Celebrate plurality

The Rt. Rev. Dr David Zac Niringiye, bishop of of All Saints Cathedral in Kampala, talks to Ute Seela about diversity and common ground in Uganda
Ute Seela
3 August 2010

US: Bishop Niringiye, you have recently addressed civil society activists, academics, politicians and cultural leaders at the conference “ Pluralism: the lived realities of managing diversity in Uganda”. Can you explain briefly how you understand pluralism?

DZN: I would like to distinguish ‘plurality’ and ‘pluralism’. Both terms are derived from the word ‘plural’, meaning ‘many’, ‘diversity’ or ‘variety’. It has to do with identity, and its reflections in behavior, lifestyle and expressions. Our identities can manifest themselves in for instance culture, religion or social class. While ‘plurality’ is a fact of life – we are different, be it as tribes or followers of different religions - pluralism should be considered a doctrine or worldview.

Pluralism is about the appreciation of the difference without the acknowledgement that there are common norms. Pluralism allows people to express their difference – no matter what. In the Western culture this especially expresses itself in the whole idea of sexuality. Pluralism in this sense suggests that there is no normative way of expressing sexuality. This is the epitome of the idea of pluralism – that there must be ways in which homosexuality, bisexuality, and all other expressions of human sexuality are legitimate; the issue of sexuality should therefore be debated on the basis of human rights. People must be allowed to express who they are or would like to be. Human rights actually enshrine the notion of pluralism. When none of these expressions of sexuality have a claim to normativity, then there is no normative pattern, no normative behavior. There are therefore no common norms, no standards.

US: You are saying ‘pluralism is freedom of choice without boundaries’. However, in my country, individual freedoms are not absolute. For instance, freedom of expression is limited by the obligation not to incite hatred, not to incite violence.

DZN: This definition of pluralism is not my own. The roots of the concept need to be sought in the 16th and 17th century European Enlightenment period, in the era of Descartes and Nietzsche. In the thinking of Descartes everything is derived from ´who I am´. He said ‘ I think, therefore I am’. All you are, your identity, is within you, it is a matter of choice. All ´what is´ must be verifiable, science is superior to belief and reason is the only way of knowing.

What I disagree with are these roots of the concept, this understanding of ´what we are´. It is not that I disagree with you that in Western societies choice and rights must not infringe on somebody else’s right, but I think the reason why Europe cannot cope with its Muslims is because the pluralism based on the individual has become a dogma. It only works as long as societies are rather homogenous. Europe has big troubles applying the same pluralism to the choice of women (be it an individual choice or a collective norm) to wear the veil.

US: You introduced an alternative concept: celebrating plurality. How does this concept differ from pluralism?

DZN: Let me first turn to what I consider the other ´extreme´: tribalism. Tribalism is the notion that ´what we know, what we believe, becomes the standard´. And the critical question here is ‘who is the we’. It has to do with our identity, with both fact and belief. But it need not necessarily be blood relations. We could also talk of a tribalism of religion or a tribalism of economics. The trend one can observe is that when people of diverse tribes live together but cannot agree on common norms, they separate the entities.

We have a history of tribalism in Uganda - not of tribes - this is a fact. Ugandan politics, how Ugandan political parties work, is through the identification of a particular group in which they can exercise the politics of patronage. If you go to Western Uganda, the National Resistance Movement (NRM) of President Museveni has come to be associated with the Church of Uganda. The biggest opposition party Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) is said to ´be´ the Roman Catholic Church. However, in other places it might be the other way round. Our politics is not about ideas, it is about people who do others a favour.

This has been the case even before the British colonized what has become Uganda. Governance was organized around kingdoms that represented related tribes who had similar beliefs or behaviour. Even then relations between tribes were power relations. The most powerful, or most dominant vis-à-vis the other tribes, had the biggest territory. British colonialists realized how powerful Buganda was, they therefore used the Baganda people as an instrument to dominate the others. The project of Uganda has become ‘how do you create strong tribal entities that are able to fight for their space and dominate the others´.

But tribalism is not an African phenomenon. The very idea of the nation state, as it has emerged in Europe, is a construction that is build on tribalism. Look at how small European states are. Most European states consist of one homogeneous tribe. Those few who do not, are federal states that allow differing degrees of autonomy to the different tribes, and thereby enable separation.

Silently, separation is also a proposal in our country. It is this contrast of tribalism and pluralism that I want to point out. In a tribalist system we think that our norms, behaviours and standards must be those of everyone else. In pluralism, there are no norms, pluralism does not distinguish between ´right´ and ´wrong´. The point I am trying to make is that we need to celebrate our plurality. We must accept plurality as fact and as gift. But in order to celebrate we need to dance to the same tune. The challenge we face is identifying the common ground, our shared values, or shared identity. Although different, we have a meta narrative.

US: Maybe the question is ‘who defines the boundaries?’ Are they a given or do they belong to the territory of ideology, of ideas, which a society needs to debate?

DZN: Boundaries are certainly not a given, it is the encounter that matters, the meeting of the differences. Only then can we find the common ground. And when we have found it, we must realize that the tune is not owned by anyone. We need to think about institutions that promote encounter and relationship, legal processes that seek to create space so that everything thrives because there are common norms.

US: Why would sexuality not be an area where people need to debate and seek understanding in order to find the common ground? Why regulate the bedroom with a specific anti-homosexuality-bill?

DZN: Yes, what happens in my bedroom is my own business! But see, the private bedroom is actually a Western thing. You need it because you spend much time inside, it’s cold… We never used to have a separate bedroom for the couple! Actually, even in the West, sex has ceased to be a private thing. It is shown everywhere, on television, magazines. Young people learn through the media how it works! But private or not, I think we must simply acknowledge what is considered acceptable behaviour in this society.

I don’t really want to talk about the Anti-Homosexuality Bill because the way it evolved – it is a rather complex matter. The Anglican Church says instead of drafting a new bill, the existing Penal Code Act should be amended. The Church particularly wants to protect the vulnerabilities of the boy child, ensure proportionality in sentencing and exclude sexual orientation as a protected human right. Contrary to the proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill, parliament should ensure that the law protects the confidentiality of medical, pastoral and counselling relationships.

This is what the Church says. I don’t say homosexuality is abnormal, or that in a sense we all are somehow abnormal. We all have those elements in us that need to be tamed. Please don’t assume I hate homosexuals. They are people and I love people. What the Church considers important is the traditional family and the male-female relationship on which it builds. This family and its values would be destroyed if homosexuality was to be promoted.

US: Ugandans have sent signs of their frustration with the political process - on whether elections are of any use given the way the country works at the moment. People haven´t seen their expectations in politicians met. Patronage defines who gets what: equal access, equal opportunities are an illusion. How can that sentiment be changed and make use of the momentum and opportunity of the elections next year?

DZN: We should certainly not continue with a policy such as the creation of ever more districts. Our President is saying that an own district is good for tribes who have been ignored. But that way we entrench tribalism in our system, it is simply ´divide and rule´.

Patronage is not necessarily a bad thing - what I mean is the idea of the master and the servant. In a real democracy, the master is the ideology and we all are the servants. Politicians, even the President, are not more that ´leading servants´. Our politicians need to clarify the ideas for which they stand. Ideas on which we agree to organize. Politics is not about individuals!

Rt. Rev. Dr. David Zac Niringiye is Bishop of All Saints Cathedral in Kampala, Uganda and chairperson of the National Governing Council of the African Peer Review Mechanism.











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