By Charles Sarvan –
A Sinhalese, a friend for over sixty years, recently suggested that I was a racist. I found that particularly ironic because in 1958 I went to his village with my notes to help him re-sit the first-year university examination, and was caught up in the anti-Tamil riot of that year. The denial of equality is not abstract theorising to me. Having been a ‘Para Dhemmala’ in Sri Lanka; a non-white in England in the early 1960s when “colourism” was unashamed, overt and crude; having been an Asian in Africa, and a ‘non-believer’ in a Muslim country, I am for human equality; for equality not in form but in substance, equality not in false protestation but in actual practice; for equality irrespective of ethnicity, skin-colour, sex, religion, language caste or class. All human beings are equal in dignity and rights, affirms Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was worded as “universal” and not as “international” rights because, as Stephane Hessel clarifies in his ‘Time for Outrage’ (written when he was ninety-three), that is “how to forestall the argument for full sovereignty that a state likes to make when it is carrying out crimes against humanity on its own soil”. To deny human equality is to be left with, “We are superior”. If you are different and inferior, then you can be treated in an inferior manner, that is, normal ethical standards of conduct do not apply. This is how humanity has rationalised its inhumane and unjust conduct worldwide and throughout the centuries. If to take the essential equality of all human beings as axiomatic and sacred is to be a racist then I am guilty.
If to be for inclusion, rather than for exclusion and subordination; if to be for decency, as Avishai Margalit describes it in his ‘The Decent Society’ (Harvard, 1996), then I am a racist.
John Rawls, in his ‘A Theory of Justice’, argued that it is a sense of fairness which lies at the root of, and leads to, justice. If we had to cut a cake into several pieces not knowing which piece would be ours, wouldn’t we aim at impartiality? Rawls invited us to enter into an imaginary situation where we have to formulate principles of justice without having any knowledge of how they would affect us. We would then strive hard to realize fairness. To be for fairness and justice is not to be racist.
One is for certain ideals and principles rather than being against certain individuals and groups. The distinction can easily get blurred because discrimination and the drive to dominate; hatred and violence, though abstractions, are embodied in, and find expression through, individuals and groups (secular and religious) in society.
Unfortunately there are individuals and organisations who work against the world being a more just, peaceful, happier, and therefore, a more beautiful place. Given this reality, to remain silent – be it through indifference or fear or calculation of personal profit – is to be party to racism. Martin Luther King said that more than the words of the enemy, it is the silence of friends that disappoints and hurts.
Without freedom, there cannot be self-realization, neither of the individual nor of the group. Erich Fromm, in his ‘Escape From Freedom’ suggests there are two kinds of freedom: the freedom from, also known as negative freedom, and the freedom to. Negative freedom is freedom from external interference that obstructs or curtails; positive freedom is the freedom to control and direct one’s own life. Positive freedom allows an individual or group to consciously make his or their own choices, create her or their own aims, and shape her or their own life. In short, s/he (or they) acts instead of being acted upon. See also, Isaiah Berlin’s essay titled ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’.
If to be for attributes such as equality, decency and justice for all (rather than for hatred, discrimination and violence) then I am a racist; a racist in the company of greater Sinhalese “racists” (sic), female and male; Buddhist and Christian. Their names come to mind but will remain unmentioned because such individuals are embarrassed by being singled out as example and encouragement. It is a privilege to have known them. “Ye are the salt of the earth.”
Once again with thanks to my wife for her strictures.