13 August, 2022


So What Have Our Intellectuals Done?

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

I firmly believe that our intellectuals have taken us, the ordinary man, woman, and child on the street, away from reality. They tend to obfuscate, to dissipate the truth in a horde of profundities that read into something without getting anything out. The same can be said of every other field that has succumbed to these intellectuals: the law, science, philosophy, even religion. Without letting this prejudice my stance for or against them, let me come out with it: I don’t claim to know half of what the experts do. This isn’t a harangue against them, rather an attempt at finding out how our intellectual discourse has, and has not, helped us out as a country.

The primary function of any field, and the practitioners of such fields, is to help those who are compelled to resort to them. Sick people resort to doctors, those undone by injustice resort to lawyers, and those undone by grievous inequity resort to (what else?) the government. That is a fact, and because of it the authority claimed by these practitioners, given their credentials and experience, is taken for granted and assumed by default. Their main role, therefore, is to resolve an issue, any issue, as quickly and justly as possible. That is why delays are described as “inordinate”.

The problem is that most of our professional bodies and professionals are either oblivious to this fact or choose to overlook it. Either way, it has led to these same bodies to be demarcated as arcane, archaic, out of touch with the realities of those they purport to help, and therefore unjust. The unlovely sobriquets earned by the legal fraternity, the medical community, and of course the government are not underserved: they sum up the magnitude of the opposition against them by the people.

It’s difficult to imagine how this state of affairs came about. One line of thinking goes that because of the elitism these bodies accumulated over the years, their practitioners were cut off from their own people. True, but that’s not the full picture: let’s not forget that some of the most significant and positive strides made in the last few decades, here and particularly in the legal sphere, were facilitated by the structures underpinning those fields. It took a long time for the United States to de-legitimise segregation and the ban on interracial marriage, for instance, but that was finally achieved through the law. No, the problem goes deeper: it’s the fact that those who lead these fields have managed to distance themselves from their surroundings.

To be sure, these intellectuals have not been behind all our problems. But I think there’s a fundamental problem when those who purport to speak (or do) something in the name of a collective (regardless of ethnic or religious affiliations) do so without considering the concerns of that collective. In that sense I believe our war was elongated thanks to the inability of many of our intellectuals to counter Eelamist propaganda. It took someone like Malinda Seneviratne (who has resisted the intellectual tag his opponents love to pin on themselves) to sum up the “process of capitulation” we were subscribing to during those ceasefire years, while not even the brilliant Professor G. L. Peiris, with his impeccable academic credentials, could successfully counter the myths that the likes of Anton Balasingham were propagating.

This dilemma, which isn’t really “here” or “ours”, has been supplemented by two issues. The first is the misconception that the policy elite of a country must be higher than the people, a misconception so dangerous that it has led to the materialisation of that society of royalists and paupers depicted by Michael Young in his The Rise of Meritocracy. The second, which is older and, by default, more persistent, is the way our intellectuals have overly intellectualised the social sciences.

I have elaborated on the first of these in my previous columns. The second issue, therefore, interests me more, since it’s not too different to the arguments of that underestimated, vilified commentator Professor Nalin de Silva. To listen and watch de Silva is, of course, to force oneself to accommodate arguments that are virulently opposed to everything one studied at school and elsewhere. Given my abysmal understanding of science, I think it best that I don’t comment on what he has written on that subject. However, I am interested in how his arguments against Western epistemology can be extrapolated to our critique of the social sciences.

When Professor Nalin disparaged (Western) science as pattapal boru, he was chided (rightly, we or rather those of my age thought at the time) as being too simplistic. He was shrugged off as a deshiya buddhimatha, who was too estranged from the world to merit a second opinion. What we failed to understand, however, is that he wasn’t really shrugging off science: rather, he was pointing out that its roots were relative to culture. He was more vitriolic with the social sciences and postmodernism, I remember: “One does not need a degree or training in sociology to understand Weber’s Protestant Ethic or Foucault’s Sexuality,” he once contended. Rightly.

The truth is that Western social sciences were always removed from the same public they were supposed to aid. This not only explains the lack of a genuine, rooted human rights discourse in the East, it also explains why the clique marketed as our intelligentsia remain outsiders to our people. Delays in the delivery of justice, delays in the health sector, and delays even in the democratic process can, I believe, be rooted in two problems: one, the woeful gap between theory and practice in these fields, and two, the arcane structures underpinning them.

Montesquieu once contended that democracy was not fit for the East: we were too passionate, too prone to extremities of anger, love, and hate, to deserve it. Whether or not this was a bigoted observation is for another debate altogether, but I wonder: can this be a confession that there are no universal values, only values created or enforced? And can it be taken to mean that if the East wasn’t ready for democracy, any variant thereof that we absorbed was actually driven down our throats, against our will? I for one do not subscribe to the belief that the concept of individual rights is alien to our way of life (it’s not like we didn’t have democracy at all, let’s not forget), but I do believe that can help explain why Zeid al-Hussein, bemoaning Theresa May’s outbursts, asked the following regarding international human rights: “Why is it so misunderstood, so reviled by some, feared by others, spurned, attacked?”

The answer to that isn’t that we (the East) are not ready for those rights, rather that they or the processes through which they are enforced have not been properly indigenised. “The fact that Equal Ground and other LGBTQI rights activists need to knock on the heavily guarded gates of Colombo’s Western embassies to stand for the rights of Sri Lankan LGBTQI people is simply appalling,” Chaminda Weerawardhana (no lover of the homophobia and intensely irrational chauvinism rampant in this country) once wrote. Therein lies the rub: we are not opposed to what can, at one level, be considered as universal values, but we are opposed to the heavily skewed and biased ways in which they are enforced by social scientists, sociologists, and what not. The theory, as always, remains cut off from its practice: the intelligentsia can’t produce a Harvey Milk simply because they want to photocopy Harvey Milk.

I think we have to be a bit more circumspect when criticising the likes of Professor Nalin. He has been referred to as a chauvinist, a bigot, a man who’s against modernity and progress, forgetting that many of his beliefs can be verified. I am not entirely sure whether everything he has said and written needs to be accorded with, nor am I sure whether even his most vocal supporters (in print and elsewhere) share his opinions regarding Westernisation (because not unlike our LGBTQI movement, our nationalist movement is dependent on the same kind of Western liberalism he repudiates), but I do believe that inasmuch as the gap between the promotion and the dissemination of Western social sciences is concerned, he is spot on.

Of course, the intellectuals have been calling the shots. Always. They have been leaders and representatives. They claim that those they represent accord well with what they say and spout. Irrelevant. The truth is that until what they say is indigenised, and the processes underpinning their institutions are democratised, they will be cut off from their people. Call it a tragedy, call it a farce. In the end it doesn’t matter.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com. His articles can be accessed at fragmenteyes.blogspot.com

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Latest comments

  • 2

    Opinion is free but facts are sacred and that includes periodization ( i.e. dates) :))

    So, for purposes of record:

    Anton Balasingham in his Brahmagnani column, wrote: “Sri Lankan political discourse, in recent times, has produced an amazing variety of political theorists and analysts whose main vocation seems to be to produce denunciatory criticisms of the politico-military strategy of the LTTE and offer ideas or solutions as to how to end the so-called terrorist menace. Among these political theorists Dayan Jayatilleka stands out as a unique character in his irrational and ruthless criticism of the LTTE.” (Inside Report- Tamil Eelam News Review, June 30, 1995).

    • 4

      “”Among these political theorists Dayan Jayatilleka stands out as a unique character in his irrational and ruthless criticism of the LTTE.”””
      He was a low down out right bum finding parallels with you and marrying it low.
      dirty laundry,dirty linen , dirty wash,back fence talk, they say you do not wet the soap when you have a wash.
      School teacher pseudo intellectual: When words are many there may be error.

    • 2

      This naive boy Uditha Deewapriya, would not know anything but what the media louds about so called big big DJ. DJ is a person who abuse the media for his obssessions. He is the ultra nationalists that make every effort to revenge on his kindheit rivals. No matter anything would have been the outcome but to stand against CBK, RW or on and on.

      DJ to be the first to add his thoughts about the article further proves their family contact with Uditha D. Poor boy should see this right at this stage, else, he would have end up in vain as is the case with DJ.

      I think pompouse fame etc came into being through abusive lanken media.
      DJ has done nothing that much as the media is made to believe.
      Please check all the interviews and articles and the inconsistency of the his views.

      A p

  • 4

    Agree 100%. Trouble is, our Lankans are busy paying-acting illusory parts. Socialists are busy re-enacting the Russian Revolution. Current GoSL will go 100% opposite and crave the American dream (on the coat-tails of India….India!!!). Previous GoSL was on the Dutugemunu path. Some with heavy hearts wipe tears to ancient Greekness (can you believe?)! Others are pining the Lion thing and will then dance Bhangra. Burghers are hopelessly lost in the colonial memory. Buddhist priests are reveling in the Mahavamsa. And last but not least (worst actually) is of course the Thamil Eelamic dream! All are depressed. Then all will dance Kuveni-Vijaya biala and jaw about which ancestor took the traitor’s route. What a howl!

    • 1

      And Muslims play Islamic harem 1001 nights scenes.

  • 4

    Uditha Devapriya; “”It took a long time for the United States to de-legitimise segregation and the ban on interracial marriage, for instance, but that was finally achieved through the law. No, the problem goes deeper: it’s the fact that those who lead these fields have managed to distance themselves from their surroundings.”” “”

    GLP was no intellect but a spin doctor who could never have won a case in the courts of justice.
    Linda is trying to turn the spirit of Ayn Rand to suit his purpose but your culture lacks `confidence` of the nomads and that runs in your genes. You are seeing heaven from the bottom of the well because your ancestors never crossed the oceans so all you do is kill the mocking bird at home that sings.
    Villager in our city of yore: The fathers and subsequent mothers of the nation fancied the gonibillas to the suddhas even though the main export trade above 50% is to America and Britain and a major portion is in the hands of the gonibilas. You made slaves of the main export earners chopped off the trees for a few pieces of silver and brought in the floods but you have to brave the fire that is the plague. The 3 chapters are right in their message but you have no wherewithal for its Samsara , Samsara.
    When one blind man leads several blind men, before long all will fall into a ditch of fire-
    arohara , sadu sadu you are making it happen not anyone else anymore because outsiders don’t care as you are pregnant to the core with guns.

  • 0

    These pseudo intellectuals are very much to blame for the 2015 yahapalanaya victory going sour. They clustered around the PM and the Prez to get their own work done. Some of them became shameless apologists for the Gvt;ie Weliamuna on corruption and Saravanamuttu on reconciliation. Of course, these people are not even ‘pseudo’ intellectuals. They are simply con artists and big publicity hunters.

    Raja G. who was my contemporary in university would have shuddered if he had seen the politicians who ( as I was told) attended Weliamuna’s PC party. Those days, PCs of the old calbre had events to celebrate but no such vulgar, politician-dominated gathering. Apparently Sarath Fonseka was the person who greeted guests at Saliya Peiris’ PC event/

    None of them managed to convert their work into a grass roots based effort, this had the effect of alienating ordinary people from these things. They only got their selfish personal ends. Saravanamuttu was invited to Gvt defence ceremonies and Weliamuna was given a PC-ship. The Bar Association is now in the hands of another pro-MR group as the Bar, as a whole, disliked the Alagaratnam+Welaumna+Saliya Peiris cabal.

    Now we see the result – a paving of the way for MR+GR to return in 2019.

  • 1

    Professionals have become Sociopaths which is a contagious disease. Those with power does not want justice. It is because of fear Pres is asking for justice be done. Otherwise justice is not very important according to those in power. First discipline and then justice. The rest will fall in place.

  • 2

    If the term “intellectual” encompasses senior university academics in Sri Lanka, then their role in shaping the destiny of the country has been pathetically insipid and largely impotent. Many succumbed to political pressure to toe their opportunistic, vote-generating agendas, betraying the trust that society traditionally placed on them for their professional impartiality and integrity.

    Academics were also silent when hugely damaging national policies were introduced on the whims of political expediency, while currying favour with the winners and attaining positions of power. Thus, it is the lowly political class that helps form the national psyche than “intellectuals”.

  • 1

    ud and dj spend their time praising each other as no one else does
    nalin de silva the biggest con man has allied with another gunadasa amerasekera
    these are the true intellectuals ha ha

  • 2

    Uditha Devapriya identifies intellectuals with those surrounding themselves with glossy shelves full of books and/or those having tertiary qualifications. The only attribute of an intellectual is possessing and USING common sense wisely. Ho Chi Ming is a good example!
    Uditha seems to have a soft corner for Nalin de Silva. Was not Nalin who obdurately claimed that one of his dogmas was told to him personally by a god?
    Were Prof GL Peiris’ somersaults intellectual? What is mythical about Anton Balasingam?
    Does gymnastics with words and arrangements make an intellectual?

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