19 August, 2019

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The Origin Of Others

By Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan

Prof. Charles Sarvan

Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) wrote of the mirror-stage in the development of a human being when, unlike with animals, it realizes that the image seen in the mirror is she, herself: that there is me here.  The German word Fremdeln: refers to a behavioural pattern in the development of infants, usually around the eighth month of life, in which a child develops a mistrust, dislike or fear of strangers. (It has been found that the fear is triggered more by men than by women; by adults more than by children.) In a fundamental, biological, sense there is “Me” and everyone else is the “Other”, but this does not throw most of us into some kind of existential despair because we build what I would call bridging relationships: with parents, relations, friends, and through romantic and/or sexual love: titles such as “I is another” and “Call me by your name” come to mind. In the mid-19th century novel, Wuthering Heights, Catherine asserts of Heathcliff that he is more her than she is. And going back in time, John Donne (1572 – 1631) wrote in a poem: you “are the best of me”. There are several other similar statements and, no doubt, in all the languages of the world. But the concern here is not with the single self but with singulars as members of a plural. In other words, how  ‘Others’ see me and those like me as members of a group. What follows is a brief sharing of thoughts arising from reading The Origin of Others. The author, Afro American Toni Morrison, is a Professor Emeritus of Princeton University; winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and of the Pulitzer Prize.

More people believe in race than in the pseudo-science of astrology. I cite from my ‘Race and racism’ (24 March 2014):

Shlomo Sand, himself a Jew, Professor of History at Tel Aviv University, argues in his ‘The Invention of the Jewish People that there is no biological basis for a belief in Jewishness. The book was written in Hebrew and translated into English by the author. (It is as if a Sinhalese professor teaching at a Sri Lankan university were to write a book in Sinhala, not in English, which questioned a fundamental and much-cherished myth of Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism.) A Jewish “race” is pseudoscience (Shlomo Sand) yet Zionist pedagogy has produced generations who believe wholeheartedly in the racial uniqueness of their nation. (See also Sarvan, ‘Groundviews’, 07 March 2013.)

Rather than thought controlling our choice of words, our thinking and actions are influenced by words and verbal habits. The result is that often we employ words inaccurately, if not incorrectly: Yeats in his poem, ‘An Acre of Grass’, wrote of the mind being a mechanically consuming mill. Few of us have the strength and courage, the self-detachment and honesty to examine our words, our long-held assumptions and beliefs. Few of us think on new lines. Gavin Evans, in the Guardian newspaper of 2 Mar 2018, writes that individuals often share more genes with members of other races than with members of their own race: rather than speak of race, we should use the phrase “population groups”. As I have suggested in the essay, ‘The term “racism” and discourse’ (included in Sri Lanka: Literary Essays & Sketches) race may not exist but racism flourishes. Race is not the father of racism but its child: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and me. It’s those who are race-minded who think and react in terms of race. We may be told that racism is troglodyte but propagating the scientific truth of human likeness cannot undo the power of racism: Karen and Barbara Fields, Racecraft. On the contrary, group-animosity has increased recently, and not only in the West because, at root, racism has to do with identity-politics. Globalization disregards borders and national infrastructure and there’s a vast migration of peoples: the slaves are leaving the plantations and heading for the mansions of their former slave-masters (Toni Morrison). The ‘Other’ creates a sense of deep insecurity and fear – emotional and psychological states that can, in turn, provoke violence and cruelty. The “tribe”, and success against other tribes, are more important to people than economic success, than even freedom: Amy Chua, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations. Those at the receiving end of ‘population-group’ hostility are not only seen as being different (they are in several ways) but being different “they” are thought not to be human in the same way as “us”. Race-thinkers assume they are the norm:  the Other goes to define our-self (selves).

Morrison observes that to be American is, for many, to be white. Professor Amy Chua (op. cit.) writes that many African Americans do not feel “American” in the same way that many white Americans take for granted. (More precisely, many African Americans are not allowed to feel fully American.) In other places too where more than one population-group shares geographic space with other groups, the majority will project their identity as subsuming the entire country: for example, “Sri Lanka” equals “Sinhalese Buddhist” (secondly and secondarily, Sinhalese Christians). In turn, exclusion and subordination strengthen, if not create, minority identity. The so-called assimilated Jews of Germany felt their Jewishness was accidental rather than important, much less essential. Several fought and died for Germany in the First World War: ironically, Hugo Gutmann, a senior officer who recommended that Hitler be awarded the Iron Cross, was Jewish. Soon Hitler and the Nazis made it brutally clear that the Jews were Jews and not German. One thinks of the early decades of the 20th century and those Tamils who worked ardently for (what was then) Ceylon’s independence. The following is slightly edited from my Public Writings on Sri Lanka, Volume 2.

There was a time when most, if not all in the Island, irrespective of language and religion, equally took a measure of pride and encouragement from ancient achievement, temple and lake; an equal measure of happiness in being “Ceylonese”; a time when Tamils described themselves as Ceylonese and not (as some Tamils tend to do now) as “Sri Lankan Tamil”.  When in 1915, D. S. Senanayake (later the first Prime Minister of independent Ceylon) and his brother, F. R. Senanayake were jailed by the British authorities, Tamil Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan went to England to plead their case. On his successful return, jubilant crowds placed him in a carriage, detached the horses, and dragged the carriage themselves. He was not seen as a Tamil who had helped free a Sinhalese, but as a Ceylonese helping a fellow Ceylonese… In 1925-6, when Bandaranaike, as leader of the Progressive National Party, set out the case for a federal political structure for Sri Lanka, he received no support for it from the Tamils (K M De Silva). Even after the trauma of Standardisation (“racial” quota) in relation to University admission beginning in 1971, and the Draft Constitution of 1972, the All Ceylon Tamil Conference declared, “Our children and our children’s children should be able to say, with one voice, Lanka is our great motherland, and we are one people from shore to shore. We speak two noble languages, but with one voice” (Nesiah, p. 14). In 1952, the Kankesuntharai parliamentary seat was contested by Chelvanayakam, as a member of the Federal Party. He was comfortably defeated by a U.N.P. candidate.”

Since race-thinking seems ineradicable, there is the temptation to give up but a book such as Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, despite the title, is not surrender but a call for action. Ignoring race-thinking and practice; pretending they don’t exist, is felt by some to be a tactful, sensitive, gesture but it is finally unhelpful: Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark. Surely, the more hopeless a struggle seems (and the cause just), the greater the honour in not giving up?

There is only one race, the human race; there are no foreigners but only different versions of ourselves (The Origin of Others). 

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    ”’ There is only one Race, the Human race; there are no foreigners but only Different Versions of ourselves (The Origin of Others). ”[quote]

    Your saying was declared 1400 years ago in the Final Testament – Qur’aan ;
    “Oh humankind! We created you from a Single Pair of a Male and a Female, and made you into Nations and Tribes, so that you may know each other (not that ye may despise each other). Verily the most honoured ,noblest among you in the sight of Almighty – the Super Intelligent , is he who is the most righteous and the best conduct of you. And Almighty – the Super Intelligent has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things)” (49:13)..

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      CEYLONEE,

      How did life begin on the Earth?
      When did life begin on the Earth?
      Just curious!

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        Read Genesis.

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    https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/23/opinion/sunday/genetics-race.html

    No longer can it be said that race is a purely social construct.

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    Race it seems an identity that is given by the genes to human mind to segregate for security. Unfortunately jealousy has got intertwined and has produced humane-less race. Yes there exists only human race.

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    Thought provoking and disturbingly haunting piece by Prof. Sarvan. It is my fervent belief that Racecraft (and what a beautifully clever word that it!) should be a part of school curriculum. All the “peace education” modules do nothing but to gloss through racial issues like Sangakkara on a podium (no offense to Sangakkara). The reason his speech was called the greatest speech in the history of cricket (or something) is mainly because the privileged white man relates to it. It is easy for the privileged to say I’m Sinhalese, I’m Tamil. I’m Muslim I m Sri Lanka. It’s is hard for the pained to recognize a being outside themselves.
    The arts and humanities have totally failed us. All that the backward lyricists are doing is writing horribly misplaced songs like we are one”” ” you go to temple I go to kovil”. Who is going to any of these places to find the love of their life anymore? Sri Lanka has lost its artistic and historic depth. It has lost context of existence. This tragedy is seen across the social fabric.
    The racial self is place where some go to fold upon themselves and rock themselves to solace. This is a kind, soft , vulnerable truth we all must understand about the other. Even if one personally does not identify race as a descriptive feature about himself, he must be kind enough to give that space to another if needed.I salute this writer. May you live long and write more (I really mean it)

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    Humans corralling themselves into “Us” and “Others” is part of evolution and was probably necessary at some point of time
    The Nazis used “The origin of us – the super-Aryan race”. Fortunately this did not last long.
    The ‘superiority of whites’ as a dogma lasted a bit longer – the last bastion was the Apartheid regime.
    A very firm foundation for “Other Lankans” was laid soon after independence. We have got addicted and are willing to suffer to uphold this myth.
    Myths are easily established, have lot of inertia and are difficult to change.

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    That’s a wonderful comment by Shyam. I’m not finding fault with the other two that are currently visible, but this subject is devilishly complex. On the other hand, the last paragraph of the main article indicates how simple it can all be.
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    Kumar Sangakkara is a great guy, and his speech was justly lauded, but you’re right Shyam, not everybody could have made it.
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    Thanks even more to Professor Sarvan for his continuing efforts to educate us. I haven’t read Toni Morrison, but I have heard of her. Given the chaos that is Sri Lanka today, even some of us being aware of the issues is something to be happy about.

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    Prof. Charles Sarvan has made a gallant effort to zero in on the racial discord in Sri Lanka. The laudable effort has fizzled out. I wouldn’t find fault with Charles Sarvan for that. Even the sound mind of Prof. Charles Sarvan is finding it a challenge.

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    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.For more detail see our Comment policy https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/comments-policy-2/

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    Good stuff but comes too late. Identity politics is here to stay. It may be a bad thing and not based on scientific evidence. All that is true but race is a construct. Once constructed, it stays because astute politicians use it. The most racist among the Sinhalayas are the once most doubtful of their Sinhala identity. The berawes, the karawes, the cinnamon peelers, all came from India just like the estate Tamils brought by colonialists to work. In the old days, there were mercenaries brought from various parts of India. Tamils known as Vellaikarars had custody of the Temple of the Tooth for several years. The Kandian Kings and Queens were Tamils. But, all that is history. There has been an identity constructed and that is what matters. That the identity is fictional- Buddha did not come to SL 16 times over or bless it thrice- but fictions do count. Intellectuals may tell us that this should not be so but it is the reality that much bloodshed occurs as a result of the fictional creation of identity.

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    Mama Sinhalam writes: “Identity politics [alias ‘racism’] is here to stay.”
    It stays because it is allowed to stay.
    If we give up the struggle as futile, it will embed itself even more solidly; be taken as natural and normal.
    No, there is no alternative but to try our best – again and again, and yet again.
    It may not be eradicated completely but its more extreme and blatant expression; its viciousness, can be reduced.
    We have a moral obligation not to take the easy path of surrender.

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    In response to Mama Sinhalam’s contribution, I share this personal experience:
    Driving higher up in the mountains on the afternoon of the 13th March 2015, our car got stuck in the snow. It was a deserted place at the start of woods but we found a man who willingly went away and came back a while later with shovel and wooden planks to help out, but to no avail. Then a couple turned up; later, a woman walking her dog. The snow cleared by the shovels as much as we could; planks in place, I started the car while the others pushed but it was stuck too deep. (An old man with a heart condition, I felt bad watching them trying to sort out my problem while what I could contribute was minimal.) Fortunately, yet another man turned up: someone in a 4-wheel drive vehicle, with the necessary equipment – and with the knowledge of how to deal with such a situation. Within minutes the car was freed. The whole incident took something close to two hours, and help was given as a matter-of-course, natural, almost to be taken for granted.
    But by chance, in the morning I had read an incident in a Holocaust-survival memoir, Gone to Ground by Marie Jalowicz Simon. (‘Untergetaucht: Eine junge Frau überlebt in Berlin 1940-1945’.) One day, eighteen-year old Marie stood despairing on a bridge looking down at the water. A woman approached her, but then saw the yellow ‘Star of David’ which Jews were then forced to wear, and said contemptuously: “Well, go on, do it.” That woman was a German; yet, years later, there was I, a black man, helped by Germans as if I were German myself.
    Some realizations, even if banal, renew themselves. Germany or Sri Lanka, the little
misadventure showed me yet again how malleable individual and group human-nature is; how circumstances can turn us to remarkable kindness or drive us to gross cruelty. It’s all a matter of a certain historical time; of a particular political culture, and a specific social climate. The German example shows that positive change is realizable. If Germany, why not Sri Lanka? A luta continua

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    ‘ And He has made from one blood
    Every nation of men to dwell on all
    The face of the earth’.( Acts.17. Holy Bible) to

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    Comments are still open here, which may be why I thought that this was the same as this next article by Prof. Sarvan:
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    https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/on-shaping-the-other/
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    Also, of course, there is the fact that the display of the other article gives the same Toni Morrison picture as this.
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    Confusing as it sometimes gets, we’ve got to make the best of what we see, and – THANKS – Prof. Sarvan for all that you’ve given us!

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