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Violence Rules Every Aspect of Our Lives Today

“I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent” — Mahatma Gandhi

Gandhi’s point is that violence as a principle is always destructive and debilitating. It grows like a cancer upon us. We choose it for only one sphere, but it spills over into another. We may sometimes feel that the end justifies the means, that in order to achieve a desirable result we have to resort in the short-term to violence in order to overcome an obstacle that appears otherwise insurmountable. Yet, in doing so we pay a price that is too high: our entire society is brutalised.

Embarking on violence is similar to selling your soul to the devil. Beyond a point there is no going back. Violence is irreversible because once we have broken the ethical deterrents against committing and justifying violence, we can no longer stand on the moral high ground. In order to espouse violence we relinquish our belief in reason, negotiation and consensus-building, substituting in its stead the claim that greater physical (or other) force determines who is superior. We say that our enemy only understands the language of force, of violence, but as the conflict drags on we become more and more like our enemy so much so that in the end there is nothing to distinguish us.

Violence has seeped in to every nook and cranny of Sri Lankan society today. We can blame terrorism and the war, but the cause is not as important now as is its effect on Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Malays, Burghers, Adivasi and others. Aggression, hostility, even brutality, has crept into our religious institutions, our cultural practices and belief systems. Our ways of life, once tolerant and hospitable, welcoming of visitors, has become suspicious to the point of paranoia, intolerant of any kind of difference, and narrowly sectarian.

One simple current example is worth thinking about: this year’s New Year festivity. It appears that we can no longer enjoy ourselves without the occurrence of major incidents of violence. Every village had a surfeit of fights and altercations. Hospitals were chock full of evidence that our collective “gentleness” is a myth of the past. Friends attacked each other over Avurudhu games, old vendettas were revived, even domestic violence was reportedly higher than normal. Alcohol may be the immediate cause, but what often fizzled out as a drunken argument in the old days now inevitably ends with a few in hospital or the morgue.

Violence has become an action of first resort, human life is cheap here. People have become insensitive to death, suffering and pain. This is brutalization. Gone are the days when people would be debilitated by the news of a single death (such as Weerasuriya at Peradeniya University in 1976) or even a few dozen. We takes such things in our stride now. The victims of road accidents regularly find that they are robbed as they lie bleeding and in pain, by ordinary people who appear and disappear into the spontaneous crowd that materialises at the scene of a crash.

This is not to suggest that people were wonderful before the war and that they have become terrible now. No, similar acts of violence and brutality have always taken place in human society. The difference is that, in the past, these acts of a small pathological minority generated public outrage and contempt from a vocal majority, irrespective of ethnic or religious origin. Today, in the face of more vicious and systematic violence, the majority is at best apathetic, and responses to violence are determined by ethnic and religious affiliations. Surely, it should be completely irrelevant whether the persons affected are Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim or Christian? Sadly, this is not the case in our response to victims of violence.

Constant exposure to gratuitous violence and its persistent justification in the name of national security or anti-terrorism has brutalised us to the point of insensitivity. This brutalisation has made us apathetic and cynical in the face of the other forms of more subtle violence – structural, epistemic – as well as towards corruption, nepotism and the general breakdown of the rule of law. From here it is but a small step towards complete amorality and the belief that expediency and power (both physical and political) should determine this country’s course of action irrespective of any code of conduct or internationally recognised covenant to which we are signatories.

We have discussed in previous editorials how violent election campaigns have become, how candidates fielded by the main parties have violent and corrupt track records, and how their real clients are underworld leaders who have turned to financing politicians to ensure uninterrupted access to illegal sources of income. We have demonstrated the nature of the more subtle violence that is used by unscrupulous businessmen to rake in huge profits, and we have shown that government regulatory agencies are both unable and unwilling to act as watchdogs in the public interest.

All of us know that the inefficiency, waste, mismanagement and worse that goes on unchecked in government offices is debilitating and unfair to those who do not have influence etcetera to get the job done. Add all this to the all-consuming violence of the war, and you still have only the most superficial picture of the multiple, complex and inter-related ways in which the cancer of violence has infected our society today. Its secondaries have begun to attack the very foundations of our society. For instance, religious belief systems based on non-violence to all living beings are being distorted to support military conflict.

Perhaps Bob Dylan was right when he sang, “Democracy don’t rule the world, You’d better get that in your head; This world is ruled by violence, But I guess that’s better left unsaid.” But, then, in the same idiom, in a metaphorical sense, are we who believe in democracy, good reason and consensus-building, going to give up without a fight?









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