By W A Wijewardena –
Don’t kill critics but respond intelligently
In the previous two parts of this series (available here and here), we argued that the ominous rise in religious and cultural fundamentalism in Sri Lanka during this election season does not augur well for the future of the country. Though human beings share a common DNA, they are today divided into groups of people on ethnic, religious, language, location or cultural grounds. These groups have been invaded by fundamentalists who believe that the groups to which they belong are the supreme, all others are inferior and therefore they do not deserve to share this planet. Thus, they are not open to opposite views and ready to destroy anyone who comes up with such contrary views. This is against the fundamental tenets of civilisation, where people have to collaborate and cooperate with each other in order to progress as well as for ensuring survival.
We argued that in Sri Lanka, where the majority follows the Dhamma preached by the Buddha, this need not be the case. The Buddha was a rebel in the contemporary Indian society and challenged the existing order and the belief system. His advice to Bhikkhus and followers was that they should respond intelligently to criticism by apprising the critics of the right path, and not by resorting to violence. We noted that nearly three hundred years after the Buddha, Emperor Ashoka, a monarch who propagated the message of the Buddha in other parts of Asia, had through his rock inscriptions emphasised on the need for the tolerance of opposing views. Taking a liberal view, in Rock Edict 12, he proclaimed that all religions have ethical essentials which are good and therefore, people should learn of such ethics contained in all religions.
While the Buddha and Ashoka are proponents of human liberty, the fundamentalists who take charge of societies through political power have suppressed liberty. They have therefore removed an essential prerequisite for social progress, the aspiration of all human societies today, by seeking to engineer human thought and behaviour. In this last part of the series, we look at how it kills social progress.
Social progress is a wider concept than the most often quoted goals of societies, namely, economic growth, economic development or simply, development.
Economic growth: More is always better
Economic growth denotes the availability of a bigger basket of material goods and services for use by the members of a society. If people have more goods and services for their use, it is considered an amelioration of their living conditions. Here, the accepted notion is that ‘more is always better’. Accordingly, societies seek to increase the rate of the production of goods and services, known as economic growth. Thus, if a country has recorded a high economic growth year after year, it is considered a beneficial development. In the opposite, if a country’s growth rate has faltered or fallen into the negative region, it is considered a failure.
This common yardstick is an important measure of the progress of a country, but it hides so many qualitative factors that actually affect the wellbeing of the people in society.
Economic development: Fruits should be shared inclusively
In view of the observed defects of economic growth as a measure of human welfare, a broader concept in the form of economic development has been proposed. It encompasses, in addition to economic growth, the ability of a society to sustain its growth over the years by providing its members quality goods, quality life and quality social relations.
This ‘quality’ can be attained by seeking after two sub-goals. One is the ability of a society to produce quality goods today without compromising its ability to do so in the future as well. The other is the ability of a society to distribute the quality goods equitably, not equally, among all members in society. The first sub-goal relates to the maintenance of environmental quality, while the other sub-goal tries to ensure a fair distribution of wealth among society’s members. This is known as inclusive development where the fruits of the advancement of society is shared by all, irrespective of sex, religion, ethnicity, language or the place of living. It is the type of society which fundamentalists abhor, because they want preferential treatment to their own members at the expense of all others.
Development: Provide facilities for self-perfection
The goal of development is inclusive of both economic progress and economic development, but it constitutes a concept wider than both of them. It calls for ensuring facilities for all members of society to attain ‘self-perfection’, the ultimate aim of living by a human being. Since it is a societal goal, I call it social progress, the advancement not as an individual per se, but as members of a society as a whole.
It therefore encompasses all living beings who have to exist in collaboration with each other, on one side, and getting enriched from each other, on the other. This is what the Buddha meant when he called his followers to extend compassion (Maithree), sympathetic consideration (Karuna), empathy (Muditha) and equanimity (Upeksha) to all beings in the whole universe.
Social progress: Advancement through collaboration and cooperation with all others
Social progress therefore requires two prerequisites if it is to be attained by a society. First, people should collaborate and cooperate with each other at the individual, family, country, and global levels.
It requires them to appreciate and understand what other people do, believe and practice and tolerate them. As I have presented in Part I of this series, humans today, though divided in terms of language, culture, ethnicity or place of living, have evolved from a common DNA that has been responsible for their physical and mental build-up and a common sound system that has led to the formation of different languages. The appreciation of this diversity is simply going back to the common root of humans.
Then, we have the diversity of the eco-system which has been there for the system to exist, survive and prosper as a whole. The non-recognition of this diversity at the level of humans or at the level of the whole eco-system will be fatal for social progress. In the second place, it is necessary to allow freedom of thought and freedom of expression by people, as long as they do not compromise with the freedoms of others. This is necessary to establish a society of inventions and innovations, an essential feature for it to move forward.
Margaret Mead: Caring for others make a man fully human
About the collaboration and cooperation of the members of society and then, among the nations, social anthropologist Margaret Mead in a conversation with other social anthropologists elaborated the following. “An infant whose parents have not prepared some way to care for it and shelter it will die. But this is true of birds who need nests. However, to be a full human being, a person has to grow up in a society with more than one family to care for him, to learn relationships to old and young, to both sexes, to people that are close and to people that are far away. It’s only by growing up in such a society that we become fully human.”
But today’s societies have grown into nation states, and the perceived nationhood has elevated people living in them to a false sense of supremacy. This is being echoed by local leaders from time to time, not necessarily because they believe in it, but because they want to harness the support of the people. It is pretty much obvious during election seasons.
Margaret Mead: Nation states should also care for each other
Margaret Mead in her conversations has clarified this also. Says Mead: “When we used to think of nations and talk about nationalism, we spoke of nationalism as an almost unmitigated evil. It was opposed to internationalism and it was spoken of as something that was wrong and inevitably brought conflict and war. But today we have a new phrase, and that is the phrase nationhood, which means that each nation has a part in a whole. Instead of each nation working for self-advantages, instead of each nation seeking to aggrandise itself at the expense of all other nations, today each nation is part of a whole. Each nation has an investment in maintaining the safety and welfare of each other nation. We do not dare to let any other nation sink below a certain level of health, of order, because this threatens the whole of the world.”
What is needed today is, therefore, nations to work together, cooperate and collaborate with each other, and pass the benefits of their civilisational achievements to other nations, as a good gesture rather than a way to establish political dominance over them.
Inventions and innovations, a must for social progress
Human society progresses only if its members become inventive and innovative. Recognising this important requirement, the Sinhala writer Kumaratunga Munidasa, as far back as 1945, proclaimed in Virith Vekiya that a nation that does not make new inventions does not arise in the world. He further said that such failing nations have no choice but to go before the rest of the nations with a begging bowl and get heavily indebted. Hence, according to him, the way to keep a nation free from indebtedness is to invent and innovate, so that it is ahead of other nations and does not need to borrow from others.
This piece of wisdom is highly relevant to Sri Lanka today. But as Margaret Mead has elaborated, what is being invented by one nation should be made available to other nations too, because every nation should consider itself as a part of a whole. This was also emphasised by the President of the European Union when the USA sought to buy the patent rights for a vaccine being currently developed in Germany against the new coronavirus, known as COVID-19. She said that, once developed, that particular vaccine belongs to the whole world, and therefore cannot be assigned to only a single country.
Challenge the existing order
Inventions involve creating new things and innovations, making them available to members. Both require one to challenge the existing order – social, technical, political, economic, religious and cultural. If Copernicus and Galileo did not challenge the existing wisdom of the Christian church, the world would still have believed that the earth was flat, and the sun was revolving around the earth.
The founding Vice Chancellor of the Vidyodaya University, the predecessor to the present University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Rev Welivitiye Sri Sorata, is reported to have advised the undergraduates that they should be challenging, probing and critical. This wisdom has been incorporated into the lyrics of the University anthem.
Inventions and innovations thrive when people enjoy self-esteem and freedom to choose
The forced allocation of resources through central leadership could deliver higher economic growth to a society. But such economic growth becomes short-lived, since long-term sustenance of growth depends on continued supply of inventions and innovations to the system. Inventions and innovations thrive when human beings enjoy self-esteem and are free to choose, two important core values which are necessary for sustained social progress.
This was evident in the old Soviet Union. In the absence of liberty, the Soviet Union failed to replicate inventions and innovations, and as a result could not continue with the high economic growth it generated in 1930s and 1940s. As Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson have noted in their 2019 book The Narrow Corridor, “One can pour resources into patents, universities, new technologies and even create huge rewards for success (for some Soviet scientists, the reward was to stay alive). But it is not enough if you cannot replicate the rambunctious, disorderly and disobedient nature of true experimentation.”
This clarifies the issue which some harbour in them that liberty is the by-product of growth and for growth to take place, some sort of dictatorial regime that should suppress liberty should be there. However, for social progress, liberty should be first ensured because no one can attain self-perfection, without the freedom of thought and freedom of expression.
Thus, no society has been able to sustain its social progress, unless liberty is enshrined into the system. What it means is that for long-term sustained social progress, inputs should come from both the top-down and bottom-up systems equally. Human liberty is a sine qua non for proliferating bottom-up views in the form of inventions and innovations.
Fundamentalists have taken liberty away from people
Religious and cultural fundamentalism has taken liberty away from people. When cultures and societies continuously advance forward, evolving into new shapes in the process, fundamentalists seek to take them backward and imprison the members in old systems. They deny the freedom of choice to members, and in the process impede the drive for inventions and innovations. Social progress is the casualty, and when society does not progress, the corollary is intra-society as well as inter-society conflicts.
Sri Lankans should be alert to the emerging ominous rise of fundamentalist ideas
Homo sapiens became the masters of the globe after this species developed cognitive skills some 70,000 years ago. It facilitated this group of animals to spread out to the rest of the globe from its ancestral seat in East Africa, create language, domesticate both plants and animals, settle down in specific places and build kingdoms and empires. Throughout the subsequent millennia, they underwent considerable evolution, not only in their genetic build-up, but also in the way they behave, known as culture. They are still evolving, and one cannot predict into what form these animals would evolve in the future.
However, the groups that have not been able to experience this evolutionary process safely have converted themselves to fundamentalists, seeking to stop the evolutionary process and turn it backward. The corollary has been the denial of liberty to people and generation of intra-society and inter-society conflicts among human beings.
The denial of human freedom has impeded the process of inventions and innovations, a must for continued social progress. This is the most serious social problem faced by societies today. Sri Lanka is too much involved in this ominous development during this election season. It behoves on Sri Lanka’s voters to select their leaders at the election as men of wisdom and not as men of insanity.
*The writer, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org