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Conversations with a chameleon (katussa)

Some thoughts for 2014

| by Basil Fernando


( January 1, 2014 - Hong Kong - Sri Lanka Guardian) As I wanted to discuss many things, and as I found no one else to discuss these things with, I was happy to see you on a branch of a tree in our garden. I told myself, “Ah, here is someone I can talk to.”

As I approached and greeted you, you nodded to me in a friendly manner, which encouraged me to start this conversation with you.

There are many problems that we cannot talk about with human beings these days. They no longer want to converse about things; they like to keep the chatter to just saying “Hi” or talking about the weather, the latest cricket match or a song or a film, none of which they care for very much. It is as if they are trying to talk to avoid a meaningful and good conversation.

"The whole state, the whole edifice of the rational state, is built on the basis of the belief that the relationship between the government and the people who are ruled by it is one which has meaning, and that rational communication between the two is possible."

You may not understand why I worry about conversations. Your species has survived millions of years without resorting to such things as conversations. It is the unique problem of our species that we use words to communicate with others. And these things called words have caused us many problems. Words can help conversations but words can also destroy conversations. These days, people have learned the art of destroying conversations through all kinds of words.

Now the question is as to why people do not want to converse, and why they want to use words as some kind of a barricade against conversations. That is exactly the reason why I turned to you to have this talk with. Having a good conversation and having to think about something, in the way that we in our species are capable of thinking, is what the people seem to be afraid of.

Such thinking about things seems to create a myriad of complications and disagreements, as well as problems from authorities. In your species, there are no authorities, you don’t have them. I don’t know whether anyone would argue that you have done worse for not having authorities. For us, authorities have become unavoidable, and there is some kind of a general consensus and agreement that authorities have done a lot of good things. However, this is not always the case; there are times and circumstances in which authorities can also be the most difficult problem that people have to deal with.

I don’t want to bore you, so I think I’d better explain this to you with an illustration, so that you could understand this better. I am happy that you are nodding and that we’ve agreed to this conversation. Once, I wrote a poem, and the title of this poem was “Yet another incident in July 1983.” The year 1983 was a time in which there was a very big riot in my country called Sri Lanka, a riot in which many people from the minority – these people were called Tamils – were killed, some burned. Their houses were destroyed, their shops were looted and all other kinds of damage was done to them. I know that in your species you don’t have these things called riots. But we have these things called riots, and during those times it can be terrible for many people. Why I used the title “Yet another incident” for my poem is that, although the incident I described was a terrible one, even that incident didn’t cause very much shock - or any shock - to the people anymore. There were so many bad things happening, very very bad things happening, and therefore listening to or going through one more bad thing was not something that left a very big impression; nor would it, as we would call it in those days, generate “a humane reaction”.

I was telling you earlier about this problem of having conversations with human beings these days and this may be one of the reasons. Too many things are bad, so many things have gone bad, as if there is some kind of madness in the affairs of human beings. I don’t know whether in your species there is a thing called madness. My acquaintance with your species is minor, although I have seen members of your species from the time of my childhood and was fascinated to watch them, and that acquaintance is not big enough for me to have an idea as to whether there is anything called madness in your world. But in our world there are very many types of madness. There are a lot of individuals who may have, due to various reasons, lost their capacity to have their rational faculties – and when this happens we call them “mad”. But there is another kind of madness and that was what I was talking about, and that kind of madness is called collective madness – when everybody is more or less mad. I say more or less mad, because for all purposes we all appear to be quite normal, and we can carry on many of our businesses and activities, unlike those people I told you of earlier who go mad and are unable to function normally. But behind our collective façade and expressions of normalness there is a far deeper problem of really being unable to cope up with what we see and what we hear.

However, this huge disturbance we have within ourselves, we are quite capable of hiding it; smiling at each other as if everything is normal, we can keep all the appearances of sanity, but internally there is some terrible insanity that goes on. It is this insanity which prevents us from responding to a terrible event with compassion and anger as we used to do when we were actually normal - a long time ago. That is the reason why I called my poem “yet another incident”; it is something we hear and something we see, and yet we pass it by, closing ourselves to it.

Why do we do this? It is quite difficult to explain. There may be very many reasons. One of the reasons is that we are afraid that if we get too involved in trying to understand the kinds of terrible things we see, we may get into problems with the authorities. That is why I told you earlier that this thing with authorities these days carries some very problematic connotations. Authority is something we have begun to fear; authority is something that is hidden everywhere and watching us, and if the authority does not like the way we think or the way we talk, it has the power to punish us, and sometimes the punishment can be a terrible one.

I mean that the punishment can sometimes be death. I suppose that what we have in common, your species and mine, is that we fear death. The same way that in your species you take so much precaution to avoid being harmed by predators, we also have similar fears among ourselves. We always try to be safe, to take every possible precaution to avoid death. Now this has gone to the extent of fearing the authority, as it is not only capable of causing death, but seems to enjoy it.

This impression has not come from nowhere, nor did it come from nothing. In fact, for your species as well as mine, nothing comes from nothing. This has come from experiences, from things that have happened to others and from things that we know could happen to us. Basically, we are no longer safe. I don’t know whether you can understand that among us, the human beings, we talk about a thing called history, and what we have learned in the past is that the idea of authority was created to protect us from harm; to protect us from either killing each other or being harmed by some external enemy, and that therefore the authority was considered something very positive, something very benevolent and something very good. But now you can see how it has turned in another direction completely, and that we now see authorities as those with ominous power, power to threaten us and to cause us death.

Now you understand why I have turned to you to have this conversation; because I think that you don’t have that problem, because you don’t have authorities over you. Of course you have the fear of death happening in a natural way, and that is something that your species, my species and all other species share in common. But these days we, the human beings, have something added to that through this fear of authorities; authorities not being our friends, not being our protectors, and not being those who are out to help us, but being somewhat our enemies, if they feel that what we think, what we see and what we do in any way, is not what they want.

You see, our authorities can now tell us what we can do and what we should not do. In your species it is only nature that informs you what may be harmful to do, but we have something more that those natural causes. The result of all this is that people really don’t want to talk to each other anymore. They feel that somebody may say something that will touch them too deeply and that it will lead them to say or do something that will ultimately put them on a collision course with the authorities. To get into a collision course with the authorities these days is quite easy because what we are allowed to do is quite limited. What we are not allowed to think or do is much bigger, vast, and therefore there is the fear that even an innocent conversation with a passerby, or between neighbors known to each other for a very long time, may lead to some terrible consequences. So I hope that I have explained to you how much I appreciate your kindness and your nodding in agreement to have this conversation with me.


Now I want to talk with you about another matter on which I cannot find any human being interested to talk. It is about a peculiarity of us human beings which I think your species has no experience of. That is our capacity, as well as some kind of willingness, to kill. Killing one’s own species is one aspect of human uniqueness. I know that in your species you also quarrel sometimes, I have seen that from my early days of youth, how some of you have a small quarrel, carried out over one branch of a tree or sometimes even following one another to another tree. However, that kind of fight is often to expel another from one’s territory, and it does not go to the extent of killing.

There have been times when human beings tried to create abhorrence, a moral disgust, against killing so that the killing of one could lead to a moral outrage. But what I have observed in recent times is that the sense of moral outrage against killings seems to have been subdued or virtually lost. It may well be that people are privately against the killing of one person by another but, these days, they do not try to demonstrate that disapproval. There is some kind of incapacity that has developed among human beings to express disapproval even of such things as murder. Instead, what seems to have been developing is an increase in taking precautions, to try to avoid becoming the victim of such killings, a victim of some evil thing that everyone knows is quite widespread now. We human beings have become the sort of creatures whose success in survival seems to depend on the extent of precautions that we take for our survival. The precaution does not take the form, as perhaps it did at one time, of being armed or being prepared to defend oneself from the attack of another, so that each person intimidates the other and thereby prevents the other from attacking.

Nowadays, what happens is that people withdraw from society as much as possible, so that they do not become the target of a killing. People find that disassociation from other human beings brings greater protection than association and cooperation. People fear each other so much that the idea of cooperation is less and less relied upon. Perhaps associated with this is the idea that the distrust of others is a better attitude to have than trust.

All this is quite the opposite of what we have been claiming about ourselves, and about our social arrangements, including our political organizations. We have claimed that we have come to some kind of a social contract to cooperate with each other. The idea of cooperation is at the very heart of the idea of humanity itself. We have claimed to be creatures capable of cooperating with each other for the benefit of everyone. However, instead of having that attitude and a belief in cooperation, which naturally leads to the other virtue of trusting each other, today we have given significance to the idea of not wanting to cooperate and withdrawing from cooperation as much as possible, and keeping what some may even call a healthy distrust of others. The moral implications of such a distrust is that we do not care - or we do not consider ourselves capable of caring - about the wellbeing of others, to the extent that we do not even think ourselves capable of preventing the killing of another. Instead of the idea of keeping an open mind so that we notice others, today’s thinking is that, even if we meet eye to eye with others, it is best to avoid eye contact and not to get involved with other people so that one does not come to any harm. The belief that others can harm more than help is so deep and so widespread that we have created a kind of culture of withdrawal, thinking of it as a culture that suits us and which will work well for us.

Unlike in your species, in our species we used to have people called heroes. A hero was somebody who did something great on behalf of many others, something that many others would be afraid of doing. One of those heroic things we used to admire was the courage of some to come forward with the hope of reforming all of us and creating habits among us which will discourage violence, and help to create attitudes in us to abhor things which are bad for others, such as killings, rape and other forms of harm to others. For example, we had in the Jewish civilization a man called Moses who gave ten commandments that everybody should obey. The first was that ‘Thou shall not kill’. This shows that there were efforts to create some kind of collective agreement that we will not kill and that we will not allow others to kill. Killing other human beings thus became something that we disapproved of, and we expressed disapproval even by way of severe punishment for those who did such things that we collectively disapproved of.

However, what has been happening now is that we are losing that sense of active disapproval, and therefore killing for one purpose or another is considered a kind of heroic behavior by those who pursue some cause. It is not only among some groups that this has developed, but also in our forms of government. Now our governments don’t primarily consider themselves as agents who are supposed to strengthen the cooperation of people with each other and thereby increase trust, confidence and even love and compassion for each other.

Instead, the State develops its own secret machinery for killing. People are trained to be extremely efficient in killing, and to create that efficiency the States uses a lot of resources. There are things called commando units, Special Task Forces and very many other para-military groups who are given long periods of training to become very efficient killers.

Part of that efficiency is to leave no trace of who did such killings. Governments provide vehicles, communications facilities and also salaries and financial rewards for running efficient killing mechanisms. And the State, in order to facilitate the functioning of such efficient killings mechanisms, also discourages judicial institutions, which were in the past considered as the guardians of the civil liberties of individuals.

Nowadays, methods have been developed to reduce these courts to the same situation as that of individuals who think that it is better to withdraw from the society than to engage with it. Through many methods, courts are prevented from engaging in order to prevent and punish killings and other forms of harm that people do to each other. Judges who are capable of being silent are rewarded. Sometimes the Judges themselves preach a new message, about the wisdom in not interfering while the Government maintains killing squads. So what I am trying to talk about with you is something that human beings do not want to talk about amongst themselves these days. We have begun to approve of killings as quite an essential part of keeping our civilization. That idea of civilization is also no longer one of people cooperating with each other in order to pursue the common good of everyone, but rather of individuals and groups withdrawing from the rest of the society and pursuing their interest while taking precautions against being harmed by others.


Today, I would like to discuss a few more matters with you, matters that we cannot any longer discuss amongst human beings. As you may know, we human beings claim that we are a superior species to yours, as well as to many other species; in fact, to all other species. The reason we give is that we have a superior intelligence. This claim of superior intelligence is taken for granted as an absolutely right assertion. However, I want to illustrate to you why this is not such an easily acceptable proposition.

The same capacity for intelligence is often used to develop notions which are absolutely silly, and we have throughout our history acted on many things in very many silly ways. We have acted with so much silliness that we have been damaging our own species as a whole and of course, in many instances, many specific individuals from our species have been brought to destruction due to our own silliness.

We have also shown the capacity to turn even the better achievements of our intelligence to silly uses. The method we have often resorted to is to make a pretext of using a good idea and then developing many silly ideas out of it, and then, for all practical purposes, acting on the basis of the silly ideas, virtually ignoring their better origins.

Since I am talking about something that you may find confounding, I can try to illustrate it with a few examples. Let me begin with an example close to home, from Asia itself.

We know that India developed an early civilization, known as the Harappan civilization. Historians have more or less agreed that this existed from around 2500 B.C. to about 1700 B.C. Following this period there emerged another civilization, usually called the Vedic civilization. Many written texts were developed there and those writings gave rise to various stories, poems, hymns and the like. That was the great aspect of that civilization, developing our use of our faculties of intelligence.

But what did we do with it? Very soon we used these great achievements to create extraordinarily silly and damaging ideas, one of which was the caste system of India, which has done so much damage to everybody living in India, particularly to those who became the dominated people or the people who were brought to submission. Those people were called the low caste, and later that developed into outcastes, also called Untouchables.

Later periods, nearing the 20th century, brought movements and struggles by these people, and now these people call themselves Dalits – people who are fighting against oppression.

This terrible oppression was brought about by subverting some of the very great achievements of our culture. The damage this has done, not only to India but also to the entire subcontinent, is so enormous that the eradication of such destruction remains one of the most difficult tasks faced by India, as well as other South Asian countries. The extent of everybody’s misery – especially of those who are categorized as being at the bottom of the society - is difficult to describe.

So our species has this capacity to create our own miseries. I do not think your species has this capacity. Of course your species has throughout millions of years often been subjected to problems created from outside. Problems created by bad weather and other ecological circumstances, which may destroy fauna and flora, naturally have created lots of problems for your species as well as to many other species. The great floods that the world has witnessed would have also brought much destruction to your species. But these are not creations of your species; they have been caused due to external factors.

In contrast to that, we constantly create our own misery. We even take for granted that creating such misery for ourselves is somewhat normal and unavoidable. Now this really puts to the test our claim that we are a superior species whose superiority lies in our intelligence.

To take an example from afar, let’s go into another great and early civilization: ancient Greece. There we find the great thinkers of that time, a vast number of them. Among them, the names of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle are so often mentioned, and their names are known to the whole world. Their use of intelligence in those early times was a great achievement. However, in later times, people used the works of these great thinkers to create enormously silly and extremely repressive systems of ideas, and then developed institutions around these systems. One example is that of St Thomas Aquinas, also known as an enormously intelligent person, who constructed theological concepts by use of methodologies that Aristotle used, and then constructed an extreme machinery of repression, which lasted for very many centuries. The church took these ideas and even called for a world conference, known as the Council of Trent, where these works of Thomas Aquinas were accepted as absolute truth, and made it an obligation for all believers to adhere to these ideas. The consequences were enormous, and it was centuries later that these ideas were challenged by people who used methods of observation and experimentation to come to different conclusions. However, the defense of those silly constructions was done with ruthless violence, and the triumph of the ideas of science had to wait for many centuries. Throughout the world we have done similar things by creating beliefs and using our intelligence for no other purpose than to repress a large section of humanity into submission.

Nearer our times, we have seen that even those achievements which were brought through the use of scientific methods were used more for destructive purposes than creative purposes that would have brought many benefits to mankind. Of course, various achievements in the medical sciences are on the positive side of such use of intelligence. However, by utilizing the best of scientific achievement to create atomic bombs and other nuclear devices, we have created for ourselves the possibility of annihilation, not only of our species but of yours and of all the other species on earth.
If I were to list known instances of our self-destruction, it would be a long list, contributed to from every part of the world and every area of activity.

So this claim that we are a superior species is not backed by adequate evidence, but is in fact contradicted by evidence. The vast body of already known facts, commonly known facts from around the world, shows that we are a species that ruthlessly does damage to ourselves.

I will not go into the problems created for our ecology, which is one of the matters that the whole world is discussing at the moment because of the realization that we are in great danger even of annihilation due to the carelessness with which we have damaged our own environment and our living ethos. If you were to go into other matters, one of the most terrible things our human intelligence was used to do was to subjugate the females of our species. Now that is an accusation which cannot be made against your species or any other known species. In all parts of the world we use various ideas and cultural achievements, not to bring benefit to everyone, but to bring the women folk in particular into submission. History from around the world shows us the extent to which we have been silly in the way we have dealt with the females of our own species. And it is not a completely ancient problem. This problem still exists and, despite of our intelligence, there are hardly any adequate attempts made to deal with this issue and bring to it a solution.

That is another aspect of our silliness. We know that if we use our intelligence creatively we can bring benefits to all. However we have created all kinds of theories and all kinds of ideologies in order to justify why we should not bring benefits to everyone.

If we look into social theories in the field of economics as well as other social sciences, we find large bodies of work justifying the denial of the benefits of our achievements to everyone.

However, not many will agree to contest these claims about our superior intelligence by actually looking into the way we have used our minds.


You’ll never know how grateful I am for you listening to me. The reason for such great gratitude is the very reason that I have been telling you over and over again; that is, I am talking to you because among the human beings there is no one willing to hear the things I am thinking about, that I am now talking about.

I told you that in our species we use words to communicate. The problem today is that these words no longer carry common meanings. This simply means that what I say does not make any sense to anyone who is listening to me. When I hear words from others it is almost impossible for me to make sense out of what they say, no matter how much time I may be willing to spend pondering over what they said.

That is not merely regarding communication between one person and another as fellow beings, but also to communications between the Government and the people, the people and the Government. Therefore people don’t even want to be bothered about whether there is any sense in what the government says; nor does the government worry about whether there is anything sensible in what the people want to or do say.

Let me try to show this to you by way of an illustration or two. There was a man called Gerald Perera, who was a young man of about 40 years. He was arrested one day by a group of policemen and brought to a police station. Without saying a word, they hung him up on a beam and started beating him with iron and wooden rods. This affected him so much that he suffered renal failure and, at the end of it all, the policemen said that he was not the man that they were after.

Gerald was in hospital suffering and in a coma for almost 2-3 weeks before he slowly recovered. Brought to a state of enormous confusion by being assaulted like this for no reason by agents of the state, he thought that he had a right to seek justice. For seeking justice, he was shot dead by the very same agents of the state who had in the earlier instance assaulted him - for nothing, for no reason. Devastated by this, his widow thought that she should find some justice and that she owed an obligation to her husband to seek justice.

This happened some 10 years ago, and the cases are still on going. The policemen still believe that one day the Courts will declare them innocent, though they themselves know very well what they have done. On the other hand, the widow can’t see how any verdict that the court may give is of any use now. But the cases go on, with judges - including some from the Supreme Court - responsible for adjudicating this matter, and I suppose it will go on for some more time.

The onlookers are shocked and surprised by everything. First of all, by the terrible torture that a completely innocent man has suffered at the hands of the agents of the state - the law they know is that, even if he was a guilty person, even if he had done a crime, the police as the agents of the state did not have a right to torture him. It is not at all under any circumstances permissible for these agents of the state, who act under the name of the law, to assault a person and to cause him renal failure, and of course they have no right to later shoot and kill him.

Except for being shocked by all the details of what happened to Gerald and what is happening under the guise of law, there is no sense that they can make out of it, nor do they try to make sense out of it anymore.

This is just one example from one country, and virtually thousands of known examples could be cited from the same and many other countries about situations that are more or less similar. Some situations are even worse and some may not be as bad, but still quite gruesome enough.

A question that comes up is, is it really necessary for people to make sense out of the things they see and witness as things happening around them? Is it possible for man or woman to make sense out of these things? Is there any duty, either to themselves or to the rest of the society, to make an attempt to make sense out of these things? If there is such a wish or a duty, what would that itself mean when the ultimate outcome of making any such attempt is going to be futile?

The use of words has come to mean this today. In the past, people have in many ways made some sense out of what happens to them as well as others, and also about the things in nature, and used their faculties of reason to express these things by way of words so that others could also make some sense out of these things.

The whole state, the whole edifice of the rational state, is built on the basis of the belief that the relationship between the government and the people who are ruled by it is one which has meaning, and that rational communication between the two is possible.

But today we have reached the state of the Tower of Babel. Senselessness is the order of the day – the normal order of things. Yet, we all yearn to be able to make sense out of things and to return to a rational order, despite the awareness that this may not be possible and that our attempts may just be futile.

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