This is an article I wrote last month for the International New York Times on what attitudes to identity and free speech among Sri Lankan audiences can teach those in the West. (I cannot publish my INYT articles on Pandaemonium until a month after it is published in the newspaper.) The article was originally published under the headline ‘A Sri Lankan Lesson in Free Speech’.
I gave a talk last month at the Galle Literary Festival in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. This festival, whose home is in the southern city of Galle, has become over the past decade one of the brightest lights in Sri Lanka’s cultural firmament. This year, it established ‘outreach’ festivals in Kandy, in Sri Lanka’s hill country, and in Jaffna in the North.
Taking the festival to Jaffna, the northern province capital, was particularly significant. It is less than seven years since the brutal civil war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Sri Lankan Army came to an end. Much has been reconstructed in the North, but the ghosts of conflict still haunt Jaffna, from bullet-marked buildings to the thousands of civilians who were killed in the war’s bloody conclusion.
Against this background, the festival provided a space for engagement with a wide variety of ideas in a way that does not often happen in a place like Jaffna. It opened with a discussion of Tamil literature, which has a long and important history that has helped shape and define Tamil identity.
Acknowledging the sensitivities involved, the festival organizers held the session in Tamil. Strikingly, though, every panelist and many Tamil writers in the audience objected, insisting that it should have been in English. ‘We don’t want to be talking just to ourselves’ one said.
I have taken part in many discussions about identity in Europe and America. That is not a sentiment I have often come across. ‘Talking to oneself’ all too often seems to be the aim of identity politics in the West.
A good case in point is the current fashion for denouncing ‘cultural appropriation’, which denotes the use by people of one culture (especially privileged ones) of the symbols or ideas of another. This notion has led to bizarre cases such as a student unions banning sombreros and yoga classes. The trouble is, the history of culture is the history of appropriation. There can be no culture without people borrowing, stealing and appropriating from one another.
The discussion about identity in Jaffna had a very different texture. For the Tamils there, identity was not a barrier to protect themselves from the rest of the world, but a means of engaging with that world.
I had been equally struck by the response of the audience at an event organised by the British Council a few days earlier in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. I had been interviewed onstage in a conversation that ranged from my early life, to my sense of identity, to questions of free speech and censorship. I was critical of identity politics and supportive of the right to give offense. In particular, I defended the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo from charges of racism.
I have spoken on similar themes to similar audiences in Europe and faced considerable criticism. What gives you the right to offend others, I’ve been asked. Free speech comes with the obligation to use it responsibly, I’ve been told.
In one debate in Britain, about the fallout from the Charlie Hebdo affair, a fellow panelist bemoaned the fact that the debate had become polarized between those for and those against free speech. One cannot simply be for or against freedom, he argued: ‘It is more complicated than that.’
Would the panelist, I wondered, have made the same argument 200 years ago during the debate about the abolition of slavery? Would he have said: ‘One cannot simply be for or against the abolition of slavery. Freedom is more complicated than that.’
It was not a question I had to pose my Colombo audience. The people there implicitly understood the importance of freedom and, in particular, of free speech. Even those in the audience critical of the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo defended its right to publish them.
There are deep ethnic, religious and sectarian tensions in Sri Lanka. The Tamil Tigers were a secular organization, but a sectarian one. In Samanth Subramanian’s superb book about the war and its aftermath, This Divided Island, one of his interviewees, who was drawn to hard-line Hinduism, suggested that the Tigers lost because they based their struggle on language, not religion.
In fact, since the end of the war, Sri Lanka has witnessed a growth of sectarian religious movements. A more strident strain of Buddhism has developed, for example, which targets not Tamils, but Muslims.
Islam in Sri Lanka is also changing. It used to be a relatively open, relaxed faith. Yet I was struck by how many women there now wear the burqa, something unimaginable a couple of decades ago. Many Sri Lankan Muslims, it appears, have gone to Gulf states as laborers, and returned bearing a sterner strain of Islam.
Religious radicalism is still on the margins in Sri Lanka. Such trends are far more visible in other South Asian countries: the growth of Buddhist extremism in Myanmar, of Hindu fundamentalism in India, of Islamism in Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The growth of these movements is what makes the response of the audiences in Jaffna and Colombo so significant. It’s a response too often ignored in the West. Many in the West cannot see beyond sectarianism or fundamentalist groups, failing to notice those who resist such ideas and movements. And by demanding bans on “cultural appropriation” or the giving of offense, many adopt ideas about identity, culture and free speech that give more comfort to the sectarians than to those challenging them.
Do we want a more open society or a more closed one? That is the heart of the debate, whether in Colombo, Jaffna or London.
In the relatively open societies of the West, many demand — perversely, in the name of tolerance — the creation of more barriers between groups. In countries where the conditions of freedom are far more fragile, there is a greater recognition of the need for a more open society. We should all listen.
The photo is ‘Shout 21’ by Misha Gordin.