The politics of hate and harm

By Dr.Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu

Most readers in Colombo would have seen the posters of the National Movement Against Terrorism (NMAT) calling for the peace, media and leftist ‘Tigers’ to be identified and destroyed. This columnist was asked to comment on the poster by a newspaper and he along with other colleagues condemned the message conveyed by it.

Following this our photographs appeared on the organisation’s website with an English translation of the poster. It has also been learnt that the call was repeated at a public meeting and that Minister Champika Ranawaka condoned and supported these sentiments in a comment to the newspaper. He has subsequently denied this.

Questions

A number of questions arise with regard to this. There can be no dispute surely that messages such as this plastered on the walls of the capital are incitements to murder; they go beyond the routine invective of hate speech. They are intended to have a chilling effect on the freedom of speech and association.

Dissent from the dominant orthodoxy, in this perspective, is treasonable and that dissent is fundamental to the vigour and vitality of a functioning democracy, is clearly alien to this opinion. Indeed, it is so to the extent that their commitment to democracy bears serious questioning.

In the latter respect, the irony is that the language used and sentiments conveyed are no different to the propaganda of the LTTE — the organisation the NMAT has been set up to expose and combat. In the dark alleyways of hate and harm they are well matched and in impeding the pursuit of peace in this country too.

Danger

What is especially worrying is that this ideology has now secured representation in the government — albeit one that traverses the spectrum from the arguably sublime to the definitely ridiculous.

The danger posed by NMAT, given that it counts amongst its members influential priests and politicians, academics and other professionals, is the threat it constitutes to democracy. The NMAT is in the forefront of defining, propagating and consolidating the orthodoxy of the times.

In this respect the Rajapakse regime has to conform as a fellow traveler or open itself up to the charge of condoning such an orthodoxy by its silence on its most obnoxious aspects, or take the lead in contesting and exposing it for what it is — institutionalised hate parading as love of country.

There is no evidence of the willingness of the regime to do the latter.

Ranawaka is most secure within the corridors of power and portals of government and he has not been asked to explain himself. And the President, in any event, has treated us to his version of the “either you are with us or against us” school of national security and democratic governance. There was a time when he dealt in dissent; now it is with traitors, it seems.

Hate and division

The NMAT is the vicious caricature of the ideological underpinnings of the war against terror. What is especially bewildering is how priests in its midst can condone the public propagation of such sentiments.

At a time of conflict and of one in which the human rights and humanitarian situation cries out for help, material, moral and spiritual, one would have hoped that religious leaders and dignitaries would rise to the occasion to spread the message of humanity, compassion, reconciliation and unity, rather than that of hate and division.

Likewise the academics and intellectuals who together with the religious dignitaries, provide the respectability and legitimacy for organisations such as the NMAT. That sadly this is not the case, is a measure of the crisis we are caught in and the challenge to be surmounted in overcoming it.

Another concern is the general public’s acceptance of propaganda of this nasty ilk. Hannah Arendt in her seminal essay Eichmann In Jerusalem wrote of the banality of evil. This is complemented by the untroubled and routine acceptance of hate in public affairs, dismissed as mere politics of little or no consequence.

The assumption here is that the general public does not condone the killing of those who dare to think differently or even those it may believe to be unpatriotic.

Concern

What is of concern here is the absence of indignation and disgust in respect of that which invites it, in public affairs. This suggests the cumulative numbing of moral sensitivity throughout the two and a half decades of war and the brutalisation wrought by violent zero sum politics. Atrocity and the atrocious have become the every day occurrence; decency and democracy, the ‘another day,’ the ‘another country.’

Or is it the case that the public believe that to speak out is to expose oneself to opprobrium and run the risk of the dreaded ‘white van experience’? What has the NMAT to say about this? Is it the case that the public’s response to the President’s “either you are with us or against us” statement is a simple “please leave us alone, this is not our business.”

As the space for dissent shrinks and as democratic principles, practice and procedures become things of the dim, distant past, hope for the future too will recede.

It is time for organisations of professionals and other civic groups to stand up and be counted in a collective effort to reverse the slide into a narrow, repressive political culture which will be the plaything of narrow and repressive politicians. Whatever peace comes in this situation, if it were at all to be possible, it will be a peace of the cowed.

It is time that the NMAT was told by the public at large that its politics of hate and harm stemming from some deep atavistic sense of hurt, no doubt, cannot determine the future of this country. To use the word they are so fond of using — it will only destroy it. [themorningleader.lk]

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