Some time in the last century, a behavioural scientist known as B.F. Skinner observed that random behaviours can be shaped into a desired behaviour by way of reinforcement.
In this model, known as operant conditioning, random behaviour is “shaped” as desired through a system that rewards the desired behaviour.
For instance, a child who randomly gives up his seat for an elder and is rewarded with praise or a gift is more likely to engage in similar behaviour than one who does the same thing and is either ignored or punished for it.
This is a fundamental principle in learning and is used in homes, schools, prisons and institutions in which certain behaviours are expected and others frowned upon.
This brings us to the matter of hate speech and how we have been handling it in this country. In January 2008, at the height of the post-election violence, I observed in the Daily Nation that: “... use of ethnic stereotypes must be deemed taboo whether in public or in private.
Use of insulting language targeting whole communities must be discouraged whether on the campaign platform or in the privacy of our homes.”
These observations were made in the context of preventing future eruptions of a similar nature, in the hope that Kenyans would learn their lesson and adopt behaviour that would minimise the risk of violence and encourage behaviour that promotes peaceful coexistence of all peoples.
Unfortunately, it appears that our social behaviour has not changed, probably due to the wrong schedule of operant reinforcement.
We have set rules to prevent hate speech and incitement, but we largely ignore those that engage in this behaviour that we have determined to be obnoxious and inimical to our national goals.
Many leaders in the past who engaged in this sort of behaviour were not even made to feel as if they had done something wrong. Indeed they were often congratulated on their forthrightness and encouraged to keep it up.
After we changed our laws and outlawed certain kinds of speech, we had an episode where senior government officials allegedly engaged in hate speech and were eventually arrested and charged.
The tragedy is that nobody was then convicted of these crimes, giving the impression that it was sort of okay to engage in this kind of behaviour.
Recently, another Cabinet minister was charged with a similar offence, but managed to somehow wriggle out of criminal responsibility by delivering a public apology, courtesy of the National Cohesion and Integration Commission.
This may have emboldened another politician to go into a cosmopolitan city constituency and allegedly order the eviction of a section of the population that he accused of being foreigners and killers.
This politician then tried to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, and gave some sort of apology, after which he tried to escape justice by hiding from the police and rushing to court to pre-empt his arrest and prosecution.
It is clear in my mind that how we handle these very public instances of hate speech and incitement will determine the tone of the forthcoming campaigns, and probably the aftermath of the next General Election.
All arms of government, therefore, need to be vigilant and initiate a culture of operant conditioning of all citizens if we hope to gradually eliminate this atavistic behaviour.
Dr Lukoye Atwoli is Secretary, Kenya Psychiatric Association and Senior Lecturer, Moi University School of Medicine [email protected]; twitter @LukoyeAtwoli