Liberia: A Rudderless, Disintegrating Society in Free Fall

By Benjamin L. Harris

In October of this year, Mr. Laurent Delahousse, the Head of the European Union Mission in Liberia, a high-level diplomat, made a stunningly shocking and extremely derogatory and condescending comment about Monrovia. “Monrovia is a disgusting city,” he said, “it is a dirty city. Of all the capitals I have seen in my previous posts in Africa, I have not seen one that is as dirty as yours.”

As a Liberian, I felt insulted by this statement and experienced a sense of shame and humiliation. The statement almost brought tears to my eyes. I was, however, not angered by the statement because I know it to be true. I too have traveled in many parts of the world, including many African countries, and I too have never seen a city as filthy and dirty as Monrovia.

In 2010 I wrote an article which was published in the Daily Observer. It was entitled Filthiness a Learned Behavior. The first paragraph of that article read as follows:

Our capital city Monrovia is rapidly attaining the unenviable status of being the filthiest and most disorganized capital city of the World. It has become a city where just about anything goes

In that article, I argued from a psycho-sociological perspective, that filthiness, like most behaviors, is the result of conditioning, a process of learning. Liberians have become conditioned to live in squalor and disorganization. Children are growing up knowing nothing else around them but filth and a chaotic environment. They are learning from adults that a dirty environment is normal and there’s no point in sprucing up our surroundings. THEY ARE LEARNING TO BE FILTHY!

Filthiness, however, is only a symptomatic manifestation of our disintegrating social milieu. The city is now even more disorganized, disordered, and chaotic. WE HAVE NO FUNCTIONING STANDARDS. It is said that if there are no standards, there is no limit to the level a society may fall. 

  • We drive in the opposite lane in both directions and when the traffic backs up, those who have labored in the approved lane, moving inch by inch, are stopped by the police so that the derelicts, including government officials, can move into the legal lanes. It has become a harrowing experience just driving in the city amid swarms of motorcyclists and unregulated traffic.
  • And vehicles are allowed by police to park in the turn lanes, obstructing the free flow of traffic. Signs are displayed near the beach saying “No Sand Mining Allowed” but block factories are fully functioning in the areas.
  • While a person who has never driven a vehicle may obtain a driver’s license by paying a few dollars.
  • Again, the entire city has become an open general market with peddlers, hawkers, wheelbarrow boys, market women, water cart pushers, all competing with vehicular traffic and pedestrians for the increasingly limited thoroughfares and sidewalks throughout the city.
  • Functioning toilets are a rarity, even in the seat of our legislature and it is overtly known that no legislative bill is passed without money being paid.

I could go on and on. Psychology teaches us that behavior is the result of the process of learning. Learning on the other hand is a complex process of conditioning whereby a number of environmental influences impact upon the human psyche leading to the development of specific patterns of behavior. These behaviors are resistant to change; they tend to be enduring. 

Our environment plays an extremely important role in not only what we learn, but also the attitudes we have and the behaviors we manifest. John B. Watson, an American Psychologist, was a strong proponent of the view that the manipulation of a person’s environment is essential to the developmental process of any individual. 

Anyone exposed to an introductory course in psychology will have read about Pavlov, a Russian Physiologist. Pavlov kept dogs in his experimental laboratory. He observed that every time food was brought for the dogs, they drooled or salivated as we all tend to do, albeit not conspicuously. He then performed an experiment in which he rang a bell at the same time food was brought to the dog. 

Pavlov later observed that even without food, whenever the bell was rung, the dogs salivated. The dogs had learned to salivate in response to the bell. This intrigued Pavlov because he had in effect taught the dog to respond physiologically to a stimulus which would normally not elicit such a response.

The psychologist Watson, referred to above, tried to take the process of learning a bit further. He wanted to show that one could teach a person to manifest complex emotional behaviors through manipulation of the environment. Watson found that a nine months old child, little Albert, was unafraid of white furry objects like rats, rabbits or cotton wool. 

Watson however combined the presentation of these objects to Albert, simultaneously with a very loud noise. After a while, Watson discovered that whenever he presented a white furry object to Albert, even without the noise, Albert became very afraid. Albert became conditioned to be afraid of white furry objects. He learned this behavior. Watson later said in one of his writings “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in, and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist – regardless of talent, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations and race of his ancestors”.

Martin Seligman is an American psychologist who performed an experiment similar to Pavlov’s dog experiment. However rather than pairing the presentation of food with the sound of a bell, he restrained the dog and applied a mild electrical shock simultaneously with the sound of a bell. 

Following the conditioning process, Seligman placed the dog in a cage with a low dividing wall separating the cage into two compartments. He then sounded the bell but to his amazement, the dog failed to jump over the dividing wall as expected. He became amazed at this finding. He repeated this, but still nothing! He then decided to shock the animal. Again, nothing happened. The dog did not jump over the dividing wall as expected, but rather sat quietly and whined. 

Seligman took the conditioned dog out of the cage and placed a normal dog in it. He then applied the electric shock to the dog and as expected, the dog quickly jumped over the low dividing wall to the other compartment of the cage. 

The results of the experiment intrigued and astounded Seligman. Rather than conditioning the dog to respond to the sound of the bell, the dog had been conditioned to become helpless. Seligman pondered as to the reason for this. He soon realized that like humans, the usual stimulus response mechanism does not necessarily hold true. 

The development of behavior is more complex. There exists an intervening variable – one’s feelings, thoughts, or attitudes. Seligman reasoned that the dog had developed an attitude of futility and frustration during the period it was restrained. It had learned that it was useless to move and so it sat without attempting to escape and endured the discomfort of the electrical shock. 

Attitudes are behavioral predispositions. Our attitude plays an important role in determining our behavior. Negative attitudes generate negative behaviors. People are bombarded with a wide variety of stimuli throughout their lives. Social learning theory asserts that a significant amount of what we learn is obtained by observation and modeling. “Children learn what they live.” Children who are beaten and maltreated by their parents tend to beat and maltreat their children when they grow up. Children brought up in an environment where mothers are subjected to physical and psychological abuse tend to do the same with their wives. Children brought up in a filthy, chaotic, and disorganized environment are likely to also manifest the relevant behaviors.

Monrovia is experiencing a rapid and unregulated urban influx of people. Concomitant with this influx is a high rate of unemployment, soaring levels of poverty, insufficient shelter, inadequate and deplorable sanitation, inadequate or contaminated water supplies, a pervasive and increasing drug abuse problem, serious environmental degradation, congested streets, and overloaded and dysfunctional public transportation systems. 

Our overcrowded, filthy, disorganized, unregulated, and chaotic surroundings present us with a fertile environment for the development of negative attitudes and negative behaviors of all kinds including urban violence. Sociologists have repeatedly documented that under-regulated or deregulated societies lead to erosion of social norms and the development of what is referred to as anomic violence – violence as a result of under-regulation with indifference to societal norms. 

Our situation is dire and calls for an immediate EMERGENCY response. It warrants the attention of the Executive, the Legislature, the City Authorities, the various local and international NGO’s and the UN agencies in the development of a coherent strategy to combat this potentially dangerous situation. An expatriate with whom I spoke remarked that people behave like it’s an entitlement to sit on your car, sell and litter the streets, walk before a moving vehicle, or erect a structure anywhere.

Definitive actions need to be taken now. The longer we wait, the more difficult will be the solution. As I said in a previous article on this subject, “The time for action is NOW.”