Comments delivered at the launch of Liking violence: A study of hate speech on Facebook in Sri Lanka held at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations and Strategic Studies on 29th October 2014.
Firstly, thank you to the Centre for Policy Alternatives for inviting me to speak today. I have to admit that I tend to do an ostrich with head in sand impersonation when it comes to hate speech on Facebook or any other media – it is not only that I find the content extremely disturbing, but it paints such an awful picture of humankind – that it is really quite depressing. But, I forced myself to read Shilpa and Sanjana’s study – and what is discussed in the report, is indeed horrifying it its bigotry and sheer nastiness. So after this discussion today, I will probably go back to my ostrich impersonation!
What I thought I would do today is not so much to comment on this timely and very useful study – but instead to reflect a bit on the conditions within which an increase of hate speech is made possible. I think it is important to understand and think about this if we are to do anything about it. Hate speech is a reflection of a deeper problem in our society and polity and we need to examine the socio-cultural and political processes that engender such trends, if not directly support them. As the CPA report also notes, finally it is not simply a technical solution but a socio-political solution that is required. In the time that is given to me today, I want to raise two or three points which I hope we can discuss further in this regard.
One is to consider certain characteristics of the ethos of Sri Lankan society and polity today. The year 2009, is considered important since it marks when the war in Sri Lanka ended – or when the LTTE were militarily defeated. It is also important because it marks an important moment of triumph for Sinhala nationalist forces. If we recall the period before 2009, with the escalation of the war, when it became clear that the government had decided to defeat the LTTE militarily, a particular narrative informed by some of the standard ideas within many Sinhala nationalist positions was generated and became part of mainstream public discourse. Central to this narrative was the idea of the Sinhala race under threat and the idea of historical grievances of the Sinhalese, which were ignored by successive rulers. The other, was the idea of conspiracy: whether international, NGO, diaspora etc, there is a strong notion that there are forces out there who are conspiring to bring down, harm and eventually destroy the Sinhala nation is a central part of the Sinhala nationalist narratives. The defeat of the LTTE was at that time and also subsequently portrayed as a triumph against all those elements – a moment, where finally the Sinhalese were able to successfully overcome their enemies. Post war has also become about addressing some of those historical grievances that have been committed against the Sinhalese and ensuring that the enemies of the Sinhalese are kept in check. A consequence of this development has been that any kind of restraint, self-censorship that was exercised with regard to expressing such notions in public, in the mainstream is now removed. It is ok to say the most outrageous things, come up with the most absurd of accusations against those who are considered enemies. Sinhala nationalist forces are very much in control of public discourse in Sri Lanka today – they are setting the tone. Non-nationalist forces are very much on the defensive.
So rather than the end of the war ushering in a period of security and calm, what we have is a heightened sense of insecurity coupled with a kind of a brash, revitalised aggression and a greater sensitivity to ethno-religious identity. For example, a youth survey conducted in 2013 revealed that youth experienced a heightened sense of ethnic identity after the war ended compared with before. And they continued to see ethnicity as the major divisive factor in Sri Lanka. Youth in the Western Province identified religion as the emerging divisive factor in society.
The second point I would like to draw your attention to is our fascination and perhaps even obsession with ‘making up for the years that were lost during the war’. This involves our commitment to a particular idea of what it means to be a developed country. When you consider how development or under-development is talked about in Sri Lanka, it is always about a country full of untapped potential. The model colony that unfortunately messed up things along the way – Sri Lanka was supposed to be the role model for Singapore, for Korea, for Malaysia – but look where they are now – and look where we are now. Now is the time for catching up. And this involves a certain brash, no nonsense, no quarters given or taken approach. And once again, a sense of trumimphalism. You want shopping malls? We will give you the best. Never mind that a few hundred families lose their homes in the process. Entertainment? No problem – we will reclaim land from the sea and develop a special zone for fun and entertainment. Highways galore – no part of the country will be inaccessible any longer. There is an element of “showing off” here as well: this is about showing the world what a wonderful place this is. But the problem with this model of development is that there will always be a gap between the aspirations that are generated and the extent to which these aspirations can be fulfilled or met. That is, there will always be a sizeable section of the population who will be on the outside, looking in – trying to make it. Streams of people turn out to gaze upon the new highways, shopping malls, parks, ports and airports. But how many actually get to experience the goodies on offer? The end of the war was supposed to usher in a period of prosperity for all – yet, for many life has become a hard grind of balancing many demands and simply scraping by. Unfulfilled or frustrated aspirations can generate all kinds of divisions, tensions, insecurities and resentments. It also reinforces a sense of grievance.
The final point I want to make is more directly related to the nature of hate speech in Sri Lanka: and that is its gendered nature. Not only are a large proportion of those engaging in hate speech, men – but there is a lot of discussion about women in these forums. About Muslim women’s dress, about how Muslim women are treated by Muslim men; and of course a lot of discussion about the control of women’s reproduction. So the supposed increase of the Muslim population is due to the lack of birth control among Muslims and their practice of polygamy – which is seen as a norm rather than an exception. And Sinhalese women’s reluctance to bear many children is also subject to a lot of discussed. Needless to say, this is all discussed by men.
Interestingly, even the counter groups use women as a means of making their point. If you remember, when the group Buddhists Questioning BBS held a candlelight vigil, subsequently, there were lots of images posted online of women who had attended the vigil, accusing them of being ‘nightclub Buddhists’. The images that were posted focussed on female body parts or their attire and there was a lot of discussion if these women fitted the ‘image’ of Buddhist piety. Then, some other groups who supported the BQBBS, in turn, posted images of Dilantha Withanage’s daughter – dancing in a nightclub – accusing Withanage of hypocrisy. Even recently, I have seen, anti-BBS groups had posted pictures of Withanage’s daughter. So women’s bodies have become the terrain upon which some of these battles are fought. Of course, this is nothing new – but once again, I don’t think we can ignore the fact that even in the mainstream – women, their morality, their bodies have become subject to far more surveillance than before. For instance, for some years now, mothers are not permitted to enter their child’s school unless dressed in a sari. Female staff at various universities have reported that there have been several attempts to insist that they are dressed in sari. See the discussions that took place online and elsewhere on the Wariyapola girl and the Ratnapura woman.
It is for these reasons that I think responding to hate speech needs to go beyond legal or technical solutions or approaches. Certainly laws help – but ultimately laws are made, implemented and interpreted within a social and political context – not in a vacuum. Similarly, technology has changed the way we communicate – certainly the speed with which we communicate – but we cannot blame technology for generating or facilitating hate speech. The low tech version of hate speech is the ubiquitous kele paththara which have existed since time immemorial in this country. Even today, even within universities, kele paththara are alive and well – except that they are now sent around on email!!
In conclusion, I think it is important that we see hate speech in all its forms and particularly in relation to the growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the country, very much in the context of post-war Sri Lankan society and polity as well as the post-war development discourse. These are not unrelated. I think we need to seriously ask ourselves, what is it about how post-war Sri Lanka is being imagined, is being constructed that permits such sentiments to be expressed in public? One difference between kele paththara and online hate speech is that the former is generally anonymous. However, today, people are unafraid to express extreme views in public, and to identify themselves with these sentiments. That sense of entitlement and impunity is not something that law or technology can control – it will require changes of a much more radical nature: in fact, a re-imagining of the kind of society and people we have become.