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The tribes of Sri Lankan politics

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By Chayu Damsinghe

The last few weeks of our political climate, if nothing else, showed us how deep the divisions run within our society. I’m not going to talk about court orders or no confidence motions or the powers of the president. But when holders of either argument refused to engage properly with the other and got entrenched in their own side (a danger I explained in a previous article at: http://www.ft.lk/opinion/Division-and-discourse--How-to-reach-each-other-in-times-of-political-crisis/14-666276), an intriguing and sometimes derogatory phrase began to be reheard. “Sri Lankans are still tribal”, they said. But that’s just how humanity is. We can’t escape our tribal nature, we can only turn it on to a better path. 

We love being part of groups. For centuries, human society has been centred around these groups. We grow up in our families, we play with our friends, and we work in our offices. At their very core, every single one of these groups, is a human tribe. They may look very different from the tribes of the past, being connected by smartphones instead of living in the same village, sharing a cubicle space instead of a forest, and being conjoined by legal contracts of love instead of mating with the strongest and the prettiest among us. But because they are still the same tribes of yesterday, they carry the same joys and bring the same flaws. 

The most important consequence of being in such a tribal group, is how intergroup interactions occur. Psychologists have talked about social identity theory, ingroupfavouration, outgroup derogation and brought numerous models to explain these interactions, but the basic principle remains the same: We like and support those in the same group we are in and we dislike and oppose those in a different group. It is from this basis that even political concepts such as that of the ‘nation’, groups of individuals who recognise a shared cultural background, gain validity. Yet this doesn’t mean that we hate everyone who is not within our nation or any other tribe or group. Clearly, every Sinhalese doesn’t hate every Tamil and every Tamil doesn’t hate every Sinhalese, just because they are from a different group. This is because today’s world lets you be part of more than one group. You are a member of more than one tribe today: You are not only a Sinhalese but also an engineer, you are not only a Tamil but also a doctor, you are not only a Muslim but also a lawyer. Because you are a member of more than one group, the amount of conflict and strife you end up being a part of has to reduce. 

But just because we’re more connected today, doesn’t mean that conflict doesn’t exist. The reason for this piece is the existence of political conflict itself. When one tribe becomes more important or more integral to your life, then all the effects of intergroup behaviour become similarly magnified. That’s exactly what the last few weeks have shown us. The tribes were not those of policy or personal benefit. The tribes were those of party and leader. It’s not wrong to follow a party and believe in a leader. But when you do that instead of following policy and believing in what brings you benefit, you lose out on a lot. You lose the ability to tell your leaders what you want, because you’re going to follow them regardless of what they do. You lose your capacity to change the party to something better, because you’re going to believe in them regardless of what they do. Most importantly, you lose your chance to ask for policy that helps you, because you’re going to vote for your party, not for their policy. 

How do we move forward? The blame isn’t just on our shoulders. Sure, we have to think more logically, but nothing is that simple. The options we are presented have to acknowledge this reality as well. This doesn’t have to be from inside a party, it can and should be an understanding that reaches anyone regardless of whether they think Mahinda or Ranil should be the Prime Minister. Something that showed promise were the civil protests at Liberty roundabout. They clearly weren’t for either party, but aspired to a more multi partisan ideal. While a step in the right direction, these ideas have to go beyond the liberal circles of Colombo. Ideas of policy and democracy have to reach rural communities, who are most likely to fall prey to the personality cults of Sri Lankan politics. It may be as simple as an independent group explaining both sides of an economic argument or even as complex as a complete overhaul of rural education, but it has to happen. Democracy is useless unless it helps the most disadvantaged in our society as much as it helps the rich and powerful. 

When we realise that our societies are based on the same building blocks as every single society from the beginning of time, we need to use that knowledge for the better. The tribes that are now emblematic of Sri Lankan politics need to change. The division, the hatred, and the conflicts we see, let it be from constitutional differences to ethnoreligious wars, stem from an inability to move into a more interlinked social order. We will not have a future unless we move down this path.Thankfully, it seems we have begun.

(The writer deals with behavioural science and how it relates to political and economic behaviour)

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