An Axe That Breaks Down: YG’S Diagnostic Fallacy

Don’t invent Suffering you have never experienced, and don’t paint Pictures you have never seen

Franz Kafka was quoted by the crusading noble laureate for literature, Nadine Gordimer, calling literature as “an ax to break up the frozen sea within us.” Writers and authors have the ability to break taboos within a society – against the cult leaders who incite the forbidden desire of others to awaken, and the ambivalent conflict in them. The taboo leaders are always guarded against anyone who questions their wisdom, leaderships, and every conceivable danger for their great importance to the weal and woe of their subjects. In other words, writers break the complicate and contradictory relationship between the cult leaders and their followers.

In our case, the culture of “Nehna Nsu, Nsu Nehna”– the relationship between the despot and his followers (the reversible relationship bond between the two) who adorns him and worship his leadership, is a subject of investigation for our writers and philosophers — in order to find the logical connections and explanations between Isaias and his subjects on the one hand, and the recurring state of ambivalence of the opposition camp in general, on the other. It was in light of this basic conceptual idea that we were debating Dejen’s “heroism and ambivalence” as a microcosm expression of the political malaise of our society as a whole. But before I continue my argument on the subject, I will share a short story about how I had a poor understanding of literature.

I was a student of life science and things related to it, but I was never been a student of literature. I wasn’t comfortable with subjects that don’t lead to concrete and tangible result right in front of your eyes. My earlier rationale was, if people reads sciences, economics, anthropology, history, etc, they will be good in literature. I become aware about the value of literature when I started to write articles. I found it to be another world in itself.

Though I was active in Eritrean politics, I will give a big credit to Dr. Ogbazghi Yohannes who somehow, from far, influenced me (not directly but indirectly) to swim in the writing world and channel my political views to my fellow Eritreans. My first article was “The Quest for Democracy: Silenced Intellectuals Started to Speak out,” in response to his article “Lessons Still Unlearned,” supporting his call for government of National Unity. I have never met the good doctor though I shared this story with him through e-mails and telephone. So, I am catching up reading literatures in my late age. Nothing is too late if there is a will. Literature surely broadens your imagination in all forms and styles. Literature explains the experience and the imagination of the new world. In fact Thomas Jefferson reminded us that reading fictions will result in “a bloated imagination.”

Therefore, in this essay, I will argue (a) on the role of writers and authors in brief and how world renowned literary figures could relate to our current issues, (b) on YG’s socio-psychological diagnostic fallacy, in detail. In the former I will try to look at the moral and ethics of our writers and their responsibilities to our societies. On the later I will try to uncover the diagnostic fallacy of YG on the Socio-psychological condition of the Eritrean mind, and his diagnostic reasoning without data, as argued in his last article titled, “Dejen’s Syndrome: The contradiction of Eritrean minds”.

Social Responsibilities Of Writers

Writers have the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of errors. They should uplift people, not lower them down. Writers should not merely reflect and interpret life, but they should inform and shape life [1]. Henceforth, those of us who are attempting to write is with the aim of uplifting the moral of our society, to unite, not to disintegrate, to harmonize, not to create disarray, to seek justice, not to resist justice.

David Boles also saw the role of writers in another perspective. He argued that the role of writers is to check the value and cultural norms of a given society; they question authorities and always pose thoughts, engender conflict and thrive in controversy [2]. So, writers and authors are thought and opinion makers who have the ability to discover how taboos and emotional ambivalence coexist, and how individuals could have both negative and positive feeling towards the same person, object, or action for that matter, at the same time. In other words, writers could discover the simultaneously driving factors in opposite direction of a person or an individual.

My argument will start with, that there is a need to look and recognize some unpleasant truths about ourselves as individuals and as a society. It behooves us to do self-examination and need to shake our foundation. We need to seek an understanding as to why we are where we are, and where we are heading, and therefore be able to formulate an exit strategy from where we are. Like Maxine Greene, we have to delve into the “really hard questions, the unanswerable questions” [3] that seems in front of us. The real hard questions should aim at making us wide-awake in the search for truth, generate inquiry to our imaginative mind, to address the deficiency of our society with the desire to collectively repair what is possible and within our reach. Once that happens, there will be a new beginning and new actions to undertake in our struggle for justice.

Historically, Russian authors and writers are known as prominent commentators on society and politics since the Decemberist revolution of 1825. That tradition still continues today with figures like Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Malaev-Babel. In fact, Alexander Pushkin as an aristocratic writer was the first literary figure to establish “writing as profession”. He wrote on literary periodicals in defense Of Tsar Nicholas-I and also in support of Decemberists’ ideals of freedom – a clear conflicting ideas in one individual mind. In Modern Psychology we call it “Ambivalence.” Another writer/author worth of mentioning, is Anton Chekhov who was regarded as a moral compass, by which the generations of Russians measured their lives against. Chekhov wrote a book titled “The Islands of Sakhalin.” He performed a census and interviews, and treated thousands of political prisoners and settlers over the course of three months. Russian society was confronted with their first exposure of the terrible living condition (similar to ours) and treatment of prisoners and settlers of the island [4]. I will use these two preeminent figures from the Russian literary society later on to argue on “ambivalence” on the one hand and the importance of meticulous researches to study the ailment of our society on the other.

Implicit and explicit critique

According to Greene’s existential view, the world doesn’t swirl around us, but the knower as a person exist in concrete situation seeing the world from that vantage point [5]. Writers are informal educators, and from their vantage point could either inform and persuade, or inform and entertain, or persuade and entertain the public at large. Most writers are functionalist by nature. Functionalists assume that society consist of actors who fulfill specific roles that support the survival of the whole society [6]. So writers of all color and stripes as part of the functionalist actors do write to inform, educate, persuade and entertain for the survival of their society and their nation. In doing that they could support or oppose argument, could make implicit and explicit critique on political commentary, expose deficiency of substances on an argument, help on framing issues and messages, attack to distortions against established concepts.

In my view, Degen’s captivating narration couldn’t be exempted from implicit critique. Instead of critiquing his message line by line, we could give indirect critiquing by giving explanations to what ambivalence means, why human beings have inherent ambivalence, and how do we mitigate the signs of ambivalence. When we do that, we are also reminding ourselves to engage and resolve our conflicting ideas as a way to transform our thoughts and ideas. I believe Degen deserves that kind of critique.

Contrarily a well-argued literary document (essay) by YG should have faced a direct and explicit critique as needed. Because writers take enough time to frame their ideas and surely unless they are clumsy, should make some researches to support the premise of their ideas. YG has a solid belief on what he is saying and what he wants to achieve. So, without reserve, YG should be challenged rigorously and intellectually in a respectful manner, to expose the flaws of his ideas and the work of his project.

So YG’s explicit critique of the interview of Degen who doesn’t have a settled life yet, let alone be analyzed, his conflicting ideas are completely disingenuous. The worst thing is YG’s attempt to portray him as an experiment in order to extrapolate an argument to evaluate the minds of Eritrean people using wrong conceptual theory. However, there are various forms of ambivalence within the public as well as within the opposition camp. Unfortunately, the current ambivalence in our resistance camp has created a recurring oscillation between cynicism and idealism. As in “negative freedom” focusing on themselves and rest in the realm of isolation but never failed to make unsubstantiated argument. They pursue freedom of mistrust and distance from the rest of the society. They really failed to see the culture of violence of the regime and its institutional organizations.

Interestingly enough, in her book “the dialectic of freedom”, Maxine Greene reminded us that nothing is fully predictable or determined, but we ourselves [the writers] as the authors of miracle, it is we who perform them – and we who have the capacities to establish [new] reality of our own [7].

The Dialectics of thinking and the Law of Negation

The dialectics of thinking has its own moral and scientific values. Usually dialectical thinking allows us to see things from different perspectives to come to a reasonable resolution for contradictory views within our self or with other human beings. The law of negation was formulated by Hegel and its dialectical character clearly defines the role of continuity in development. In short, the law of negation of negation is considered as the law of development of nature, society, and thought. The new development (the law of thought) contains in itself the old concept, it contains more than the new idea alone, and it is the unity of the new and its opposites [8].

In the process of negation of negation, development takes in three stages (a) the original state of mind (b) its transformation in to its opposites (that is negation) (c) the transformation of opposites in to its own opposites [9]. Hence the development of thought is borne from the original state of mind. As the new idea emerges, it continues its transformation by the law of opposites and the unity of the old and the new to bring the qualitative changes in our thought.

Furthermore, if the law of unity and the struggle of opposites becomes the source of development and at the same time if the transition from quantitative change to qualitative change reveals the mechanism of development, then the law of negation of negation expresses the direction, form, and result of development [10].

Now the question is, did we read and observe in Degen’s interview the dialectical process in his thought. Yes indeed, we saw the unity of the new thought and its opposites – expressed in his ambivalence. The invisible influence of the past can be read, but yet there was transitory brightness in understanding the nature of the system and its cruelty when he explained the life in prison in our country.

YG have noticed precisely the conflict of thought in Degen. But as a student of philosophy, he should know more than anyone, that ambivalence is a condition seen in the process of “negation” or “negation of negation” that reveals the mechanism of development of thought, whereby the quantitative change of thought transforms to qualitative change of thought. Every human being who thinks and learns from the objective reality, one way or the other, shows ambivalence in his/her dynamic dialectical thought process. Therefore ambivalence is not a condition of pathology as YG tries to characterize it.

Unpacking the Dichotomy of Ambivalence

Hegel is known in the philosophy of history for his systematic inquiry in to the nature of reality. He called this systematic inquiry the dialectics (thesis, antithesis, and synthesis). In other words dialectical methods involve in the form of historical progress that result a conflicting ideas between the actual world and the future potential world. Apparently David Hume furthered Hegel’s systematic inquiry and argued that every thesis (idea) has an inherent antithesis within it. This means, in every thought process within a perceived idea, there are always inherent conflicting thought processes, most of the time in the form of dominant and recessive trait. Of course in some instances we observe vivid conflict that hasn’t resolved the unity of the truth from the conflicting ideas in the mind of the individuals. Hence we call it ambivalence. So ambivalence is neither a sin nor could it be an inherent tragic flaw. It is unresolved conflicting thought process. It always exists within us especially with thinkers and educators in filtering the truth and synthesizing the conflicting of the opposing truths.

YG’s recent article identified the “heroism and ambivalence” in Dejen’s well articulated consecutive interviews. However it has created much of emotional cacophony and squawking, than a thoughtful and intellectual argument against his conceptual approach. Actually this writer identified YG’s core message as “Dejen’s Heroism and Ambivalence” and the rest are feelers for his argument. YG’s philosophical inadequacy begins from the title of his essay “Degen’s Syndrome: The contradictions of Eritrean mind.” In his essay he explicitly argued that Dejen in particular and the Eritrean society in general have a complex of symptoms that define the existence of a disease or undesirable condition (a syndrome). According to YG (a) the contradiction of mind “Ambivalence” is a Syndrome (b) The Eritrean people are affected by the condition called “Dejen’s syndrome”. As always, YG derides conventional theoretical concept and goes to make his own theoretical construct. I will try to show his lack of theoretical concept as I continue by exposing his naturalistic fallacy.

Anyway, why did the “bold heroic” Dejen show ambivalence? Aside from the aforementioned, the inherent existence of ambivalence within each of us in our thought process, be it in recessive or dominant trait, Dejen has one big factor that put him in the state of ambivalence. The environment he grew up and the political doctrine in which he was cultivated (which is still his real world to him) versus the crimes that fell on him for fifteen years by the regime/system, which made him see new potential future Eritrea – both are conflicting in his thought process. As a result, he inevitably requires an ample time to sort out and reconcile it. Therefore, there is nothing wrong with Dejen the hero who broke the doors of his prison cell and freed himself. Once his passive rebellion transformed to active rebellion, his ambivalence will fade away, and he will know concretely that his enemy that is responsible for his imprisonment, and the state sponsored repression. I am optimistic that Degen will soon understand the ubiquitous layers of violence by the regime that will constitute the terrain upon which justice seekers navigate, on how to change the precarious existence of our people. Degen surely should come beyond inhibiting normative codes (the restrictions as social normative) that restrict the desire to live beyond the confine of restricting norms.

Ambivalence Isn’t A Syndrome

By virtue of its medical implication the word “syndrome” is approached by socio-psychological construct and requires rigorous and standardized of research. Of course diagnostic tests have their own structural and functional procedure that will objectify the various symptoms by providing diagnosis, based on concrete, factual, obvious, solid, objective, substantial assessment accompanied with data. Unfortunately, YG used the word “syndrome” for his political construct. According to his explanation, ambivalence is a syndrome, hence the title of his piece “Dejen’s Syndrome: The Contradiction of Eritrean Mind.”

YG’s departure to elaborate Dejen’s ambivalence as a syndrome was solely coined to fit his perceived idea in order to extend it to the Eritrean mind. His argument is conceptually wrong and philosophically flawed, right from his point of his departure. Ambivalence is a single symptom or signs of having contradictory view, or thought at the same time. The question to YG is: when did a single sign, or symptom become a syndrome? Syndrome is the multiple of symptoms that characterize a “Condition”. In other words, syndrome is a condition and ambivalence is a symptom. Therefore YG’s thesis is conceptually wrong and it derides conventionally accepted theory.

YG’s argument is hardly evident or cohesive to interpret ambivalence as syndrome or to try to find an apparent equivocation between ambivalence and syndrome. His argument was definitely and purposefully elliptical in nature. Each of YG’s essays do not stand by themselves to explain the particular topic (subject) he chooses to write about. Since he always tries to weave it with history of Ghedli, even the few of his essays which could be worth reading lose their message in the deep hate of Ghedli and his desire for union with Ethiopia.

YG has fallen into naturalistic fallacy which says, anything that happened in Ghedli will happen in the current situation of Eritrea, or anything that happened in the current Eritrea was the result of Ghedli, equating moral properties with natural properties. At least philosophically it isn’t always true.

Ambivalence: Pushkin Vs Degen

We saw both Alexander Pushkin and Degen showing ambivalence, this way or the other in their respective history. Pushkin was defending Tsar Nicholas-I while supporting the ideal of freedom of the Decemberist revolution. He was a preeminent writer for the Soviet establishment (the nobles) as well as for the dissidents. He was proud of his noble lineage while he was involving with the underground liberal revolutionary group.

Unlike Pushkin, Degen’s ambivalence was subtle–an invisible influence of the past. While he was disgusted by the unknown reasons of his imprisonment, he was still hoping, if somehow his appeal reaches to the desk of high ranking officials of the PFDJ that he will be free from the jail. This writer will agree with YG’s account on two things (a) he saw the “image of malevolent and benevolent” leadership coexisting in Degen’s mind, and (b) he saw ambivalence and an act of heroism coexisting on Degen’s actions and explanations. The problem with YG is, when the “state of discordant mind” as he put it, and what this writer prefer to call it “ambivalence of thought” boldly characterized it as “Degen’s Syndrome.” This writer is challenging YG to see any parallel between Degen’s ambivalence and the preeminent Russian poet/writer/author Alexander Pushkin as I have shown above. I wonder how YG will compare and contrast the ambivalence of the two notable figures in their own way within their respective societies and if he will characterize Pushkin’s ambivalence as “Pushkin’s Syndrome.”

Diagnostic Research: YG Vs. Chenkhov

In 1890 Chekhov visited the Russian Penal Colonies in Sakhalin Island. Sakhalin Island was known for the hard labor convicts confined there, and who once serve their sentence were never allowed go back to Russia [11]. Chekhov made a systematic survey of the Russian community in the island and compiled the demographic data of them. There were around 10,000 convicts and exiles living in the island (similar to the number of political prisoners in the current Eritrean prisons). He made quantitative data, social and economic analysis of the prisoners and exiles, and studied the horrendous prison conditions that illustrate the morbidity and mortality of the convicted prisoners in the island [12].

YG is undoubtedly one of our prominent writers Eritreans should be proud of. But his weakness he is always seen immersed or plunging himself into unstudied projects to make a political argument. Unlike Chekhov, YG has failed to make studies and researches to substantiate his argument.

Since YG was addressing the socio-psychological condition of Eritrean mind, a writer like me expects from him assessments of some basic diagnostic studies strictly based on symptoms (subjective experience) and signs (objective observation) to determine the diagnosis and prognosis of the condition that he called “Degen’s syndrome.” When we seek a diagnosis we also seek prognosis said Dr. Michael Cheikin. Because prognosis is a prediction of what is to come based on the knowledge. In short, diagnosis is a general pattern which exhibits extraordinary variability when it comes to the individual subject or group subjects. YG failed to show the structural and functional procedure of his diagnosis. Furthermore, his assessment is not even helpful to make conditional probability with its inverse probability to determine the conversion errors. YG doesn’t have any empirical data and methodological approach of study for his claim and his diagnostic reasoning are without data and doesn’t hold water.


I adore thinkers and philosophers who grease their mind with creative and critical thinking to shape new ideas and new perspectives. While thoughts need action for validation such as review of literature, data collections and statistics, then actions without quantitative and qualitative determination will not bring a correct diagnosis and results. YG’s “Degen’s syndrome” failed to follow a structured scientific research to validate his writing and determine the quantitative and qualitative determination of his result, “The Degen Syndrome.”

John Steinbeck in his speech upon receiving the Noble Prize in literature in 1962 had this to say: “In the endless war against weakness and despair, there are the bright rally-flag of hope and emulation.” YG and other writers should be reminded that there are many prominent writers they could emulate and fight their weaknesses. Pushkin and chekhov are some of the many we could emulate.

Certainly, our explosive forces of knowledge should be creative for good with choices governed by conscience and sound judgments. The failure and the glory and the choices rests on us. The test of responsibilities and the success on what we do is right on our hand also. Can we prevail? Anything we do should be for no rhyme or reason other than to give hope, courage and peace of mind to our people. And we shouldn’t indulge with unforced errors by thrusting ourselves into unfamiliar territories to our knowledge. Does Degen’s ambivalence give YG a kind of schadenfreude? I will leave that to my readers to make up their mind.


[1] E .B. White, “On Paris review interview,” 1969
[2] David Boles, “The role of writers in society”, Feb 29, 2008
[3] Greene, Maxine “The dialectic of freedom”, May 1, 1988
[4] Joseph Dresen, “Chekhov: The role of authors in Russian society” Kennan   institute, Oct, 2007.
[5] Greene, Maxine, “Releasing imagination: Essay on education, arts, and social change”, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass Publisher, 1995
[6] Baumgartner L. M. “Fundamental theory and set of assumptions”, Columbus, Oh, information series No 392, 2003 pp – 2, Ohio State University.
[7] Ibid (the dialectic of freedom by Greene).
[8] G. Hegel, Soch. Vol-6, Moscow, 1939, pp= 309-310
[9] G. Hegel, soch. Vol-5, Moscow, 1937, pp – 33
[10] Ibid (Soch, vol-5, Moscow, 1937).
[11] Andrew, Dawson “Chasm of sorrow: Anton chekhov and Sakhalin, 2012.
[12] Book review, “Chekhov, Anton, P: A Journey to Sakhalin”, appeared in poetry nation review, Manchester, 1994.


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