By Sanjana Hattotuwa –
Six years ago, when bilateral and multilateral donors, representatives from the UN system, local NGOs and other humanitarian actors met weekly to share concerns and situational awareness over the war and human displacement, I was invited to address them at one of their meetings. I started in a novel fashion, by saying aloud the worst expletives imaginable. I then stopped, and looked around. As expected, there were looks of utter surprise, dismay and shock. After a minute of pin drop silence, punctuated only by uneasy shuffles in seats, I noted that “language is a funny beast – we abhor the use of cuss words, yet we rarely flinch when we speak, hear, see or write of thousands of IDPs starving, denied humanitarian aid, without food, shelter or water, with their children abducted, suffering agony and trauma of a magnitude that is incomprehensible – yet real.”
At the time, Sri Lanka’s war was on going, and even greater horrors lay ahead in the years to come. But even post-war, the central thrust of my submission stands – we are more easily offended by common expletives and the behaviour of couples in public parks than the violent language of Mervyn Silva in public, the deracination of identity and dignity when an official SMS from the President’s office is sent only in Sinhala and English or the outright hate speech against human rights activists on public TV and radio. Government promises and pronouncements are taken as gospel, or at worst, with apathy, yet courageous submissions based on real concerns over Sri Lanka’s post-war human rights situation in local and international fora inflame and incense.
Why is this?
Most of us justify, in our minds as well as in public, hate speech against human rights activists because we are convinced they have brought it upon themselves. Most of us don’t bother enough to actively listen to, read and engage with what government or for that matter, civil society says. We increasingly consume, but don’t critique. It appears we don’t know how. A key reason is our education and pedagogy, at secondary as well as tertiary levels in particular. Schools and universities in Sri Lanka teach only to passively receive ideas, genuflect to age (i.e. grey hair), mindlessly remember and carelessly regurgitate. While adult literacy is very high in Sri Lanka, the majority don’t know how to actively listen, mindfully reflect and robustly critique. This impacts what we produce, and how we perceive.
Take any mainstream TV talk or morning show. Listen to our radio DJ’s and their blithe ignorance. Read any editorial of any mainstream newspaper. Recognise the mass appeal of high-society lifestyle magazines and supplements. Look at Channel C on cable. Observe the difference in quality between a Giraya, Gamperaliya, Charitha Thunak, Ella Langa Wallauwa, or Kadulla of yesteryear and the Sinhala teledramas on any channel today. Look at the kind of theatre that fills the seats at the Wendt, and the serious plays that often struggle to. Look at our ads, our mainstream journalism, our culture of arts and book reviews, the nature of biographies and whom they are on, the idiom of op-eds. Take our re-naming of main roads in Colombo, and the naming of statues and buildings we are erecting. Read the Hansard today, and compare it to the quality of debates in Parliament a few decades ago.
Aside from the under-reported physical violence that continues in the North and East of Sri Lanka against Tamils, there is a deep violence in what the majority support, produce and consume. This violence is one of expression, exclusion, marginalisation, dumbing down, stereotyping and pandering to the basest nature in order to appeal to the widest audience. Banality is the new black. A retrogressive Sinhala-Buddhist monocultural lens, and worse, regime worship as a new cultural theism infuses most of what we read, see and hear. The real violence inherent in the resulting cultural, political and societal fabric is not one many see, or even wish to see.
Six years on from that speech I made, the guns are silent. But I wonder if Sri Lanka is any less violent.
Published in The Nation print edition on 24 June 2012
Imesha / June 26, 2012
Oh vow! Sheer brilliance from a guy who loves to hear himself prat on about nothing!
Piranha / June 27, 2012
You are one of the people Sanjana was talking about. You simply do not wish to hear about or protest against the injustices in Sri Lanka today under the abominable Rajapaks regime. Shame on you pal.
Anu / June 26, 2012
Very courageous statement.
dagobert / June 26, 2012
This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.For more detail see our Comment policy
• If you act with maturity and consideration for other users, you should have no problems.
• Don’t be unpleasant. Demonstrate and share the intelligence, wisdom and humour we know you possess.
• Take some responsibility for the quality of the conversations in which you’re participating. Help make this an intelligent place for discussion and it will be.
Charlotte / June 26, 2012
I think the author of this piece makes some brilliant observations–with style and without being offensive. I’m new to Colombo Telegraph and have read only a few pieces so far, all of which have been well written.
Why are so many of the readers’ comments catty? I’m an interested outsider trying to understand.
Is there really no place to have an intelligent conversation without frustration reducing us to sarcasm? I understand that there is no place yet in Sri Lanka for the conversation, and that we need to let off steam (which also can’t be done safely in Sri Lanka), but at some point don’t we have to really talk to one another, and listen?
Dr.R.seneviratne / June 27, 2012
Is it some aberration in our genetic make up that we Srilankans are so apathetic and indifferent towards this new wave of violence which is taking place in our counry?
The majority appear to be in a ,hypnotic state going about in their daily activities like zombies , when violence, corruption and break down in all norms of civilization is shaking our foundations. Is it because of the burden of making ends meet due to soaring cost of living? Or is it because they are afraid to speak out due to fear of being abducted in a whte van? Or is it because we are so selfish and are completely devoid of democratic valuves that we dont care a damn about the state our country is in?
Navin Weeraratne / June 28, 2012
‘Is it some aberration in our genetic make up that we Srilankans are so apathetic and indifferent towards this new wave of violence which is taking place in our counry?’
No, as the writer has clearly explained, it is as a result of dumbing down of society. Lazy standards of education and propaganda aimed at appealing to the widest audience. An audience that is so blissfully ignorant and patriotic, it can’t actually identify who its true enemies are…
Don Quixote / June 28, 2012
I can only vouch for myself. My inaction at this pillage and destruction of our Country is because :
(a) The bank has me by the proverbial short and curlies.
(b) Just making ends meet takes up all my spare time.
(c) I simply can’t afford to lose this horrible job in this terrible work enviorenment by taking time off to join in protests.
(d) The means of protest I have is to write to the papers only.
Jim Hardy / June 27, 2012
This writer is quite right.
Navin Weeraratne / June 28, 2012
This is a fantastic piece, the best I’ve read in a long time on the challenges faced by Sri Lanka. Thanks Sanjana.
dagobert / June 28, 2012
My freedom of expression was just hijacked.
But courageous statements nevertheless can be entertained.
Was it moral coziness that impel elite to protect their own ??
If one does not want another to do the perp walk, then one must not publish.
” Is being smart or decent ” construe the same meaning ??
Funnily, who could be that person or persons …………..
PresiDunce Bean / June 28, 2012
The guns maybe silent…but the white vans are working overtime. But who cares? Give us cricket, kiribath and crackers and we will scream jaya way waa…jaath yanthara kumanthrana and maaar throoo booomiyar until we are blue in the face.
“It is just as difficult to try to free a people that want’s to remain servile as it is to enslave a people who wants to remain free.”
Navin Weeraratne / June 28, 2012
Interesting character this Niccolo Machiavelli, his writings go to show how similar us Sri Lankans are to the rest of humanity, though we as a society believe we are a much more special and wiser bunch than any other… Guess that in itself is further evidence as to how similar we are to rest of them! ;)
DAS / June 29, 2012
This piece makes us aware of the reality in sri lanka, and the reality of our own weaknesses in not countering/protesting/rebelling against injustice.
But, under the present politico social setup, protest can be dangerous.
What is the solution.
Can an (“Arab”)’Lanka Spring’ occur? How many right thinking lankans are willing to face the risks of such a venture? Even peaceful protests are now suppressed by violence including personal injury & death even by being shot at, by state & non-state actors.
Those of us having the means are trying to escape to other countries.
The future is good for those who ‘toe the line’ and are part of the giant political caucus. But what of the rest?