Colombo Telegraph

A Culture Of Distortion: What The Eighties Bred

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

Regi Siriwardena was probably the greatest English prose stylist this country bred, but over the years I’ve come to remember him less as a writer and poet than as an incisive yet flawed commentator.

Writing to the Lanka Guardian in March 1979, for instance, he argued that the Buddhist clergy in this country was devoid of the kind of radicalism which had been nurtured by the Protestant clergy in the 19th century and the Catholic clergy in the 20th. His essay, superficial at one level, was nevertheless convincing, so convincing that it compelled Professor Kumari Jayawardena to pen a four-part rejoinder

Jayawardena’s point was as cogent as Regi’s was reductionist: that throughout history, and not just that of the Buddhist clergy, revolts and rebellions led by the institutions of the status quo have congealed into reactionary movements, which explains the later retrogression of the Buddhist revival to its contemporary chauvinist character. While it’s difficult to take sides and understand which “reply” was historically accurate, I prefer Professor Jayawardena’s contention, because it was backed by research.

Now to my point.

Somewhere in the 1970s there was a paradigm shift in the social sciences, particularly in postcolonial societies. The late S. B. D. de Silva probably had this in mind when he wrote in 1982 that “[r]esearch in the social sciences in underdeveloped countries has, of late, metamorphosed into a variety of big business.” This is the point that Susantha Goonatilake brought out in his seminal work Recolonisation, which as one perceptive reader told me was more a compilation than a work of sociology; Goonatilake’s book indicts almost everyone, from the usual suspects like Charles and Sunila Abeysekara to Marxist stalwarts like Leslie Goonewardena to otherwise ideologically different individuals like Siriwardena and Jayawardena.

How did the social sciences transform into a variety of big business? Goonatilake addresses this question in his work, viewing civil society and good governance as concepts that were used as part of the Western development discourse to further the political control of the Global North over the Global South, stemming from the end of the Cold War and the belief that its end vindicated a market-led approach to not just the economy but civil society as well. Agencies in both the West and the East were heavily dependent, in this scheme of things, on the individual donor, though “the dependency of southern NGOs [was] much higher.” One result of this network of dependency was an “arms bazaar” which led to NGOs in general, regardless of the country of origin, “becoming the implementers of donor policies.”

It is in this context that the “paradigm shift” of the social sciences referred to before must be viewed. At a time when everyone and anyone supporting the moves for a new Constitution and the movement for devolution and the speedy implementation of the 13th Amendment are seen as NGO nadayo, it makes sense to revisit how and why this shift affected not just the politics but also the culture of this country.

In this regard, what Professor de Silva said in 1982 is pertinent:

Institutes and research agencies flourish in rich profusion, with virtually a business interest in staging seminars, symposia and workshops and in sponsoring publications. In contrast, concerned activity committed to exposing the real roots of social disarray is, remarkably, absent. Work and leisure are sharply demarcated, with work being restricted to the conventional workplace with its prescribed regimen of working hours. In a landscape that is intellectually sparse and monotonous, any contribution to, or contact with scientific effort becomes magnified. In such a wasteland collaboration including scrutiny and comments on work in progress is hard to get, especially when not directly related to one’s professional commitments.

Since I can comment with any sort of authority and interest on the arts, it’s interesting to note how this wave of institutes, research agencies, and sponsoring publications distorted, if not refracted or reflected in a crude way, the culture of this country and the history of that culture. And since Recolonisation takes on the academics and NGO intellectuals who made distortion a veritable “business interest”, I won’t quote specific examples, except to make one point: that not until the late seventies and early eighties did we witness an onset of pronouncements on cultural matters by critics which were, for the lack of a better way of putting it, wholly reductionist and inaccurate.

One legacy of the “privatisation” of the social sciences in the 70s and 80s was the demonization of that most vilified of all national figures, Anagarika Dharmapala. As I argued in this column a few months ago, scholars tend to separate the revivalist from the nationalist in the man to such an extent that every quote attributed to him has been taken apart, dissected, added to, and listed out as evidence of his racism, xenophobia, misogyny, classism, and stunted sexuality.

For instance when Siriwardena, in an article in the Lanka Guardian (“Anagarika Dharmapala: Marxist or Racist?”, August 1980), argued that the man’s references to the “people of the soil” excluded all but the Sinhalese Buddhists from his revivalist program, Professor Ralph Pieris in a more comprehensively researched essay (“The Enigma of Anagarika”, August 1980) contended that “in terms of unanalysed general categories such as ‘race’”, it was futile to analyse what the man said or wrote. 

Personally I feel that both statements were reductionist, but Professor Pieris’s idea of Dharmapala as a figure “bristling with contradictions” seems to me sounder, though over the years it has been Siriwardena’s image of the man as a propagator of the “Aryan racial myth” that has persisted. In that sense, laudable as his book is, Sarath Amunugama’s extensive treatment on Dharmapala fails to address the many things misattributed to him; it dwells at length on the man as the cultural revivalist, because of course that’s what every work that does not wish to dissect a controversial figure tends to go into: his or her contributions to culture, as opposed to society.

But then it wasn’t just the origins of the Sri Lankan people, the radicalism or the absence of it in the Buddhist clergy, and the racialism at the heart of Anagarika Dharmapala’s polemics which were distorted and then refracted during the 80s by social scientists in the pay of the dollar-pound NGO mafia. And it wasn’t just Regi Siriwardena or Kumari Jayawardena or Ralph Pieris who were/got enmeshed in the ideological disputes and distortions these social scientists propagated. There were other topics and there were other personalities.

What matters here is not what those topics or who those personalities were, but what the distortions they sustained have led us, as a country still reeling from colonialism, to at present. It has been something of a convenient truth to resort to that politicians have contributed to our fragmented polity. But then, we can ask, what is polity but society, and what is society but a mishmash of politicians and non-politicians: artists, scientists, businessmen, ideologues, sociologists?

In this sense, the distortions made by the social scientists during the NGO wave of the 80s have contributed as much to that fragmented polity as the politicians, if not more than them. So successful has this culture of distortion been, moreover, that those from outside who write on our culture, history, and arts cave in inadvertently to the many simplifications made by these scientists.

To give just one example, in 2009 a man called Robert Kaplan wrote a long article on Sri Lanka in The Atlantic. He titled it “Buddha’s Savage Peace” and argued, inter alia, that the 30 year civil conflict was one between Sinhalese Buddhists and Hindu Tamils, bringing down the war to a mere religious crisis.

This reduction of the conflict into one between Buddhists and Hindus simplified what was really a complex reality: the conflict between Buddhists and Tamil Christians, the caste disputes between Hindu and Christian Tamils, and the prevalence of chauvinism among Sinhalese Christians. The animus of the Sinhalese Buddhists against the Hindu Tamils is, though not certainly a myth, a convenient simplification, and although I’m not sure where Kaplan picked it up from, I am certain that it was a result of the culture of reductionism the privatisation of the social sciences had facilitated decades before. It’s not too late in this respect, I feel, to write another Recolonisation, and it’s not too late to call out on the people behind this wave of reductionism. Right now.

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