Senator Eme Ufot Ekaette, Chairperson of the Senate's Committee on Women and Youth, is a brave woman for showing so much tough love to our young people whose unconventional clothing seem a bit unsettling, to say the least.
No one should doubt that her bill on indecent dressing currently making the rounds in the National Assembly is aimed at taking another bite out of our "moral decadence." Her intention is noble.
I do not agree with some cynics that the moral rhetoric of the bill and its oblique religious zealotry is a dangerous cover for senate's inaction on the legion of more important problems facing this multicultural country. Few would disagree, for example, that our 20-somethings and teenagers (girls and boys) should be comely and respectful in their appearance wherever.
Yet, whether we should enact a national law of youth homogenisation is another matter altogether. Some fear that it may be a first step toward the nationalization of a conformist culture, the worst enemy of creativity, innovation and development. I share in this fear.
Allowing self-expression is an important measure of societal tolerance, a necessary condition for attracting and unleashing the creativity of young people. The extent to which a state allows its citizens free expression, fashion being one example, is an indication of tolerance for diversity. For the development of new ideas, diverse societies trump monolithic ones every time. In their dressing (which is nothing but surface appearance), some of our youths may choose to look conventional, hipster, bohemian, eccentric, geek, or goth. Let them all be. Self-expression makes the spirit soar and our economy may be the better for it.
This we know from a new sociological theory of economic growth that's making waves now in the United States. In his book, The Rise of the Creative Class, Prof. Richard Florida of Carnegie Mellon University notes that American cities that respect diversity and the individual's free expression are the most competitive in the twenty-first-century knowledge economy. As a result, many American cities are fast introducing progressive social legislations and shading stuffy old images of conservatism to attract young "creatives" that constitute the power house of the knowledge economy.
Nigeria, despite its empty claim that it will be one of the top 20 economies in the near future is doing very little to promote knowledge economy. For any country to be in the frontline of the world economy, it must have policies in place to increase knowledge among its citizenry. But even as our schools are falling flat in their faces, our law-makers are worrying about what is on the body of our youths rather than what is in their heads.
A knowledge economy is one in which the most important factor of production is knowledge rather than land and labour, capital and tools. Currently, the economies of the most developed countries are knowledge-based while ours is still mired in King Oil, feverishly drilled with borrowed knowledge. Meanwhile, we are busy worrying about the hanging boobs of our youth rather than the quality of their education.
According to Britain's Department of Trade and Industry, "A knowledge-driven economy is one in which the generation and exploitation of knowledge play the predominant part in the creation of wealth." Who among us can truly say that this definition is applicable to Nigeria of today? Modern technology and the knowledge in which it is founded are the main drivers of production in the world's top twenty economies today. And that knowledge has pretty little to do with long gowns and veils.
The Rise of the Creative Class argues that young people are at the forefront of knowledge-driven economic growth in the United States, the same country that has produced the MTV culture that is defining the go-go dressing choices of our youth.
As Florida has noted, even within the United States, the cities that have more tolerant cultures are the most economically advanced. The vanguard of the knowledge economy, such as San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Austin and Chicago are cities where young people feel at home and free to express themselves. To a greater extent, these cities have a culture of tolerance and open-mindedness than many cities in the Deep South and other places still trapped in conservatism, intolerance and relative underdevelopment.
According to Florida, the creative class spans all professions, including computer programmers and mathematicians, dancers and singers, writers and actors, academics and architects, teachers and sculptors, journalists and scientists, painters and graphic designers, poets and other right-brain creatives. They are all said to be noted for self-definition by gutsy development of new products from their minds and souls and making same available for the rest of us to enjoy.
Consider Nollywood, are not our offensively dressed youths the creators of this boon to our international image?
This piece was first posted on BusinessDay on July 14,2008