By 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. His articles can be accessed at fragmenteyes.blogspot.com