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Lasantha! The majority may not be right

October 18, 2011

The physical attacks on activists like Prashant Bhushan and Arvind Kejriwal again bring home the fact that we are not civilised enough. It could be the Gestapo, the secret police of Iran’s Shah (or as rumoured, the SDECE), it could be the moral police of the senas in Mumbai or Mangalore. It could be the Gulag or the Andamans for you, or extraordinary rendition to Cairo. Violently crushing those you do not like because of their thoughts or utterances, or beliefs alone in certain cases, still continues.

Society also believes that it needs capital punishment or incarceration if you act against its wishes. In intolerance’s lightest form, the penal code is an instrument of coercion by society on the individual.

Destroying what comes in its way would seem to be the response of living things. The gene is selfish, as Dawkins says. Not because of “design”. It is just that the genes that survive and thrive are logically those that cause a behaviour to remove anything that would curtail them. This is the essence of natural selection.

But very recently in terms of the geological or evolutionary clock, in the last few thousand years, mankind has developed the ability for abstract thought, language, generally civilisation. Matter has evolved to such an extent as to contemplate itself. The need to physically crush opposition has reduced. And yet, the response is still there to strike.

Codified law and penalties ensure the perpetuation of the social structure. Something that seems to have attained the  characteristic of life itself, with a collective volition. Possibly because social structure seems to have survival value for the species.

I would say that we live in the best of times in history.  Intolerance has long been the mark of human behaviour – Christ was crucified, but his followers carried on with the Spanish Inquisition. Wars that killed thousands have been fought on grounds of religion, and so on. Political prisoners have always existed, and still do to such an extent that it is the raison d’être for Amnesty International. This, though I believe we live in the best of times in history, where there are generally accepted standards of individual liberty, a consensus that people have a right to hold different thoughts from you.

But there still are certain cases where the state as established officially takes a certain line, but things get done differently. Where “states of emergency” are used to justify denying people their life, liberty, or through censorship, freedom to think and speak.

And in one such instance, a remarkable thing happened. Lasantha Wickrematunge predicted his own death. He was the editor of the Sunday Leader, Colombo, and was assassinated by gunfire on the 8th of January, 2009. He was a critic of the government that was pursuing a relentless war against the LTTE. The (ethnic) majority, the majority of voters, supported the government, but Wickrematunge continued criticising the government about how the war was pursued. There were journalists being assaulted, battered and even killed, and he himself was attacked several times. “Who then survives to provide the public with a contrarian view?” reasoned he, and continued.

On Sunday the 11th of January, the Sunday Leader published the editorial he is purported to have penned before his death. His last one. It quotes Niemuller (“Then they came for me”), makes poignant reading. Read it here.

Tailpiece: Not supporting the view of the majority, Lasantha Wickrematunge apparently was sceptical about the public agreeing with him, whether they were really worthy of all this, even as he strove to fulfil his own perceived role as the conscience of society. In one of his editorials (7/1/2009) he speaks about the President thinking that the people are dimwits. “Truth be told,” he says, “We sometimes wonder that out ourselves”.

“My country (my ethnic group, in this case), right or wrong!” was not his view. He thought there was a right and a wrong, regardless of who.

And he ends his last post, speaking about the sacrifices made by journalists, saying “Whether you deserve their sacrifice is another matter”.


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  1. Induchoodan permalink

    Group identity is the one concept which determines the action of the majority of the people. To be frank, the group identity is the refuge of the dimwits and the not so brave. One has to be just a member of the herd and one does not have to take responsibility for one’s actions. Such identities can be promoted among people by making them hate the group to which they do not belong. Hate is the strongest unifying force. The best part of hate is it recoils on the group and this reinforces its cohesion. It is like a gas being confined by a vessel. Faster the molecules hit the walls of the vessel, faster will it recoil and get confined.
    Human mind is so plastic, particularly in the formative phase. In this phase it is easy to fill it up with hatred and all sorts of things that it takes a herculean effort to cleanse it later and only a few have the mental equipment and will to do it. This is the strategy adopted by all ideologies to perpetuate themselves. They want to catch them young. This is the reason why religion has been perpetuated and why they resort to hatred, although any true religion should be one of love and tolerance and forgiving.
    Humanity could be united by love. But that takes hard work. Each one has to go deeper into one’s self to know that every body is a part of a universal being. But that is too much of hard work and lazy as we are we find it easier to resort to hatred to obtain the sense of refuge and self worth.

    I am an optimist and I think humans will evolve from this level of group identity based on hatred to one based on love. Till now living beings have been undergoing evolution in the physical plane. As they were not able to control the physical environment, they had to adapt themselves to the environment by evolution in their physical characteristics. But now we have come to a stage where the physical environment can no more induce evolutionary trends in the physical characteristic of the humans as we control the environment to a great extent. Now the stage is set for the evolution of the human mind. Since it is so plastic in the formative years, the cultural evolution can lead to a whole new breed of humans who may look same in appearance, but in behavior, they may be completely different. Humans have just begun their journey some 100 thousand years back. We are still in the infancy as a species.

    • Two points. First, you speak about friction between disparate groups. My comments on society was about its evolutionary survival value. (Remember, “Unity is Strength”). If individual bees (or ants or soldiers) did not sacrifice their own lives, the hive (or the ant hill or the nation) would fail, disappear. Whether all humans will finally come together with love would not make a real difference, because there would still be other groups (of organisms) that would be excluded. The definition of “us” and “them” is not restricted to within humans. I think the ethics of most religions permit farming chicken and cattle for the purpose of using them as food. People for Ethical Treatment of Animals is a fringe group, and I don’t think even they are against it in toto
      Second, do you mean to say that evolution has changed from being the result of natural selection of mutated varieties, because humans now control the environment? Interesting hypothesis.

      • Induchoodan permalink

        When I say that human evolution has got confined to the mental plane, it does not mean that other species cease to evolve now. The basic mechanism by which evolution takes place is by removing those individuals who are not adapted to the environment from the reproductive process. Only the fittest are able to reproduce. Fittest here means “most adapted” and nothing else. But in the present human society does not discriminate individuals in this respect. Since we are able to control the environment, the gene pool of the humans may not change as much as it would have otherwise. This leaves the evolution on the basis of the culture as the possible option. Other species like sharks and crocodiles have not changed in their behavior over millions of years. But humans have achieved so much in such a short duration. This is because of the functioning of the frontal brain where the reasoning power resides. Again, there will be natural selection among different cultures. What we see in terms of the western domination of the human society could be understood in terms of such an evolution which is now taking place at a different plane. …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… I have an idea that humans are constructing a macro-being in the form the society. We may think that society as a macro-being makes no sense; we may treat it only as an assembly of individuals. I have a strong feeling that it is not true. We, being a part of the macro-being, are not able to get a full picture. We find the same issue cropping up in physics also. When we try to understand a complex system in terms of its component particles, then we find that certain new properties crop up which is not fully evident in the particle mechanics. Take the case of temperature. It does not make its appearance when we deal with one particle at a time. The concept become clear only when we take a large number of particles interacting with each other. In a similar manner when we deal with the society, there may be more such properties which do not show up in individuals. I think I am meandering. In fact I have so much to say, i may do it a separate blog.

      • Well, I did mention about a widespread concept that a beehive is a macro-organism. And there are theorists who hypothesize that humans are turning into a macro-organism. You seem to make a distinction by suggesting that western domination indicates a separate such organism or do you mean to say that the whole of humanity would get evolved into one, with “weighted” influences from its parts? I see one difference with the human macro-organism from earlier cell-aggregates or bees – with abstract thought, we have also developed “ethics” – nature had no use for it, in a manner of speaking.
        If you are interested, visit this link where Dr. Marcos B. Viermenhouk gives an interview on his theory.
        The language is pretty colourful!
        I think this thread is getting into a digression, severely off-tangent from the original blog. I would love to see you blog on this separately!

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