What is the line in the sand? How is it drawn and by whom? What happens if I cross it? Is the line this week the same as it will be next week? What are the words I can and cannot use? What are the triggers and metaphors that pass muster, and if they do one week, is it a guarantee of use in the weeks to come? How will words used be perceived, independent of intent? And perceived in whatever manner by the powers above, below or beyond, how will they be acted upon? Will instructions be given, or will those close to pulsating power take matters into their own hands, secure in the knowledge of impunity and protection even if dark deeds are discovered? Do I go silent and be counted, by others, into the ranks of those who are more directly under threat and fear for their lives? How do I maintain a necessary distance from well-meaning international media who don’t understand the challenging space for dissent since the 16th, negotiated daily with awful familiarity for some, in so many ways, visible and invisible? It is easy for them to write stridently, yet harder for Sri Lankan subjects to be in a story while resident in the country. The distinction of wanting to share a story, and not wanting to be the story, is often lost. In the continuation of my column, will others see a different kind of capitulation – a more restrained, self-censored version of your author, writing for the sake of being published, instead of bearing witness to what matters, how it must be framed? Is it better to just stop writing entirely, knowing full well that doing so allows louder narratives with far weaker substance occupy the vacuum left by more critical writing? Is it ego and a futile obduracy that fuels critical dissent under authoritarianism, when every sinew of society and polity recommends retreat or retraction? Do the few remaining who capture inconvenient truths, who given dwindling numbers, incessant ridicule and violent pushback are tolerated and even possibly celebrated by political authority, carry on by creating their own fiction about impact, import and legacy of writing? Does this writing matter at all – a question asked not to curry adulation, but as critical inquiry into the value of writing that, by design or accident, increasingly annoys and alienates readers for no other fault than focusing on a set of issues no one else is aware of and cares little about? If the proposed trajectory of the country is affirmed with a mandate of over six million, what role or relevance is there for a single citizen-columnist to question this power and its interpretation as the elected see fit?
In a note penned a few days ago capturing the current political context from the lens of my doctoral research into social media, I noted that the Rajapaksa Regime 2.0’s unparalleled capability of seeding, shaping and spreading narratives will largely ensure dissent is forgotten quickly, even if its architects and authors are kept alive. The questions above are those I’ve grappled with this entire week. I’ve never sought payment for this column or given any. The writing is its own pleasure and reward. Every Thursday or Friday, with the exception of just three or four weeks over five years, I think about or sit down to write this column wherever in the world I am, and whatever I am in the midst of doing. Since early 2018, I used this column to translate my research in a form and frame fit for an audience very far removed from what I saw and studied. The Sunday Island readers are hostile – and from a writer, this is to varying degrees challenge, compliment and privilege.
The unconvinced and sceptical reader is a wonderful challenge that sharpens how best to communicate best ideas and discoveries important to place for public consideration. Hostility is a compliment because the worst enemy of a writer is, counter-intuitively, an uncritical readership. Constant and mindless adulation blunts critical reflection. This (and any) column is a privilege too. The opportunity to reach an important demographic contra-distinct to and disconnected from those more easily reached over social media is rare and offered to a select few. Every word must count, because newsprint is a precious and as a limited commodity, must not be wasted. This is why, even though often happily and inextricably entwined in digital media’s seed and spread, I love a newspaper in its original, printed form. The joy of writing for one outstrips, by far, any payment offered by the publisher. What we pen matters. And with this knowledge, comes the responsibility to push the envelope of public debate, risking truculent pushback to savour, in the fullness of time, the confession that one’s content had inspired the unlikeliest of individuals to see things differently, or disagree with reason. These are the deeply personal convictions and considerations that drive the writing readers, oblivious to all this, love to debate, decry or occasionally, agree with.
Yet today and since mid-November, there are other considerations. Does one risk everything for critical writing that invites violent pushback? When do personal rewards outweigh growing risk? The fatigue is real and already debilitating amongst many other writers and activists I’ve been in touch with since mid-November. The decision to stop writing also risks being captured or caricatured as self-censorship, which is an act of restraint or redaction anchored to distinct sources of fear. Driving other silences is anxiety – the inability to determine how, what, when or from where violent pushback will come. In 2009, writing in what was then a column in the Sunday Leader, I flagged a memorable passage from James Blinn’s compelling Gulf War novel ‘The Ardvaark goes to War’. In it the hero is asked what makes him feel anxious. His answer precisely captures the space dissent inhabits today, echoing the post-war past
What am I afraid of? I’m afraid of everything. You think war scares me? Is that what you think? Well, it does, it scares the shit out of me. I’m afraid of my ignorance. I’m afraid of things I can’t see, things I don’t even have words for… But the main thing that frightens me is fear.
Before 2015, taking a video on Galle Face with a group of friends in silly outfits, a dance routine outside World Trade Centre, a selfie, not moving for flashing headlines and incessant horns from behind, insisting waiting in line to be served, bumping into someone, asking someone to get out of the way in order to pass, being seen with someone, going somewhere, saying something, not doing something, a hashtag, a profile image, a Facebook post, a WhatsApp message, fiction or journalism, a name or nickname, an idea or symbol, an institution or individual, an economic statistic, a visit to a foreign country, being seen at the airport check-in counter, attending a rally, expressing support of a critical idea, wearing something, having a certain name, not being able to speak a language, insisting on translation, buying from a certain shop, liking a brand – these were all monitored and judged through national security, majoritarian or authoritarian lenses.
We are now back in those times, with beggars locked up and dissent cleared as fast as garbage. Backed by popular mandate, interpreted by those in and close to political authority as they see fit, some of us today face what the UNP and its leadership have also engineered in the past with those they found inconvenient. The vicious cycle continues. The tragedy then is not about one or two columns and their future, or legacy. It is about a country that from school to public office, actively devalues and destroys critical thinking. A country of voters is convenient for unbridled political authority. A democracy with citizens, less so. And in this reading, it is not what was entirely expected of and from those in power today that is so damning. It is the silence of those who were defeated in the election. Principles matter the most when not in power and without political authority. Standing up for what’s right and just isn’t contingent on electoral victory. It is simply a matter of saying or doing it. A few columnists must not and cannot be the conscience of a country that the opposition’s abandoned.
First published in The Sunday Island, 1 December 2019