By Mohamed Harees –
“When we don’t know who to hate, we hate ourselves.” ~ Chuck Palahniuk, Invisible Monsters
There is lot of hate out there simmering, waiting for the social volcano to burst. With the corona pandemic, in parallel, racist pandemic has burst open a can of bigotry worms. There is lot of ill feelings and mutual suspicions among communities for various reasons, mostly thanks to Media sensationalism and State sanctioned racism. There appears to be politics being played over dead bodies too. Presently, Tamils are going to Courts to remember their dead; Muslims to bury their dead and Christian community asking for justice for their dead. No justice in sight to redress these grievances. An increasing tempo of targeting of the Muslim community has been in progress, while very interesting revelations are coming out at the Commission hearings pointing at some political scheming behind the perpetrators’ senseless massacre of innocents and the apathy of the State in preventing it. Hate groups emboldened after the successful election of an ultra- nationalist government in August 2020, have been at their game of demonization of minority communities in both public and private space, leading to mainstreaming of hate. The ultimate tragedy is an entire generation of young people, are being caught up in this national quagmire, with Sri Lanka fast losing hope to be an inclusive nation. Is this Nation’s blind-spot?
The cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand has shown how environmental shocks can cause societies to become “tighter” – meaning the tendency to be loyal to the “in-group” gets stronger. Such societies are more likely to elect authoritarian leaders and to show prejudice towards outsiders. This has been observed under past ecological threats such as resource scarcity and disease outbreaks. Under most climate change scenarios, we expect these threats, in particular extreme weather events and food insecurity, to only get worse. The same goes for the coronavirus pandemic. While many hope such outbreaks can lead to a better world, this pandemic appears to have done exactly the opposite.
This enhanced loyalty to one’s local tribe is a defence mechanism that helped past human groups pull together and overcome hardship. But it is not beneficial in a globalised world, where ecological issues and our economies transcend national boundaries. In response to global issues, becoming bigoted, and xenophobic and reducing cooperation with each other will only make the impact on our own nation worse as seen in Corona stricken-Sri Lanka. Making matters worse, the State building in Sri Lanka has been riddled with paradoxes. The curious notion of numerically dominant ethnic group, Sinhala manifesting a “minority complex” or anxieties about minority groups, Tamil and Muslims, has been evident in the rise of State sanctioned ultra- nationalism not just during the 19th and the 20th centuries, but also in this decade of the 21st century too. In this context, many canards, misconceptions and fake news are being circulated about the minority people among the majority population, which also affects the thinking patterns of those young minds, designed to take over the leadership of the Nation in the not too distant future.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said it eloquently in his “I Have a Dream” speech, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.” But we have heard similar sentiments even in our country through the ages, by one national or intellectual leader to another. The belief that our children’s generation will be less racist gets repeated by teachers, parents, politicians and activists. And understandably so. Much of our culture is predicated on the idea that we can create a better future for our progeny, instilling in them values that we as a nation have often failed to uphold.
However, are the new generation less racist than their parents or grandparents? Sadly, present day IT savvy kids, with most of their time being spent on social media, don’t give us any reason to believe that the new generation of leaders will naturally or inevitably hold more open-minded and tolerant viewpoints on race or religious co-existence than previous generations. Any observer about the developments and biased media coverages specially in Post-war Sri Lanka, will vouch that warped beliefs based on racial superiority, xenophobia and hate towards the ‘Other’ are being promoted both consciously or unconsciously in our society, and families and being passed from generation to generation. Thus, there is scepticism about racism fading away when old bigots die? Thus, dismantling racism therefore will require more than just passive hope.
Looking at the picture as a whole, unfortunately there appears to be far too much evidence of politicians only looking ahead as far as the next election, rather than thinking about the next generation. Be it as it may, when politicians fail to look beyond the next election, they are neglecting the rights and future of the next generation. Thus, if they are a generation apart, this is less to do with apathy, and more to do with their well-orchestrated strategy to meet ulterior political ambitions in Sri Lanka. The Media too is in hand in gloves with those in the government in promoting a warped disjointed culture which does not augurs well with the much needed nation building exercise, which will be both inclusive and also conducive to the well-being of the younger generation who will take over the mantles of leadership in the future.
According to a Report ‘Next Generation Sri Lanka’ by British Council Sri Lanka(2019), ‘Most Sri Lankan youth feel cultural and religious biases have been taught to the younger generation by the older generation, and most young people also see themselves and their generation as different from the older generation. However, an overwhelming number of youth still identify parents as the most influential adults, with teachers and adult relatives coming in next…. Sri Lankan youth believe the communal issues facing society were created by the older generation. Focus group participants perceive cultural and religious biases as having been taught to the younger generation by the older generation.
‘They see themselves as different to previous generations, whom they characterise as holding cultural and religious biases, and are willing to play an active role in their own communities – if they had improved direction and support… young Sri Lankans are ready to play an active role in the peace and reconciliation process, but need avenues to be opened up by the government, relevant ministries, policymakers and civil society. The diversity of aspirations regarding reconciliation should be factored into the reconciliation mechanisms that are currently being designed and implemented’.
‘The majority of young people stated they have a close, trusted friend from a different religion, ethnic group and/or from a different part of the country, there remain many who are not familiar with the cultures of different ethnic and religious groups, due to language difference and segregated education systems’. ‘Eighty-five per cent of young Sri Lankans think their generation is ready to play an active role in peace and reconciliation, but they don’t yet know how to fit into the current process. .. Looking ahead, nearly three-quarters of young Sri Lankans, both male and female, do not believe the country is heading in the right direction’.
‘They identify a number of problems for themselves: the inability to complete education due to economic hardships, unemployment, discrimination in the government job sector, the high cost of higher education, and corruption in public institutions, as well as poor governance and political instability’. The Report says ‘Need to enable the voices of Sri Lankan youth from all communities to be heard within the wider society… [and] ultimately contribute to policies that address their needs’.
In a day and age where teens are sending Snapchats instead of passing handwritten notes and “selfie” has become a regular part of our vocabulary, there’s no denying that social media is impacting the way teenagers view themselves. It has been a tragedy that that apart from many benefits, social media also acts as an amplifying echo chamber for much hateful rhetoric and racist views. Even the racist mass media like Hiru and Derana are using the social media in this regard. Their racist videos are going viral among their teen audience. In the social media, the main user group are those who are young and the millennials. And it reinforces how they see the internet as a place where it’s acceptable to post comments with racially motivated language, often with the caveat that they are not racist but simply hate an ideology. It’s important to recognise that these comments on social media reflect wider attitudes that are endemic in the offline world. Social media can appear to act as a megaphone for racists, but these opinions are much more mainstream than we think. As a society we need to grapple with how these ideas have become normalised, and challenge and expose them.
It need to be recognized what is defined as ambient racism by experts, in everyday articulations on social media. Ambient racism occurs at the micro-level of Internet communication, in user comments, tweets and affective responses circulating between users. In open-networked publics such as Facebook groups, racism is connected with and produced at both the micro and the macro level. Through the constant articulation and circulation of messages between ‘ordinary’ users and racist and bigoted political actors, mundane forms of racial and racist expressions and far-right content become conflated. Social media publics facilitate a seamless flow of communication that does not distinguish between the intentional strategies of hate peddlers and the affective responses of everyday users. Their strategy builds on the idea that racist views become acceptable when mainstream discourses increasingly target minorities in various ways. Reciprocally, the increase of racist ideas from the fringe has an equivalent effect on mainstream discourses.
By taking advantage of commercial social media, hate peddlers gradually normalize previously unacceptable attitudes and utterances, and as recent research suggests, ‘radical right-wing sentiments on social media may instigate and/or facilitate violent (anti-minority) political action’ This also suggests that racist discourses on social media do not exist in a vacuum; they are manifested as part of a greater political scheming and majoritarianism. This process of brainwashing and indoctrination through the social media particularly affects and impacts upon young people. If the blind-spot is not identified and young generation not rescued from the clutches of the impending disaster of “Hate towards the ‘Other’” without delay, it will be too late to stop the sudden descent of the entire nation down the cliff and be another failed State.
It therefore behoves on government to keep a close eye on the social media, instead of playing dirty games with the rogue sections of the media to promote hate for cheap political gains. It is important for the intellectual and religious leaders to impress upon the political leadership not only to inspire action to tackle racism in the society and to support people to work together in new ways to tackle racism and create lasting solutions to racial injustice, but also to set an example to the next generation to enable them to live in a fair, just and equal society. People should be encouraged to pledge to take action too and support everyone working together on solutions we know to be effective, sharing ideas and strengthening this message. A business might pledge to work harder to ensure its employees reflect the make up of the population at all levels of the business, including the boardroom. A school or university should introduce lessons on peaceful co-existence and inclusivity in their curricula and inter faith activities as well as declare that it will take action in ensuring equality of educational experience for its minority students. Voluntary sector organisations could pledge to highlight how its work reduces racial inequality. And the government too should be compelled to put into action what were proposed in the constitution and laws to ensure inclusivity and pledge in a similar manner in respect of government jobs too. There is also a huge responsibility cast on the majority community as well and see through the vote winning short term tactics of political leaders. Otherwise this polarizing strategy will eventually affect the majority too.
Yes! as A. Sivanandan, British Sri Lankan Tamil novelist, activist and writer, emeritus director of the Institute of Race Relations UK explaining the roots of ethnic cleansing in Sri Lanka in a speech to ‘Marxism 2009’ echoed, ‘What, in sum, we are faced with in my country today, is a brainwashed people, brought up on lies and myths, their intelligentsia told what to think, their journalists forbidden to speak the truth on pain of death, the militarising of civil society and the silencing of all opposition. A nation bound together by the effete ties of language, race and religion has arrived at the cross-roads between parliamentary dictatorship and fascism. It is for the Sinhalese people I fear now – for if they come for me in the morning, they’ll come for you that night.’. Well! this reminds of the poem of Martin Niemöller, a German theologian and Lutheran pastor, which ended: ‘Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me’. Men build too many walls and not enough bridges and then do not see the blind-spot until it is too late! Aren’t they?