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Are you a happy-clappy optimist or a sour pessimist?

Feb 19, 2012 Success, Sunday Nation

Do you get the feeling that slowly, painfully, a new Kenya is being born?

So do I.

The old guard are being forced to concede ground; the old ways will soon be consigned to history. A new Kenya, one fit for the young and the connected as well as the decent and the discerning, will emerge from the ashes of the old.

This process will be neither smooth nor pretty. Far from it. There will be many roadblocks and reversals of fortune as the guardians of the old model of leadership resist the advent of the new. There will be many battles in court, in print, in parliament and on the streets before we settle into a new order.

This will therefore be a time of arguments and differences of opinion. And so, people of Kenya, we need to be ready to argue in the proper way. The other option is insults, name-calling and snide sneering. That style is already taking root in social media, where a vile breed of hecklers (known as “trolls” in the new lingo) do their best to hurl daily insults under the veil of online anonymity.

This is not a time to engage with imbeciles; it is a time for focused and determined actions. What those actions should be, inevitably, will be subject to debate. In that debate many labels will be used and many people will be typecast.

One of those labels will be whether you are “positive” or “negative” about the future of Kenya.

This is a strange one that seems to mean different things to different people at different times. I, for example, am often bemused by how I am placed in both camps. Some people see this column as a beacon of positive thinking about our country; others think I am an inveterate cynic who sees only negative things in Kenya.

I don’t understand those categories. Seeing things as they actually are is what matters, not viewing them through the lenses of bias. I am neither a career optimist nor a lifetime pessimist. Creating these strange boxes is simplistic thinking at its worst.

To be an Afro-optimist is not to blind yourself to the fundamental changes that are needed in African society. To refuse to see that root-and-branch change is needed in our governance is to be wilfully stupid. The new Africa will not emerge just by singing happily about it or by viewing utopian computer-generated imagery – tough decisions and ruthless reforms are needed.

The trouble with most of us, as Norman Peale once said, is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism. And so anyone stating problems robustly and not shirking from pointing out issues is viewed as a cynic and a wet blanket.

To which I can only provide one response. Seeing corruption as a cancer that must be excised; warning against moral entropy; railing against the needless deaths caused every day by negligence, greed and incompetence: if any of those things makes me or anyone else “negative,” then I wear that badge with pride.

But I urge caution. Inane labels don’t serve the cause of national enlightenment. We need reasoned and reasonable discourse, not mudslinging and name-calling. There is so much to think about and so much to do. Let us conduct ourselves with calm decorum rather than occupy intemperately partisan positions.

There are of course irredeemably sour gloom-merchants in our midst, and we need to move past them. There are also lightheaded happy-clappy optimists who will do little to help us design policy or take hard decisions, and we need to let them sing on the sidelines. I’m with George Bernard Shaw on this one: those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those already doing it.

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