By Malinda Seneviratne –
The late Professor Ashley Halpe, delivering the keynote address at the annual conference of the Sri Lanka Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (SLACLALS) in 2011, pointed out the importance of ‘liberation from our complicities.’ Today, more than a decade later, in a discussion with Khury Petersen-Smith at Brookline Booksmith in Boston, Ru Freeman spoke about free passes.
‘Transformation requires us to be willing to say that just because you are Sri Lankan or Black or Trans, you don’t get a free pass on certain things. You don’t get to be a racist or classist or whatever or brute even. Everybody is like that’s ok because they are Black or South Asian or they are foreign.’
She illustrated with an example. She said that on the way to the event with a friend, driving from Amherst to Boston, they had to deal with an erratic driver ahead of them. The vehicle must have belonged to some company for she said that she had called them up and complained.
‘That erratic driving could kill someone. He shouldn’t get a free pass just because he looks like me.’
And it comes down to the personal level as well, not just about ‘others who look like me,’ but in fact ‘me.’
‘My youngest daughter would say something and I would say “Oh, she’s a they.” And she’s like “No, it’s not a they, it’s they.” This is something I have to get used to and I am getting used to it.’
I have drawn extensively from Prof Halpe’s comment, both in writing and in life. It’s a check. It’s a call for self-examination, self-criticism.
Let’s talk about Thileepan, the LTTE member who died during a ‘fast unto death.’ Some claim that he was dying anyway; some claim from some kidney ailment and others from wounds sustained in battle. Either way, the decision to engage in that particular form of protest (if indeed it was his and not a directive from the rather rigid and unforgiving politico-military apparatus he identified with) itself shows commitment to the cause he was fighting for.
That it was a terrorist organisation, that he identified with an ideology which considered killing unarmed civilians acceptable, that he was a trained militant and may have himself been guilty of crimes against humanity, that during that very time the LTTE had decimated rival Tamil militant organizations, and that it was little more than an exercise of making the best out of a bad situation etc., should not detract from the affirmation of commitment and loyalty.
Celebrating commitment to a cause and loyalty, however, should not blind anyone to the unmistakable truth that Thileepan was no Gandhi. Celebrating commitment and loyalty with scant regard to context and the larger truths about the LTTE is irresponsible. If it is all a product of ignorance, it is not hard to understand. On the other hand, many who are championing Thileepan today, are certainly not babes in the woods. They know. They choose to abstract an act out of all relevant contexts. That’s giving Thileepan, the LTTE and themselves a free pass. There’s complicity in all of that. Free passes.
All of this reminds me of Uvindu Kurukulasuriya who runs the Colombo Telegraph. We have ideological differences. We attach different values to different things. We could accuse each other of making mountains out of molehills, reducing mountains to molehills, seeing mountain and molehill as monolithic entities, missing nuance and forgetting context, but I believe we trust each other to be honest in intention and also to have enough humility to admit error.
Uvindu, more than anyone I know, is acutely aware of the possibility of complicity. He knows about free passes and how easily they are given to friends and political fellow-travellers. This is why he is detested by those who one would expect to be in his political and ideological camp. So he is dismissed as a traitor by those who call themselves leftists even as he is vilified by those who take issue with his political convictions.
The Brookline Booksmith discussion was a celebration of Ru Freeman’s book ‘Bon Courage.’ Khury Petersen-Smith made the observation that courage is not the same thing as fearlessness. ‘Fearlessness, he said, ‘can be uninformed, maybe in a placid way.’ Maybe this is why we talk of ‘the courage of his/her/their convictions’ but not ‘the fearlessness of his/her/their convictions.’
Being informed. That’s the key. Wanting to be informed, doing the hard yards in obtaining all necessary information, sifting them, analysing them and drawing conclusions are therefore prerequisites for integrity in action.
It is easy to make sweeping statements which are essentially preceded by the sweeping away of that which is uncomfortable and disconcerting, The relevant denial may help advance a political project but if a more civilised outcome is envisaged, it distracts and detracts. Simply put, we don’t have the right to be erratic drivers and would do well to call out erratic drivers and driving. We just can’t afford to, really.
It takes courage to be conscious of and informed by the possibility of complicity. It takes courage to be conscious that there can be no free passes if integrity is to be affirmed. There’s a price one has to pay to be courageous. Uvindu pays that price. He knows that there are no free passes to the borderless territory called ‘Integrity.’
So, a thank you goes to Uvindu, to Prof Ashley Halpe, my sister Ru Freeman, Khury Petersen-Smith, Brookline Booksmith.
*The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His blog www.malindawords.blogspot.com