26 February, 2020

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“The Silent Majority”: Sharing Some Thoughts

By Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan

Charles Sarvan

“The majority of Sri Lankans are fair-minded, decent and generous. This majority shouldn’t be silent but, for the sake of the Island, unite and speak out against the extremists.” Such and other similar sentiment are not uncommon, and quite understandable. “The silent majority” is a phrase, a claim and an appeal that one encounters not uncommonly in different countries and contexts, and with different implications. Often, it seems to me, it’s a small group that uses the expression to comfort itself by saying that, though they seem to be few in number, the majority is with them, albeit absent, that is, silent and inactive. For example, one reads alarmed and despondent reports in the British press that church-attendance in England is falling. However, some argue that what really matters is belief, Christian values and conduct. The silent majority hold to the faith, though they are unable, or don’t bother, to attend. But the fact is that the number of Christians, though it grows in parts of Africa and South America, has fallen, and is falling, in England. Is the claim that a silent Christian majority exists in England then denial, self-delusion, or a wanting-to-believe what one would like to be reality? It could also be a move to express trust and confidence in the majority of their fellow countrymen, a kind of compliment: they are not here but, in their hearts and minds; in their convictions and values, they are with us. Perhaps, they are right.

In a different situation, the explanation for the “silent majority” phenomenon is otherwise and simple, for example, under a cruel and efficient dictatorship. I think that, by the very end of the Second World War, most Germans had realized that the World War they had launched, fervently believed in, and enthusiastically supported was, in truth, great folly; a crime, and a “sin” against humanity. But they didn’t dare openly express their opposition. Excluding and acknowledging the few who opposed and paid the ultimate price, one could say the majority of Germans remained silent. Finally, Hitler was not removed by a swelling, German, protest-movement but by the Russian and Allied invasion.

Did these protestors constitute a minority? Did the majority support the Pact but, in the face of that vehemence and violence, remain silent?

The burden of History can lead to the existence of a silent majority of a different kind and nature. I am told by my brother-in-law (German) that most Germans today are of the opinion that the children of immigrants should be compelled to learn German through intense language lessons. If they learn the language quickly, not only will they feel at home sooner but, importantly, it will enhance their employment potential, and thus their contribution to the national economy. Yet the memory and shadow of a dictatorial past makes the majority of Germans reluctant to recommend compulsion, fearing they’ll be misunderstood. They form the majority on the issue but remain silent: a silent majority.
My brother-in-law also wondered whether Aung San Suu Kyi – brave and principled; Nobel Prize winner – would dare urge equal rights and treatment where the Muslims in Burma are concerned. If she doesn’t publicly take a stand, is it because she shares the ethnic beliefs and hegemonic intentions of the majority? Or is it because of a reluctance to go against the majority, not to mention the country’s armed forces? At this fragile stage of a transition to democracy, it might prove politically and tactically unwise.

In Sri Lanka, what obtains is the electoral system, be it termed “democracy” or “majoritarianism”. In German, the word for the vote is “die Stimme”, and the right to vote is “das Stimmrecht”. The first translates literally as “the voice”; the second, as “the right to a voice”. Citizens, the people, “speak” at election through the vote they cast, silently and (in order to safeguard them) in privacy. Their “voices” are heard (counted); the majority wins, and comes to govern for a fixed period of time. To vote is to “speak”, and speech is an action, as J. L. Austin, philosopher of language, argued. Under the electoral system, on major issues it is difficult to claim the existence of a silent majority; a majority that is silent but dissenting. Some countries, if there’s an important matter to be decided, gauge and establish the majority opinion through a plebiscite. Before the Gulf War that destroyed Saddam Hussein, Tony Blair refused to hold a referendum, knowing full well that the majority would vote against military intervention. (I happened to be in London, and took part in the “march of a million”.) “Vox populi“ may turn out to be the voice of the Devil rather than that of God (“vox Dei”) but, under the electoral system, “Vox populi” is supposed to be decisive, and translates itself into law, and then into practice. The people, therefore, cannot exculpate themselves, easily shifting responsibility and blame onto political shoulders. Under a free electoral system, and unlike in a dictatorship, the ultimate responsibility is not with politicians but with the people who choose the politicians.

Let us take the Bandaranaike – Chelvanayagam Pact of the late 1950s. It was abruptly abrogated because of mass and violent protest; and by monks going on deputation to the Prime Minister’s residence. Did these protestors constitute a minority? Did the majority support the Pact but, in the face of that vehemence and violence, remain silent? I don’t know but doubt the former explanation because Mr. Bandaranaike was a populist and very popular politician: I remember the mass outpouring of grief and anger at his assassination.

I would suggest for consideration that, within a population, there are three groups. The first is made up of “extremists”, proud of and publicly proclaiming their right to dominate the ‘Other’; to exclude and subordinate them. They have but contempt for concepts such as justice, universal human rights and equality; for the ideals of compassion and fairness. Theirs is a ruthless racist Darwinism.

The second group consists in turn of two sub-groups: those who are indifferent and resigned, and those who wish things were different. The latter do care, but not to the degree that they are unafraid to speak out or to act. The price to be paid, they feel, is too great. The public good is not worth the damage to private life; to oneself and to one’s family. Combining the two, in some cases it may be fear that leads to resignation; to a throwing-up of hands and saying, “Who am I? What can I do? Nothing”. One must also remember those to whom bare existence is an arduous and daily struggle, leaving them with no time, strength or energy for political participation – even though their condition is the consequence of uncaring and failed politics. To point out in such cases that the etymology of the word “idiot” leads back to “individual”, and thence to “one not interested in public matters” would be cruel. Majority or minority, those of this second group are silent and inactive.

The third group is formed by men and women who openly, fearlessly, oppose the powers-that-be, conscious of the risk they run, and the price that may be exacted. (“Fear” must be distinguished from “cowardice”. The former is a healthy, life-preserving instinct.) Whether they are seen either as mistaken and foolish, even traitorous, or as being courageous, decent and principled is a matter of (differing) opinion.

I don’t know what proportion each group forms within ‘the Island of the Moral and Compassionate Doctrine’ but, to return to what I wrote earlier about the vote being the voice and opinion of the people; the barometer of their thought, feeling and wishes, successive election results in the Island seem to indicate emphatically and repeatedly that the first group has, by far, the greatest support. Here, one must have in mind the majority community: according to Wikipedia (2012), of a population of about twenty million, the Sinhalese constitute 74.9 %. Whether silent or vociferous, the Sinhalese form the overwhelming majority, and it’s they who determine the nature of political and public life in Sri Lanka – remembering that the political and the public finally affect the social, the personal and the private.

One should not assume that the “silent majority” is made up of “moderates”; that the so-called “lunatic fringe” is a fringe, and not at the centre: one must first ask whether such a belief coincides with facts and reality. Before we build a structure of argument leading to a conclusion we must make sure that the foundational premise from which we start out is valid. The challenge is much harder because, at present, a silent majority of moderates believing in equality and inclusion seems not to exist. If so, the Herculean and daunting task, one that calls for intelligence and political skill; for courage, determination and patience, is first to alter people’s thinking, attitudes and values. The silent majority of moderates must first be created. This can be done through dialogue and discussion; through the media (particularly in Sinhala), and through education. I don’t mean “education” narrowly, relating to school and university, but in the broad and best sense of that term: the word “education” comes from the Latin verb “educare”, meaning, “to lead out”. To alter Biblical words: Knowledge shall set you free.

I recall in one of the voyages of Sinbad the Sailor (a work I read as a child) Sinbad, young and strong, agrees to carry an old man. However, once on his shoulders, the ugly old man grips Sinbad around the neck, forcing him to be his slave. Now I give that tale a figurative application: certain countries, newly independent (“new” not in human but in Historical time) are young, strong and possessed of goodwill. But they are in the grip of ancient, centuries-old, tales and beliefs; of anachronistic and pernicious ideas. Newly independent nations must shake them off, mentally and emotionally; liberate themselves, and enter modernity.

Finally, once moderates have become the majority, there will be no need to appeal to them: under the electoral system, even if literally silent, they’ll “speak” effectively at election-time.

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Latest comments

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    what has this got to do with helping hambantota and ballot boxes to temple trees?

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    We have this phenomenon of the doves and the hawks in all countries. Democracy has spawned such diversity with the right to express extreme views which may be damaging to others. It takes a few vocal activist to create a movement with some following. Populist views may not be just or acceptable to all but can be carried through by force of money, media and mania.

    Money is a force behind many such movements. Without financial backing it is not possible to make much headway. Money must be spent to acquire political power, social acceptance and publicity. Political patronage is a major advantage. State patronage is an even greater advantage as it opens the door to the state coffers.

    Media too is under state control so that public opinion can be moulded by an array of stste sponsered laptop journalist. The masses are subject to a barrage of information, disinformation and biased view points from morning till night. Few possess the power to discriminate and discern between right and wrong.

    Mania is a dormant characteristic of the human physche. With sufficient stimulus, decent and law abiding human beings can be transformed into monsters and cannibles. Religon and ethnicity are used by these power hungry elements to control and manipulate the masses.

    The silent majority needs to be heard. They need to stand up and be counted for right or for wrong, for good or for evil, for justice or for injustice. The vocal minority is given prominence and power.

    ‘Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme liberty.’ Plato

    ‘One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.’ Plato

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    The majority needs to shake off the Mahavamsa mentality if this country ever hopes to achieve a lasting peace and real prosperity (and I don’t mean the Rajapaksa white elephant Chinese loan prosperity that we have now).
    As long as most of the majority (including the silent ones) continue to believe that this country is a “Sinhala Buddhist” country and not a “multi ethnic, multi religious and multi cultural” country, we can never expect to be “One Country.One Nation. One People…as the well known slogan states. The only thing we can be assured for the next couple of years is, “ONE Ruling Family.” :)

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    Brilliant! Most thought provoking; time each one of us asked ourselves which category we fall into.

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    How about minority start to think that Sri Lanka is a majority Sinhala Buddhist Nation rather than asking majority to change.If they can pratice their religion, they can pratice their clutural pratices, they can live any where in the country they can study in their language and be who ever they wanted to be what else they need. Why they need a part of the country.!

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      Jamec Corea,

      SInhalese and the Sinhala-Buddhists will be always a majority in this country, unless a comet strikes the South, selectively! Their voice will dominate political discourse and their culture will largely define this country . This is democracy. Majoritarianism is imposing the specific Sinhala requirements and aspirations on others. There is a big difference. Every citizen should be equal in the eyes of the state, though it is elected by a majority vote, dominated by the Sinhalese. The Tamil Eelam demand derives its legitimacy, because the Sri Lankan state has been identified as a Sinhala-Buddhist state.

      Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

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        What a stupid idea! so you call the country should be divided because it is called Sinhalese Buddhist Nation. In that sense every nation should be divided because it is identified as some religious or ethnic majority country? So lets start with Britain and Norway these countries does not allow any body who does not belongs to certain religion to be its leaders. Sri Lankan constitution does not say that. Problem is within the Tamil society unless tamil politicians join mainstream political parties there is no way a Tamil become a president or Prime minister of the nation. Unfortunately Tamil Tigers killed almost all moderate Tamil Politicians in the Sri Lankan society. So now you see the problem is within the Tamil society not the majority of the country. WE can say proudly if any Tamil politician who could join mainstreem political party and he / she himself managed to the top ranks of the party we majority Sinhalese are happy to elect him to the presidency of the country. Only problem is Tamil GETTO MENTALITY.!

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        Dear Dr Narendran,

        from the comments you have been writing , I could safely assume that you would not agree that Tamils were living in a separate nation- different language and culture. Unfortunately, the sinhalese and their leaders put their argument of majority from the days of Ceylon, which became Srilanka later. Therefore , the majority and minority words would be irrelevant with regard to the problem in that country( I still feel reluctant to write as a country- Srilanka, as the Tamils Nation had been buried already, means Sinhala nation and Tamil nation.
        Forget all about what I have mentioned already for the sake of argument.
        I am confident that you would not disagree with me that the on going strategy of the government is to create a majority sinhalese in villages where Tamils had been majority for many years.
        united the nations to call them they were the majority in the past.now merging the villages or colonise criminals to become majority in Tamil villages
        Therefore the majority , minority argument is irrelevant with regard to those two nations.

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          Polpala and Sinhala Friend,

          Let me make it clear that I stand for a united Sri Lanka, where every citizen is equal and secure. I stand for a Sri Lanka where communal- linguistic, religious, cultural and territorial – diversity is recognised, respected and welcome. I am not for the division of this country, nor for exclusive preserves. All Sri Lankans should have the right to live anywhere in SrI Lanka, without any malicious intent to change demographics. Pride in ones identity should be respected, but chauvinism and bigotry condemned.

          I have repeatedly describe the LTTE as a monster born of the repeated rape of the Tamil community, by Sinhala majoritarianism, bigotry and chauvinism. The Sinhala-Buddhist mantle adopted by the Sri Lankan state, led to the demand for Tamil Eelam. It was a legitimate response in terms of defending territorial and communal imperatives. Bigotry was met with bigotry and chauvinism with chauvinism. Violence was met with greater violence. It was a reaction of a people to whom Sri Lanka also belongs but were told very clearly that they were unwanted guests. The manifestations of the reaction were ugly. So too were various actions in which the Sri Lankan state was involved, directly and indirectly, against the Tamils. The degrees of the ugliness is as perceived by the affected parties.

          If there was no threat to their existence as an identifiable and distinct community within Sri Lanka, the Tamils will not have developed a Ghetto mindset. This was a historical development that came about as the result of various developments in the distant past. However, the Colonial interlude and the promise independence held, made the Tamils re-enter the Ceylon/ Sri Lanka mainstream demographically, socially and politically. Unfortunately, this was thwarted and the Tamils were driven back to seek shelter within their shells.

          All Sri Lankans are unfortunately prisoners of their history. We have lost our capacity to learn lessons from history and move forward, intelligently. We are like buffaloes enjoying the mud bath, though rather perversely. I say perversely because the buffaloes need the mud bath, whereas we don’t!

          Both the Tamils and Sinhalese have erred in not seizing the opportunity to lay the foundations for a united Sri Lanka soon after the last war. The BBS is making the mud hole deeper and wider. Tamil Nadu is trying to add more mud to this hole.

          Dr. Rajasingham Narendran

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            An addendum,

            Sri Lanka is and will be largely Sinhala and Buddhist country. But the Sri Lankan state should be not Sinhala, Buddhist, Tamil, Hindu, Muslim or Christian. There is very obvious distinction between these concepts. The state is a mechanism to evolve services to a country of citizens. When the state identifies itself with a particular community, however large it is, it loses its legitimacy as a state for all its citizens.

            Dr.RN

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              There is no difference with your view and SWRD. Your are entitled for your view. I do strongly believe that we have learnt the lessons many time and only way forward is two nations.
              as long as Srilanka practice sinhala Buddist state , theres would not be any solutions for the Tamil problem.
              they have find one way or another to separate from Sinhalese , so that they can live safely

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      Hi Jamec,

      A silly comment of your kind I have not got to read anywhere – :((

      Majority sinhala buddhists as you know are made of the same flesh and blood as minority folks are of. So what you have suggested can only be able to be practised if the minority folks are genetically modified according to the expectations of the majority. It is the nature of human beings, in general , to oppose when they are mistreated.

      I dont wish our nation to any significant folk groups to represent to your views. Everyone should have equal rights regardless of race, religion and anything else – if the leaders do practse what they preach that we are all SRILANKENS and the president is of all lankens – not only of sinhala buddhists.

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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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      This is to the Moderator. I sympathise with you as you seem to be spending an awful lot of time vetting and blocking this mans comments.

      A piece of advice.

      This man claims to work at the Sri Lankan High Commission in Delhi. In the interest of fairness to the others who post decent comments why dont you send copies of published an unbublised ( bloked ) copies of his comments to the Sri Lankan foreign office for them to influence his thinking.
      But then again he might be a Government Mouth piece and in lawless Sri Lanka you might be putting yourself in danger. Act cautiously

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    Sarwan,

    You are living in a fantasy world. The silent majority you talk about dosent exist as if what you are sying is true they will answer at the Ballot Box. It is 63 years since independance and history has taught us that in Sinhala Lanka fair mindedness doesnt carry favour with the vast majority of the Sinhalese and that will be political suicide.
    People talk about the Terrists war that has blighted the country for the last 30 years. Have you heard any fairminded Sinhalese condemning the atrocities by the Sinhalse Majority on the deenceless Tamils before the advent of messrs Prabakaran and his comrades. Where were this so called silent majority.
    Nothing is going to change from within and especially in this current climate of mob rule it is a disatant dream.

    This is your dream and just consider it:

    One should not assume that the “silent majority” is made up of “moderates”; that the so-called “lunatic fringe” is a fringe, and not at the centre: one must first ask whether such a belief coincides with facts and reality. Before we build a structure of argument leading to a conclusion we must make sure that the foundational premise from which we start out is valid. The challenge is much harder because, at present, a silent majority of moderates believing in equality and inclusion seems not to exist. If so, the Herculean and daunting task, one that calls for intelligence and political skill; for courage, determination and patience, is first to alter people’s thinking, attitudes and values. The silent majority of moderates must first be created. This can be done through dialogue and discussion; through the media (particularly in Sinhala), and through education. I don’t mean “education” narrowly, relating to school and university, but in the broad and best sense of that term: the word “education” comes from the Latin verb “educare”, meaning, “to lead out”. To alter Biblical words: Knowledge shall set you free

    1) How do you create a silent majority it will be much easier to emigrate to the Moon and set up a colony there.
    2) Dialogue and discussion. Is it possible and where do you hold the dialogue and will it be group discussion or house to house. Be realistic you will be charged with false propaganda and will be attacked by BBS.
    3) I like the word knowledge shall set you free. What knowledge are you talking about. The vast majority are prisoners of their own conscience.

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    “Whether silent or vociferous, the Sinhalese form the overwhelming majority, and it’s they who determine the nature of political and public life in Sri Lanka”. This is the crux of the matter, and whether silent or vociferous the majority of this majority is very happy with the government that it has elected and which it continues to support with much celebration, encouragement warmth and fanfare. The majority of the majority gives every appearance of loving this government and being willing to support all that the government supports with unconditional love and encouragement even if it is rewarded by an occasional economic kick in the teeth. These are the warm and smiling Sri Lankans so beloved of tourists from the cold and sullen western lands.

    In the midst of this carnival there is a disgruntled minority that consists of individuals who are strong adherents of the global cult of the doctrine of human rights who want a tolerant and inclusive polity and who are critical of the government on various grounds. This minority is vociferous and literate and articulate and often appears to imply that it represents the sentiments of the majority of the majority and sometimes believes that it does indeed do so.

    Neither the majority of the majority nor the disgruntled minority are in any way anything like “moderate” and are both “extremists” as far as their views and actions are concerned. There are however a minority within the majority and a minority amongst the minority who are realistic in their outlook and who realize that “Hitler was not removed by a swelling, German, protest-movement but by the Russian and Allied invasion” (Gene Sharp and the Arab Spring notwithstanding). Whether moderates had become a majority or not does not seem to have influenced the outcome of that gruesome adventure.

    Sri Lanka can hardly claim to be a “Newly independent Nation”. Six decades is time enough for a state to establish the kind of polity that it is designed to establish and this by and large is what the Sri Lankan State has very effectively done. The “silent majority” who do not involve themselves in extremist actions are in fact the “Moderates” of Sri Lanka. These are the kind people who shelter the minorities under attack (Pauv anney! Me Asarana Minissun) while at the same time maintaining that “Minorities must know their place”. These “Moderates” have indeed already become the “Majority” of the majority and there is no point in appealing to them since under the electoral system, even if literally silent, they have spoken effectively at election-time as they will continue to do if the disgruntled minority succeeds in ensuring that elections are indeed held since these “Moderates” would be more than happy to do without them.

    The disgruntled minority are few in number. They have no future in Sri Lanka. It is best that they learn the lesson that the minorities in Germany learned. Leave the country while you can and make do as best wherever you are tolerated if not welcome. There will be no allied intervention until the unimaginably large and rich oil fields to the south and south east of the island – not the driblets in the north-west – become economic to exploit. A few of the next generation of this disgruntled minority may then return to work on the deep sea rigs that will be required. By this time of course the doctrine of human rights will have seen significant modification in order to manage the shortage of oil and other resources and the crumbling global economy and civilization. A few like me have the sense to seek asylum in the safe houses where all sane persons go and which are largely free of charge – terrible food sprinkled with sand though – in this enlightened land, with whoops and prances and er…c dances on full moon nights once the stethoscoped goons and geens have gone home. The wisdom that sprang from the mouths of babes and suckling’s now springs from the hoarse throats of fools.

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    “The majority of Sri Lankans are fair-minded, decent and generous. This majority shouldn’t be silent but, for the sake of the Island, unite and speak out against the extremists.”

    The trouble is when this request is made by another set of extremists.

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