By 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.