Saturday, March 19, 2016

How to heal a society?

A society that's been broken for more than thirty years. That's the Sri Lanka I find myself in. A deadly civil war, insurrections from various quarters, and an inept government run by avarice and the raw will to power dominate this society. In fact we may look as far back as 1956 in the newly post-independence years when the vicious Sinhala-only language act was passed. That act excluded large parts of the country and effectively disenfranchised Tamil-speaking minorities as well as Burgher, Tamil, and Sinhalese elite whose primary language was English. But we can go farther back than that. In researching the 1983 "Black July" pogroms against Tamils in Matale I came across an older series of riots against the Muslim residents of that town that occurred in the early 20th. What's wrong with this place? 

Blessed with transcendent physical beauty, fertile soil, ample rainfall and a mild climate, you'd think Sri Lanka had everything going for it. But it seems like the past century has seen growing misrepresentation and poor governance, ever sharper interethnic mistrust and hatred, and the perhaps the ugliest trend, the physical parsing of real estate as belonging to one ethnic group or another, one religion pitted against the next. It's an ugly state of affairs that's at once insulting and dangerous. We see it in practically every town and village. Where will it end?

Only this week I heard from two Fulbright scholars who are embedded in elite university campuses here that these trends are reflected in the current practice of "ragging," a power-language- and arguably ethnically-based student movement that may be loosely related to habits of fraternity hazing on US campuses. Thing is, ragging affects the whole campus. It may take many forms, for example forbidding students to attend classes given in English (university instruction here is nominally in English medium). It also dictates what students may wear. To me its ugliest incarnation is the parsing of campus real estate. Raggers to one side. Non-raggers to the other. This affects everything from the use of classrooms to the side of the street people can stand on. It is, in effect, a ghettoization that reflects trends in the larger society here. And it is harrowing. 

How do you heal such a society? It seems to me it must be much more comprehensive than "brick by brick." My Sri Lankan friends have reflected that it requires a comprehensive initiative by all parts of society, including individuals, religious groups, the government, the judiciary, and educational sectors. It requires an opening up of the truth in an atmosphere of trust and open reconciliation. It occurs to me that this kind of repair might best "mimic" cell or tissue repair, a coordinated mobilization of resources that functions in concert to get the job done--for the benefit of the whole organism. 

In living organisms DNA directs this kind of repair work by sending out messages that contain instructions for the whole operation. In a society we might look to academia to provide an intellectual framework for such an endeavor. But here in Sri Lanka the academic DNA is sick, damaged. Like human DNA that has been mutated, academia here is sending out messages that code for and perpetuate societal poisons. Academia at its highest levels here is sunk in a system of cronyism and government patronage. Modes of teaching and learning are dominated by rote memorization. The farthest thing from any academic's mind who I've spoken with is expanding their students' horizons or encouraging any kind of inquiry or critical thinking. The academics I've met are more concerned with the easing of excise taxes on automobiles and other perks they consider "sacred," in exchange for their "sacrifice" of having to come into work to deal with students. 

It's no wonder that the places of higher education, and I'm including Sri Lanka's premier institution here, Peridiniya University, where one percent(!) of applicants is admitted, are hotbeds of racism, militarism, and social inequality. In my own experience the academe has been employed to perpetuate lies about Sri Lankan history, which hearkens back to the 1983 Matale riots. I heard a student presentation, heavily supervised by his professor, a prestigious architect and urban planner, in which the anti-Tamil riots were ignored in a discussion of Matale's devastation. No need to worry about "planning" there anymore. The shiny new buildings on every corner are evidence enough for the destruction that took place there. 

Meanwhile my colleagues in higher education turn a blind eye to ragging as they "cover" curriculum their "batches" of students need to be fed. Might as well be covering up the truth as these "batches" are baked. Exactly the opposite of what we expect from a healthy university system where inquiry, experimental thinking, and creativity are celebrated. Sri Lanka will have to look beyond its universities for a healing presence. 

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