By Malinda Seneviratne –
‘Before you speak let your words pass through three gates. At the first gate, ask yourself ‘is it true?’ At second, ask yourself ‘is it necessary?’ And at the third, ask yourself ‘is it kind?’ – Sufi saying.
Social media is for some a stress reliever. Facebook and Twitter are sounding boards for some and for others Agony Aunts or even shrinks. That’s at the personal level. There is by definition a social element to it too of course. That’s why there are groups, followers and followed on these sites.
Social media is not all that it is claimed to be and neither is it the nothing that others claim it to be. Has its uses, has its pitfalls. It steps in when mainstream media steps back and this is a good thing. The flip side is that even as there are responsible posts where people don’t say ‘any old thing’ there are utterly irresponsible statements made without verification and without corroboration. These are re-posted and re-tweeted as though it’s all fact.
It is argued that the lie gets called quite fast in social media. This is true. It’s faster of course than in mainstream media such as newspapers. On the other hand not everyone on Facebook and Twitter are actually listening to the counter-argument, there being enough people who dismiss any counter to believed ‘truth’ as conspiracy, lie, obfuscation etc. Moreover, within ‘groups’ (of all ‘faiths’) the counterpoint is absent.
By and large the in-your-face commentator intent on thrusting his or her opinion down your throat is easily recognizable. They win the day, most days, but sometimes one wonders if it is they that are mostly to blame for hardening of positions, the whipping up of racial hatred and the sweeping vilification of an entire collective for the crimes of a few.
‘Aluthgama’ generated horror and disgust, condemnation and fear, excuses and justification, accusation and counter-accusation. There was also sanity. There were the pragmatists who got down to the hard and not fashionable matter of providing relief to the displaced. There were others who pleaded for restraint, patience and calm. ‘It should not be allowed to spread, things should not get worse,’ they argued even as others were indulging in wild claims such as ‘It’s 1983 all over again’ not as warning (legitimate) but as fact (erroneous).
And quite reminiscent of the profile pictures that many picked up during the agitation by FUTA (Federation of University Teachers’ Associations) where the legend ‘6%’ became signature statement of position, many changed their profile picture to ‘Stand Against Racism’ or versions of this sentiment. We will get to that presently.
There was also an FB post with a link to John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, that all time favorite of anti-war demonstrators and other peace activists who promote non-violence. The lines are lovely: ‘Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do; nothing to kill or die for and no religion too.’ What’s interesting, though, is that those who sing that song and spread the sentiment around aren’t putting their money where their mouths are. There’s never been a note accompanying such posts of the following kind: ‘I hereby drop my religion, I will hereafter be faithless and I denounce country, race and all other identifiers of collectivity’. So it is almost as though they want others to drop their religion while keeping their own faith.
Another, more subtle, version of the same hypocrisy was evident on FB. There were people who changed their profile picture to an image of a hand with a tiny map of Sri Lanka in the middle. It was the classic ‘No!’ sign, fingers spread out. The caption was ‘Stand against racism’. The trick is in the color. The background was yellow, clearly the color associated with Buddhism and Buddhists. What’s the subliminal message here? Buddhists are racists (extremists, religious fundamentalists, what have you?)?
There is blanket dismissal and vilification here of an entire collective. It was picked up by many, Buddhists included, one has to assume more in innocence than with any conspiratorial intent. It is doubtful that Muslims who put this image up were all thinking ‘Buddhists and only Buddhists are “racist”’. But you can’t get around the assumptions embedded in the color-choice. Not only are all Buddhists vilified, there is a simultaneous claim that Buddhists and Buddhists alone are to blame. No one else. The facts on the ground rebel against this position. No, it is not that Buddhists and Muslims are equally to blame, but no one is entirely blameless here. Provocation and violence were not the preserve of ‘Buddhists’. So is it that ‘Racism by Buddhists’ (shouldn’t it be religious intolerance and not ‘racism’?) is the only kind of ‘racism’ people are ready to object to?
Interestingly some who preferred the yellow-sign are also people who not too long ago said ‘don’t conflate LTTE and “Tamil”’ (even as they said ‘The LTTE is the sole-representative of the Tamil people’). We see an easy slip from BBS to ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ and to ‘Sinhala Buddhist State’ and ‘Sinhala Buddhist hegemony’, almost like how ‘Buddhists’ were ready with petrol and matchbox to meet ‘stone-throw provocation’. It’s a habit, then?
There’s sanity too, fortunately. Azmeer Mohamed had put up a ‘Stand against racism’ profile pic. It had yellow and it had green. Chameera Dedduwage has the same profile picture. That’s rising above it all. One might objection to the proportional split considering the fact that it was the Muslims who had to bear the brunt of the violence – it would be a travesty of justice to say ‘both communities suffered’ when in fact what the Muslims suffered dwarfs what Buddhists did, but still, it’s better than the blanket dismissal of single-color (mis)representation.
There are no all-green signs, by the way. There is nothing to stop anyone from going for a neutral background color. White, for example.
But why quibble about a color, one might ask, when there are shops being burnt and when Muslims legitimately feel threatened? Well, there’s no reason to go overboard in any direction. Whatever is done should help because the slightest slight can make things dramatically worse.
These are not easy times. Frayed tempers, perceived grievances, real threats and real fears are all elements that can cloud and blow away reason. This is the hour or the rumor-monger. This is the hour of the extremist. This is the hour of the passionate. This is therefore the hour when reason must ‘come to the party’. Big time. And there has to be reason in both the big and the small. A spark, after all, is not of gigantic proportion.
Azmeer Mohamed gives a clue. He posted the Sufi saying quoted above. Azmeer Mohamed asks himself ‘is it true, necessary and kind?’ It cannot hurt to follow his example.
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com