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The names game

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Friday, 19 February 2016 00:00


  New-Home-3A legendary Aussie PM once said in a speech to the Australian Labour Party: “I do not mind the liberals, still less do I mind the country party, calling me a b*st*rd. In some circumstances, I am only doing my job if they do! But I hope you will not publicly call me a b*st*rd – as some b*st*rds in the Caucus have…” – O tempora! O mores! We seem to have picked up this dastardly parliamentary habit – and the public have caught it in spades from their elected representatives



drhI used to think >We Sri Lankans were good at many things. Warm hospitality. Winning at cricket. Warping and woofing lingerie. Working less than anyone else. Well, there’s a new talent to add to the list. Now, it’s the consummate skill or ease with which we call each other names. It is our newly-liberated nation’s least lovely character of courtesy.

As with any ethos worth percolating, the grounds distil from the top. A firebrand Member of Parliament recently called a Very Senior Politician (VSP) a ‘fornicator’ in the vernacular – in the House. The vexed VSP, usually the very flower of chivalry, retorted that the MP was nothing more than a mere ‘turnip’ – or the local equivalent thereof. That it may have been a reference to the MP as a whole or a part thereof was not a moot point. It behoves parliamentary gents not to speak in the House as if they were speaking of unparliamentary hullabaloos in the gents.


Say my name!

But this trend prevails. Both in and out of the House. Of late, a VSP – the same one who suffered ignominy in the imbroglio above – has taken to calling scribes, who will not bow or kowtow to his government’s line, “frogs”. No doubt many scribes, who once had the appellation “wild asses” bestowed on them by one of our VSP’s VIP cabinet colleagues, spend their lives as insularly as do frogs in a well. It is no excuse to traduce detractors of the incumbent administration by reducing them to amphibian ranks, however. A leader – and a respected thought-leader, at that – must model the example he desires to communicate.DSC_453333

That same thought-leader – and generally a gentlemanly leader, to boot – was more recently on the side of the angels. This was when he expressed umbrage, which was more or less universally felt, at the calling of names of a soprano who sang a much loved religious song in operatic style – and had a feline epithet attached to her repertoire. The freedom of the wild ass is one thing. It’s altogether a different kettle of fish when the offending media-donkey drops a brick, which is no doubt best used to pick up to despatch the offender himself. If the offender had not been dismissed from office in due course, perhaps even more vegetative MPs may have taken up cudgels on behalf of the offended party – and if it meant siding with those whom they thought of as ‘fornicators’, no harm done...

Of course, politicos fight much dirtier than this. The press loves it – it sells papers. That e-media broadcast it for much the same reason – the shekels it rakes in, thru airtime and web-space it sells – is not a moot point. Which is perhaps why the VSP’s outrage at the presenter who alluded to the soprano as a mewling she-cat was misreported on a leading weekly’s weekend front pages as the presenter alluding to the soprano as a she-dog – to which the VSP taking umbrage is more sellable. Which version is right and which one is misread, misreported, misrepresented, is not worth pursuing. 


What’s in a name-call?

What is worth investigating, however, is the attraction that name-calling holds for us. Maybe one or more of the possibilities below holds some promise in understanding it?

# Power over the ones whom you call names

# Safety valve to release pent up societal tensions or valences

# Calumny or heaping contumely on others’ heads to sanctify your own tribe

The first of these, at first blush, seems to strike a chord with the human experience throughout history – at various times, in various spheres of activity.

Ancient religions, for instance, are rife with lore about the power of naming. The powerful Egyptian sun-god Ra, or Amon-Re, was usurped from his heavenly throne when the goddess Isis discovered his true name by dint of a cunning trick – who then installed her son Horus in Ra’s place. 

Biblical narratives also provide fodder for thought in this sphere. Runaway usurper Jacob tries returning to his native land… but finds that he cannot enter into the promise of his forefathers before he has wrestled with an anonymous divine presence. This mysterious messenger of God never reveals its own name… rather, he or she extracts Jacob’s real name (‘cheat’ or ‘struggling usurper’); before dislocating its earthly interlocutor’s hip – and departing after bestowing a blessing: a new name (Israel: ‘prince among people who contended with God and Man’). 

Cultures other than the Ancient Near Eastern (or Ancient West Asian) betray humans’ fascination with the power of true names. Germanic folklore is full of such stories – generally in the form of Grimm’s or grimmer fairytales. Remember the legend of Rumpelstiltskin – the ogre who tried to steal a girl’s child, but was bested because the maiden learned the monster’s real name in the nick of time?

Science fiction soon became the arena in which panoplies of writers embraced the practices of the folk arts that preceded them by millennia. Modernist narratives are no less susceptible to the thinking that the knowledge of some entity’s true name portends great power – or ruin… So such knowledge is not meant for use by humanity. To wit, in (our own) Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s short story #The Nine Billion Names of God, a group of Tibetan monks in a Himalayan hideaway actively research – and then accidentally stumble on – all of God’s names. Then, as a result of God being fully known by virtue of all His or Her names, the Universe ends! 

Modern masterpieces that might eventually prove timeless also encompass and exemplify this trait at a more human – or Hobbit-like – level. In J. R. R. Tolkien’s eponymous story, diminutive hero and canny adventurer Bilbo Baggins takes great pains to conceal his name from gold-guarding dragon Smaug, lest the beast best him by using it against him. 


What price background checks?

The second and third possibilities are arguably no less well-attested in the social sciences. Name-calling among children – especially teens – is a recognised safety valve to release pent up societal tensions or valences. No extra-classroom atmosphere worth its salt would dream of imposing censorship on the names that schoolboys, for example, would call each other on the cricket pitch or rugby field. A problem that persists beyond such juvenile delinquency is that should-be less-scruffy worthies insist on acting like schoolboys in more august assemblies than one’s local alma mater – such as one’s national parliament. 

No less demonstrable from sociology is the phenomenon of engaging in vicious calumny or heaping contumely on other’s heads to sanctify your own tribe. The television presenter who characterised the soprano singer as a caterwauling nocturnal animal in estrus no doubt intended to privilege native, traditional, nationalistic versions of #Dannó Budungé as being superior to the maligned soprano’s operatic rendition. Pity he did not know ‘the true name’ of #Dannó Budungé’s provenance – a Western melody (Wagner), adopted by a culturally contextual aficionado (Deva Surya Sena), and used to set an Anglican hymn to music by an English Lankaphile (Senior, #Hymn for Ceylon). Point is that name-calling not only invests one’s tribe with honour, it ignores its own ignominy at the hand of other contenders to superiority.


What lies beneath

The problem with <Us Sri Lankans is that name-calling is just the tip of the ice-berg. It soon enough degenerates into dropping-bricks. Or worse, stone-throwing. Left to its own devices and evil intentions, it can escalate into such a fury of vituperation that small towns on our tropical island’s southwestern coast were once – not too long ago – under threat of being set ablaze. 

Until recently, the principal actor in the name-calling and threatened brick-throwing was at large. Still, the ugly names that Sinhalese and Muslims called each other across the language among other manufactured and cynically sustained divides reverberate underground. Dangerously, the ideologies based on the malicious naming of parts, and people, and places, vibrate volcanically under the smooth surface of polite society. 

Laws to curb and control citizens from violent name-calling – commonly exploded as hate speech – have been honoured more in the breach than the observance. Bad enough the likes of the monk who poured petrol on troubled waters is under the parasol of a certain impunity as regards majority-sanctified name-calling. Worse when seemingly well-intentioned legislators attempt to introduce new anti-hate-speech laws, which would in effect let past perpetrators of bigoted name-calling as the least of violent ethnically loaded crimes off the hook. The inflamed name-callers of the Aluthgama incidents of a year and a half ago have been hailed as heroes in some quarters – in public, to our collective shame; on social media, where hate crimes are sanctioned by a silent majority. They remain untouched by extant hate-speech laws and untroubled by their own dastardly deeds and vitriolic views. 

A small consolation is that one of the key figures in the ranks of chauvinist name-callers is now under lock and key. Never mind for the nonce that he was detained under the government’s pleasure not for name-calling, but for flouting another facet of lawful orderly conduct. 

Out and about, the problem persists. Its roots sink in, innocently and innocuously enough, into the psyche of our society: THIS sticker campaign that assumes and blatantly suggests endorsing a hegemony of a single putative race, over and despite our island’s demonstrable plurality and long-standing hybridity. THAT mindset of government mandarins and lionised former generals, in which the majority demographic are the nation’s hosts and minorities merely guests to be tolerated. A dominant legal ethic in which introducing new legislation contra hate speech could pardon and sanctify past impunity by dint of letting erstwhile perpetrators off the hook. A desperate ruling coalition perspective in which the singing of a national anthem in both national languages is intended to symbolise national unity despite much damning evidence to the contrary. 

> We Sri Lankans need some more concrete measures if we are to emerge from the miasma of our threateningly nationalistic past. It is not sufficient to assume that constitutional reform will vouchsafe us the vagaries and vicissitudes of ethno-nationalistic name-calling and attendant verbal and non-verbal violence. Not because a majority of < Us Sri Lankans are bigoted about ‘the Other’. But because most of us are blasé about the chauvinism that stems from our own “fun”, “harmless”, “innocent”, national pastime of name-calling. What starts as referring to our perverse fourth estate as “frogs” and our parliamentary opponents as “fornicators” can – and will – lead to our political foes being described with other f-words (with “federalist” being the least offensive). 

So, on our 2014 January-born, 2015 February-driven ‘march’ towards becoming a Brand New Society (no BS, no BBS.), we need to stock up on some essentials:

  •  A civil society that has a righteous horror of name-calling: whether in give-and-take of the House, or in Holocaust-like ghettoisation of ‘the Other’ 
  •  An eagerness to embrace extant Sri Lankan laws [such as in Section 3 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act of 2007] pronto
  •  The high court implementation of its jurisdiction under this law, which makes Sri Lanka compliant with international law (per Article 20 of the ICCPR), to try and punish offenders vis-à-vis hate crimes
  •  Less grandstanding about introducing new laws on hate speech into Sri Lanka’s Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code; because, as our legal eagles arguably know only too well: Article 13(6) of the Sri Lankan Constitution prohibits the retroactive application of criminal laws, whereby any new laws criminalising hate speech would, in effect, let past offenders off the hook


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