26 September, 2020

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Group-Prejudice: Sharing Some Thoughts

By Charles Sarvan –

Charles Sarvan

Charles Sarvan

As is well-known, the word prejudice (pre + judice) comes from the Latin and means to pre-judge; that is, to make a judgement before and without evidence. The prejudiced conclusion may, in retrospect, prove well-founded but in normal use, the implication is the opposite. Being without true grounds, prejudice indicates unreason and emotion; not having a rational basis, prejudice is difficult to dispel with reason: hence its persistence. However, through a process known in psychology as ‘rationalisation’, reasons can be found to justify one’s prejudice. Indeed, it is necessary to find such justification: if not, we are left facing the unattractive truth that we are unjust in our thought and actions, in turn damaging our self-image.

Doris Lessing wrote that there is something in human beings which makes us categorise and, on that basis, to exclude and, if possible, exploit. The phenomenon of group hostility – be it based on ethnicity or skin-colour; religion, sect or whatever – is ingrained and difficult to dismantle. People often don’t recognise that they are prejudiced. As stated earlier, prejudice is not amenable to reason and facts. Group-feelings, to varying degree, seem natural to all species. The challenge and effort is to overcome the (negative) natural in us: this effort is what sets humans apart from the other species. Frederica Jansz of The Sunday Leader published (17 January 2010) an article by me on racism and, what I termed, ‘exceptionalism’. The essay is now included in my Public Writings, Volume 2, and I quote from it about one reaction or strategy of the prejudiced when confronted with individuals who contradict their ‘racial’ stereotype:

“He’s not like (all) the other Tamils”. True, he’s Tamil but not one of those Tamils in general whom we distrust and dislike; want to expel or subordinate. “He’s a Tamil but not a Tamil Tamil: you know what we mean?” He or she is turned into an exception, serving only to prove the rule, to confirm the generality. Those individuals whose life and conduct confound the racist (or religious) myth and image are made exceptions so that stereotypes, unquestioned and unchallenged, continue to have their justification and existence. In this way, racist attitudes are preserved and perpetuated. (See the blanket suspicion of, if not hostility to, all Moslems where, in a mode known as ‘Block thinking’, a varied reality is fused into one indissoluble unit.) So it is that, even those who are suspicious of (if not hostile towards) Tamils in general may have a Tamil friend or friends; socialise, and be of mutual company and help. The contradiction, the inconsistency, is “rationalised” away on the basis of their friend (or friends) being an exception. It’s an almost no-win situation: if you “behave”, you are seen as an individual, made an exception; if you don’t, then not just you, but the entire group is blamed.”

In a certain climate (social, political and cultural) prejudice, and the unkind and unjust actions stemming from it, comes to be seen as natural and normal so that, except for a few exceptional individuals, prejudiced persons are unaware of their ‘condition’. This is particularly so when almost all others share the same prejudiced mind-set. There is then a climate, a culture, within which the particular prejudice has its existence. That particular prejudice comes to seem normal and natural, and is taken-for-granted. In such contexts, when prejudice rises to the surface of consciousness and finds expression, the reaction is one of self-satisfaction, if not of pride. As Samuel Johnson, among many others, has noted, there’s a mixture of vice and virtue, of emotion and reason, in human beings: I find it even more remarkable that we are able to live quite comfortably (either unaware of or ignoring) fundamental contradictions within ourselves. Few of us have the detachment to look at ourselves with detachment and objectivity.

A number of Jews came over to England after the Normal Conquest of 1066 but, under the Edict of Expulsion of 1290, all were expelled from England. They are thought to have numbered only about 2,000 and yet the Edict was widely popular, showing that even a very small minority can excite major antagonism simply because they are different. It is difficult to be different – as much for an individual as for a minority group. Despite their physical absence, it is remarkable that the negative image of the Jew persisted. (It is inadequate to account for Western anti-Semitism – intense and lasting several centuries – entirely on the one fact that some Jews persuaded a Roman governor to kill a fellow Jew.)  The ‘racial’ prejudice is there in the so-called ‘father of English Literature’, Chaucer (born 1343), as it is in The Merchant of Venice though Shakespeare probably had never seen a Jew. In the Modern period, T S Eliot too went along with the ‘racial’ stereotype.

Group prejudice can show itself in demagogues with intense hatred in their eyes, mouths curled in anger; even in riots and pogroms as in Sri Lanka. But it can also be spotted in the casual, the seemingly-ordinary; even in the well-meant. In reply to a Sinhalese-Buddhist friend who wrote to me that article 29 of the Soulbury Constitution should be brought back in order to “ensure justice and equality as fundamental rights of our minorities”, I wrote: “I draw attention to your use of the modifier ‘our’. I am sure you did not intend the implications of (a) separateness (‘their’ vs ‘our’), (b) ownership and (c) subordination”.

But to return to the blatant and extreme, below is an extract from a letter by a Burgher friend now happy in Canada as a fully equal citizen:

“I am reminded of a Sinhalese friend of mine in Sri Lanka. He was educated abroad at a highly prestigious university; was from a cultured and rich family; soft spoken, a gentle type, with all the charming politeness that such a background and education could give.

Everything was fine until the topic of Sinhala-Tamil relationships was broached. Then you could have been debating with a vulgar Sinhalese payment-hawker. It left me drained, and with a sense of despair.  I even found myself wondering if, maybe, I lacked his intellect and education to understand.

I don’t know how one overcomes such prejudice prevalent at all levels of Sinhala society, not only in the masses and the middle class, but even among the highly-educated with international exposure and awareness. Appealing to the intellect seems useless; taking a hammer to the head is just as futile. One can only wish that the next generation sees their parents’ foolishness. Which brings me to the ironic ending of this story: the family’s treasured daughter, sent abroad to the USA for education, married a Tamil. Is this an example of what is known as ‘poetic justice’?”

What puzzles my Burgher, ex-Sri Lankan, Canadian friend puzzles others as well, and I have received observations of a similar nature. Unless one gets to, and understands, the causes leading to the suspicion and intense hostility he mentions, little progress can be realized, be the head of state a President or a Prime Minister. Trimming branches and thorns won’t do – the roots must be identified, explained and so extirpated. It is not effective to fight for justice without first understanding in depth the factors that led to prejudice and injustice in the first place. In my essay, ‘Reign of Anomy’ (included in Public Writings on Sri Lanka, Volume 2)  I suggest, among others, some elements that led and still lead to anti-Tamil feelings:: (a) The history of repeated invasions from South India; (b)The Mahavamsa – a pernicious text, all the more so because it has been widely ‘internalised’, accepted as literal truth; (c) imperial rule of almost 500 years  (denigration and exploitation, deprivation of power and dignity, disregard for ‘native’ culture etc.) that created a reservoir of deep resentment. This accumulated resentment and anger, inarticulate under imperialism, found vent after independence on minority groups, secular or religious. Being different can carry a heavy penalty. The subject of group-prejudice, as complex as it is important and tragic, is beyond my competence: I merely share some thoughts and leave the reader to consult the works of historians and anthropologists.

To keep matters somewhat in perspective, I quote from a letter by a German a few years younger than my almost-octogenarian self:

“This gentle upper-class Sinhalase, so well described by your ‘Burgher’ friend, reminds me of my grandfather. He was the most gentle, just, and well-meaning man I ever met – that is, until it came to the Jews. In his opinion they just had an inferior character, were selfish, unethical and immoral and that was it. As a [omitted], he had to be asked his opinion whenever someone was to be appointed or promoted. In his memoir, he proudly records he never voted in favour of a Jew. It is the story with the eggs – which came first, the eggs or the chickens? Was there prejudice to which individuals and groups succumbed or did individuals, secular and/or religious, breed prejudice? ”

The kind and soft-spoken grandfather he refers to was a man of erudition, a Professor of pre-modern German history whose books are still consulted. He was not a Nazi; indeed, he declined to join the Party and, as a consequence, was relieved of all his official posts, including one which he had held for many years with success and distinction. Yet this gentle and scrupulously just man could not escape the sickness of anti-Semitism; indeed, was unaware that he was infected. But then Martin Heidegger, rated by some as one of the greatest of 20th century philosophers, was a Nazi.

However, there is hope because history shows us that a people can be cleansed even of deep-seated and widely held prejudice. All it takes is the political will; the backing of the clergy and the media. Political and religious leaders; anthropologists and historians with thorough knowledge, should address the phenomenon – not in English, but in Sinhala.

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Latest comments

  • 5
    1

    Ah! the Sinhala Socialist abroad becomes a Fascist when he returns home. Thank you for a most thought provoking article.

  • 3
    5

    Charles Sarvan,

    Many a here are stating the need that sinhala identifying their problem and getting out of prejudice..

    can you please tell me when tamils will realise the problem within them and get out of the prejudice?

    Because as all tamils say (both the ones who ultimately hid behind women and the ones had access to good education and international exposure) they are blameless.

    • 3
      4

      “…can you please tell me when the Tamils will realise the problem within them and get out of the prejudice?”

      I suppose that will be, when people like you among the Sinhalese identify themselves as racists, and realise that they have a problem and get out of their prejudice.
      That will happen only when they have the capacity to understand that Mahanama’s Mahavamsa is all bullshit.

      • 5
        4

        Exactly this is what i meant.

        All sinhalese who do not buy the Eelamist history version, LTTE freedom fighter version, Tamil superior version and SL tamil country version are racists. :)

        And we tamils did nothing wrong, and blameless

      • 3
        2

        The Mahavamsa is bullshit until the Eelamist finds a useful paragraph referring to Tamil language, kings or civilisation; then it is quoted authoritatively.

        • 4
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          Paul

          Mahawansa mentions Demela kings but it does not Sinhalas.

          What do do now?

          Amend it?

          • 3
            1

            but you say mahavamsa is nonsense ne.. :D

  • 4
    2

    Why the Jews were expelled from England, had nothing to do with their numbers, but with their behaviour.

    “The ostentation which possession of great wealth enabled the Jews to display, and their unconcealed contempt for the practices of Christianity, made them an object of universal dislike; as usurers, moreover, they had gained a strangle-hold on the recently founded monastic houses whose splendid buildings they had financed, and on many of the smaller aristocratic families…” From Domesday Book to Magna Carta (1951), p. 353
    Given here: http://www.heretical.com/British/jews1290.html

  • 0
    2

    Charles Sarvan,
    Prejudice and human hatred for religion, race, and caste exist all over the world. Due to extreme violence perpetrated by a majority against a minority, in several Countries measures are applied through Legislation empowering the minority to take the oppressor to task. Many such Countries are today violent free and come under the category of Civilized Countries. These Countries also have introduced Social Science and Humanitarian Law as compulsory subjects required for higher education. All the present and future generation is friendly with each other irrespective of Religion, race, cast and creed. Intermarriage is common and any language is recognized and interpreted whenever necessary without making it any inferior or superior to another language. One is biased in one way or another with the other, but his/her freedom is limited not to harm the other in any way. Legislation not only stops any physical harm but also stops verbal harm. One cannot say a word of hatred to another. Because they learn humanitarian laws and social science in their young age in school. In Sri Lanka the majority got a taste in oppressing the minority because the Legislation too got politicised for the benefit of the majority. Any Administrator be it Burgher, Tamil or Muslim can remain in service only if he/she abides by the party politics of the day. The political candidate who allows violence against Tamils/minority and plunder their wealth and property is the one who wins the election. The situation in the North and East even today is deplorable to the Tamils and Muslims because of the fear of violence let lose readily by the military and Police occupying the Tamil provinces. Because this oppression comes from top down there is usually no difference in being well educated or not educated. The prejudice had been in existence for centuries and there was no violence by the Sinhalese majority until Independence from the British. After independence the Sinhalese got the taste of venting their grievance against Tamils as Tamils were leading the Sinhalese in several fields before independence. It was the educated Sinhalese who were jealous of educated Tamils who were leading them in almost all the fields of administration in early Ceylon. Because most of the Tamils were working in all fields they were spread all over Ceylon. They went from North and East to South, West, Central, Uva, North central everywhere. The Sinhalese had a lot of grievance to avenge the Tamils for. So the turning point was the Independence. Instead of Humanitarian and Social studies, the Sinhala Administrators introduced Mahavamsa a recently invented history of Sri Lanka depicting Tamils as foreigners come from India illegally and antagonized the future generation which is today’s rulers and Administrators. They are all taught racism and brought up to kill the Tamils. The situation in Sri Lanka will not be improved with existing politics and existing legislation. The majority has changed Legislation down to suit the present generation of Sinhalese to annihilate the minority (Tamils ans Muslims) from Sri Lanka. No change can be expected within Sri Lanka for the better without it being done by the International Community.

  • 6
    0

    Yes, prejudice is evil. But don’t forget that racism is NOT a one-way street. As both buddhism, and I believe hinduism, teaches us hatred thrives upon hatred. It can cease only when compassion prevails (nahi verena verani .. in pali in the Dhammapada). And karmic retribution of violent acts is a never-ending cycle unless you break it through non-violence.

    I would urge Tamils in Sri Lanka and overseas to denounce the violence perpertrated in their name (against themselves and against others) in the name of Eelam. And I would urge them to directly talk to the sinhalese who can speak only Sinhala, and articulate their fears and hopes, and not to rely on corrupt politicians of either ethnicity to speak on their behalf.

    Beginning of compassion (co – passion- meaning sharing of pain)begins with direct communication and articulation of one’s pain and suffereing. Believe me in Sri Lanka, there plenty of that – regardless of one’s ethnicity, and many sinhalese would identify with most fears expressed by their Tamil brethren.

    • 0
      4

      Before resorting to religion, I suggest that the Sinhala Buddhist Government should ensure enforcement of the existing anti hate speech legislation against all perpetrators including Buddhist, Christian, Hindu and Muslim.

      For starters why don’t you “Sinhalese Buddhist” make use of the proof beyond doubt available in the media and internet, and make a complaint to the Police against Bebadu Nanasara. His well deserved abode till his miserable end is Welikada Jail.

      • 2
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        idiotic navin who is born to a donkey.

  • 0
    3

    Soon after independence the Sinhala government disenfranchised over a million Hill Country Tamils although most of the were citizens(and voters) of SriLanka and lived in this country for over 100 years. They worked hard to develop the highest economy in ceylon,the Tea Industry. They also helped to build rail roads. The only reason for the disenfranchisement was because they were Tamils. In fact the Burghers and Malays were accepted because their numbers was not perceived as a threat to Sinhala supremacy.

    • 2
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      Ram v2, not only do you write rubbish (upper class Tamils approved of disenfranchisement), you also want to steal Ram’s ID. You people fool nobody.

      • 1
        0

        Well spotted.

  • 0
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    Navin

    I whole-heartedly agree with you that existing hate-speech laws should be applied against anyone who commits such crimes, regardless of ethno/religious identity. In my opinion Gnanasara thero is an abomination to my religion.

    One more thing: I noticed that you had capitalized my handle on CT. I prefer the lower-case “s” and “b” for a reason: My ethnicity and religion are but one facet, these do not define me as a person. I want to be judged by my personal individual actions, not by what others attribute to my race/religion, based on stereotypes. My religion informs me that all these labels that are used to pigeon hole us are impermanent, and in the long term, futile. Human-ness is a virtue that can exist within anyone, hindu, Christian, Muslim and yes, even us sinhalese buddhists.

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