Humanity denied by racism

by Izeth Hussain

(January 23, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The Racist Paradigm - I have long believed that we will never really solve our ethnic problems until we approach them in terms of a racist paradigm. How do ethnic problems arise? For the most part they arise out of perceptions among ethnic minorities that they are not being given fair and equal treatment, that they are being deliberately discriminated against. Who does the discriminating? There is no term in the discourse of ethnicity to designate who does the discriminating because there is no such term as “ethnicist”. It can be held therefore that ethnic discourse nicely elides away the most important dimension of ethnic problems - and that’s very nice for the racists. On the other hand, the racist paradigm gives central importance to the “racist”. I hold that our thinking on the ethnic problem will always be skewed, and lack efficacy, as long as our discourse does not allow us to recognize and address the central problem of the “racist” who does the discriminating.

Change in ideology

However, “racism” and “racists” have been coming into usage in recent years, whereas they were earlier practically unknown in reference to our ethnic problems. This, I believe, is an important development because the terms we use show the way in which we conceptualize the world, and terms suddenly coming into vogue could signify a change in ideology, meaning by ideology here the ensemble of ideas and values prevailing in a society. Recently the President himself used the term “racism”, which could possibly signify that the notion of racism is passing into our mainstream discourse on ethnicity, which could lead to a crucially important paradigm shift on the ethnic problem. I am aware, of course, that the terms “Tamil racism” and “Sinhalese racism” are used by racists on both sides of the ethnic fence, racists who hold that racism is something that afflicts only the other side, never one’s own side. That means merely that people, even highly intelligent people, can lapse into total irrationality. It does not affect my argument adversely.

Stereotypes - I will now make a few observations on the problem of stereotypes. Racists have an essentialising habit of mind which makes them believe that all members of an ethnic group share certain essential characteristics which never change or change only very slowly over a period of decades or centuries. Those characteristics are seen as unamiable ones, justifying the treatment of minority members as inferior, excluding them, or even killing them. In an earlier note I cited my own experiences as illustrative examples. When I got involved in controversy over megaphone diplomacy, it seemed obvious after some time that many of the attacks on me had behind them a belief that a minority member could not be a true nationalist. When I pointed out that the exclusion of Ferveez Mahroof from the national cricket team could have had racism behind it, the infuriated attacks on me had a clear ad hominem character, the attacks focusing not on my arguments but on me as being sly, cunning, devious, and totally untrustworthy. I was clearly being fitted into the familiar racist stereotype of the Muslim businessman.

I wrote that in those attacks my humanity was being denied. The charge I made was of the very greatest importance, and therefore requires clarification. The counter-argument would be that surely my antagonists did not imply in any way that I was not a human being. Of course, but their formulations did imply that I was not fully human. Practically all human beings have dual identities, a group identity and an individual identity. They usually share the characteristics of a group, but as individuals they share them to varying degrees. Some are wholly subsumed within a group, while others could be almost wholly out of it. George Orwell, whom I quoted in an earlier note, thought that behind racism is a propensity to classify members of another human group in the way we do insects which have only a group and no individual identity. Therefore, in fitting me into the familiar - and extremely insulting - stereotype of the Muslim businessman, I was most certainly being denied my full humanity. And that - I must emphasize - is a very dangerous thing to do because behind practically all killings on ethnic grounds is a denial in varying degrees of the humanity of the Other. The killings can go to a genocidal extreme as it did in 1983, resulting in a war which eventually killed off 80,000 or more Sri Lankans.

We must bear in mind that while racism can be destructive of the Other, it can also be destructive of the Self. I will set out here very briefly a few illustrative examples. Hitler invaded the Soviet Union confidently anticipating that its armed forces would crack up in no time at all, an anticipation that was the consequence of the Nazi racist belief that the Russians and other Slavs were meant to be slaves. But the Russians showed a fighting spirit not anticipated in Nazi racist theory, and that invasion became the turning point of the war leading to the defeat of Germany. In Sri Lanka there were no anti-Tamil riots between 1958 and 1977. But just three weeks after the 1977 Government came to power the first anti-Tamil pogrom took place, and anti-Tamil violence reached its apogee in 1983. Behind it all was clearly the racist belief that the Tamils were totally devoid of the martial spirit, being for the most part labourers, farmers, Government servants, and professionals, and could therefore be whacked endlessly and with total impunity. But that racist belief proved to be mistaken, and led to the Eelam War. In its turn the LTTE also became racist, as demonstrated by me some years ago in an analysis of Heroes Day speeches by Prabhakaran and Balasingham. According to the latter, there was nothing in the Sinhalese upper storey, and the only word that the Sinhalese could really understand was the word “hit”. Clearly there had been a racist dehumanization of the Sinhalese, leading to a confident anticipation that they would never be able to withstand Dravidian brain-power and Cholan martial spirit. It led to May 18, 2009.

Ethnic prejudices

Clearly it is now time for us to stop trifling with racism, which as the Westerners came to understand decades ago could have lethal consequences. I believe that in Sri Lanka most of the people are not racists. They certainly have their ethnic prejudices just like members of other ethnic groups all over the world, but those prejudices should not be regarded as racist as long as they don’t issue in the belief that members of other ethnic groups are inherently inferior or threatening, justifying their being discriminated against, excluded, or even killed. In that sense, I believe, the majority of Sri Lankans are not racists. Therefore we, the non-racist Sri Lankan majority, taking count of the horrible destructiveness of racism, should do everything possible to make our racists mend the error of their ways. Towards that end I send them the following get-well message: RACISM IS A DISEASE. GET WELL SOON.

Words - Since the Galle Literary Festival is impending, it is time to say something about the proper use of words. In a recent article I wrote something like this: the Westerners don’t give a dam whether countries like Sri Lanka break up or not. The word “dam” as in the sentence given here is usually spelt with a concluding “n”, carrying the notion of damnation. That to my mind makes no sense at all. I believe that “dam” really refers to a now defunct Indian coin of the smallest value.

The word “decimate” according to the dictionary means that something is being reduced or destroyed by a tenth. But it is now used always to mean the very opposite: a reduction or destruction by ninety per cent or more. We are all nowadays against the purists who resent the slightest deviation from normal usage, and we are all for the distortion or stretching of language for creative ends. But in the two cases cited here we are witnessing an evident impoverishment of the English language taking place.

The word “literally” is frequently used incorrectly. I am reminded of a Punch joke about Gladstone who was following a Parliamentary debate with intense interest: “He sat literally glued to his seat. ‘That’s torn it’ exclaimed the Grand Old Man as he got up with a ripping sound to go for the tea break.”
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