Photo courtesy of Kumanan Kanapathippillai
Sri Lankans living in the country or abroad feel more than a tinge of pride at how people are standing up against the corrupt government. They are protesting against all odds as basic needs such as gas, electricity, medicine and food are in short supply or simply not available. Our patience has finally run out.
Sri Lanka is no stranger to corruption, nepotism, racism, police brutality and censorship. At this historic moment, one can’t help but wonder why we did not protest when journalists’ murders were not investigated or when there is still no justice for the Easter Sunday attacks. Only relatives of victims, human rights activists and supporters have stood up in the past.
Where was this uprising when our brothers and sisters were wronged in various parts of the country?
Lack of compassion
Psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman define three types of empathy. Cognitive empathy is understanding how a person feels. This level of empathy is at a cognitive level and does not involve feelings whereas emotional empathy allows us to feel what the other person is feeling. Emotional empathy can build better emotional connections.
Compassionate empathy goes further and allows us to take compassionate action to help another. Protesting for a cause falls into this category of empathy. Therefore not protesting until our own needs are violated points to a lack of compassionate empathy.
Empathizing with someone from our community or someone who follows a similar lifestyle is fairly easy. But true empathy is when we can empathize with someone whose life may be entirely different from ours, when we can empathize with someone simply because of our shared humanity regardless of caste, race, religion or nationality.
A culture of obedience
Sri Lankan culture is built on respect for elders. We worship the feet of elders no matter what they do or say or how corrupt or racist they may be. Our culture similarly puts politicians and business leaders on a pedestal. There is little equity and equality in our hierarchical culture.
The local education system does not allow dissent or questioning. One of the biggest surprises I had when I went to the US to study was how in the classroom students were encouraged to assertively question our professors, which was not a sign of disrespect at all. Debate and questioning are facilitators of deep understanding and a percentage of our grades was based on how well we participated in class discussions. This is not something I witnessed when I studied at a Sri Lankan university.
Although we boast of one of the highest literacy rates in Asia, most people make political decisions using a simplistic, inward-looking yardstick. Will we be safe? Will the economy survive? Will our food and job supply be managed well?
The majority leaves other factors such as freedom of speech, checks and balances, independence of the judiciary system and leadership styles aside due to a lack of awareness or assuming that these factors cater to more advanced democracies.
When many of my peers were excited about the new presidency in November 2019, they said that the majority needed to be safe and secure and that another war must be avoided at any cost. Although they were aware of various allegations about the popular candidate, they did not think that journalists’ freedom was important at that time. They didn’t foresee the connection between censorship and the eventual threat to society.
Having lived in North America for a decade, I have observed what the people expect from their politicians; they expect nothing less than good governance and equitable policies. Systematic change takes time but they understand that they elect governments and they don’t hesitate to raise their voices when they encounter wrongdoings.
In Sri Lanka do we naturally expect our governments to be corrupt in the name of being practical and realistic? Do we expect them to be suspected murderers and torturers? Why do we settle for the mediocre? We curtail our hopes and dreams and laugh at people who want to achieve bigger and more idealistic dreams.
We pay taxes, vote in elections, work in government or private jobs and try our best to do the right thing. So why can we not expect more from our leaders? If we learn to expect more, we will be better equipped to take responsibility and hold our politicians accountable earlier on.
Of course no one has the time to protest against all the injustices in the world. We have to make concessions and choose carefully. But these choices don’t always have to be related to our personal needs.
My intention here is in no way to take away from the admirable courage of our protestors. The current uprising is better late than never. I acknowledge and appreciate the risk that protestors take when they step outside versus the freedom that many living abroad, including me, take for granted.
However it’s time for us to take ownership of our lack of sensitivity and move forward with renewed commitment to expect more compassion and justice not only from our politicians but also from ourselves.