By M.A. Sumanthiran –
Whilst shame keeps its watch, virtue is not wholly extinguished in the heart; nor will moderation be utterly exiled from the minds of tyrants. – Edmund Burke (1729–1797)
Last week in Parliament, I pleaded with my fellow MPs to listen to the voices of moderation. I appealed to them to do their best to prevent extremist forces on either side from destroying our future. Now I appeal to the members of the public to do the same. Do not for a moment underestimate the power that still resides in you, the reasonable-minded citizens of this country. Your leaders still fear the shame you might impose on them for extremist views.
During my short tenure in politics, I have observed a glimmer of hope. That glimmer does not emanate from the sparkling new streetlamps, the shiny new expressways, or the other glistening things that are presented to us as evidence of progress and development. Hope comes from the moderate and non-violent path that so many have chosen to follow. There are still some who choose to endure immeasurable suffering and humiliation without retaliating with violence or aggression. As long as such individuals remain in Sri Lanka, there is still hope.
The false dichotomy
A false dichotomy of ‘moderation’ and ‘extremism’ has emerged to discredit reasonable demands for autonomy. We must, however, reflect on the meaning of these words and apply them only when appropriate. On the one hand, we must not demonise moderate voices merely because we disagree with them. On the other, we must not venerate extremist voices merely because they target those with whom we disagree. The real test of moderation lies in the manner of engagement. The true moderates are those who believe that, whatever their political aspirations, they must be pursued in a manner that does not undermine the rights of other individuals and communities; in a manner that expands the freedoms of those who are struggling, as well as those they are struggling against.
Emblems of moderation
The ideal of true moderation is reinforced each time the widows and mothers of this country, overcome with grief for their missing husbands and children, choose to protest with dignity rather than with malice. We have seen such emblems of moderation in the South and we continue to see them in the North and East. The Muslim men and women who endure daily indignities with quiet restraint undoubtedly reaffirm this ideal. The ideal is strengthened each time the displaced communities of Valikamam engage in Satyagraha instead of expressing their frustration through violence. Indeed, there is some measure of hope left. I even witnessed it in Parliament last week when, amidst unruly interruptions, the Leader of the Tamil National Alliance chose to respond with temperance instead of retorting in kind. Despite incessant ridicule, he continued to appeal to reason in his speech. These acts of obdurate moderation are the dams that keep the virulent waters from flooding our fields. There is still hope, as long as a few of us remain committed to reasonable, non-violent and dignified means of resolving our differences. We are reminded that we can remain civilised peoples each time we choose to remain dignified in the face of extreme indignity.
Many take these voices of moderation for granted. Some treat moderation as a sign of weakness. Others distrust it as mere posturing or pretence. However, I can tell you with confidence that, amidst immeasurable indignities, moderation is the hardest path to follow. As evinced by our own bitter history of violence, man is prone to violent retaliation when cornered. Therefore, to show restraint in the face of violence and ridicule is an extreme act of resolve. It is this middle path that is perhaps the straightest and narrowest.
Empowering moderate voices
Reasonable-minded citizens are likely to be conscious of two truths: first, that moderation on all sides is essential for a peaceful and prosperous future; and second, that moderation is an arduous route to endure for those who are committed to embrace it.
So all reasonable-minded citizens have a patriotic duty to seek out and empower voices of moderation. These voices are softer than the loud, brash noises one hears from the extremists. One only needs to observe an hour of parliamentary proceedings to witness how moderate voices are being literally drowned out by the voices of extremism. However, the voices of moderation can still be heard all around us, provided we are willing to listen. They don’t always speak the same language, nor do they follow the same religion. Yet they are distinguished by their commitment to the truth and to a civilized and reasonable resolution of differences. These are the very voices that must be amplified.
Since the end of the war, billions of rupees have been spent on paving roads in the hope of appeasing the people. The 2014 budget, which many moderate voices have criticised, continues this trend. Yet what is the actual return on such tokenistic investments? The pressures of a failing economy, increased corruption, and the breakdown in the rule of law now stand to tear the fabric of our society. Paving roads will not appease the people for much longer.
The need of the hour remains a ‘paving’ of another kind. Reasonable-minded citizens must now stand up for the voices of moderation. They must pave the middle path, so that many might tread on it knowing that a principled public supports them. Paving this path will cost us much less. And the return on investment will be plentiful, as it is the middle path that will ultimately bridge our differences.
The power of the reasonable mind
The power of reasonable-minded citizens must not be underestimated, least of all by themselves. For they have the power to shame their leaders. They have the authority to call for adherence to the Middle Path, a precept that no political actor in this country would dare oppose openly. Reasonable-minded citizens must therefore rally around the voices that encourage an honest, dignified and moderate discourse.
How then, can ordinary citizens safeguard this country’s future? Grandiose gestures may not be required. Simple acts that promote moderation may suffice: identify and discount irrational and extremist views in the media; question those who fail to substantiate their claims; criticise even those you support, hoping that it will better them; and condemn all violence, particularly aggression in response to peaceful expressions of dissent.
I assure you, indifference now will only spell disaster for the preservation of a shared future. The cliché often attributed to Edmund Burk has never been more pertinent, as we stand on the brink: ‘the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.’