17 October, 2021


Why Does The ‘Coffee-Shop’ Liberal Care?

By Navam Niles

Navam Niles

Navam Niles

In a cynical analysis of a recent protest at the Independence Square, Hafeel Farisz dubbed the protestors involved as “coffee shop liberals”. He certainly didn’t mean this as a compliment. He was not referring to the influence that coffee houses had on the Enlightenment or the liberals who ushered in the age of critical thinking on individual rights and duties of citizens. Instead, he meant this as a criticism, referring to people who gathered together in “up-market coffee lounges” to whip themselves into a fervour over first-world problems, while sipping their double-mocha Frappuccinos. He calls these protesters hypocrites for two reasons. First, they practice what they preach only when the offence takes place close to home. Second, they have a remarkable ability to manage cognitive dissonance: for instance, expressing outrage over the meaning of “rape” while ignoring the abuse suffered by women both at home and abroad. But his critique opens a broader question, why do coffee shop liberals care at all?

We are all born with a natural sense of altruism that drives us to care for those in our closest circles: family and friends. According to Peter Singer, a moral philosopher, we are capable of expanding our moral circles over time. In his book, The Expanding Circle, he points out that while our ancestors’ idea of community ended at the boarder of their village, many of us think of ourselves as part of a global community. Why did this change happen? According to Singer, this was because of technology and communication that allows us to actually affect the lives of others outside our immediate circles. We see the plight of refugees at home and abroad in vivid detail and sometimes even in real-time. Our ability to perceive suffering elsewhere is often matched by our ability to mobilise ourselves into action – donating to a cause, petitioning governments, or simply raising more awareness. One only needs to remember the outpouring of global aid that followed the devastating Tsunami in 2004, some of which was surely planned at a Starbucks somewhere in the world. Understanding why “coffee shop liberals” care to all, may help us to create a more caring society.

The size of our moral circles and the motive to care for strangers, depends on our ability to perceive and empathise with them. This brings me to Farisz’s first general critique: the hypocrisy of coffee shop liberals. In my reading of his criticism, he’s not annoyed with these people for caring about others; instead, he’s criticising them for not caring enough about others outside their broadest circle, which happens to end with Colombo. He argues that “self-interest” is the only reason these people have mobilised against something too close to home. But self-interest implies a degree of selfishness. The protestors, however, were coming together through a sense of community, albeit a Colombo-centric one. As Singer argues, a sense of community requires a degree of altruism.

In hindsight, the fact that protests over this particular issue happened in Colombo and not some other city shouldn’t be surprising. Colombo is the most socially and economically diverse city in the country and together with the rest of the Western Province, accounts for about half the country’s GDP. The city, for better or worse, is the best place for those looking for social mobility and economic opportunity. Moreover, people in Colombo are better connected to each other because of excellent (and relatively cheap) access to the internet and constant access to social media. Hence, the sense of community in Colombo is deeper and broader than any other place in the country. Note that a sense community isn’t unique to Colombo; other villages, town and cities in the island have mobilised over their own local issues because of their sense of community. Furthermore, the deeper and broader sense of community in diverse cities may also explain why cities generally report less racism than rural areas. It is because cities expose people to other groups and makes it easier to empathise with those people. Colombo is one of the few places in the country where someone can experience every other culture in a non-threatening manner: from commerce and cuisine to the same seat on a bus or train.

Farisz’s second criticism is more intriguing. He quite correctly points out to the powerful degree of cognitive dissonance amongst those who identify themselves as liberals. He correctly points out to the plight of maids in Sri Lanka. At home, he’s specifically referring to women from Indian Tamil communities who live marginalised lives with a variety of social problems and often find work in Colombo as maids. For maids in general, a decent wage and living conditions depends entirely on the discretion of their employers. He also refers to women from rural areas, who are often forced to work abroad as maids, especially the Middle East. The abuse some of these women have endured – horror stories include slavery, assault, rape, and even death – have made the headlines multiple times but hardly gets the sort of vocal attention such a problem deserves.

Again, our insights into social psychology may give us an answer. Disappointingly, the problem of low-skilled labour and our social attitudes towards servants, are complicated and difficult to solve. Dan Aerially, in his book, Predictably Irrational, argues that when problems are complicated or require deep moral reasoning, people often choose to leave things in their present state. A second reason maybe that since maids often introduced and interact with their employers within a social hierarchy, it is difficult to empathise. Empathy works best when people are of equal status, but to improve the status of maids, a systematic socio-economic solution is necessary. Nevertheless, we have an obligation to use our understanding of these criticisms to expand our collective sense of community outside of Colombo and enhance the rights of our fellow citizens.

Our immediate priority is to increase our sense of community outside our villages or cities. This means we should be better exposed to people outside our immediate moral circles. A detailed list of solutions is outside the purview of this article but the following are a few ideas in no particular order. First, Sri Lanka needs institutions that allow people to actually interact with others from different walks of life in a neutral setting: civil society, community groups, volunteer organisations, etc. Second, it is important to reduce the disparities in income and wealth that create such stark cleavages between the privileged Colombo folk and rural communities. This can be achieved through a variety of income redistributive measures, greater investment in public goods – education, health, nutrition, access to the internet – and more incentives for business to spread outside Colombo. Finally, it is important for the media to actually increase the visibility of other communities in Sri Lanka. It is tragically easier for me to feel the pain of protestors in Ferguson or Syrian refugees in Europe, than people living in my own country. Ultimately, an inclusive society needs liberals and the values they represent. By narrowly defining our moral circles, however, we do injustice to those values. It is time we held ourselves to higher standards expand our moral circles.

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Latest comments

  • 8

    Niles: as I commented on Halfheel’s post:

    “Another pointless piece of crap. Seems like you have a fixation about “Coffee Shop Liberals”, although you have failed to explain how you figured out that all those protesters consisted of those you are intent on targeting. Living in NYC must give you some gift for analyzing the demographics of gatherings on the other side of the globe.”

    And you are no better when you state that “He (Halfheel) calls these protesters hypocrites for two reasons. First, they practice what they preach only when the offence takes place close to home…”.

    How the hell do you know that? Are you some kind of psychic??

    The rest of your gobbledygook excuse for Halfheel’s prejudicial post is as nonsensical as his.

    Stop infecting us with your presumptive crap that has no basis in fact.

  • 9

    Forgive Hafeel Farisz for his rantings on ‘Colombo coffee shop liberals. He must have thought it a good idea at the time, and would have hoped that no one would be reading; what with this interminable heat, and the pestilential power cuts, and all.

    Though I am in Colombo a lot, my natural habitat is bucolic with a touch of cooling breezes from the Indian Ocean. Most of all, in spite of working hard and getting all the good things in life, I remain a socialist, always have been. A good socialist demands, for everyone, the highest quality education, the best healthcare, and unfettered opportunity.

    I abhor the wide disparities in our country, and there is much to be done to close the gap. This will always be work-in-progress, but something we must never let get out of focus.

    Go easy on Hafeel Farisz; he has this blue-eyed New York Professor to worry about these days.

  • 15

    Thanks Navam for your paraphrasing Fariz’s article. I found yours easier to read and more thoughtful than his which was full of off-putting sarcasm.

    • 4

      “I found yours easier to read and more thoughtful than his “

      Blame your own nationalist mindset for that. And thank the [Edited out] Banda for introducing the Sinhala-Only policy. Your name tag says it all.

  • 8

    Being a Coffee Shop liberal is better than being a Kassipu kada buruwa who think HIV is an airborne disease and wants to stop a kid from getting an education

  • 3

    ‘Domestic aides’ in Sri Lanka are treated far better today than they were in the past. Most are well paid and treated with respect – else they move on as there is a great demand for good workers . Matter of fact , they are better off working in Sri Lankan homes rather than barbaric Arabs .Farisz better do his home work .

  • 5

    “We are all born with a natural sense of altruism that drives us to care for those in our closest circles.”

    Oh Really!
    Then, can the writer explain what logic makes it more altruistic and socially responsible to shed tears for the dogs on the streets of Colombo than for the derided beggars forcibly evicted from those very same streets?

    “……According to Peter Singer, a moral philosopher, we are capable of expanding our moral circles over time.”

    It looks like the passage of time has done nothing to “expand our moral circles” rather than making dogs more human in the mindsets of those who sit around a steaming cup of Cappuchino and pretend to be making a real difference to societal attitudes.

  • 2

    @The oracle
    “Matter of fact , they are better off working in Sri Lankan homes rather than barbaric Arabs”

    Salary wise? Go,tell it to the Marines.

    If not for their remittances we will be financially worse than Burkina Farso.

    • 6

      “”If not for their remittances we will be financially worse “”

      Its about the quality of life of the worker not about the sharks that thrive on their 1/2 pay as dished out by agents.

      Todays price of Oil by the barrel is half of what it was last year.
      How much do you pay at the pump now??
      Who is sucking whom?? The establishment not Burkina Farso.

      You shameless living off women in the medieval ME

      • 2


        “Who is sucking whom?? The establishment not Burkina Farso.”

        Burkina Farso cannot suck; It is too poor for doing that. Instead it is being sucked. And like in Sri Lanka it is being sucked by its own politicians who are the pillars of its establishment. At least we have our housemaids to redeem us by washing the toilets of the dirty lecherous maedival Arabs. Thank God YOU don’t have to work for a living.

        • 1

          “At least we have our housemaids to redeem us by washing the toilets of the dirty lecherous maedival Arabs. Thank God YOU don’t have to work for a living. “
          your name tells me you that you have to lean on to coconut tree.Perhaps you are a buying and selling muslim??
          Pavement Premadasa had no ideas beyond his Colombo 12 so he suggested slave trade for the rich to import goodies from the undervalued dollar. Your dollar equivalent is still not correct- less Rs for the dollar. But now the dollar will keep rising and the rupees sinking.

          From childhood I realized it was stupid to be a worker for somebody so at 15 started a small cottage industry (having researched at CISIR) I employed many women and paid them well so that they could care for their family- decent wage (it was my mums instruction when she gave me my savings of 5000 rupees the capital) Once I earnt enough I decided to travel and also study to fit with my family.
          Today i live simple with lots of money earnt the hard way in technology. i am no politician and don’t accept anything that is dished out.
          go get a life as there is enough super enterprises over there eg super graphite for textiles or engineering plastics. Its a job one can perform in a room. But lanka is not a friendly country anymore and it is only getting worse.
          I would like to see you sinhala buddhist men cleaning toilets in the arab world and pick an extra buck having sex on demand then you understand what is arab sex.
          You folk are a disgrace for $200 dollars. Then your women can stay at home and mind the children to become good citizens. Now the husband stays at home and has sex with his kids, drinks etc.
          I seen large numbers of sinhala buddhist houseboys in the EU working for decent Europeans and being cared for the same way they were cared for before 48.with the assistance of employer they even bring their families to live with them in the EU.
          When Banda came to oxford he learnt how the russians and chinese who were losing WW2 to Germany and Japan received $$ billions of American peoples aid
          to defend but Stalin and Mao used most of it to kill their own people and bring in a single culture- ethnic cleansing. that is what the Sinhala buddhist state is up to. The country will pawn itself to India and be absorbed as another state for you to live or die like the Diego Garcia.

  • 4

    Navam Niles and Hafeel Farisz and have both used the CT forum to display their English language skills and verbal gymnastics. The substance was bla bla bla. Value:zero.

    Why don’t these jokers use the excess time they have to exhort the voters of Sri Lanka who cannot see beyond their nose, to first get rid of the politicians in Parliament who have them (voters) in a stranglehold, and second, to vote in persons with altruistic motives who will serve the interests of country and nation?

  • 5

    Do you expect to read this egotistical verbal garbage?

  • 0

    Goraka you seem to suffer from insecurity issues. You are supposed to support this person not bring the person down. We should be encouraging people to publish. You must be a relatively deprived person in all areas to be so insulting.

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