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Perception among minorities that they are being subjected to discrimination

by Izeth Hussain

Clarifications on Racism

(February 13, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) I have been pointing out in earlier notes that our ethnic problems can be fully understood only in terms of a racist paradigm, not of an ethnic paradigm. At the core of ethnic problems is usually the perception among minorities that they are being subjected to discrimination. Who does the discriminating? It is the “racist”, but in the ethnic paradigm there is no such term as “ethnicist”, no term at all to designate what is at the core of ethnic problems.

As another example I will take the term “stereotype” which is very familiar in the discourse of racism. This example arises out of the call to boycott the Galle Literary Festival because of the Government’s poor record on media freedom. It is a thoroughly mysterious, indeed totally irrational, call because the GLF is organized and run by private parties and not by the Government. Furthermore, at earlier GLFs the Government was freely criticized, and so it was at the recently concluded one by human rights activist Sunila Abaeysekera and others. The call to boycott it has about it therefore a mind-boggling silliness. It may be understandable that essentially polemical writers like Arundathi Roy and Tariq Ali should have backed it, but what on earth was Naom Chomsky doing in that galley? He is a worthy successor as the world leading public intellectual to Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre, and his position as one of the rare original minds of our time has been well-established with his theory of “generative grammar”.

I can think of only one possible explanation. He - as well as other internationally eminent persons - have fallen victim to the human propensity to think in terms of stereotypes. According to race theorists racism has at its roots the human need to understand the world around us, which is possible only through classifications without which the world will be something amorphous with which we cannot come to grips. That need to classify can - unless we are watchful - easily lead to the formation of stereotypes about human beings. In this case there has been a demonization of the Sinhalese leading to the formation of a stereotype in which the Sinhalese as a whole are seen as essentially violators of human rights, media freedom and so on. This example shows that all of us can easily slide into racism, and come to occupy a point in a spectrum between racism and anti-racism. I will not be so silly as to accuse the likes of Chomsky of being racist. I have in mind only the danger of our slipping temporarily into racism. I suspect that that was behind the boycott call. Otherwise I can make no sense of it.


Another clarification I want to make is about discrimination. In recent years the question has come to be asked what is the discrimination at present, allowing for the possibility that there may have been discrimination in the past. The late Kumar Ponnambalam had been flummoxed by that question into citing a trivial example of discrimination. That has been taken as a triumph by the Sinhalese who hold that there is no such thing as an ethnic problem in Sri Lanka. But when I talk to my fellow Muslims I find usually that they are full of complaints about discrimination which they dare not air in public, and such certainly is the case with our Tamils too. The important point - it seems to me - is that a perception is a fact, and equally so is a misperception, and it may well be that the sense of discrimination among minorities is more paranoid than factual. But they will not go away unless we address them as problems, a process without which we can never have authentic ethnic harmony. The problems of perception and misperception can be best addressed in terms of a paradigm of racism.

GLF - The Galle Literary Festival has to be counted as a success and the boycott call a failure. The change of mind about participation by Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk and also by Kiran Desai was certainly disappointing, but that may have nothing to do with the boycott call which was far too irrational to be taken seriously. In this note I want to answer the critics who advocated non-participation on the ground that the costs of participation were too high for the authentic literati who are not privileged like the glitterati.

I too have a claim to be a member of the literati as apart from having a deep and abiding interest in literature, I have written among other things an in-depth study of Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate. It turned out to be an interesting exercise. In my estimate Seth’s work is in the front rank of English language literature produced by third world writers, and it will assuredly come to have classic status. The problem I addressed was how so authentic a work of literature written by an Indian could have come to be situated in the US and be peopled entirely by Americans. I took it as presaging the cosmic man of the future, of a global civilization that has been shaping up, taking the term “cosmic man” from Wyndham Lewis’ book on the US. That was the text, but in exploring it I came to a sub-text that was profoundly Indian. My study was an exercise in deconstruction well before I read Derrida, clearly demonstrating that there is much more to modern literary theory than gobbledygook and obfuscation. I am aware that a friend of mine who knew Seth sent my study to him and that Seth once described himself as a cosmic man. I would have very much liked to participate in the GLF at which Seth was one of the stars. But among other things my indigence forbade it.


There must have been many others in the same position. All that could add up to an apparently sound case for the authentic literati abandoning the GLF to the glitterati. It is pertinent to recall some observations by the great Stravinsky about the world of music. He detested orchestra conductors, and used to have much fun at the expense of Pierre Monteux, one of the top conductors of his time, who had notoriety as a champion fornicator and was also equipped with a huge belly. Stravinsky used to wonder how he carried out the act of penetration, and used to entertain his friends with accounts of acrobatic postures necessary for Monteux to carry out his fell purpose. For Stravinsky the conductors were vainglorious fellows who took the credit for what was accomplished by the composers. To show what composers had to go through, Stravinsky referred to a photograph of two of the great creators of modern music, Alban Berg and Anton Webern, both of whom were shabbily dressed, had mud on their boots, and looked lonely and lost. According to that image the world of money and the world of the creative arts are antithetical.
But they need not be antithetical as shown by the fact that at one time the aristocracy used to be the patron of the arts, a role later assumed by the wealthier segment of the bourgeoisie. Several creative writers in the West whose productions cannot enable them to survive have been enabled to continue writing only because they have been given teaching posts in Universities, which are largely funded by wealthy patrons. For me a single image encapsulates the positive relationship possible between the world of money and the world of the arts. Lady Ottoline Morrell was a great patroness of writers in the first half of the last century, who earned the esteem and affection of even D.H.Lawrence, the miner’s son who was quite capable of intense class hatred. At one of her parties the greatest poet of that time, W.B.Yeats, was present. Virginia Woolf wrote of him as seated on a sofa “solid like a wedge of oak” - if I remember the phrase correctly - an image declaring that Virginia herself was born to write. There amidst the satin and crystal of the English aristocracy was displayed the essential strength of a great poet. So, the relationship need not be antithetical, and the fact that many members of our literati cannot attend the GLF does not mean that it should be abandoned to the glitterati.

(The writer can be contacted at izethhussain@gmail.com )

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