The dying vineyards of youthful debate

Intelligentsia is often collectively defined by age. This is especially evident in Sri Lanka where such an understanding seamlessly dovetails into the cult of seniority where wisdom and the relevance of one’s intellectual contribution to the zeitgeist of Sri Lanka is assumed to be congruent with the accrual of grey hairs, an unsteady gait, long pauses and self-adulatory writing to imagined audiences which I have earlier called the onanism of the intellectual effete.

The knee jerk response that I received to this from a different quarter to my intended interlocutor was the suggestion that “the debate has to be conducted with more civility and the age of (the) septuagenarian… should has to be given all due respect according to the oriental and Buddhist culture of respecting the elders and revulsive usage of words such as ”onanism,“ ”effete“ and similar expression has to be avoided in the future”.

The author submits that this sentiment is a sign of a rather unhealthy society, which cannot countenance arguments that question the status quo, which is deeply uncomfortable with challenges to the exalted status of erstwhile thinkers of yesteryear and is intolerant or deeply patronising of opinions coming from a younger generation of thinkers who vociferously challenge the old ways in favour of a radical overhaul of polity and society that needs to fuel the fire of transformation from conflict to sustainable and just peace.

The ensuing email exchange to the comments above with the Editor of a widely read internet news website served to catalyse some thoughts on the generational and ideas divide that throttles the generation of new and innovative opinions on the problems that bedevil Sri Lanka today. The exchange was illuminating on a number of counts – the inherent conservatism and thinly veiled bias of media (including online media) and its leanings towards the old guard, the pyrrhic justifications used to cover an inability to encourage lively debate in the service of new constructs to under-gird a more peaceful society in Sri Lanka, a myopic vision that stifles all creative thinking and above all, the belief that it is in the hands of septuagenarians that the future of Sri Lanka lies in.

The author strongly contests all these points.

It is the tragedy of our culture that intellectual cowardice and empty arguments are often couched beneath an ostensibly untouchable shield of seniority. Cogent and compelling arguments that define our shared reality do not necessarily mature in the vineyards of time. A culture that respects and celebrates wisdom is a weathervane of a mature society. However, if by extension this same culture is unappreciative and indolent to new thinking championed by those who, by virtue of their youth, upbringing, social position, geo-physical location, gender or education have a different worldview, it needs to be immediately ousted in favour of a more progressive culture that actively promotes debate that challenges ideas paraded by those who can no longer cogently describe or analyse contemporary societal processes.

There is also something quite hypocritical of a stance that panders to age over the reasoned argument. While it is unquestioningly accepted that septuagenarians can in the service of their vacuous diatribes indulge in venomous personal attacks, it is on the other hand considered impudent of anyone over a decade younger than them to use the same language, perhaps with more panache and style, to defend themselves & their ideas. This spurious logic cannot be defended in the larger project of eschewing fatigued ideas in favour of radical and innovative thinking that continually pushes the horizons of the art-of-the-possible.

If there is any fate worse than an untimely death, it is to grow into irrelevance. If there is a fate worse than irrelevance, it is the damning inability of the l’ancienne regime to realise the peripheral nature of their arguments to contemporary debates. This unwillingness, inability or a corrosive mixture of both strangles the writing of many intellectuals in Sri Lanka, who endeavour to prevent the rightful contestation of their exalted status in society.

This then is an attempt at a short treatise to engender a radical revision in our culture that actively marginalises those who cannot enliven their writing with a demonstrable ability to grapple with radical contestations of history and theory by those who are considerably younger than themselves. Designing the contours of a Sri Lankan society that eschews violence and promotes a disdain for armed conflict cannot be left to those who will depart this corporeal existence in a few years. The slight cruelty of marginalising them has to be weighed against the larger wastefulness of actions that if based on their antiquated vision, may well sow the seeds of discontent and violent systemic upheaval in the future, affecting our own lives and those of our progeny than their own.

With equal fervour, we must embrace all thinking which is able to display wisdom, maturity and above all, a wit that transcends age. If as Aeschylus said memory is the mother of all wisdom, we fully recognise that the collective memory and experience of past generations contains much that is useful in constructing the social fabric of the future. It is also acknowledged that enmeshed in the wisdom of the ancients lie valuable lessons for the creation of social structures that effectively prevent armed conflict in the future.

The task then is two fold. One the one hand, it is incumbent upon new voices to actively listen, acknowledge and respond to the lessons of the past. On the other hand, it is the responsibility of those who represent the corpus of past experience to infuse present day debate with the distillation of their accrued experiences in a constructive manner. Any attempt to patronise or belittle the emergence and expression of new ideas must be met with an equally passionate appeal against such logic.

Word for word, this thrust and parry of wit must be conducted in an overarching spirit of mutual respect for the ideas of one another. However, it cannot, by extension, be conducted in spirit which is lop-sided, where reverence to age is used as a shield by those who brandish it against a deep and meaningful contest of ideas. The challenge, as ever, is to construct futures that use the lessons of the past to create more equitable and just frameworks to meet the aspirations of all communities.

These challenges cannot be met with those who do not believe that new voices of youth and their input into peacebuilding and the terribly ossified debates on nationalism, religion, multiculturalism, power sharing et al can be easily dismissed or patronisingly tolerated. Conversely, new voices need to fully acknowledge that youthful hubris must never take the place of active and sustained engagements with what might well be ideas well past their expiration date, in the hope of transforming such discourse into debates that are lively and more resonant with the aspirations of those who do not identify with ideas and thinking of yesteryear.

In sum, this treatise was not a feeble appeal to seriously consider new voices, but an austere warning that ignoring or marginalising them with a view to protecting geriatric intellectualism is a self-defeating activity that runs the risk of agitating those who are determined to make their opinions heard in constructive dialogues that represent the hope of transforming violent conflict into just and sustainable peace.

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