By Siri Gamage –
Elsewhere I have written about economic, social and cultural dependency of the country at length. In this article, I like to write my thoughts about psychological dependency arising from social norms, etiquette, age-old practices etc. This is because dependency is not only materially, politically and culturally conditioned but it can be ‘a state of mind’ constructed by historical and social forces and conditioned to emulate. One example of this state of mind is the practice of Sri Lankans to address those located in upper echelons of various hierarchies as Sir Or Madam (this is practice common in South Asian countries). Even when the country has experienced social, economic and cultural change due to colonisation and its corollary globalisation for a considerable time, this practice continues. In fact, the practice has its origins in the British colonial period if not earlier. Terms like sir and madam are English words and they imply Mahattaya and Nona in Sinhala respectively. Nona is a word found among Italian speaking populations. Some Italians came to Ceylon for work during the Dutch period and they formed part of Dutch Burger community. Mitch Rabot who lives in Melbourne has written about Dutch Burgers.
In the expanding commercial world also shop assistants use these terms. However the manner of using these terms in this context is quite different to how they are used in day-to-day life in Sri Lankan society. For those who live in Western societies, if someone addresses using these terms in public, it is an embarrassment. This is because in Western countries people use first names in addressing each other if known previously. It makes communication easy. One could argue that the use of terms like sir and madam in a hierarchical manner makes communication easy among Sri Lankans also. There is some truth in it. However, the problem is, it is a reflection of the dependency syndrome that colonial subjects inherited on one hand and such practices keep reproducing dependency, hierarchy, subordination etc. on the other hand at a psychological level. When young people who grow up in such a culture meet others from countries where these habits have long been abandoned, the difference becomes stark.
In many circumstances, the status gap between a person with authority and someone with less authority in a formal or informal setting is minimised if the latter uses these terms to address the person in authority. The person in authority pleases himself or herself when someone with less status addresses by using terms such as Sir or Madam. More often than not, the person with higher status adopts an attitude to help the person with less status. In other circumstances, those with seniority in formal organisations are also addressed by using these terms. Use of the terms is associated with granting respect also if the person is senior and elderly. Thus one can argue that this practice allows for the reduction in status gaps. However, one could argue that it increases status gaps in society as in many circumstances the persons in authority uses interactive situations to display their wealth, power and higher status to the subordinated person.
Why do such practices that imply domination and subordination continue in a country like Sri Lanka where we boast about independence, sovereignty, self-determination, reconciliation and so on in very public forums? As I have stated elsewhere recently, Sri Lanka is a ‘status society’. Though the leaders have been advocating the merits of a free market economy, globalisation, communication, and social media etc. none have taken steps to discourage these habits. Is this because they prefer to maintain their privileged status?
The use of this practice in tea plantations, political parties, government bureaucracies, security forces etc. has to be contrasted with the use of these terms in educational institutions. In the latter, students often use these terms with admiration of their teachers also. Though the hierarchy and its power is recognised, there is an acknowledgement and appreciation of the service rendered by teachers in this context. But the question is when education is supposed to liberate the minds of young people, is it morally acceptable that practices that reinforce hierarchy, domination and subordination continue? Why can’t students or those in junior positions even in universities address teachers and those in senior positions with Mr or Mrs so and so? If they do, what repercussions do they face?
Sri Lankans, as in other colonised countries, are known to maintain habits inherited from the colonial past without critically interrogating them and changing. Those who are suffering from the consequences of dominating practices in particular need to take proactive steps individually and collectively to critically interrogate such practices and change behavior accordingly. They need not continue these practices and reinforce their own dependencies even though it is not an easy task to change a whole system that produces subordination rather than equality. This is why I have recently argued about the need for social development in addition to economic development for Sri Lanka. Changing Sir and Madam culture is part of social development. It can be achieved without foreign aid, foreign consultants or project teams. It is necessary to achieve an egalitarian society compatible with 21st century developments elsewhere in the world and modern aspirations of people, in particular the young people. We are doing a disservice to them if we continue habits and practices inherited from the colonial masters who thrived in master-servant relationships produced by the colonial administrative system, relations of production and culture of domination. In a context where citizens are supposed to be free from colonial bondages, there is no reason or justification to use terms like sir or madam that imply status gaps and unequal relations as well as produce subservient minds plus associated psychological conditions. These sort of practices raise the question as to whether there is an internal colonialism in Sri Lanka and other countries of South Asia where the elitist groups that inherited the mantle of power and privilege when the colonial rulers left started to behave like the colonial masters when it comes to less privileged masses and those who occupy lower status in society and its institutions? If this is the case, sociologists and other social scientists have an obligation to do research to not only expose this phenomenon but also to devise strategies to combat it.