Colombo Telegraph

“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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