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A word to the moderates

On the importance of constructive engagement in the face of growing hostility.

By Himal Kotelawala

Security cordon at St Anthony’s Kochchikade/Pathum Dhananjana – Capital Media

A national tragedy brings out the best in people. Feel-good stories galore, of ordinary citizens going out of their way to help a hapless victim, of people acting with remarkable restraint and rationality in the face of sheer barbarism, refusing to give in to their base instincts, to descend to vigilantism. There was even a story of a young mother who offered to breastfeed any babies orphaned in the bombings. Heartwarming stories of humanity at its most empathetic.

A national tragedy also brings out the worst in people. Political opportunists looking to exploit the emotions of a distraught people; media honchos aiming for the maximum number of eyeballs, ethics be damned. Partisan hacks on both sides of the political divide looking to score points for their party or ideology of choice, some defending unforgivable government negligence, some pushing the petty agenda of its rivals, others making a platform for themselves atop a pile of bodies. And, worst of all, sinister groups with vested interests appealing to humanity’s darker, more primal traits, to their own nefarious ends. It’s enough to make one lose all hope.

Caught between these two extremes are those of us still feeling a little dazed after what happened, still trying to make sense of it all. Those of us still afraid, even as we guiltily watch Game of Thrones, barely two weeks after one of the most devastating days in the history of the country. Those of us nervously chuckling at the thought of a bomb going off as we queue up to see the latest Avengers. Look around you, and you can already see people are forgetting, and moving on, slowly but surely. Sri Lankans have a notoriously short memory. No one can accuse us of not living up to our reputation.

And yet, move on we must. To not do so, to let this brutality get the better of us, as a people, would mean the terrorists won. And we’ll be damned if we let them win. Before we move on, however, there is one thing we, the so called moderates or progressives, ought to remember.

People cope with tragedy in different ways. I think most of us forget to account for human nature when passing judgement on ordinary, everyday folk who may be reacting to something in a way that isn’t necessarily in line with our worldview. Any reasonable adult would understand that, sometimes, people lash out and, when they do, they say things they don’t really mean. We also forget that most of these people we’re so quick to judge are — on the whole — decent human beings, whose seemingly different outlook is one that’s shaped by concerns, convictions and personal truths that are no more or less valid than our own. To be clear, not all points of view are equally valid. There is no defending racism, for example. But the thing about racism is that no one — or very few — actually think they’re being racist. At the risk of repeating a now-tired Trumpism (“some very fine people on both sides”), most “racists” in your immediate social circles are probably nice people whose skewed view comes from a place of ignorance rather than real, unadulterated hate.

It’s easy to attack these people and their problematic, low-hanging-fruit opinions. What’s harder is to engage them in a positive and constructive way, without backing them into a corner where they will have no choice but to be “rescued” by the darker elements of the political spectrum. In a time of crisis, it’s natural for people to turn to the hardliners, the hawks, the “doers”. Progressives who engage in endless, vitriolic arguments with these uninformed (for want of a better word) people online ought to ask themselves if it’s really worth the invisible internet points to give them that extra shove. (Goes without saying, it doesn’t help that the alternative is a group of criminally incompetent halfwits who mustn’t be allowed anywhere near real power again).

With the caveat that it’s near impossible to change a person’s mind on a Facebook comment thread, there is a lot moderates can do to shift the discourse to a more productive one that isn’t completely destructive. They could, for example, try and appeal to the inner humanity of these individuals before demonising them and pronouncing them guilty in the court of public opinion. Not doing so, in this writer’s opinion, would only hasten their departure into the open arms of the dictators-in-waiting.

Of course, this is not to say that the burden of preventing such a depressing eventuality should be placed squarely on the shoulders of the progressives or moderates; but in an election year where it’s increasingly apparent that every vote is going to count, it won’t hurt to be mindful of the weight our words carry.

Because, rest assured, the hawks are watching.