“Men are so necessarily mad, that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness.”
This is the opening line of the preface to Michel Foucault’s classic study, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Foucault, a French intellectual historian, was easily the most important revolutionary thinker of the last century.
In this seminar study of the ‘birth’ of madness in the modern era, Foucault skillfully unearthed the ways in which madness and unreason were historically produced at the dawn of the modern era in Europe.
The labeling of some individuals in society as mad can be traced to a very recent period in human history. Somewhere between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, leprosy mysteriously started disappearing from England and France, and Europe generally. Ergo, the segregation and stigma bestowed on leprosy, was quickly transferred to madness and insanity. The age-old fate of lepers found a new category: madness.
The modern era is supposedly an age of reason and progress, and madness is constructed as the antidote of this distinct attribute of the human being. But in a series of path-breaking studies, Foucault was able to demonstrate that the age of reason is in fact an era underpinned by a set of institutions that produce a specific type of human being.
This human being is programmed to behave in a certain way such that to behave otherwise is construed as abnormal, as mad. Among the key institutions of the modern age that construct our thinking and program our minds include schools, prisons, hospitals, and mental clinics.
These are institutions that discipline and punish the modern human body. It is through these institutions that human beings are created, but it is also through them that the knowledge that structures our lives is produced.
Foucault made a very powerful observation in that respect, noting that there is a deep affinity between the exercise of power and the production of knowledge. It is not that knowledge is power, as we are made to believe, according to a widely repeated refrain; rather, it is that power is knowledge.
Whoever has power frames what passes as true, produces the ideas we imbibe, and disseminates the knowledge we consume. The exercise of power also determines what becomes socially acceptable behavior and normal conduct.
These excurses through Michel Foucault can help us make sense of the controversy regarding Makerere University scholar, Stella Nyanzi. One would have well predicted that her intrepid stance against the authoritarian regime of General Museveni would quickly earn her the label of a mad woman.
It is also the case that in a country of gross pretense and moral paternalism, Nyanzi had to be seen as crazy on account of her creative deployment of vulgar language.
Many of us, Ugandans, are utterly unaware of the genre of subversive scholarship, used widely, that employs vulgar imagery and obscene narratives to challenge oppressive politics and strip the garb of the powerful. So, we have been quick to rail against what we consider abnormal and unconventional.
The easiest and arguably most effective way of countering a fierce critic is to issue the canard of madness. It has the power of deflating the critic and discrediting the criticisms.
Being labeled mad delivers social stigma to the person and trivializes the ideas raised. But it is a cowardly use of state power, to cow and silence, to denigrate the individual and diffuse the possible wider influence on society.
The mounting social problems and economic distress in this country have built up a powder keg of a nation that can easily erupt. If left to her devices, the ever-paranoid NRM regime believes a ‘mad woman’ could well push the wheels of eruption. So, she has to be labeled mad, incarcerated, and humiliated. Worse is likely to happen to her. We don’t know.
But at its core, Stella Nyanzi’s project is a struggle against injustice and misrule. She, in the past, mustered the uncanny courage of challenging the director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research, Mahmood Mamdani.
Mamdani is blindly revered by many Ugandans, including senior editors of Uganda’s leading newspapers. But the man’s excesses and inadequacies were stripped bare by Nyanzi, drawing on unconventional tactics and the weapons of the weak.
In the wake of Nyanzi’s April 2016 nude protest against Mamdani’s unjust treatment and irregular use of his power as director, the university appointments board exposed itself as both supine and incompetent, failing to judiciously inquire into the evidently genuine grievances against Mamdani and, instead, granting a clean bill based on a ludicrous inquiry.
And most recently, the chairperson of the appointments board issued an outrageous letter purporting to suspend Nyanzi. Nyanzi’s has ultimately run afoul of the Ugandan state under Museveni for precisely the same reasons as her troubles at Makerere.
One can draw some parallels between Museveni and Mamdani, two individuals who love power and like to bully, who are averse to criticism and love to be revered, who thrive under personalism and informality at the expense of institutionalized management of public matters. That one got Nyanzi suspended from her job and the other got her to prison is no mere coincidence.
The author teaches at the department of Political Science, Northwestern University, Evanston/Chicago, USA.