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Opinion

A word to the majority: recognise your privilege

On the importance of introspection and recognising privilege

By Himal Kotelawala

Sri Lanka’s great shame is perhaps its notoriously short memory. If there is one thing that everyone across all socio-political divides can agree on is that ours is not a nation that learns from its mistakes. Three and a half decades after one of the darkest days in the island’s recorded history, communal violence once again erupted in parts of the country, striking fear into the hearts of a beleaguered people.

Political leaders of every hue are calling for peace, with the usual smattering of politically correct but otherwise hollow appeals for coexistence, with no genuine introspection whatsoever — nary a hint of a mea culpa for their collective contribution to the status quo, their role in facilitating and actively profiting from the systemic racism and structural inequalities that have paved the way to such senseless violence.

Investigations into the latest episode in the Northwestern Province are still ongoing; so it would be premature to conclusively hold any one party other than the faceless “mob” responsible. Even if the likes of Dan Priyasad and Amith Weerasinghe have been directly accused by the powers that be, it’s hardly a forgone conclusion that they acted alone with no political blessing. Both government and opposition parliamentarians have alluded to an elusive ‘invisible hand’ they claim are behind the incident — a sentiment seemingly echoed by the clergy, particularly the increasingly media-savvy Cardinal whose meteoric rise to fame in the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist camp must be making even the BBS feel a little threatened.

That none of these so called leaders have actually come out and revealed the identity of this mysterious puppet master is hardly surprising. To them, the truth has always been something to dangle in front of the cameras, a tease that borders on the vulgar, only to be packed away till the next election. The adage that there are no permanent friends nor enemies in politics is a cliché for a reason. In these trying times, job security is a concern even for the most powerful among us; small wonder they continue to look out for their own kind, especially in a climate where an opportunity for a coalition or crossover is more than likely to present itself.

This, of course, isn’t exactly a revelation. Most of us have known it for as long as we have been able to vote; and yet we, as voters, continue to enable the same vicious cycle of our representatives bleeding the country dry, both literally and figuratively, only to be voted back into power with the promise that maybe this time things will be different, knowing full well that that won’t be the case.

It’s all too convenient, not to mention intellectually lazy, to blame everything on the easily demonised — and often caricatured — “politician”. It’s never that simple, least of all in a multi-party, multi-ethnic democracy still recovering from decades of conflict and centuries of colonialism. Division and strife are built into the very fabric of our national being, as a direct result of the various histories that have shaped our collective psyche. We often forget, to our detriment, that we are not as free of guilt as we like to believe.

To be clear, not every Sinhalese is a racist by virtue of being born a Sinhalese, the same way not every Muslim is an Islamist jihadist. Anyone who claims otherwise is probably trying to push some nefarious agenda. However, the tired #notall[insert-privileged-group-here] argument is not really an argument. No one worth taking seriously will ever try to make a case for every member of a group, majority or otherwise, being responsible for the acts of a very few of the same group. But that does not mean you still can’t be complicit in other ways.

Much of the conversation online in the aftermath of the recent anti-Muslim violence has focused on the supposed audacity of calling out majority privilege. In our hurry to congratulate ourselves on not being racists because we’re not out there brandishing steel clubs beating every Muslim in sight to death, we tend to overlook the benefits afforded to us by our rung on the privilege ladder. We tend to forget the role we play in facilitating, in large part unconsciously, a system that is built to serve us at the expense of others. We become blind to the fact that we are the reason it exists at all.

Ignorance, as they say, is bliss. Willful ignorance, on the other hand, is less so, one imagines. Every citizen who professes to be a patriot has an obligation to stop being offended for a minute and take the time to introspect and educate themselves on their own contribution to the systemic injustices that have plagued this country for so long, leading us to the unfortunate place we now find ourselves in as a nation. Because to not do so will be to play right into the hands of our true enemy.