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#5152, 13 October 2016

Dateline Colombo

Understanding our “Blindspot” to Make Peacebuilding Comprehensive
Asanga Abeyagoonasekera
Director General, Institute of National Security Studies (INSS), Sri Lanka, & Columnist, IPCS

“The sailor cannot see the North —but knows the needle can.”

– Emily Dickinson, in a letter to a mentor, TW Higginson, seeking an honest evaluation of her talent (1862)

The young soldiers and Tamilians who sacrificed their lives to a cause that was created by a previous generation perhaps did not know the underlying politics of why they had to fight. The younger generation has taken a burden passed to them by certain political leaders that they have not seen nor heard. At the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa, one could study the past life during the apartheid period and understand what had gone wrong. Photographs of racial discrimination such as separate walk ways for transport to the most horrific pictures is exhibited. What if Sri Lanka had a museum to educate our younger generation of the mistakes done during the past such as the burning of the Jaffna Library, the bombing by the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam (LTTE) at the Central Bank, and the several other atrocities? 

The modern world is at the fourth industrial revolution. Our lives, however, still revolve around the slogans of old and ideas of the yesteryears. A white officer shooting an African American and many other incidents around the world are still heard of and looked at from a racial bias view because most of us are wired in that way due to the environment we live. 

The recent “Eluga Tamil” (Arise Tamils) demonstrations will not do any good for the younger generation and the Sri Lankan nation at large. This slogan, which was used and given much hype by the Chief Minister of the Northern Province, CV Wigneswaran, is a lie to elevate his position for his own benefit and not that of the entire society or the nation. How does a rising of one ethnic group help another at a time when the nation is going through reconciliation in a mode for ethnic harmony? The very same slogan was used in the past by Chelvanayakam and Amirthalingam, which was neither helpful to the community they represented nor the nation. The 76-year-old CV Wigneswaran, a former judge of the Supreme Court, needs to get an honest evaluation of his conduct before he utters such words.

The Race Implicit Association Test (IAT) (bit.ly/TtkoCZ)is a good test to examine how biased we are towards our own race and how we see others. As a nation, we Sri Lankans have been living with these biases for a long time. According to Mahzarine Banaji and Anthony Greenwald, we all have hidden biases, and the phenomenon is called “blindspot.”  Blindspot is the metaphor for the section of the mind that houses hidden biases. For example, the IAT test gets you to mark pleasant words and African American children’s faces on one side and unpleasant words with European American children faces on another side which gives us results to understand the biases we do not see clearly by ourselves. The association of words association to race, such as hatred, grief, agony etc. could be more with the faces of African American children than those of European American children. 

A progressive society would look at words and deeds towards ethnic and religious harmony and not the other way. “Eluga Tamil” definitely does not look at the correct path. Good people are those of us who strive to align our behaviour with our intentions. Well intentioned people should not speak of a rise of one ethnic group but the rise of a common identity, a Sri Lankan identity. This is the new identity President Maithripala Sirisena wishes to establish with his new vision. 

Stereotyping – i.e. associating a group with an attribute – is another area. Assuming that all Tamils want Eelam is one of them. The first scientific research on stereotypes was published in 1933 by Princeton psychologists Daniel Katz and Kenneth Braly. They found that one could identify a group with an attribute that could evolve over time into a different attribute. The 1933 stereotype of African Americans did not include associating the word ‘athletic’; but modern studies would do so prominently. ‘Scientific’ and ‘technical’ were not part of 1930s stereotype of Chinese origin people but almost certainly appear in modern day stereotypes. A race with one set of attributes could evolve to be different one with societal changes over time. Certain issues of the world have unfortunately remained static and have not evolved in a positive direction even after brutal battles. For instance, India and Pakistan are still lost in the past trying to figure out the difference between borders and frontiers. 

Indian columnist Dr. Miniya Chatterji rightly points out in assessing the situation of recent military attacks of India and Pakistan, that “The reality is that we have placed ourselves in a conundrum of our own making. Political institutions were made by us to grant us order in society so that we can be busy ourselves with more instinctual activities.” It is important all South Asian leaders refer to this statement and establish order before launching whatever the political vision.

Views expressed here are personal and do not reflect those of the Government of Sri Lanka or the Institute of National Security Studies (INSS).

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