18 October, 2017

The Language Of Public Discussion

By Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan

Dr. Charles Sarvan

I found the response to the letter by Rev. Emmanuel, titled ‘An open letter to the Queen’ (Colombo Telegraph, 4th October) unsurprising and yet most disappointing. This is not an attempt to defend the Reverend: I presume he can do that himself should he so wish, but to use it as an example, and comment on the language of public discussion.

Several years ago, while teaching at a university in a Moslem country, I invited students to imagine the following. The door to our lecture-room is suddenly opened; a stranger walks in and announces that Islam is a false religion. What, I asked my students, would your reaction be? The first would be one of incredulity and bewilderment: Here we are, happily discussing a literary text, this stranger walks in, and gratuitously insults our religion, Islam. Why? Shock and surprise are followed by pain and hurt. These are quickly succeeded and replaced by an anger that boils into rage. In the next phase, the man is verbally abused; most likely, despite my remonstrations, physically assaulted. Finally, he is reported to the university authority or to the government; duly penalised and deported.

Having agreed on the likelihood of this sequence, I asked my students: The man asserted that Islam is a false religion. Does any of the above disprove him? No. It will only show that you were shocked, hurt and then incensed. Your fury was satisfied by the punishment meted out to the rude and foolish stranger, but the man will leave the country still with the opinion that Islam is a false religion but now with the added conviction that its adherents have a ready propensity to verbal and physical violence. What, therefore, should have been your reaction? The answer: Enter into a discussion with the man, ask him the grounds for his claim, and try to prove his thesis erroneous. John Milton, is his Areopagitica, published in November 1644, argues that even as physical exercise helps to keep the body fit, so opposition and dissenting opinion can have a positive effect. At the very least, in meeting counter-arguments, we clarify and strengthen our thoughts and beliefs to ourselves. As Husserl observed, our words take us by surprise and teach (show) us what we think. Opposition is to be welcomed.

But many who replied Rev. Emmanuel only revealed their anger and hatred. The crudity of their response was deplorable.  I suppose those who wrote in this manner are very proud and pleased with themselves, not realizing they’ve behaved like a man in a market-place tucking up his sarong and spewing obscenity. They are proud and pleased, not seeing that It does them no credit and, what is more, damages Sri Lanka’s image. Contrary to what they believe, rather than defending the country and “doing it proud”, they bring embarrassment and shame. The words hurled at Reverend Emmanuel include: joker, Satan, scum, rot in hell, rogue, terrorist pig, barbarian, mad. Personal abuse is mistaken, and substituted, for argument. Instead of restrained, dignified and, above all, reasoned discussion, what is resorted to is vulgar name-calling, jeering and taunting. As I have written elsewhere, in such reaction there is much heat (anger) but little or no light (understanding). Yet Buddhism is associated with enlightenment; and enlightenment is not the product of violent emotion but of calm, patient and persistent reasoning.

Further, while the contributor stands in the light, in the sense that Colombo Telegraph insists on identity being known and published, those who throw dirt at her or him remain in the dark of anonymity. It doesn’t indicate courage.

Yet another deplorable tendency is not to grapple with the central arguments made but to quibble over detail and minor points. The implication is that if I say Monday and it was, in fact, a Tuesday, then the totality of my case is also wrong, discredited and demolished. Another tactic is to point to past mistakes, crimes and sins as if they justify present mistakes, crimes and sins. The one does not cancel out the other but only doubles and deepens injustice, human suffering and sorrow.

Voltaire is supposed to have said, I disagree with every word you say but will defend with my life your right to say it. Though the spirit of that saying is generally approved of, it has not passed without questioning. For example, should what is known as “hate speech” be permitted? Several states have banned statements which excite division or cause pain to a group. (Of course, individuals have recourse to libel laws.) One of the essential elements of a true democracy is an informed and alert electorate engaging in fearless discussion, frankly exchanging ideas and perspectives. Disagreement is not only healthy (sadly, Milton’s attack on censorship in Areopagitica is very relevant to Sri Lanka today) but vital for a democracy. But, in the process, one should not lose reason, restraint and, above all, civility. Going by past personal experience, I must confess I am not sanguine that reason and civility will prevail, but still feel the effort must be made.

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    Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan,

    Hope that people who get carried away by mere emotions realize what you said in this article.

    But, there is a saying in Tamil when translated: Those who try to explain to fools will become become bigger fools.

    Thiru

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      Don’t be surprised if you get a barrage of attacks.

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      Agreed,
      In Sri lanka,
      We all are fools to appointed these foolish politicians,
      who are aggressively and abusively, again and again fools us.

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        Not the we the thinner minority, but the others who blindly voted for. Even today are on voting mode for no reasons should clearly be made by lanken media instituations the need of the hour – becoming civilized is a long process. If the incumbant president would not care of it… at least professionals of the country should come forward in this regard. But media should stay on their side neutrally. Else, we will be lost folk sooner.

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    You ask for too much. The anonymous contributors who make these comments are not capable of ‘enlightened’ discussion. Their ignorance is abysmal!

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      then why are you still anonymous ? first you come out with your real identity

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    Thirisannu like – Mervin, Wimal and Kumara walgama have destroyed the civilized nature of lanken public speeches long back. Not forgetting the very same words were lately heard from President himself -( ” apita kelawanna enawa = they come to attack us). So unlike in the golden days where politicians behaved well are out of the culture as of now. I think Critics should come from Universities guide lining the nature of public speeches. If there are no such ethical guidlines – Wimal buruwansa, Mervin or the like public representatives could further destroy it to appalling levels. Very recently, I was surprised hearing that a woman saying ” BABAHUKUNG” – as if it is accepted by any listener… Whatever the meaning of it, it sounded very vulgar for me – as one who only compares things with those of the past (that goes to 2 decades ago- while me being out of the country for such a long time). Even young ones would not see it being wrong using these wording further – so as a wave that get polarised among the folks. Even buddhist monks being on public stages are used to use very rude langauge today – than two decades ago. We repsected them to that time, that much, but anyone who listen to them today, would not even want to give or continue DANA to them. Authorities should work hard to frame this otherwise, future generations would only end up very uncivlized.

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    Tamil National Alliance (TNA) supporters in Mullaiththeevu on Tuesday have burnt the effigy of NPC Chief Minister Mr CV Wigneswaran who took his oath before genocidal Colombo’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Monday.

    Well done. You are Tamils with dignity. Other Tamils are just Tame-Ills.

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      Can’t wait for the split in the TNA support base, eh?

      Tamils are wiser than the Sinhalese electorate you know!

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      Fat”Mama” Fuk U Shima,

      Finally you are running out of gas and and the sheer desperation you are facing is begining to show through.

      “One of the essential elements of a true democracy is an informed and alert electorate engaging in fearless discussion, frankly exchanging ideas and perspectives. Disagreement is not only healthy but essential for Democracy.”

      From your comments it shows how ignorant you are and you have as predicted missed Sarwans point.

      Taking the Oath infront of MR was a master stroke and soon after that CM reiterated the Election Manifesto that full implemntaion of the 13th Amendment is not negitiable and this was confirmed by your master Kurshid when he visted the North. Having bestowed the CM on Mr.Wigneswaran MR is in a fix and even a Halal eating Tart like you can smell the stench. MR now has no choice but to accede to his own CMs demand.
      By the way have you heard from Gotha? Do you know if he is dead or alive. Poor Soul who would have thought that this would happen to someone who defetaed the LTTE. May be SF has kidnapped him.

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    apt. and it works for everyone. read the abuse hurled at me whenever CT publishes something I write.

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      Your articles are one-sided definitely, and needs vigorous rebuttal.

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