By A Heretic –
Does the feeling of belonging to an ethnic community make one a mental patient? – A heretical reading of Dr. E. W. Adikaram’s article “Isn’t the Nationalist a Mental Patient?”
Dr. E. W. Adikaram is a much respected humanist and the article under discussion is one of his most famous ones with a wide appeal to both the English and Sinhala reader. It has been pointed out that Dr. Adikaram’s “hallmark was the spirit of inquiry and courteous engagement” (Nalaka Gunawardene, Groundviews). The following comments are made in the same spirit.
In this article, Dr. Adikaram uses the term nationality to mean the national identity of Sinhalese, Tamils, and Telegus etc., in the old usage of the term which read ජාතිය (jāthiya) in Sinhala. Today, in the scholarly discourse at least, the term used for these categories is ethnicity.
Challenging the argument that “[A] person is Sinhalese because he speaks the Sinhalese language,” Adikaram points out that “there are people of other nationalities who speak only Sinhalese because they happen to be brought up from early childhood in homes where only Sinhalese is spoken. “ What does he mean here by ‘other nationalities’? Apparently the fact that they are called as such by themselves or others, not that Adikaram believes that there is something called nationality (read: ethnicity) as such. What he attempts in this article to begin with is to challenge the usage of the terms Sinhalese, Tamil, Telugu etc. to denote a person’s identity. When he refers to “non-Sinhalese homes,” he is referring to homes in which children are brought up mainly speaking non-Sinhala languages. Does he mean a Tamil or a Telugu who happens to be brought up from early childhood in a home where only Sinhalese is spoken? Why would someone be called a Tamil or a Telugu if s/he speaks only Sinhalese? That person must have attributes other than the fact that s/he speaks only Sinhalese. But Tamil is a language. So is Telugu. A Tamil is someone whose mother tongue is Tamil. The same goes for a Telugu. In this sense, someone who speaks only Sinhalese cannot be called a Tamil or a Telugu.
But Adikaram is correct when he argues that simply because some people speak the Sinhalese language they do not thereby become Sinhalese. For example, there can be Tamils and Telugus who speak Sinhala but remain Tamils and Telugus because their first language remains respectively Tamil and Telugu.
We run into a problem again when we consider Adikaram’s following statement: “And also there are Sinhalese people who speak a language other than Sinhalese because they were brought up in non-Sinhalese homes. They are not considered non-Sinhalese simply because they cannot speak Sinhalese.”
Here Adikaram does not mean those Sinhalese who can also speak a language other than Sinhalese of which there are many. Adikaram’s reference is to those “Sinhalese” who cannot speak Sinhalese because they were brought up in non-Sinhalese homes. Now, why would someone be called a Sinhalese if s/he was brought up in a non-Sinhalese home and cannot speak Sinhalese? The only reason could be that the person in question is born into Sinhalese parents.
But then, just because you are born to Sinhalese parents, if you are brought up in a non-Sinhalese home and if you cannot speak Sinhalese, one is not called Sinhalese. Take for example, a child who is born to Sinhalese parents but adopted by a Dutch family living in the Netherlands and cannot speak Sinhalese. She will be Dutch for all purposes but she may be referred to as born to Sinhala parents.
Adikaram is correct in arguing that “one is not a Sinhalese just because he speaks Sinhalese. Similarly a person does not become an Englishman simply because he speaks English.” But it is not clear whether this conclusion can necessarily be derived from the argument referred to above which he presents in order to arrive at this conclusion.
With language comes culture
Adikaram’s above idea somewhat ironically suggests that those who identify themselves as Sinhalese or English may consider that there is more to such identification than simply speaking the language; that certain cultural practices are associated with a language which in turn is perceived to make the practitioners of them distinct.
We are of course aware that this argument raises the issue of purity versus hybridity which means there are no such purely Sinhala (or English for that matter) cultural practices. Nevertheless, the point is that for those who identify themselves as Sinhala or English, it may mean more than the simple use of language. With language we know comes culture. Hence, perceiving oneself as being a Sinhala or Tamil turns out to be a cultural matter.
The fact remains that language is one marker of identifying oneself as belonging to an ethnicity. Hence, people call themselves Sinhalese as they perceive themselves belonging to a cultural community marked by them having a common language: Sinhala.
In the context of the above discussion, the initial formulation Adikaram challenged, that “A person is Sinhalese because he speaks the Sinhalese language” can be revised as follows: A person who believes that the fact that s/he speaks Sinhala gives her a sense of identity is called a Sinhalese.
But still, Adikaram’s point would be that despite the perceptions people hold, there is no logical basis for such perceptions. However, it is also a fact that despite not having a logical basis for many of their perceptions, people hold onto them. From the perspective of social theory, in analysis we need to examine the specific conditions under which people hold on to such perceptions.
Furthermore, language is not the only marker of ethnicity. For some Sinhalese for example, markers such as religion take precedence above language For example, think about those Sinhala Catholics or Sinhala Christians who experience that the ‘nationalism’ of those who identify themselves as Buddhist who in Sri Lanka invariably happen to be Sinhalese, threaten their security with their anti-Christian sentiments and activities.
Then, the cultural community one belongs to can become more complex with additional factors such as religion added to its identity markers.
Knowing and perception, and belief and truth
Adikaram argues that “If so, how can one conclusively know that a person is Sinhalese, Tamil, English, German or Japanese?” I would like to suggest that it is not a matter of knowing, but one of perception. One calls oneself or others a Sinhalese etc. on the basis of taking language and associated culture as a marker of identity.
In saying that “the truth [is] there is no such thing as a nationality” Adikaram questions the worldwide practice among many people to identify themselves and thereby others in terms of ethnicity. Raising the issue of the truth, he suggests that such beliefs of people are not true. How do we know whether one’s beliefs are true or not?
Some beliefs of humans point to that they would like to connect with the idea of the transcendent, that there are things in the world which cannot be fully known by human beings in the sense of verifying their truthfulness in a conventional scientific sense. Here, the truth of things is not taken as the only acceptable means of knowing or not-knowing the world. In other words, beliefs could also be a way of ‘knowing’ the world, knowing in the sense of making a home for oneself in the world.
Adikaram is correct in that biologically one cannot deduce one’s ethnicity and there is nothing natural about such nationality. He makes the point clear when he says that “an infant child….. is common to the entire human race.” He believes in the idea of a human race rather than categories that divide humanity such as nationality. The humanism to which Adikaram contributes has both Western and Eastern versions. The currently dominant Western notion of secular humanism is based on the Enlightenment vision. There is also a classical version of secular humanism that was found among the ancient Greeks which cannot be equated with the modern Western version, given that the former is connected to a version of the common good which forms the individual. Buddha’s thinking, rather than institutionalised Buddhist religion, represents an Eastern version of such a humanism.
Unlike the eagle and the dove or the quail and the peacock whose differences as species of birds are biological which Adikaram refers to, among humans, differences are mainly cultural, whether it is between the Sinhalese and the Tamil, the Englishman and the German, or the Japanese and the Jew or the Chinaman and the Eskimo as referred to by Adikaram.
The purpose of Adikaram’s article is clear. He desires humans to shed their belief in nationalities.
Adikaram says that the truth is that all humans belongs to the same race and thousands of “nationalities are only designations born out of belief and having no intrinsic significance whatsoever.” While the latter point Adikaram makes is correct, would not it be also correct to say that the former idea is also a construction by humans and hence amounts to a belief that humans have increasingly come to accept as true? There was a time when many did not believe that all humans belong to the same race. Even today there could be some who believe that some humans like Africans or Asians or Latinos are lesser humans. So, then is it correct to say that a truth such as this is a belief that many have come to agree as true?
Adikaram argues that “If one sees things that do not exist and believes that they do exist, such a person we call a mental patient.” People believe in things that do not exist in scientifically verifiable manner, for example gods. For them, they exist. Calling such people mental patients may make a very large number of human beings throughout human history mental patients. I think the point Adikaram wants to drive home is that ethnicity or nationality are socially constructed categories, a position that can be accepted.
We need to consider that in ethnicity, based on perceptions of linguistic and religious communities, as parochial as they may be, people experience a sense of belonging.
No doubt that if one could rise above such parochial notions of ethnicity to the level of cosmopolitan mentality of Diogenes, it is an excellent notion of being a human. However, we cannot forget that one becomes a cosmopolitan because the cultural traditions he has access to have provided him with resources to become one. In other words a citizen of the world is a member of a particular city before becoming a citizen of the world. But that feeling of belonging to an ethnic community does not necessarily make one a mental patient, a point that is proven when one sees all the Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Telengus etc. who on a daily basis take pride identifying themselves with their own ethnic community on certain levels in terms of language, religion and culture. However, they simultaneously, and at another level, are in a position to relate to the world in universal terms as members of a common humanity. This tells us that the issue of ethnicity becomes a problem when it is directed against other ethnicities even though Adikaram assumes that ethnicity is inherently troublesome.
The saying that first and foremost a citizen is a member of a particular city before becoming a citizen of the world reminds us that one’s ethnicity, which is based on language and culture, can be a springboard that launches us to become members of a common humanity. It is culture that makes humans who they are and therefore to the extent human beings are good it is due to their culture. If humans behave badly, then it says that there is something remiss in their culture and it does not mean that that the idea of culture itself is false. Adikaram himself is a product of a culture. A culture does not have to be based on ethnicity. However, traditionally, culture has been associated with ethnicity.
When colonial powers invaded Sri Lanka, the opposition to colonialism emerged from within both the Tamil Hindus and Sinhala Buddhists in the form of religious revivalism, which was initially against the conversion of natives into Christianity. Gradually, this religious revivalism paved the way to, or combined with, a linguistic revivalism culminating in a cultural revivalism in both the communities. At some point along the way, there was a Lankan nationalism where Tamils and Sinhalese joined together against the British rule. However, in the wake of competition among the elite representatives of the ethnic communities for state power starting in the 1920s, this Lankan nationalism gave way to Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim nationalisms. Of course, all this was mainly the work of the representatives of the emerging bourgeoisies in both the main communities and other minorities. Even though these bourgeoisies were either in contest with the former colonial elites or were emerging from within them, the nationalism they expounded gave a sense of belonging to the participating masses who were literally nobodies under both the pre-colonial and colonial regimes. It is in this process that ethnic identities were formed, which were thereafter consolidated in the formal enforcement of them in official classifications.
Adikaram suggests that truth is outside belief. The point that needs consideration is that beliefs become truth for people. The question, then, is how do we move people from having the wrong beliefs to the truth, as Adikaram would have it? Saying that people believe in ethnic identities are simply wrong or are mental patients will not do. As Wittgenstein would say, in analysis one has to show the path from error to truth. I suppose that is what the Buddha did in his encounters with those with false beliefs as well.
Adikaram’s desire is to convince those who believe in notions of ethnicity that they are wrong. The truth for Adikaram is universal humanity. How to convince the public that ‘in truth there is no such thing as ethnicity’ while people seem to experience ethnicity as a form of community is the challenge secular humanists face in addressing ethnic conflict.
For Adikaram it is fact that biologically we are “only one human race”. It is those “who are fettered with the belief that there is racial difference are incapable of seeing this fact.” For Adikaram nationalism is a form of insanity, a belief, a delusion, a psychological ailment that vast majority of people in the whole world plagued with and the main cause of all the wars that have taken place in the world.
Adikaram notes that despite the advancement of science which brings man a comfortable life “man has to suffer because of this disease of nationalism and its inevitable political tentacles.” Many issues he raises about the outcome of nationalist and ethnic conflicts are extremely valid. He is concerned about killings, whether they are large scale murder with nuclear weapons etc. based on nationalism or small scale killings based on ethnic conflicts. He draws parallels between nationalist conflicts based on the idea of nation and ethnic conflict based on ethnicity. However, in certain cases it is nationalism and not ethnicity based on language and culture that is the basis of conflict. The nationalism of some people, observes Adikaram correctly, “hurt people’s feelings with various ridiculous mad activities such as the defacing of name boards written in languages other than their own.” In saying this, Adikaram seems to admit to the link between ethnicity and culture: that identifying with a language is something close to people’s hearts, and hence their feelings. In this case, the hurting of feelings comes from being attached to the belief that one’s language represents one’s identity.
Adikaram speaks for the idea of preserving the world in the face of threats to world peace posed by conflicts based on ethnicity or nationalism which we all should support wholeheartedly. When Adikaram says finally that “Nationalism is not the road to peace” he is referring to the possibility of nationalism generating conflict whereas nationalism also could be a uniting factor, and need not necessarily turn its followers against an enemy. When he says “Truth alone will bring us peace and freedom,” he seems to suggest that the truth is that there is nothing called nationalism or ethnicity, when in reality, there clearly is, and has been.