By Sanjayan Rajasingham –
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead
A lot of us would like a different Sri Lanka. If what a society is like depends greatly on what its people are like though, we need to change. We need to be a new Sri Lanka. And if we aren’t prepared to change, then, frankly, we shouldn’t expect our country to.[i]
There is more to it than that though. For instance, many of us were outraged by those government MPs who voted in favour of the 18th amendment and the impeachment. Particular ire was reserved for those MPs who knew these measures were wrong, but didn’t have the backbone to refuse them. This was their sphere, they had power, they could do something – but they didn’t. If that makes us angry, then we need to be different. We need to act to make things better in our spheres, where we have influence, where we can do something.
We also need to act because who we are today determines, in part, who we are tomorrow. How we use our influence today shapes how we will use the influence we have tomorrow. If today we are too busy, or too fed up, or too cautious to do what we can to make things better or to stand up for what is right, then we’ll probably be the same tomorrow. And then, if we get into positions of responsibility, we will not have the moral strength to stand up for what is right. Moral fibre does not spring up overnight. It comes from consistently acting for the good, for what is right, even in the insignificant spheres of life. Only then will we, if we get into power tomorrow, be different to those in power today.
What can we do?
We need to do something, but what? There are lots of things we can all do, and I’ve put down some of them below.[ii] We don’t need to be connected, well-resourced or in positions of power to do them. We don’t need experience or qualifications. Of course they will take time, and some effort – as anything worth doing will. More important though is not to let the enormity of our problems immobilize us. We need to focus on what we can do, and not worry about what we can’t. So even if you choose just one thing, run with it!
Deliberately build friendships with people different to you, and listen to them
Some of us only have friends who think like us, are from similar backgrounds or share our assumptions. Some of us have friends who are different, but prefer to avoid controversial topics with them. Or, we tend to become ‘debaters’ when we argue with them, holding furiously to our positions. If we talk about politics, or corruption, or racism, or religious extremism, we listen in order to reply – we don’t listen in order to understand.
I am sure we all had some of this during the election. When we found people who disagreed with us profoundly, our instinctual response may have been to talk over them. Or to pretend to listen so that once they stopped talking we could hammer home why we were right and they were ridiculously wrong.
We need to go beyond this. It’s crucial because we all have our blind spots, and only those who are different to us can show them to us. I am grateful to Sinhalese and Muslim friends who have pointed out the weaknesses and evils within the Tamil community to me, and I am sure many of us have learned from the perspective of those who are different. If every time we hear a different view we put our defences up, we will never see our own biases and prejudices. Also, it’s when we demonstrate that we respect our “opponents” enough to be open to their point of view, that they too will be open to change.[iii]
Listening to understand is more than understanding the “arguments” those we disagree with are making. It is not the dry rationalism which sees disagreement merely as a “debate” to be “won.” It is listening to see where they are coming from, why they feel the way they do about an issue, to see the world through their eyes. It is dialogue, a two way conversation, where both are listening and both are open to being challenged.
This is something we can do today. Think of a friend who thinks differently to you, and ask them what they think of an issue the two of you disagree on. Then listen to understand, not to reply. Another immediate avenue is to look at the interviews Udaya Gammanpila and R. Sampanthan gave interviews for the Republic at 40,[iv] a book available online. If you lean towards the “Tamil view” of things, read Gammanpila.[v] If you lean towards the “Sinhala view”, read Sampanthan[vi] (Of course, I generalise). Feel utterly repulsed initially if you must, and disagree with their “facts” if necessary. But after that, come back and ask why they feel the way they do. Imagine what it would be like to be a member of their community, and whether you might feel the same. Consider if there is some justice to their claims.
We need to stop seeing injustice as something “out there”. Injustice lives with us all. Ask who are in the weakest and most vulnerable positions where you are – it could be at home, at school, at the office, at university. Spend ten minutes on it. It could be the peon, your juniors, or the less connected. Are they being degraded, or treated unfairly, or dominated? What can you do? Maybe you can act directly to stop it. Maybe you can speak to someone who can. Maybe you can protest by writing to the papers, or online, or speaking to others. Maybe all you can do is realise there is a problem – if so, do that. Seeing some of these problems is the first and vital step, even if we can’t do something about them.
To be continued..
*The writer is an undergraduate at the University of Colombo reading for a Bachelor of Laws degree
[ii] My thanks to all those who suggested things.
[iii] Of course I am not suggesting that we use this as a ‘technique’ to manipulate opinion. Also, there will always be some who will stick to their position no matter what, but there will also be many who are more genuine about their views.
[iv] Asanga Welika (ed), Center for Policy Alternatives and Freidrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom <http://republicat40.org/>
[v] ‘Interview with Udaya Gamnmanpila’ <http://republicat40.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/The-Constitutional-Form-of-the-First-republic.pdf> In particular see pages 6- 13; 15 – 19; 32- 34.
[vi] ‘Interview with R. Sampanthan’ <http://republicat40.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/The-Ilankai-Thamil-Arasu-Katchi1.pdf> In particular see pages 7-9; 15-18; 24-27.