interest to us– was the one that said; “If a builder builds a house and the house collapses and causes the death of the owner of the house—the builder shall be put to death.” Pause for a second and consider the effects of the implementation of such a law. Can you guess the number of people who pursued building careers at that time? I don’t have the exact number, but I’m sure only those whose passion was bigger than the fear of error went into building.
Historically, all warlords and warmongers were warriors themselves, and societies were run by risk takers, not risk transferors. Prominent people took risks, more risks than ordinary people, for example: Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, King David, Napoleon Bonaparte. What did they all have in common? The fact that they had their Skin in the Game (as Nassim Taleb calls it) and also because they weren’t exonerated from paying for the consequences of their decisions. But what has modernity made normal? The ability to transfer all the risks to others and only collect the benefits – the curse of intelligentsia, also known in economic jargon as rent-seeking. Our modern leaders no longer go to the battlefield but they stage war; architects no longer suffer the demolition of their households if they do a shitty job, but they draw plan and supervise constructions; doctors no longer have their one leg amputated, if they amputate a patients wrong leg (NB: iatrogenic errs by medical personnel is the 3rd highest killer in the world. So hospitals now rank as one of the highest killers in the world). I know some of the consequences for errors in the past were gruesome, society back then was governed by the “an eye for an eye principle” but have we not made society worst by making people not have their skin in the game? Angel investors like Chris Sacca make billions by collecting others money and investing; and ensuring that if the investment fails he loses nothing (only those he took money from lose), but if the investment succeeds he gets 40% of the benefits.
Why is being motivational speaker, influencer so trendy? Because it doesn’t entail having your skin in the game. Taleb says: “the curse of modernity is that we are increasingly populated by a class of people who are better at explaining than doing”. They talk about entrepreneurship and risk taking but have never stated a business before. I could go on and on.
Cameroonians, after observing what was happening in Nigeria – ENDSARS, began nursing feelings of jealousy. The most popular tweet was the one that said: “we have being crying online for 4 years and no one has been responding, but when Nigeria cries the world comes to their aid”.
After noticing that that type of grumbling wasn’t yielded fruits, they sought another target, and unfortunately this time it was Cameroonian celebrities. They called them out for not having done enough or not having done anything close to what others in Nigeria and elsewhere had done. Due to audience capture, these celebrities began retweeting the hashtag. And even planned a protest. Needless to say it was a total failure. Or should I say, a failure on ending the Anglophone crisis but rather a successful publicity stunt.
The question we should all be asking ourselves at this point is: are the people who log on to their social media accounts really the best hope for us in Cameroon? Are our celebrities, overseas crisis commentators really the best hope we’ve got? Do they have their skins in the Game?
One crucial fact about the four students from A & T College, known as Ezell Blair, David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil was their relationship with each other. They were all from the same dormitory. They were notorious for smuggling beer and alcohol into the dorms and talking very late at night, after lights out –while others were sleeping. Their closing conversation every night was an analysis of the different racial injustices in the country. It was McNeil who brought up the idea of the restaurant white seat revolt. They discussed it for a month, then a month later, he walked up to the dorm late at night and asked them if they were ready. 10 seconds later, McCain asked a question that only those who speak late at night would ask in such a context; “Are you guys chicken or not”? The next day they carried out their act and on the same occasion, Ezell asked the waitress for a cup of coffee (and he did so because his friends flanked him for being chicken-hearted).
Social media has a role to play, no one undermines its role. But a few too many feel that just tweeting, sharing and posting about crisis without any skin in the game is a recipe for perpetual failure. Another untold truth about successful revolutions is that the people you inspire to go protest are people with whom you have a strong connection. Such connections are quasi-non-existent on social media; since the platforms of social media are built around weak ties. On Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and the others, you follow (or are being followed) by people whom you most likely have never met. In other words, these platforms are tools that teach you how to efficiently manage your acquaintances. It explains why thousands of “friends” on social media that you could never have in real life. These friendships can make you donate a few francs, vote for someone, vote a policy, but it can hardly lead you to join a protest. Social media hardly pushes you to do life risky activities or put your skin in the game. A few francs is costly, but is it as costly as going to the streets with no guarantee of coming back home? If our celebrities, influencers and overseas freedom fighter or crisis instigators continue to think that with their keyboard activism shall come to the solution to our crisis, then years from now, we will still be on the same spot. We need skin in the game, less talk, more life risky actions. And if that can’t be given, then they should shut up and let the courageous ones emerge.
What can we learn from the four of A & T?
You don’t need celebrities, influencers to make your revolution work; you don’t need tens of thousands to join or agree to join before you start a revolution. Social media can only offer what it’s got. After four years of: singing end the Anglophone crisis, analysing its causes and projecting likely consequences, we haven’t moved a needle. Revolutions work not because celebrities are at the forefront, but rather because they are ordinary men who decide to put their skin in the game.
I really want to end here, but please endure this last paragraph with me.
What does life looks like when you have Skin in the Game?
Nassim Taleb says: “we humans have two brains, one when there is skin in the Game, the other when there is none. Skin in the Game make boring things less boring.”
- How boring is it for you to check for full stops (period) and commas in a piece of writing? As compare to when it’s a competitive examination or a job application. Don’t you do it with gusto?
- How boring is it to check the engine and tank on a plane or car you aren’t going to drive or be a passenger in, as compared to when you are the driver or passenger?
- What about mathematics, did you hate it in the past? How do you feel when a kid comes to you for answers and your reputation is on the line? etc.
When there is risk on the line, we tend to do better jobs. Try your best to do things that make you put your skin in the game and you will see how creative you can get.
Start by commenting on this post. Where in your estimate have we gone wrong in our current revolutions; what are other areas in life we need more skin in the game? Are social media platforms really worthy of all the praise they get?
Special thanks to people like Wouache Violeine, Riette, Nganshou Armstrong, Sambit Kelly, Mathieu la terreur, Bright Ewang and many others for their insights and request for this article.
Verberi Leslie Michael Ace