Abuja, Nigeria: “An empty vessel makes the loudest noise.”
I haven’t heard this expression in a while; that is until yesterday. While I was in a shop close to my house, two little girls were quarrelling or at least having a little war of words. They must have been about 10-12 years old. They were quite at it until one said in a quite decisive manner: “Keep talking, an empty vessel makes the loudest noise”. I turned around and watched them for a second, the girl who had been called an “empty vessel” practically wilted.
Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have noticed the words or her reaction to them, except that I could relate. The little girl had just been put in a box where she could no longer express herself without seeming to be noisy. It did not matter that her opinion was right or that her views were more valid than her opponent’s.
Growing up, I was a very bright student. I was not, however, merely the conventional geek who always had his nose buried in books. By a strange twist of fate, I was also both joker and clown. This made me quite popular amongst the students, “serious” and “unserious” alike. I could study like none, passed like none other, and joked like none other.
This, unfortunately, didn’t go down well with my school teachers. In their opinion, I was simply too loud and always seen. A teacher in my primary school once demonstrated this to us using tin beverage cans. He placed them on a desk; one was empty and the other was filled with sand. He hit the one filled with sand with a stick and it made a muffled dignified noise and didn’t move. Nobody reacted. He then hit the empty can with the stick and everybody jumped. The noise was near deafening. We spent a few minutes laughing and making jokes about the noise and our reactions. After we had settled down, the teacher proudly declared to us that the empty tin made the most noise and that we should all strive to be full and quiet.
Thinking about it now, he never did point out to us precisely what it was we should endeavor to be filled with but that’s another matter.
What he failed to take into account was that as children, we preferred the empty can precisely because it made more noise. It was interesting, you could do a lot more with it. This epiphany came to me recently while watching my nephew play in the sand. He would pick up an empty tin, throw it up, catch it, bang on it, throw it at the wall; he was simply thrilled by the empty can. As soon as he filled it with sand, he got bored with it until he would realize that he could empty it out and go back to its joyous noisemaking. He did not want the silence; the noise was more entertaining.
We have been raised with the notion that brilliance is quiet and socially awkward. You only have to look at Silicon Valley where it is somehow accepted that those with brilliant minds are geeks and often socially inept. The likes of Richard Branson are often the exception, not the rule. We have come to associate brilliance with professors with thick unshaven white beards who stay in musty libraries. They are wise sages and their words are laced with so much wisdom that they seem to speak as little as possible.
Well, times have changed.
This is 2018, and noise is the medium of change. According to Internet Live Stats, 500 million posts are made on twitter daily. Reddit has over three hundred million active monthly users. These are compared to about two million academic papers produced annually. It certainly comes as no surprise that a young person seeking answers to certain academic questions is more likely to head to Quora than to an actual library. When you consider these factors, you may come to the realization that our next generation of thought leaders and think-tanks are more likely to have more active (social media) accounts than PhDs.
There is a popular joke in my country that the people who don’t post often on Instagram think they are mature. In reality, though, they are not. Those who post frequently, mature or not, go on to become the popular thought and opinion leaders.
There’s a saying often attributed to Mark Twain that goes something like this: “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” At a time when information, factual or otherwise, has the ability to go viral, these words have never been more relevant. They are the present reality and we have to face it. I have often read articles where social media influencers are referred to as vain and plastic and where the conspiracy theorists of Reddit are regarded as misfits and fanatics. What we often fail to admit mainly to ourselves is that these vain influencers, these crackpots and misfits are shouting at the tops of the mountains and people are listening.
Now I’m not suggesting that we all become liars and fanatics. No, far from it. What I advocate is that we make “the truth” (be it in the form of news reports, figures or research findings on climate change) as readily available and exciting as the billions of meaningless data that stream across our internet highways daily. I simply believe that in the era of “fake news” it is time for the “real news” to change tactics and for once choose travelling over putting on shoes. A mentor of mine has told me more times than I can count that one cannot be right and weak at the same time. Edmund Burke once said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. We see this today as more and more intellectuals retreat to their quarters of silence in order that they not be tagged noisemakers.
The battle for the future is not being fought in libraries and laboratories. Not anymore. It is being fought on social media, in our workplaces, and every time we come face to face with cretinism. It is not just fought with essays and theories anymore, it is also being fought with tweets and viral memes. By calling out on policies that threaten the very foundation of human living in our countries and by proclaiming our truths off mountaintops.
Dear intellectuals, it is time to post, it is time to tag. It is time to be vain. It is time to be radicals.
Our very future might just depend on it.