By Lasantha Pethiyagoda –
Sri Lanka has, often loudly promoted equal opportunity and an egalitarian society for several decades especially on election platforms. It has included solidarity and invests in programmes focused on developing justice for all. Yet it fails to ensure that all people can enjoy their human rights, including the right to life. We might then wonder: How can Sri Lanka promote equality, yet let people drown in the misery of Covid-19, or deny them basic essential health services and food, or criminalize the people who are trying to help them independently?
How can Sri Lanka claim to promote solidarity with the thousands of government servants being persecuted when only a relatively few sycophants are accepted or are implementing policies for general welfare? Fairness is at best a work in progress and urgent decisions and actions need to be taken in order to make significant changes towards ensuring respect for human rights for all people, not only for those who have affiliation to political parties or government hierarchies, not only for those who have claimed allegiance to a certain religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, powerful personalities in industry, etc.
Justice carries judgments about social and moral justice, deservingness, reciprocity and fairness and what most “real” Sri Lankans seem to be saying today is: Yes to justice, but only to those who deserve it. It highlights the conditional nature of equality. For example, when it comes to attitudes towards minorities, only a handful of responsible people thought minorities should get access to social benefits immediately when disaster struck (ie tsunami, covid pandemic), slightly more after marrying a spouse from the majority ethnicity (working or not), while a very significant majority seem to think they should be eligible only if they are members of a certain political party or alliance. Some fringe groups with influence categorically think that social rights should never be granted to minorities.
The decisive factor for genuine equality, is the answer to the question: is this person in my group, in my circle? The problem is not how we answer this question, but the fact that we are asking the question at all, the fact that there is such a strong link between how we view our identity and who we deem worthy of acceptance. Sri Lankan society has strongly focused on creating an exclusive, intolerant national identity in the last decades. Identity can be defined both as belonging to certain groups and differentiating from other groups – with variations in these feelings of being “inside” or “outside”. Policy-makers ignore the fact that identity is always defined in relation to other people; social identity is always derived from simultaneous membership of specific groups and a demarcation from other groups. Identity is created through constant comparisons with other people and groups. This is how nationalism is manifest.
When individuals’ own personal identity is exercised, individuals aim at maintaining a positive self-identity while feeling socially validated. They use different strategies in order to attain this. One of them is to make a distinction between the in-group (“us”) and the out-group (“them”). You see it most in the government departments if you need examples. The problem is that when group belonging is defined in opposition to other groups, it is not merely a categorization process, but a hierarchical distinction which accentuates differences and reduces similarities, somewhat like saying basically that ‘we are good and they are bad’.
Numerous social studies have shown that the single act of putting people into two distinct groups was sufficient in creating a feeling of competition or confrontation, progressing in some cases, to a quick escalation to violence and discrimination. This process is enforced by a set of stereotypes which are continuously promoted in order to justify and maintain a hierarchy of groups.
Racism spreads beliefs that people with a certain ethnicity and religion are superior to others; religious intolerance spreads beliefs that people who pray to an entity or worship in a certain way are the only ones who are right and hence, superior to others even if ethnically the same; a strong sense of entitlement and heritage that ignores historic facts enhances this belief; sexism spreads beliefs that people with one kind of sexual organs are superior to others, discrimination by sexual orientation spread beliefs that people with certain orientation (ie heterosexual) are superior to others, etc. These types of categorizations are especially problematic when they lead to human rights violations on the basis of membership in a specific group.
Acting in solidarity to ensure that people can actually enjoy their human rights disturbs the status-quo and people who have traditionally been in power (usually men belonging to the dominant group in our Sri Lankan society) feel threatened. For this reason, it is more popular to promote solidarity with people who are very poor (for example, Samurdhi recipients and daily wage earners), but not in a sustainable way, not in a way that will eventually help them overcome their adversities and have access to power. The strengthening of genuine solidarity with people in a poor country like Sri Lanka as a multi-dimensional phenomenon demands multi-level and multi-actor approaches. An important step in ensuring equal opportunities is to make changes in the legislation that are practically enforced or implemented. The political will to succeed in this endeavor is absolutely necessary to combat discrimination against the poor and marginalized.
While human rights-based legislation is the cornerstone of a democratic society, legislation alone cannot ensure equality of opportunity. For example, there are countless situations in which this legislation is not respected. Discrimination based on ethnicity and religion, gender, even sexual orientation if known or suspected and other grounds while being illegal are still quite openly practiced on a large scale in employment, housing, access to services facilitation of health care even. This attempt to limit people’s access to rights is true even for matters that might seem straightforward, like the right to vote. Muslim people (for example) are portrayed by politicians either as scapegoats for all the problems in society or are completely ignored until their votes are needed.
While there is hardly any credibility left in the political class, strong community groups must address systemic discrimination in order to turn the concept of equal opportunity from a statement in the legislation into a reality lived by everyone. This can be achieved through initiatives that challenge the status quo, initiatives aiming to redress historical injustices or initiatives that shed light onto practices and beliefs that privilege (consciously or unconsciously) people belonging to a certain group. Fanatic adherents to nationalism will fervently ask that we should not rock the boat, or to let the past remain there.
What competencies do our backward and easily led people need in order to act for preservation of justice? The level of ignorance towards certain aspects of justice can sometimes be very high. For example, organisations working for people with disabilities are trying to raise awareness of the limits enforced by how workplaces are organised. Through actions such as inviting people without locomotor disabilities to cross the town in a wheelchair or by blindfolding them and leading them for half an hour they aim to raise awareness. They can also be subjected to being spoken to in Tamil when they want to conduct very ordinary business, to understand the huge gulf in inequality. Some people truly do not know and have never thought of what it means to have a certain disability or language issue. However, most organisations do not bother with such “unproductive” activities.
The following outcomes can be expected for the communities involved: increased ability to address societal challenges; greater understanding and responsiveness to social, linguistic and cultural diversity. If these can be challenging in regular times, in times of crisis like national food shortages and lockdown induced poverty, where citizens are exposed to feelings of scarcity, relative deprivation, and distributional conflicts, group solidarities might be either prioritised or sorted out. This could mean that citizens centre their solidarity more strongly on their own community or specific groups, even if they do not discard, (in principle) the need to help other community groups.
This type of attitude was very obvious when the Coronavirus pandemic started. Groups of people traditionally discriminated in various parts of the country were used as scapegoats for the spread of the virus, which led to an increase in racist incidents towards the Muslims (for example). In order to change that, so as to achieve real integration and inclusion (for all the different identity groups who have been denied equal opportunities) and to make intercultural competence not as a far-reaching goal but an everyday reality, coherent programmes need to be put in place. These programmes should be bold enough to challenge the status quo and should aim at transcending in-group solidarity.
When the members of an institution such as a Parliament all come from the same background it is clear that structural discrimination is alive and well. In this sense, programmes could be more impactful if they focused on creating safe spaces in which young people could challenge their own worldviews. For some this will be uncomfortable and may even reveal ways in which any of us could have acted in racist or sexist ways in the past. Awareness of own biases combined with understanding of the human rights framework can bring a different perspective both on the present and on the past. Initiatives which bring a human rights perspective to historical understanding can help young people move away from using inaccurate history as a way to maintain a positive identity about themselves or their country. Challenging the status quo and transcending in-group solidarity cannot be done if the past is seen as a series of glorious events in building our “amazing” country.