By Ruvan Weerasinghe –
“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” – Wittgenstein
All cultures have a concept of a boundary and so, a place of demarcation between adjacent spaces. It follows that the related concept of a place where one enters such a space is common across cultures. However, it is the word gate (or indeed one of its translations) that allow us to abstract it from the particular instance of it, and so make the description of the world possible. This is why Wittgenstein famously stated that it is language that creates the world.
In other words, a new user of a language is actually introduced to the world through words.
Words and ideas also evolve. In some cases, the meaning of a word itself evolves over time, but more commonly, the ideas and concepts surrounding a certain phenomenon evolve. If one is to believe in human progress, this leads to ever more civilized usages of words and concepts to define anew existing phenomena.
For instance, what probably used to be teasing, fun and humour, may now be sexism, harassment and verbal abuse. One particular practice that has so far successfully defied such evolution to civility is that referred to as ragging. This refusal to let itself evolve is politically engineered. In other words, it is in the interest of certain parties that the meaning of this word remain to be a synonym of teasing, fun and humour.
In reality, what has actually happened is almost the opposite: the phenomenon has firstly evolved from its very physical nature to a form that is crafted carefully to lie below the physical radar, but then also evolved fairly aggressively to a very psychological activity.
This sanitizing of harassment has many stakeholders. At the top of the pyramid are the authorities: yes, the VCs, Deans, Heads of Departments and academics who themselves primarily fall into two categories: those who feel it is not their responsibility since they have more important things to do, and those who turn a blind eye since they actually indirectly justify the need for at the least, some of it. Only a relatively smaller group of them consider it a shame to live in this environment of intimidation, and can only take limited personal action against it, in the absence of a clear overall policy in the university system against it. This however, will be the subject of a future post.
Another stakeholder is the student community. By and large they fall into three broad camps: those who espouse it wholesale as a necessary part of being initiated into any people (social) grouping, those who oppose it as a practice that is designed by those who are mostly ‘jealous’ of them, and a third group that treat it as a nuisance to be avoided as far as possible.
A rather more passive stakeholder is the parent community. Though many of them are concerned about this phenomenon when their child enters university, soon they give up involving themselves with the issue either because their children stop worrying them about it, or because the pressures of life and taking care of their other children leave them no time to engage with the issue. The few who do, soon realize the futility of the endeavor owing to lack of support from the other two stakeholder groups.
This piece is written with a view to engage the main stakeholder of any kind of education reform in the country: civil society. That is, you and me – the man on the street and the tax payer. Yes, we are in fact the chief stakeholder of all of education – not just university education. And yet, university education being the pinnacle of this system, our attention must be focused on whatever ails this highest virtue of our value system.
We too can take the same stance as the authorities: live and let live, or face it for what it is and take it on. Assuming that we are not content with the former stance, I venture out to say why and what we can do.
To start with, we need to get our vocabulary right. We need to de-sanitize the term ragging from the innocent fun (boys-will-be-boys) connotation that it has. We need to call a spade a spade.
In any other context, such as at work, the behavior that passes under the label ragging in the university context would be termed, physical, mental and emotional abuse, clearly within the meaning of the term, harassment. If we now use this more civil word for such activity, what we have been tolerating in universities is plain and simply termed, harassment. Harassment of physical and psychological form, with some of it also sexual.
Once we have the terminology clarified, let us no longer refer to this less-civilized activity as harassment or abuse. We also need to ask ourselves what the short and long term effects of such harassment and abuse is, on graduating students and through them, society at large.
As one who has engaged with this issue personally, I have witnessed at least three broad kinds of effects that this phenomenon produces. It is often only the first of these that catches the news – ironically the one that affects the smallest number of students, and hence mostly sporadic. This is the direct effect on students who are physically harassed to a point where they or their friends or parents seek help from the Police or the media – an indictment of the grossly ineffective mechanisms available within the university itself.
The second group are those who are similarly affected, but simply stay away – actually drop out of the university education that they and their parents so desperately worked hard for. This is a larger number than the first, but ironically only rarely reported. The irony is that they are often the very students who could have contributed to making a change in this culture of intimidation.
The last group are those who go through with it. In some cases, this would be a matter of playing along for three to six months. In the most destructive forms, it would follow them their entire university life. Instead of university life being a delightful experience in free and critical thinking, it turns out to be something to be endured with a hope that one would come out the other end without losing one’s sanity or ability to think straight.
Now that we have the briefest of ideas of the detrimental effects that harassment in universities can cause to the wider society, we need to make a decision about what we do about it. As someone who has made some effort to confront this phenomenon, I’d like to suggest the following obviously non-exhaustive list of things we can do.
- Write and/or speak about the issue to improve awareness about it and the violation of rights that it amounts to. While traditional platforms such as forums and newspapers are great, social media campaigns are a very potent platform for mobilizing those really affected (the youth of our country).
- Speak to any and every student you know who is in or about to enter university, challenging them to leave behind a better and more creative legacy of ‘initiation’ for those who follow. Again, technology can be used as an effective tool to mobilize the ‘silent majority’ on a virtual platform to defy and correct current practice.
- Petition your MP, the Ministers of Education and Higher Education, Vice Chancellors, Deans and academics to take proactive action on the issue. To begin with, insist that they do not to pretend that the issue is absent in their own universities.
- Network with other like-minded citizens who see the strategic importance of not letting a small, often politically motivated, group of individuals hijack the entire higher education sector by subjugating all entrants to it.
- Challenge MPs of the dominant political parties present in universities, primarily the JVP and the Peratugami Paksheya (FSP) to openly denounce ‘ragging’ in universities.
To be sure, engaging in this way is not to be taken lightly or with an over-simplistic view of being able to change things in a year or two (or when you or your children are in, or about to enter, state university). It is a longer term undertaking that requires a constant and relentless effort until all of society finds this practice detestable in the civilized country that we call our home.
This is part of what I hope would become a ‘national conversation’ on the topic of ‘ragging’ that will in some small way catalyze a movement whose ultimate aim would be to abolish this particular form of ‘initiation’ in the state universities of this country.