Six years ago, when bilateral and multilateral donors, representatives from the UN system, local NGOs and other humanitarian actors met weekly to share concerns and situational awareness over the war and human displacement, I was invited to address them at one of their meetings. I started in a novel fashion, by saying aloud the worst expletives imaginable. I then stopped, and looked around. As expected, there were looks of utter surprise, dismay and shock. After a minute of pin drop silence, punctuated only by uneasy shuffles in seats, I noted that “language is a funny beast – we abhor the use of cuss words, yet we rarely flinch when we speak, hear, see or write of thousands of IDPs starving, denied humanitarian aid, without food, shelter or water, with their children abducted, suffering agony and trauma of a magnitude that is incomprehensible – yet real.”
At the time, Sri Lanka’s war was on going, and even greater horrors lay ahead in the years to come. But even post-war, the central thrust of my submission stands – we are more easily offended by common expletives and the behaviour of couples in public parks than the violent language of Mervyn Silva in public, the deracination of identity and dignity when an official SMS from the President’s office is sent only in Sinhala and English or the outright hate speech against human rights activists on public TV and radio. Government promises and pronouncements are taken as gospel, or at worst, with apathy, yet courageous submissions based on real concerns over Sri Lanka’s post-war human rights situation in local and international fora inflame and incense.
Why is this?
Most of us justify, in our minds as well as in public, hate speech against human rights activists because we are convinced they have brought it upon themselves. Most of us don’t bother enough to actively listen to, read and engage with what government or for that matter, civil society says. We increasingly consume, but don’t critique. It appears we don’t know how. A key reason is our education and pedagogy, at secondary as well as tertiary levels in particular. Schools and universities in Sri Lanka teach only to passively receive ideas, genuflect to age (i.e. grey hair), mindlessly remember and carelessly regurgitate. While adult literacy is very high in Sri Lanka, the majority don’t know how to actively listen, mindfully reflect and robustly critique. This impacts what we produce, and how we perceive.
Take any mainstream TV talk or morning show. Listen to our radio DJ’s and their blithe ignorance. Read any editorial of any mainstream newspaper. Recognise the mass appeal of high-society lifestyle magazines and supplements. Look at Channel C on cable. Observe the difference in quality between a Giraya, Gamperaliya, Charitha Thunak, Ella Langa Wallauwa, or Kadulla of yesteryear and the Sinhala teledramas on any channel today. Look at the kind of theatre that fills the seats at the Wendt, and the serious plays that often struggle to. Look at our ads, our mainstream journalism, our culture of arts and book reviews, the nature of biographies and whom they are on, the idiom of op-eds. Take our re-naming of main roads in Colombo, and the naming of statues and buildings we are erecting. Read the Hansard today, and compare it to the quality of debates in Parliament a few decades ago.
Aside from the under-reported physical violence that continues in the North and East of Sri Lanka against Tamils, there is a deep violence in what the majority support, produce and consume. This violence is one of expression, exclusion, marginalisation, dumbing down, stereotyping and pandering to the basest nature in order to appeal to the widest audience. Banality is the new black. A retrogressive Sinhala-Buddhist monocultural lens, and worse, regime worship as a new cultural theism infuses most of what we read, see and hear. The real violence inherent in the resulting cultural, political and societal fabric is not one many see, or even wish to see.
Six years on from that speech I made, the guns are silent. But I wonder if Sri Lanka is any less violent.
Published in The Nation print edition on 24 June 2012