The thing is, you can’t browbeat Sinha-le, the BBS, Sihala Ravaya or the likes of Udaya Gammanpila. In recent weeks, opposition to racism has condemned those who promote divisive, inflammatory ideas and content. The PM threatened certain journalists and media institutions, and then threatened to take action against websites that promote racism. The President scoffed at Sinha-le proponents, saying they are unworthy of his attention. The Foreign Minister called certain groups ‘neo-fascists’ and ‘misguided Sinhalese Buddhists’ for opposing closer ties with India. Them be fighting words. But do they have the intended effect of engaging those who genuinely believe in illiberal individuals, institutions, social movements or religious doctrines to re-assess their beliefs? Does it strengthen a moderate centre, the so-called and ever elusive ‘silent majority’, or does it inadvertently only strengthen the very forces being condemned? How really can one challenge extremism, if by addressing it, one invariably promotes to a greater audience precisely that which is critiqued?
Countering violence extremism isn’t an exact science, and counter-intuitively, is best done by examining closely what is done by who we hate the most. Take the Rajapaksa family. Their ability to generate empathy, despite everything they’ve done to eviscerate democracy, flies in the face of reason and logic. A single tearful photo is able to generate enough support to gloss over the reasons for an arrest done by the book. The gross misuse of State funds to fund a son’s education – recorded not by some NGO or foreign agent, but in our Parliament – is glossed over in an outpouring of outrage over incarceration. Fraternal incantations on social media around the dangers of stepping on the tails of Lion’s generate likes by the hundreds. A martyr is crafted. A movement is born.
The Rajapaksa’s gifts to the nation were harbours, highways and airports. The real cost of these projects was hidden, but the public were able to experience what they did. Infrastructure was seen, the corruption and waste was not. The Rajapaksa’s appeal was and is primarily emotional. They made a majority in the South feel good. In concert, manic monks who once enjoyed the limelight, possibly now scared of being outshone by more recent racist well-springs, buoyed by meeting the President, mouth off in court, get arrested and generate heightened attention around what was in the past year dormant extremism. So too the beautifully crafted Sinha-le logo, which fills a void, inhabited by fear. The absence of a broad, plural national identity is infested instead by exclusive, communal markers. The sticker symbolises insecurities of a community projected as pride, something to feel good about when in the popular imagination, the community perceives itself as being under siege.
Racism in Sri Lanka is somehow the new rational, and it is the opposition to extremism that is seen as unwarranted. Logic and reason, appealing in other words to the intellect pale into insignificance when in competition with how communities feel. It’s a simple fact often overlooked – emotion drives reaction; the intellect informs response. Here is the reason why charisma and charm will win votes in a way cold statistics, no matter how factual, will not. This is also why outright condemnation of racism as it is manifest in Sri Lanka today doesn’t make the cut, and may actually serve to strengthen it. Emotions can’t be replaced by the force of reason alone. Marketers and advertisers know this only too well – the heart most often rules over the mind.
What today the President dismisses, the PM condemns and the Foreign Minister calls out are manifestations of a larger, deeper issue with the Sinhalese, who renowned Harvard anthropologist Stanley Tambiah called a “majority with a minority complex”. Instead of a multi-pronged, multi-lingual, strategic nationalist project to address economic disempowerment, real fears around India’s unfettered access to our economy, deep-seated concerns around how proposed transitional justice mechanisms agreed to in Geneva will impact the tens of thousands of lives dependent on, directly or indirectly, the Ministry of Defence or for example a concerted effort to use the dhamma itself against the bigotry of monks, the government will not shift hearts captured by campaigns, brands, institutions and individuals who capitalise on fear and uncertainty. On one level, appealing to and stoking communal fear is easier than crafting an appealing counter-nationalism that speaks to those already disenchanted with government. On the other hand, it isn’t impossible. The trick is to choose the right speaker, carefully select the most compelling media, use emotive language, tailor the expression and produce gripping images. Speakers can come from sports, popular culture and the arts. Media can range from mainstream to instant messaging, posters to flyers, stickers to wrist-bands. An emotive language would openly speak to key fears seriously and without derision, no matter how unfounded or bizarre, thereby compelling closed hearts to engage with the message. The expression would change depending on audience – a popular idiom for young adults, more sober reflections for those who are older, rap and verse to slang and wordplay. Images that appeal to a shared humanity, reflecting key public officials in unguarded moments, in a lighter vein and reflecting, by framing various subjects, the diversity in the country. In sum compelling content that doesn’t always set itself in opposition to something else and tries always to hammer home a point, but rather, inspires, engages, goes viral and over time, becomes embedded in the public consciousness and popular discourse.
This is also why the Prime Minister needs the President. Sirisena’s appeal, his brand if you will, is emotive, whereas Wickremesinghe’s projections are often, though factually sound, alienating, cold and delivered without any strategic consideration around tone or expression. Being smug in Parliament may win immediate partisan cheer, but isn’t any guarantee of wider, public appreciation or support over the longer term. The incumbent President’s brand is unique, and though of late without the same appeal as it had a year ago, still vital to communicate democratic and plural values.
The key to combatting Sinha-le and all manner of competing racisms isn’t only with outright condemnation. We need to erode what give them life by addressing the fear, distrust and ignorance deep within our communities. This isn’t just an intellectual or academic endeavour. Change happens when we feel and care enough about something. Facts and data have their place, but move the heart, and you move minds.
Published in The Sunday Island, 7 February 2016.