Was that the tremor of an earthquake? Or worse, the reverberation of the booming strides of the monster called tyranny moving menacingly towards the multitude? Its ruthless iron boots crush all and sundry, the wretched crawl at its feet, which tread them down as it journeys on in its deadly dogged path to the pinnacle of permanent power. A closer look reveals that tyranny is a king, his crown is a hideous outcrop distorting his head, his sceptre is a spiked bludgeon and at his heel is a blindly loyal guard that hounds and hunts the haunts of resistance. His tongue is a whip lashing the helpless. His palace tower is one of ivory, lone and inaccessible. He dwells there strangely imprisoned by self-delusion. Zoom in further, and you perceive the tyrant as an ailing body with distinct symptoms: a hard heart, a swollen head, a thick skull and thicker skin, a raving brain, short sight, cold blood, a raised chin, blurry vision, a predatory diet ever-voracious for more, and an inflated ego as yet unpunctured by the prick of compunction. Inebriated with power, no longer capable of sober decisions; saturated with greed, that bloating of the self is inevitable. Even Narcissus himself would feel inadequate at this level of egotism.
A living (or should I say dead?) example of tyranny lies in the Grand Egyptian Museum, Cairo, in the form of the mummified remains of a Pharaoh. Historians identify him as, namely, Rameses ll. P.B. Shelley wrote of the ironic fate of a tyrant in his famous poem “Ozymandias”, in which death and time have obliviated him. Bereft of worldly power and wealth, only a half-buried, broken statue in his image bears out his past glory. The titular name is the Greek version of one of the Egyptian names of Rameses ll. His real identity is immaterial, however, when juxtaposed with his reputation as the epitome of tyranny. His unsurpassed arrogance and cruelty leave a legacy with a potential for deterrence, a mine to draw life lessons from. Such remnants of history are a stern reminder of the nature and consequences of absolute power. The line of totalitarian leaders has not ended as we still live in a world where tyrannical tendencies flourish. A lamentable clamour for such leadership is heard on our own soil, too. Therefore, it is essential to recognize tyranny in all its forms and degrees in order to suffocate its poisonous tentacles penetrating deep into the soul of our socio-political ethos.
Tyranny is not a characteristic only of autocratic rulers as the capacity for tyranny lurks in the depths of our being and unless we curb it, we might end up as, what an influential speaker recently termed, “little Pharaohs” ourselves. Glimpses of it in social interaction bring to mind familiar instances such as the following: the budding bully in a school corridor, a coward inside, projecting an image of superiority, all brawn and no brain; the “friend” at your wedding plotting ways to harass you to hijack your happiness for his own indecent fun on your special day; the imposing and intimidating senior addressing you in filth for no reason than that you are a shivering fresher at college; your own kin brazenly encroaching on your property, while spreading stories to the contrary so that suspicion is directed towards you and away from themselves; a teacher venting her personal frustration on children through physical or emotional abuse; a Head of school instigating her own pupils to engage in a racist and discriminatory demonstration against a teacher in violation of the latter’s fundamental rights; a person cruelly aiming a stone at a stray dog or ill-treating a pet. All such abusive behaviour, of males or females, deserves to be called tyranny, although we tend to associate more serious state-backed offences with this notion. Every kind of oppressor, then, like a misogynist, when he denies a woman the right to education or beats her up in a fit of drunk rage, whether in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, or elsewhere, is a tyrant to a degree in proportion to the nature of his iniquity.
The psychology of tyranny has been studied in-depth and treatises have been presented. The scope of the present discussion, though, is to comment from practical observation of society. Tyranny has its roots in the human ego which craves undue power and prestige over others. Accompanied by ruthlessness, it easily swings towards sadistic treatment of others if the opportunity is given. The atrocities of Nazi Germany are only too well known in this regard. Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi war criminal heading the deportation of Jews to concentration camps, was oblivious to his culpability and claimed at the 1961 trial, that he was simply carrying out orders from Hitler. Thus, when the system condones aggression and the perpetrator is beyond accountability, cruelty thrives unchecked. Freudian theory points to this destructive instinct in the human psyche which will surface in certain circumstances in the form of aggression. The Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971 concludes with the finding that, when authority abets atrocious behaviour there is a heightening of both the aggression of those in control, and the compliant helplessness of the abused. (One must admit though, that the study was later extensively critiqued and questioned.)
The absence of inhibition resulting from absolute power and impunity unleash the latent violence in a person thus privileged, that would otherwise have remained unvented. In an environment where brutality is normalized, a desensitized public adopts a moronic slave mentality allowing the rulers to wield their power at will: a disastrous and dangerous combination of sadism on the one hand, and passive submission on the other! This emboldens them to propagate a whole spectrum of lies, needed for self-preservation, ranging from the absurd to the outrageous. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the falsehood we encounter is on par with what George Orwell’s 1984 depicts in its blood curdling evocation of the totalitarian state where one such false slogan reads, “War is Peace!” The thirst to extend and sustain power becomes an obsessive part of the tyrants’ unbridled ambition driving them to resort to irrational and superstitious sources of protection, seen in, for example, Macbeth’s reliance on the Witches, which mirrors the present Lankan reality of having unwise and vain recourse to questionable quarters in order to retain dominance.
Racist ideology fueled by a collective superiority complex and ably supported by inflaming rhetoric pervading Orientalist discourse, election propaganda, hate speech, etc. constructs the alien “other” to be subjugated and oppressed. Communalist tendencies such as jealousy, suspicion, and hate in plural societies instigate repressive measures against the conceptual enemy. Nebulous nothings are afforded shape and substance by means of slander, accusation, character assassination and even arrest and detention of innocents – familiar methods of emotional hijacking creating a tensed atmosphere of insecurity on the impressionable and gullible public mind which, in turn, justifies the perpetuation of tyrannical rule. What is bemusing is that some of the oppressed themselves unabashedly seek refuge with the oppressor as a strategic move that would ensure their own security and survival. However, if David had taken refuge with the formidable Goliath, then would there be such a thing as David’s celebrated heroism and victorious history?
The world has seen enough and more havoc stemming from tyranny ranging from hate, persecution, draconian laws, torture, and war to ethnic cleansing and genocide. Countless cases of injustice remain unaddressed or unsolved, causing continuous hardship and emotional distress to victims or their kin. The enforced disappearances that occurred in post-war Sri Lanka, the assassination and abduction of activists and journalists, and the lacklustre investigation into the Easter Sunday Attack are a few prominent examples. The foundation laid for a de facto dictatorship in our de jure democracy through the ill-advised 20th amendment will only be an added impediment to progress in these matters. Sound policy and vision do not flourish in such a climate; meritocracy, one of the promised pillars of reform, is replaced subversively by nepotism and cronyism. The nefarious and the notorious, the fraudulent and the foul, the obsequious and the obscure, the dubious and the depraved have all been allowed to occupy positions of authority, jeopardizing, thereby, the very core of good governance. Democratic rights such as equality, access to justice, freedom of expression, right to information, access to health care, education, livelihood, etc. and even food security are arbitrarily overridden while basic human dignity and even human life are callously denigrated. Each human life is invaluable and inviolable. How do we tolerate loss of lives of the defenseless that is simply too frequent? Shootings of prisoners, both in and out of prison premises, victims of the domestic gas explosions, death of Covid-19 patients who did not receive their vaccination in time owing to malpractices in its distribution, the rise in crime rates including murders, the fatal conclusion of freshers in university ragging incidents over the years, the brutal and abrupt silencing of voices demanding or protesting, the inexplicable case of corpses turning up on beaches and remote places, and now the pathetic passing of our senior citizens succumbing to fatigue and exhaustion as they are compelled to wait for hours in queues to obtain basic supplies such as gas or kerosene – all these cause intense consternation and uncertainty in our minds.
Awareness and critical thinking need to be encouraged to educate the public to have a definite say in how they want to be governed and by whom. Although elections are held for this purpose, if those who know better, passively and apathetically allow the populace to be deceived, it would be tantamount to a major betrayal and the gift of franchise would be wasted. As a result, their subjugation will continue. A worthy set of values must be inculcated to enable judicious decisions by voters. Steven Covey’s explanation of the Character Ethic Vs the Personality Ethic is a vital guide that outlines the soundness of choosing your leaders by evaluating their principles and integrity rather than the image they project of themselves. Warren Buffett, the philanthropist and business magnate, states, “Look for three things in a person. Intelligence, Energy, and Integrity. If they don’t have the last one, don’t even bother with the first two.” It is high time that our people realized the gravity, veracity, and the relevance of these teachings. The media has a colossal responsibility in this regard to maintain an optimum level of truth in its representation of prospective leaders. Blunders of the past should not be allowed to recur.
At the individual level, an effective way to overcome impulses of oppression is to be mindful of the fact that in every step we take, big or small, we represent our country, our people, our culture etc. of which we are invariably proud. Our patriotic claims must translate into actions that adorn us and our country. To avoid tarnishing the good name of what we stand for, then, we must match it with responsible and meritorious behaviour. Kumar Sangakkara portrays his team as “unofficial ambassadors,” in the section titled “The Lahore Attack” in his “MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture” of 2011. He recalls with pride, their exemplary conduct and resilience in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attack that they were fortunate enough to survive. Similarly, we should deem ourselves, too, as little ambassadors, courteously and sincerely offering peace, love, and hope to our fellow countrymen and to the world at large. Such a perspective of our role would be instrumental in bringing about stability and sanity to a world fraught with despotic traits and its attendant injustices.
*Haaniya Jiffrey Shiyam specialized in English at the University of Peradeniya and thus holds a B.A. (Hons) Degree. She taught English and English Literature at tertiary and secondary levels.