23 September, 2020

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Working With Identity: Critical Consciousness & Empowering Humanity

By Liyanage Amarakeerthi

Prof. Liyanage Amarakeerthi

Prof. Liyanage Amarakeerthi

One of the difficulties of achieving meaningful human development is in fact being ‘human.’ Rousseau is right in claiming that almost all the chains that bind human beings are man-made. He meant social and cultural chains because some chains are indeed natural. For example, I cannot fly back to Peradeniya since I do not have wings. That is natural. Interestingly enough, human beings have been quite successful in breaking free of natural chains. Yes. We do not have wings but we have invented aircrafts (i.e. artificial wings) that can fly farther and longer. With all such success stories of breaking free of our natural chains, more often than not, we find ourselves stuck in socio-cultural chains. For example, some of us cannot believe that women are capable of performing well in the positions traditionally assigned to men. Some of us cannot still comprehend that cooking or house cleaning is not something natural to female body. There are those who do not want to believe that the people in the North, East or the Central province for that matter, are complete humans who deserve access to power, education and health care as much as we do here in the Western province and Colombo. And for many of us, the concentration of so much political and economic power in a single place is as much natural as the city of Kandy having Hantana Mountains as its back wall.

*A keynote address delivered at the Annual research Sessions, Faculty of Management and Finance, University of Colombo, on October 18th, 2016:

Vice Chancellor, Dean, professors, colleagues and friends, I am honored to be invited to make this keynote speech at your annual research symposium. It is very rarely that the scholars in the humanities get to address a gathering like this. In that sense, I am privileged as well. In this twenty- minute-talk, I will focus on one concept that I have been concerned with as a teacher of literature. For now, let me call that concept “the workings of identity.”

One of the difficulties of achieving meaningful human development is in fact being ‘human.’ Rousseau is right in claiming that almost all the chains that bind human beings are man-made. He meant social and cultural chains because some chains are indeed natural. For example, I cannot fly back to Peradeniya since I do not have wings. That is natural. Interestingly enough, human beings have been quite successful in breaking free of natural chains. Yes. We do not have wings but we have invented aircrafts (i.e. artificial wings) that can fly farther and longer. With all such success stories of breaking free of our natural chains, more often than not, we find ourselves stuck in socio-cultural chains. For example, some of us cannot believe that women are capable of performing well in the positions traditionally assigned to men. Some of us cannot still comprehend that cooking or house cleaning is not something natural to female body. There are those who do not want to believe that the people in the North, East or the Central province for that matter, are complete humans who deserve access to power, education and health care as much as we do here in the Western province and Colombo. And for many of us, the concentration of so much political and economic power in a single place is as much natural as the city of Kandy having Hantana Mountains as its back wall.

One of the factors that get in the way of human flourishing is the rigid notions of identity. In this speech I will only focus on this question of identity and how it can be addressed. Some identities are taken to be permanent, natural and worth dying for. For example, some people tend to think that the preservation of their own way of being in the world, i.e. identity, is more important than any change geared towards larger social developments. Another school of thought argues that social justice must be kept above all identities, and, they might argue that the best identity needs to be protected is our ‘humanness.’ And of course we can continue to refine our humanness which will never be a finished product. But yet, such lofty ideals are too good to be true in this world of ours where inequality and difference seem to be the principles that link all of us together.

Therefore, in recent times, as a scholar in the humanities, I have found myself at home among the scholars who claim that a fine balance between recognition and redistribution must be the ideal to which we must aspire. Recognition, that is the acceptance of one’s own way of being in the world, is important for a person to feel his or her humanness, integrity, and completeness. Therefore, all identities, such as Muslim, Sinhala, or, Tamil, atheist, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, or Muslim, female, male or transsexual need to be recognized, and those who claim such identities must receive their full humanness to begin with. A Muslim person cannot to be treated as a half-human while a Buddhist person is considered complete just because he or she is Buddhist. Similarly, Bangladeshi Buddhists, for example, are not lesser humans even though they live in a predominantly Muslim country. Moreover, a Muslim man cannot be treated as a full human being just because he is a Muslim and a man, while a Muslim woman is treated as less than human just because she is a woman even if she is Muslim. So, recognizing one’s identity is a complex affair because some identities themselves would often get in the way of justice and righteousness. Therefore, while all identities are accepted to begin with, we need to create space and freedom for critiquing those very identities. In short, all identities are kept under constant testing and vigilance not by someone with authority and power but by a lively conversation where each of us is a speaking subject.

There are some schools of thought arguing that identity is something we must do away with. That argument has been made with regard to ethnic and religious identities. But in this domain, one will never get a clean slate. Even after discarding those identities, there will be other ones. Thus, constant conversation on those matters of identity would be the most productive and democratic possibility, even though it can be the most difficult.

As I indicated earlier, recognition must be coupled with redistribution, as argued by some theorists, a point that is more than familiar to the scholars here in Economics and related fields. A nation’s wealth can be redistributed to people in many complex ways. These state funded universities are one of the mechanisms of redistribution. That was how a daughter of a renowned professor (Prof. K. Kailasapathy) and I, a son of an unknown carpenter educated only up to grade three, could earn university education here at this great institution, University of Colombo. A fine balance between recognition and redistribution is something many sane societies are after regardless the political ideologies they are guided by. I shall leave it at that and return to my familiar domain: Culture.

We, cultural critics and literary writers, are concerned with the naturalizing of certain cultural notions and attempt to keep them turning into cultural blindness. Let me give you some literary examples. Firstly, I shall draw your attention to a wonderful short story by Sudaraj whose real name is Sivasami Rajasinham. The title of the story is “the cow.”It has been written in 2007. When read with my Sinhala students at Peradeniya, the story disrupted some conventional notions about being Muslim in our country to the point that for some students the story was shockingly unfamiliar because it is about a Muslim man who saves a cow from being butchered. The saving of cows from butchers has become a contemporary Buddhist ritual. At times, that ritual is performed in a quite bit of political and racist noise. So much so that while the cow is being freed from the fear of death, the Muslim community is incurred with fear. The cow’s fear of death is ritually transferred to the Muslim community. Of course, there are many instances where abhaya dana or donating of fearlessness (life) is done in a peaceful manner as an act of merit without any reference to the Muslim community. Often times, cows are bought back from Sinhala middle men who supply them to Muslim traders. Yet, a Muslim man saving cows is something that would almost never occur to a Sinhala person. In this story, Sudaraj tells us of a Muslim agricultural officer, Aziz, living in Putlum area, who saves a cow’s life two or three times. At the first time, Aziz happens to hear that a Muslim man has sold his cow to a butcher. Even though he is not a man of great means, Aziz buys back the cow with the money he gets by pawning his wife gold jewelry. It is clear that Aziz, the agricultural officer, knows that to sell this relatively young cow that can still produce 15 liters of milk per day, is to make a very bad economic decision. So, his action seems to be guided more by pragmatics than ethics. But yet cannot we argue that all human decisions are a combination of both?

After saving the cow, Aziz gives it to a Sinhala family that needs some economic support. The Sinhala man is Piyadasa who is struggling to bring up his five children. Piyadasa would keep the cow, sell the milk, and, every other year, he would give a calf to Aziz. In other words, a half of the cow’s offspring would go to Aziz and the other to Piyadasa. But it turns out that, for about seven years, Aziz does not get anything at all. All the calves are sold to butchers, and then comes the fatal day of the mother-cow herself. On hearing this, Aziz runs around again and raises funds to buy the cow back. This Muslim man saves a cow from death at least two times. Since to redeem is to buy back, Aziz seems to be a quasi god who buys back other peoples’ sins. It is the Sinhala man who sells at least six calves to butchers.

When I read this story with in a class designed to develop our skills in intercultural understanding, it dawned on my Sinhala students that even Muslim people can save cows! In our Sinhala minds, Muslims are identified with cow-slaughter. One of the challenges of the Humanities scholar is to prevent such notions from freezing into rigid, unchanging identities. Without constant critique of phenomena, real human flourishing is not possible. Literary writer and humanities scholar do not accept easy interpretations of people. They are aware, and they want to make others aware, that any human being can become anything and life is a realm of possibilities and a process that cannot be captured with any ready-made definitions. “To define is to destroy” says an adage attributed to Charles Baudelaire.

Sudaraj, the Tamil writer shows us that Aziz the Muslim man can be so different from the conventional identity of a Muslim person. And of course, it is an identity created and propagated by others. As great Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali’s moving line says, “in my absence you polished me into an enemy.” Most of the time, we create definitions of other people in their absence and want to see their presence in our own definitions. This is not unique to us Sinhala people, and everyone does this to other people. ‘Othering’ of other people comes quite naturally to human mind and that is how the idea of ‘self’ is sustained. But those processes can be critiqued. One way of doing so is what I am after in this talk.

Let’s move on to another story about a Tamil man who puts his life at risk in order to search for cultural identity and legacy he has been forced to leave behind. The story is “weariness” written by Wimal Kulandaiwel. During the intense period of war, while the Sri Lankan army is advancing rapidly towards Mulativ, villagers keep fleeing towards the LTTE controlled area which is shrinking fast. An old man, who is called “grandfather” by everyone, does not feel at home at all in his displaced dwelling. One morning he begins to walk back towards the village he has left behind. Many people try to keep him from risking his life. But he walks with a great deal of resolve. The Army stops him once and verbally abuses him but the man insists that he must return home to get his “wangediya” mortar. A difficult Tamil word(ural) for the army officers. Once they understand what the old man is going to look for they order him to go ahead and come back on the same road otherwise, they threaten him, they would find and kill him.

At this point of the story, we, readers too cannot understand the man’s almost insane trip back to his village which is now under the army’s control. Yet, when reading the description of the old man’s arrival in his house and the way he finds what he has been looking for, it dawns on us that human beings do have things they that would risk their lives to protect. In a family safe box, he finds his copies of Ramayana, Kamba purana and the scripts of dramas he had written and produced. He unloads all those books and cultural memorabilia in to a bag. He remembers that a soldier threatened to kill him if he did not return. But he is tired. He has spent a sleepless night. Now it is getting dark. It looks like he is never going to make it back.

This story, published in Sinhala in 2009, forces us Sinhala readers to see beyond the frames of ethnic identity that undergirds our thinking about Tamil people. The old man in the story is a single, unknown human dot that we saw in those images of exodus appeared in media during those tragic months. For us, they are Tamil, and, in ‘post-conflict jargon’, they are IDPs. Yet, looked closer at them from the vantage point of a literary writer, we can see that beyond the blanket-identities we have given them, those people have some other identities as well. Some of those identities are so precious to them, and, for us those identities are too precious to ignore. The old man in the story is not just a Tamil man or an IDP or a possible LTTE sympathizer. He has other identities, too. First of all he is an artist who puts his life in danger to recover his artistic output over the years. In other words, he seems to be treating the identity as an artist to be superior to the identity as a Tamil man. Or for him, his identity as a Tamil man rests on the very fact that he is an artist and vice versa. One of the difficulties for us in creating a space for human flourishing is the fact that we all tend to freeze other people into rigid and unchanging identities. More importantly perhaps we freeze ourselves also in monolithic identities denying ourselves the possibility of change.

Let me now give you an example closer to ‘home.’ I use “home” here with all the possible meanings that the word can convey. By home, I mean Sinhala literary culture. I also mean by that your academic home, this faculty. My next example is a Sinhala story that could have been written, at least in part, in a room at this faculty. I hope some of you know that one of best fiction writers in Sri Lanka today lives among you. Yes. My next example is from Prabath Jayasinghe’s new book Makara Thorana. Without getting into literary merits of Jayasinghe’s five books, let me jump right into the point that I have been making so far.

The story I want to draw your attention to is called Kalaka Jataka, written in the form of a Buddhist Jataka story, and, in terms of narrative technique, it is much more experimental and innovative than the ones I discussed earlier. Yet, the story is, in some ways, similar to Sudaraj’s “the Cow” in its thematic. Let’s cut to the chase! Valuka, a former wrestler, has now become a wondering mendicant after his wrestling life made him rather epileptic. One day, on his way through a forest, he runs into an unknown warrior who makes a living by ‘taxing’ those who pass through the forest by terrifying them into submission. This warrior and the mendicant, who also has homo-erotic sentiments towards the former, join together into a kind of religio-political institution that terrifies others. They establish their power by forcibly stopping a religious group that performs animal sacrifice. In other words, they stop violence against animals by instigating fear in the people who are engaged in such practices. Valuka, the mendicant is the ideologue behind this political project. After a while, they are able to turn everyone into their subjects, and they themselves into a quasi-state. Here comes the irony. The warrior-king wants to celebrate his coronation by treating his armies to a huge feast. For the feast they must butcher animals. Since they gained power by liberating animals, they cannot kill animals even for these celebrations. Here comes real politic! Once you have power you can invent new traditions. So the warrior-king and his mendicant advisor device a plan: that is to get a former ritual slaughterer of a different religion, who is now prison, to butcher animals secretly for the king. This ritual slaughterer realizes that, many years ago, his parents were murdered by this animal-friendly king. In fact, this savior of animals is a murderer of humans.

More importantly, the author shows us as to how we create our radical others and whom we often distance as others can very well be a part of our own making. What we often project on to others could very well be the things for which we have unconscious desire. A complex story indeed!! It is a parable of how we construct our identities and force others into identities that we want them to have and propagate. Jean-Paul Sarte is right on the money, when he said, “The Jew is a man whom other men look upon as a Jew… it is the anti-Semite who makes the Jew…”

In concluding this talk, I shall now move on to some theoretical reflections. The notion of identity as something fixed and permanent has been critiqued by many theorists. Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, whom must be familiar to everyone here, has been one of my gurus on this subject. I use his work in my teaching in literature and hope you do too in your teaching in economics and management. Without detailing everything we can learn from Sen’s work that includes books such as The Argumentative Indian, Development as Freedom, The Idea of Justice, and Identity and Violence, let me briefly touch on the last book. I agree with Professor Sen that total disregard of people’s identities itself could lead to violence. “Campaigns to switch perceived self-identities have been responsible for many atrocities in the world, making old friends into new enemies and odious sectarians into suddenly powerful political leaders. The need to recognize the role of reasoning and choice in identity-based thinking is thus both exacting and extremely important.”(Identity and Violence. p. 8) While Amartya Sen believes that identity can be too important to discard, it is also wrong to assume that human beings only have one single identity. Humans can make reasoned choices and assume new and multiple identities. Let me quote Sen again, “If identity based thinking can be amenable to such brutal manipulations, where can the remedy be found? It can hardly be sought in trying to suppress or stifle the invoking identity in general. For one thing, identity can be a source of richness and warmth as well as violence and terror, and it would make little sense to treat identity as a general evil. Rather, we have to draw on the understanding that the force of bellicose identity can be challenged by the power of competing identities (p. 4).” That was a point I have made using Sinhala and Tamil stories. As Amartya Sen argues further that human beings have multiple identities. A Buddhist person can be a democrat, a feminist, a socialist, a humanist and so on. Moreover, people can be held responsible for the identity choices they make at different times. And one identity can be critiqued, supplemented or counter-balanced by another identity that the same person might hold onto. This lively and productive process is destroyed if we freeze people into one or two rigid identities. I hope this to be a word of humanist wisdom for you in the field of economics and management.

Ladies and gentleman, I do not have the final word on this theme. And we cannot take a break from being vigilant on how certain identities and identity-based thinking gain dominance over others. As a scholar in the Humanities and as a literary writer I have kept my vigilance and attempted to develop consciousness that could contribute to the unshackling of ‘man-made’ chains that bind my fellow humans. Speaking of chains and bonds and endurance, let me set you free of this bond of listening to me. Thank you for being so patient, kind, and considerate. Thank you very much!

*Liyanage Amarakeerthi – Professor in Sinhala, University of Peradeniya

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    Thank you for exposing leadership and statesmanship of UNP and SLFP and its rathu sahotharaya parties which have been in power since 1948.

    Will there be any all party solution soon ? No way. Rajapakses will be capturing power sooner or later using the same tactics UNP plays

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