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.