By W.A Wijewardena –
My View at 200: Objective was to change the monologue culture to dialogue and then to multilogue; but silence of majority is crippling society
Unbroken 200 runs
Today’s My View – Economics Matters marks its 200th article published in this series on the economy, society, politics and global developments. It has appeared without failure on every Monday for nearly four years and maintaining that unbroken record for such a long period is by no means a simple task.
The objective was to change the monologue to dialogue and then to multilogue
The objective of the series was to change the ‘monologue culture’ that had practically numbed the intellectual curiosity of people in the recent past. Sri Lanka has been famous, throughout its post-independence history, for public authorities to come out with rosy stories of success.
However, such stories did not remain mere monologues in which the authorities communicated with the people and people just accepted them as irrefutable ultimate truths. Thus, the monologues were pretty soon converted to dialogues in which some authoritative personalities questioned the validity of such rosy stories and pointed out the other side of the stories being told. This paved the way for many others to join the debate freely creating a ‘culture of multilogue’, a necessity for a progressive society.
There was multilogue in the good old days
An example supporting this view from late 1960s was the portrayal of the Mahaweli Project being launched as the ‘saviour of the country’ by the Government in power during 1965-70. The Government had decided to go for an election in 1970 and this was done just before the election to earn political mileage out of the publicity program.
But the academia at universities at that time rose up, criticised and pointed out the obvious fallacy in solving all the problems of the country by a single project to be implemented over a period of 25 years.
This writer recalls one such public debate that was held at the old Vidyodaya University in 1969. At that debate, the Mahaweli Project as it had been presented at that time was screened critically and one speaker, the late Professor Sirisena Tilakaratne, branded it as a wrong selection of the country’s long-term development priorities. His argument was that when the country needed fast industrialisation and merging with global markets effectively, the development of an unproductive subsistence farming community will create additional long-term problems for the country. His remark has been prophetic today given the sad state of the farmer families settled under the Mahaweli Project.
Politicians of yesteryear too welcomed counterviews
That was the intellectual curiosity of people in the good old days. There was free debate and multilogue that enabled people to look at the other side of an issue before them. That is the sign of an open and free society that in turn prospers creativity, invention and innovation – the three pillars of progress of any civilisation.
Even the politicians in power in that era welcomed the counterpoint. The LSSP leader N. M. Perera or NM, who was the Minister of Finance during 1970-75, is reported to have advised the Central Bank’s senior officers at a farewell function held in honour of the retiring Monetary Board member J Tyagaraja in 1971 that the Central Bank reports should be objective.
According to a news report in the Ceylon Daily News which has been reproduced by the Central Bank in its 60th Anniversary Commemoration titled ‘Central Bank of Sri Lanka Retrospect 1950-2010’, NM is reported to have said as follows: “The Central Bank should make independent reports on economic subjects to the Government and not make reports merely to suit the political complexions of the Government in power.”
As Minister of Finance, he would “value reports made dispassionately and objectively.” Tyagaraja, endorsing NM’s view is reported to have said: “It was important that the bank should enjoy the autonomy that central banks elsewhere enjoyed and it should not be treated like another state corporation.” Thus, the tradition was for public authorities to make objective and dispassionate reports and for society to convert them to dialogues and multilogues permitting free discussion and debate.
Multilogue is not alien to South Asia
Free debate, discussion and multilogue have not been alien to South Asian civilisations. Kautilya, the 4th century BC Indian statesman and economics guru, wrote his treatise on economics, the Arthashastra, challenging the orthodoxy pronounced by other sages at that time.
He has thus made a point in his treatise to present the viewpoints of other sages first and then come out with his own position regarding the issue at hand, fully explaining why he begs to differ from them.
Two hundred years before Kautilya, the Buddha in his famous Kalama Sutta, advised those from the Kalama clan that they should not “go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher’.” Instead, they should make a critical review of the views before them and accept only if they find that such acceptance leads to betterment and not to harm.
Ramayana and Mahabharata are full of multilogues
This tradition had been upheld in India for many centuries as portrayed by Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen in his 2005 book ‘The Argumentative Indian’. Sen has given credit to two ancient Sanskrit epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, for being “full of dialogues, dilemmas and alternative perspectives” providing “masses of arguments and counterarguments spread over incessant debates and disputations”.
In the Bhagavad Gita, there is a tussle between two contrary moral positions in which Krishna has emphasised doing one’s duty, while Arjuna has argued for avoiding bad consequences and doing only good ones. The debate ends with Krishna’s argument winning.
Emperors Asoka and Akbar tolerated and promoted different views
Thus, according to Sen, India’s history is a history of differing ‘voices and toleration of heterodoxy’- a society which values multiple ideas. That heterodoxy was well upheld by all Indian emperors of worth from Emperor Asoka to Emperor Akbar. One of the rock edicts of Emperor Asoka has laid down the principles of proper conduct of debates and settlement of disputations.
It says that debates should be conducted in a civilised manner ‘by honouring the opponents in every manner on all occasions’. Emperor Akbar continuously refused to accede to pressure from those of his faith to persecute the non-believers and instead granted full freedom to non-Muslims in his empire to practice and promote their respective religions.
Closing the door for multilogue is the biggest enemy of society
Hence, the breeding of a culture of monologue among its members is the biggest enemy of a civilised society that aspires to be creative, inventive and innovative. It cripples a nation and creates generations of intellectually slavish followers.
The human brain has evolved for many thousands of years, giving its owner the power to think independently. Such a feat cannot be performed by other species which go by a simple instinctual guide that has been programed into their genes.
Thus, the monologue is not the human nature, though many rulers and their public authorities would like to establish it as the norm of society. It is the multilogue which Sen called heterodoxy that is embodied in human nature.
Accordingly, a progressive society that is planning to become a ‘wonder’ among other nations should do everything to establish and uphold a culture of multilogue and heterodoxy among its citizens.
No meaning in freedom of thought if freedom of expression is prohibited
What would happen when the freedom of thought is suppressed among the members of a society? It helps a society in the very short-term to display an assumed unanimity. It is called an assumed unanimity because unanimity is not the human nature.
Such an assumed unanimity leads to two outcomes one followed by the other: first silence and then noise. Silence is practised as a precaution to thwart the oncoming dangers. Hence, it is simply a risk-avoiding tactic and not the inherent human nature. But within the human being, anger, hatred and resentment start boiling to an explosive level that will destroy society from outside. It produces noise which is not what society had expected by going for assumed unanimity.
Hence, what people think freely should be permitted to be revealed freely. It is like having a ‘safety valve’ in a pressure cooker in order for the boiling steams to escape without damaging the cooker or injuring the cook.
Hence, freedom of thought and freedom of expression go hand in hand. In other words, as Cambridge University’s Regius Professor of Modern History John Bagnell Bury has emphasised in his 1913 book, A History of Freedom of Thought, that in any valuable sense, freedom of thought includes freedom of speech as well. Hence, it is in the interest of progressive societies to take measures to guarantee both.
It is multilogue that keeps a society robust, vibrant and dynamic
Freedom of thought generates new ideas and freedom of expression allows those ideas to be shared with fellow members. If only one person speaks and all others remain silent, then, there is only a monologue. These new ideas have to be probed, screened and debated. Such a course of action by an opposing party leads to a dialogue and when people at large participate in a debate, it becomes a multilogue. It is this multilogue that keeps a society robust, vibrant and dynamic. Otherwise, it becomes a dead society.
Lazy minds prefer monologue and hate differing ideas
However, according to Bury, many prefer silence to noise or love monologue over multilogue. This is because the average brain is lazy and prefers to take the line of least resistance.
Bury has explained this as follows: “The mental world of the ordinary man consists of beliefs which he has accepted without questioning and to which he is firmly attached; he is instinctively hostile to anything which would upset the established order of this familiar world. A new idea, inconsistent with some of the beliefs which he holds, means the necessity of rearranging his mind, and this process is laborious, requiring a painful expenditure of brain-energy. To him and his fellows, who form the vast majority, new ideas and opinions which cast doubt on established beliefs and institutions, seem evil because they are disagreeable.”
Hence, novel opinions are considered to be dangerous by lazy minds and anyone who poses the question why or what-for is considered a pestilent person. These lazy minds are then reinforced by those in power because it in their interest to keep a people in silence, though it does not augur well for a progressive society.
Rulers love when people don’t think
Bury has further explained this phenomenon as follows: “Those who have the responsibility of governing a society can argue that it is as incumbent on them to prohibit the circulation of pernicious opinions as to prohibit any anti-social actions. They can argue that a man may do far more harm by propagating anti-social doctrines than by stealing his neighbour’s horse or making love to his neighbour’s wife”.
Thus, those in power, based on these arguments, might choose to suppress the freedom of expression which effectively suppresses to the freedom of thought as well. They win over the short-run, because their crime is not revealed as Bury argues that “a long time is needed to arrive at the conclusion that coercion of opinion is a mistake.” But by that time, those who have suppressed free opinions may not be living to witness it or take responsibility for the damage they had caused.
The 3.0 Sri Lankan society clashes with 1.0 public institutions
Today’s social media are multilogue mechanisms. They permit members to present their views, have their views liked or opposed through comments by others and generate a free debate on issues at hand. These netizens are called 3.0 citizens today. In the case of 1.0 citizens, there is only one-way communication or in other words, only a monologue.
The 2.0 citizens are more improved than that because there is a two-way communication establishing a dialogue. The 3.0 citizens are the most improved because there is not only a multi-way communication spanning 360° but also a free discussion, debate and expression of free opinions. When citizens are 3.0, it is of utmost importance that the governments and the public authorities too should be 3.0 governments and 3.0 public authorities. Unfortunately, the Sri Lankan Government and its public authorities have chosen to remain 1.0 entities where there is only a monologue and no facilities for free multilogue.
Lazy minds of silent majority have crippled society
This writer has been criticised by an anonymous writer writing under the penname Practical Economist as being anti-government and pro-opposition. The reason for levelling such a criticism would have been the critical assessment which this writer made of the economic policies pursued by the Government.
But the objective of this writer was to break the monologue and create a dialogue by offering the readers an alternative perspective. In such a background, the entry of the Practical Economist to the debate has helped break the crippling silence that had permeated through contemporary Sri Lankan society.
However, it ended there with no one participating in the debate. That was understandable since what the Practical Economist had done was the levelling of a series of personal attacks on this writer. Such a battle between two people would naturally be not of interest to readers at large. Hence, even the intervention by the Practical Economist did not lead to a multilogue as expected.
As such, it is still an inexplicable silence by the majority of people like the modern day university students who just remain as inactive and silent as rock statues of Polonnaruwa in lectures. Those lazy minds demonstrated by the silent majority of the country are crippling society.
*W.A Wijewardena, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at