Colombo Telegraph

For Sinhalese Like Us: ‘Unknown Knowns’ Of The Tamil Man’s Problem

By Vangeesa Sumanasekara

Vangeesa Sumanasekara

Let us lay the cards on the table. The Northern Provincial Council election result has decisively shaken the post-war political balance in the country and redefined the lines of demarcation. The immediate future of the country will depend, to a large extent, on the way the newly elected Northern Provincial Council strategically implement its political agenda and the way the government responds to that. The fundamental challenge at hand for us, in the South, is to prevent a Sinhala-Buddhist fundamentalist counter-mobilization that would ultimately pressurize the government to adopt the former’s position.

Heart of the problem is the following: why does the overwhelming majority of the Sinhalese do not recognize what only appears to be the blatantly obvious and justifiable reality of the aspirations of the Tamils to obtain a certain self-determination in the parts of the country where they are the dominant majority ? The Tamil man’s problem, as I will henceforth call it – and by ‘man’ I, of course, include both men and women – is, in a certain sense, a remarkable phenomenon. It is at once the most elusive and the most obvious problem, depending on one’s standpoint: one that argues that the Tamil man’s problem is a pseudo-problem and the one that believes that it is the most serious and pressing problem in the country right now.

The former position can be summarized thus: ‘Tamils do not have a problem at all. The colonial rulers had intentionally given privileges to Tamils, in order to create an ethnic divide in the country and, by extension to safeguard the smooth functioning of the former’s rule. At the end of the colonial rule, Tamil leaders perceived that they would no longer be getting the privileges they enjoyed during the colonial rule insofar as the numerical majority of the country would become its new rulers, as indeed it should be according to the natural destiny of the country, in tune with its pre-colonial history. With this realization the Tamil leaders started to demand an unjustifiable share in legislative power and started to mobilize the average Tamil people around a mythical homeland, when in fact, the latter did not have a problem being a Tamil. It was the leaders who corrupted the minds of the people in order to maintain the privileges the former enjoyed. Tamil ‘problem’ itself is an illusion’

The second position, the one which I espouse, can be summarized thus: ‘Sri Lankan state is ethnically biased towards Sinhalese rendering the Tamils and other ethnic minorities second class citizens. It is not a question about giving a laundry list of the problems that Tamils face; it is, on the contrary, a problem pertaining to the structural rather than the factual. This is indeed a structural invariant in the form of the nation state itself and the whole discourse about the power devolution and federalism is an attempt to address this formal issue i.e. nation states are ethnically biased. In this context it is blatantly obvious that the Tamil demand for a certain autonomy in the North is an extremely understandable, even a necessary, demand.’

Naturally, these two positions can be articulated in different ways and there are many nuances to be considered in a broader analysis. What interests us, however, is the following one: how can we convince someone who believes in the first argument about the validity of the second?

In order to respond to this question, it is of crucial importance – and this is the central claim that I wish to make here – to resuscitate what may seem like, for a reader well versed in late twentieth century philosophy, an outdated notion: critique of ideology. The reason why this notion may appear to be outdated is that it requires a distinction between, to put it in simplified terms, ‘truth’ and ‘illusion’. Ideology, as it is generally perceived, is an illusion, a smoke screen, that distorts the true reality of our polities and the critique of ideology is aimed at removing this smoke screen in order to make visible the underlying truth. No doubt that this is a rather trivial generalization but it is a sufficient one for our purposes. One can easily read Louis Althusser’s canonical definition of ideology as ‘that which represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence’ in this sense.

The problem with this formulation was not that this notion was simply wrong and it turned out that we indeed perceive things the way they really are. On the contrary. Today, not many would argue that our relations to the society, to political phenomena are neutral and we make our political decisions by simply considering ‘facts’. It is a philosophical commonplace of our time to accept that facts will always be perceived and interpreted through a lens influenced by our political positions, childhood experiences, cultural habits, and religious beliefs. No one can possibly exempt himself or herself entirely from one’s historicity and this was precisely the problem with the notion of ideology. Put simply, we can formulate it thus: If no one can exempt him or her from one’s historicity how can one say that some phenomena are ideological whereas others are not? How did Althusser know the real conditions of our existence? How can we make a distinction, as Althusser did, between the ideological and the scientific?

Standard, ‘postmodern’, response to the question is that Althusser, being the last great classical Marxist thinker, was still confined to the straightjacket of base/superstructure distinction according to which everything is more or less determined, in the last instance, by the mode of production of a social formation. In this context, it is certainly instructive today to re-read Newton Gunasinghe’s celebrated short essay “May Day after the July Holocaust”. For all its sheer brilliance in insight one can easily detect the limit of the Althusserian edifice. Gunasinghe’s basic argument is the following. Class contradictions are weakened within the Tamils as they perceive a threat to their collective existence and class contradictions are falsely taken the anti-Tamil directions in response to the Tamil demands within the Sinhalese. Thus, class contradictions are overdetermined by the ethnic conflict and the immediate task of the Left is to give democratic liberties to the Northern and Eastern people in order to restart the real political struggle which is the class conflict. As he wrote in his concluding line “[t]he worsening economic crisis enables the Left to raise the class issue with renewed vigour, raise the class consciousness of the working class and contribute towards the reduction of the affectivity of ethnic overdetermination on class conflict”.

In other words, the failure of the classical Marxist position was its inability to recognize the plurality of conflicts in their irreducible equality to one another – as the standard postmodern mantra puts it ‘class, race, caste and gender’ are all democratic sites of resistance against inequality and domination. The price to be paid for this, however, is that critique of ideology becomes redundant as a concept. For, as we saw above, it inevitably requires a distinction between truth and the distortion of truth. If one concedes the point that there is no real struggle, then it becomes a matter of replacing one ideology with another. This is why it is an essential theoretical task today to reconstruct a novel concept of truth. Needless to say that this is a task well beyond the scope of a short intervention like this and I shall simply refer the reader to the profound philosophy of Alain Badiou which is constructed around this specific problem.

For now it is sufficient to claim that this postmodern question in no way disqualifies the actual existence of ideology. Ideology, as it was developed by the great Marxist thinkers, beginning with Marx himself, is not simply any kind of deceptive representation, for it would lead us to ridiculous conclusions like even a magician’s performance is an ideological operation. Ideology is a rationalization – a pseudo-rationality to be precise – which claims that what exists as a matter of fact exist necessarily. Critique of ideology, ultimately amounts to the demonstration that a social situation given to us as inevitable, is, in reality, contingent and subject to change without reason.

This is clearly evident in the standard response against the Tamil man’s problem that we summarized at the beginning. For it ultimately relies on the refusal to recognize the contingent nature of the established order in the country. It is a discourse on the historical necessity of Sinhalese being the rightful or legitimate heirs of the country’s political power. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the debate about re-settlement in the North and the standard argument that Northern Council election should only be held when the correct ethnic balance is re-stored in the North, after re-settling the Sinhalese who had had to leave their lands because of the war. Here, the social situation where there was a percentage of Sinhalese in the North is presented as inevitably necessary and any change thereof, according to this line of reasoning, is a distortion or an abnormality to be avoided.

Secondly, ideology is not just a psychological phenomenon; it resides at the border between the psychological and the social. No doubt, the unsurpassable exponent of this dimension of ideology is Slavoj Zizek and his famous definition of ideology as ‘unknown knowns’ precisely aims at this. Very briefly, he argues that there are four possible relations between knowledge and ignorance. There are ‘known knowns’ – like, I know that I have the knowledge about the number of fingers I have on my hand; then there are ‘known unknowns’ – like I know that I am ignorant about the number of times I blink for a day; thirdly, there are ‘unknown unknowns’ – I do not have the knowledge that I am ignorant of something. Finally, there is the important notion of ‘unknown knowns’ – I have a knowledge but I am ignorant about the fact that I am in possession of it. This is what, according to Zizek, ideology is.

Perhaps there is no better proof of this dimension of ideology than the way it is manifested apropos the Tamil man’s problem itself. In order to understand that one only needs to talk with some Sinhalese who one can be assured to be farthest removed from the political writings of Sinhala-Buddhist fundamentalists. On many occasions I have experimented this with some members from the so-called post-political, consumerist younger generation who has absolutely zero interest in mainstream political debates and issues. Their degree of political ignorance is, in fact, mesmerizing, but still, the moment I start to discourse with them about the need for a certain devolution of power to the North, all the standard questions against the Tamil man’s problem starts to come out.

Equally important is the opposite example, this time with a teenage daughter of a fellow political activist. She too, belongs to the generation whose lack of interest in politics is surprising, and has absolutely no interest in her father’s (and my) political activities. Nevertheless, one day she said, to my great surprise, that she dislikes some of the leading boys’ schools in Colombo because most of their students are Sinhala-Buddhist racists.

What all these examples suggest is that convincing someone of the existence of the Tamil man’s problem is never simply a matter of careful argumentation, for it is not only a matter of ‘known knowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns’ but above all else it is a matter of ‘unknown knowns’. We must question the disavowed beliefs and the structures that create, sustain and transmit the absolute necessity of the way things are and this is exactly the crucial significance of the notion of ideology and its critique. In this regard it is not difficult to accept the continuing importance of the critique of ideology in spite of the postmodern challenges to it. This also shows the challenging nature of the task at hand, for we are not simply trying to correct a wrong opinion but also trying, or should try, to correct and demystify the underlying pseudo-rationality and the structural apparatuses that sustain that wrong opinion.

Reading through Kalana Senaratne’s impressive and passionate assessment of the Northern Provincial election results last week I was struck by the particular wordplay in his concluding lines, when he wrote that “For some Sinhalese like us to whom the Tamils are our equals…” It immediately reminded me of that shrewd title of Felix Guattari’s and Toni Negri’s polemic “Communists Like Us”.

Attentive readers would notice that this latter title can be read in two different ways, depending on where one would like to put the emphasis on: ‘Communists like us’ or ‘Communists like us’.  What, in other words, Guattari and Negri are trying to do here is to position themselves simultaneously inside and outside the set of those who identify themselves as ‘communists’. If one reads it in the first sense, i.e.’ communists like us’, then that means they are within the totality of ‘communists’, but with a difference, for it amounts to saying that ‘we are not just any old communist, but we are a special kind’. On the other hand, if one reads it in the second possible way – ‘communists like us’ – we can see not only that Guattari and Negri are placing themselves outside the totality of ‘communists’, but also making the seemingly arrogant claim that those poor communists actually like Guatarri and Negri!

Far more than merely being a clever wordplay, what Guattari and Negri are making explicit here is the impossible subjective position of those who still wanted to continue on the communist struggle at a time when, for all practical purposes, it was evident that the great twentieth century communist experiment is coming to an end. This is not dissimilar to the problem we are facing with regard to the Tamil man’s problem. Whatever direction we decide to go or whatever road we decide to take, what is certain is that it will determine and create who we are as historical beings and this is the decisive question – for Sinhalese like us!

Back to Home page