Featured image courtesy Kentridgecommon

I have just read Kishani Jayasinghe’s excellent article ‘My Experience of Independence’, published in The Sunday Times ‘Plus’ of March 6, 2016.

In this, she expresses her perceptions of the barrage of comments she received from some members of the public after her recent performance at the 68th Independence Day Celebrations.

She organised the received responses into a hierarchical scale of malice, based on the punishments members of the public felt she should suffer, ‘in order to give a comprehensive idea of what lies beneath this veneer of civilisation and ‘culture’ that these individuals were fighting so hard to protect’:

In third place – ‘I should be born mute in my next birth.’

In second place – ‘I should have a painful and speedy death preferably in some sort of horrible road accident’.

The first place winner was ‘so driven by violence that they felt it necessary to include innocents in the message’.

Sifting through over 500,000 emails, messages and notes cannot have been easy. But the good thing about such a quantity is that they can be categorised by quality and kind (if not kindness). I am sure that, across such a range of responses, certain patterns would have emerged – of tone, and motivation: stances both posturing and feigned (‘well-meant advice offered out of concern for the benefit of the receiver’) and impossible to feign – of hypocrisy, of envy and of an unholy desire for retribution.

This incident highlights what many people know about contemporary Sri Lanka: that, despite its many positive aspects, it is a repressed, vindictive and punitive culture. There are practical reasons for the existence of exorcism ceremonies and protection rituals, and invocation of charms against the Evil Eye.

People behave, under the influence of extreme emotion, as well as drugs or alcohol, as if they are possessed. And in a world which offers panoramic occurrences of discourteous behaviour, the habitual conduct of some Sri Lankan people can be seen to rank among the most inappropriate. Carelessness, boorishness, sleaziness and discourtesy are all tabulated extensively, and usually portrayed as enacted by the male of the species, driven by feelings of primitive lust or power hunger.

Yet women’s misconduct to each other is in some ways more penetrating, because it is not so openly deployed. Many Sri Lankan women, personally and professionally thwarted, bitter and discontented, as a result of institutionalised sexism, take obscene pleasure in venting their frustrations on those women who break rank.

Who are these women? They are those perceived by those of a hating mindset to be ‘asking for it’: by being successful, beautiful, famous or fortunate in the possession or acquisition of the desirable qualities which the luckless and malevolent observer feels the lack of, as they see their un-ugly sisters grace silver screens and smile out at them from innumerable glossy magazine covers.

The tendency here in Sri Lanka to launch events and products in a sort of euphoric glittering dazzle of beauty queens and strobe lighting and cleavage, with amplified claims made about the person whose product is being sold or whose talent is being showcased, does no favours to those being put in the spotlight. They are being fattened by flattery; to be slaughtered by scorn.

And so this instigated rise, inflated by the media buildup, often heralds a balancing and predictable, compensatory fall.

This operates not on an operatic or public level, but in deceptively innocuous, everyday, interpersonal encounters, such as respected older women surprising younger women at first meeting with questions that are clearly intended to unsettle and hurt.

Everyday discourse in Sri Lanka is often thoughtless, and intemperate. High modal utterances are routinely used: ‘she should eat/drink poison’; ‘he should go away and rot’; ‘she should be stripped naked and flayed in the public streets’.

Personal remarks about physical appearance, body shape, and body size, clothing, health and sexual behaviour are all intended to control and shame, through targeting and singling out what is perceived as an affront to the generic model of Sri Lankan womanhood. Modesty. Eyes downcast. Shyness. Compliance. Silence. Receptive, not expressive. Learning to collectively control their unruly tongues. Or face the consequences.

What causes this particularly Lankan intra-gender hatred? What Kishani calls ‘the depth of … anger and …the hate that seemed so monumentally disproportionate’?
Let us anatomise it, and see what breeds about its heart.

Why would a person in their right mind wish harm on someone they do not even know, and who has done no direct harm to them? Why are snide remarks made, and unkind assumptions formed, and unjust conclusions arrived at? Why are stereotypes resorted to? Why are the worst of thoughts – so often – given the worst of words?

Why were the worst comments in this case made by women?

Logic suggests that these people are not in their right mind. What can be observed is that there is a moral poverty mindset prevalent in this country. People operating from a sense of lack, too easy to feel in a country where the local currency is devalued, where salaries cannot compete with the cost of living, riven by war and deprivation and disaster, their confidence depleted by implications of colonially enforced inferiority, are dangerously triggered and activated by what they perceive as affronts to their self-esteem and ‘status anxiety’.

It is a form of intermittent personal exorcism. Attack, to feel temporarily vindicated, to assert the socially suppressed self, to redress the unbearable perceived imbalance.

So it makes sense that women, the most damaged category of people in an afflicted country, would seek to inflict the most damage on others in turn, perpetuating the cycle, which Kishani significantly describes using images of fire.

I posit some questions of my own:

Why are women popularly believed to be kind? Just because their bodies can produce children, does that mean that the nurturing substances they produce actually constitute the milk of human kindness?

Is true sisterhood actually possible in a world where women have been (and to a great extent still are) intensely socialised to compete with each other – for limited resources? for the praise and attention of those in authority (usually men)? How does social class operate to complicate and fragment assumed gender parity?

Is it not in fact very believable that women, themselves oppressed and denied the possibility of honestly admitting it to the objects of their dissatisfaction, due to enforced codes of politeness and social compliance, will take their accumulated rage out on other women, when offered the opportunity? Whether they perceive them as weaker than they are, being younger or less experienced, or as superior to them in status or achievement? Especially women they do not ‘know’? Keyboard warriors, indeed, attacking from what they believe to be protected positions of cover and camouflage!

What had this singer done? She excelled, internationally, and pursued a vocation successfully, at a young age. She dared to express herself as generous as well as joyful. It is no wonder that the third rated worst commentator wanted her to be mute. ‘The Scold’s Bridle’ springs to mind. This time applied by one woman to another.

There is also class envy operating here. This internationally acclaimed singer has got out of the limiting suffocating social structure. She has ascended out of the reach of everything – except the hatred and envy of those to whom her expression of her talents is felt as a personal affront. How dare she do what they could not? (Or, as they see it, were not allowed to do?) Why should she be so beautiful and free, when they are themselves karmically caught on a wheel of fire? Etc.

This is transference, and projection, and mirroring, say psychologists. This is internalised sexism, say sociologists. This is virulent vindictiveness, aimed in this case at a target who refuses to be injured. This is joining in a frenzied attack, in which the attackers reveal the misshapenness of their own characters.

This is not unfortunately shocking to those who live in contemporary Sri Lanka, and have experienced what lies beneath the veneer of peace, and harmony and unity. This is not the realm of Law but of Sociology.

The singer found ‘one of the most shocking observations of all’ to be that ‘the top three remarks… all came from women. This was what hurt and surprised me in equal measure… the very notion of sisterhood runs deep in my veins. So why were the harshest blows dealt by those very same people that should have been the first to extend a hand?’

This question, if it is not rhetorical, has an interesting answer. I was happy to see that, in asking it, she proved herself to have been (until this incident) not shamed, insulted or harassed by the unkindness of her fellow women. It was ‘shocking’ to her.

Women targeted for their fame and position and having bodily harm invoked on them brings to mind not only the often-cited (as an example of progress towards equal rights and gender parity) world’s first female PM, but her younger daughter, who was targeted by terrorist attack and lost an eye.

Last year, a person who had sent me a friend request on Facebook, engaged in a text conversation on social media about a former President of Sri Lanka, which was portrayed as a jesting tournament. A riddle was set, in this individual’s friendship group: ‘Can anyone guess what CBK and a famous American musician have in common’? The correct answer was ‘one glass eye’.

This was bad enough. But it went further. One person said ‘CBK is Cyclops’. Another suggested that she should have lost both eyes. Another said that they believed that the apparent eye loss was faked to gain political mileage with the voters.

This was the underside of Sri Lanka in live action format. Not all commenters were women, but all were bored, and making fun out of someone else’s suffering, on a rainy afternoon, to pass the time. It was casual verbal homicide. It was unsightly. It was conduct unbecoming, in a nation which advertises itself internationally as being filled with warm-hearted, friendly people, activated by compassion.

It was foreseeable. It was also (given the causal operations of this society) to be expected.

It could be said that it is character assassination, and not cricket, which is the country’s national sport.

This needs to change.