Gen Z revolution: Is age of deference to authority over?

Anti Finance Bill protesters in Kisumu on June 25, 2024. 

Photo credit: Alex Odhiambo | Nation Media Group

The recent shift in Kenya, sparked by the Generation Z-led anti-tax protests, appears to signify a pivotal shift in our societal attitudes toward authority, reminiscent of historical transformations seen in other nations.

During a recent highly publicised media event, three reporters took an unprecedented step by confronting the President of the Republic of Kenya with surprisingly direct and deeply rigourous questions.

The interaction, characterised by its tension and lack of traditional deference, mirrored the sentiments expressed widely across social media and public demonstrations. Young Kenyans, in particular, are increasingly vocal on platforms that allow them to challenge established norms and express dissatisfaction without the filters of respect and fear that previously governed such interactions.

Such a phenomenon is not unique to Kenya but reflects a broader global pattern where respect for authority is no longer taken for granted. Historical parallels can be drawn with the United Kingdom (UK), where the 1960s marked a significant cultural shift.

During this era, the British monarchy, once held beyond reproach, began to face public scrutiny and criticism. The change became part of a larger wave of cultural liberalisation that questioned traditional hierarchies and advocated for a more open and democratic dialogue concerning governance and public figures.

In Kenya, the recent confrontations and the manner of public discourse suggest a similar transformative period occurring here. The age of deference, characterised by unyielding respect for authority figures, seems to be diminishing. The shift is driven by the youth, who are demanding transparency and accountability from their leaders with such boldness in public forums with once unheard of critical tones of interactions. The trend has begun to underscore a significant change in the Kenyan public's relationship with governance.

Whether Kenya has reached its own watershed moment, akin to the UK's cultural shift in the 1960s, remains to be seen.

However, the current climate indicates a movement towards a more questioning and less deferential society. Such a change could lead to a new era in Kenyan politics, business, governance, communities, and even within families, where authority is not only respected when it is perceived to be accountable and just but is also openly questioned to uphold the standards of participation, transparency, and inclusion.

Several global studies may help shed light on what may transpire here in Kenya. Research summarised by Russell Dalton and Christian Welzel in The Civic Culture Transformed: From Allegiant to Assertive Citizens resonates profoundly with the current socio-political climate in Kenya.

As Kenyan citizens, particularly the youth, challenge traditional norms of deference towards authority, their actions align with the global trend towards an assertive model of citizenship.

The global transformation from allegiance to assertiveness, as detailed in the book, is characterised by an increasing distrust in political and business institutions and a readiness to place demands on business and political leaders.

The Kenyan protests and the audacious questioning of the President by reporters exemplify this shift towards a more confrontational and participatory civic engagement.

According to Dalton and Welzel’s findings, such a shift is indicative of a healthier democracy, suggesting that Kenya's current tumult could be a sign of democratic maturation, where citizens are no longer passive participants but active constructors of their political reality, demanding accountability and transparency from their leaders.

On the flip side, it could instead yield an era of open citizenry confrontation without satisfying unrealistic constituent demands.

Separately, Chuck Brymer's reflections in Welcome to the Age of Reference, Not Deference also relates to our situation in Kenya at the moment.

The traditional top-down approach, where authority figures and institutions dictated societal norms and expectations with little question, is giving way to a more democratic and participatory form of engagement.

In Kenya, our evolution is evident as citizens increasingly question authority and demand more transparency and accountability from their leaders.

Could it instill a new Kenyan paradigm, where deference is replaced by reference? If so, it suggests a growing maturity in democratic engagement and a move towards a more assertive citizenry or we could slide into hypersensitivity of consumers and the electorate not fit to collaborate or get along on any topic with wildly changing demands with no solutions possibly to placate everyone.

Academics and commentators in the coming weeks and months ahead will try to conduct statistical analysis to predict which direction our great nation may or may not take in the months and years ahead.

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