Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today broadsheet newspaper on 9 May 2014
“Then to the rolling Heav’n itself I cried,
Asking, ‘What Lamp had Destiny to guide
Her little Children stumbling in the Dark?’
And – ‘A blind understanding!’ Heav’n replied.
– Omar Khayyam, in Rubaiyat
Some memories are etched in our minds forever. I remember exactly how and where I first heard this verse — at a science lecture theatre at University of Colombo in December 1986.
As an eager young journalist, I was covering the annual sessions of the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science (SLAAS). One presidential address was given by Dr Carlo Fonseka, professor of physiology, rationalist and well known debunker of fire walkers, astrologers and assorted black magicians.
Using just a few transparencies, Carlo delivered an engaging talk on human violence. To end, he quoted from Rubaiyat, and added: “No, my friends, a blind understanding will not help us. We need to look deeper.”
It was an intellectual tour de force delivered with a wide ranging exploration of philosophy, sciences and culture, and delivered with a fine command of theatricals.
I learnt that day how human violence can be explored at many levels and from many perspectives. A complex phenomenon deserves such treatment; reducing it to statistics or technocratic analysis is too simplistic.
For example, billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates recently tweeted: “It may be hard to imagine but conflict is actually on the decline”. He included an infographic showing how, since the late Middle Ages, “on average a shrinking proportion of the world population has died in conflict each year”. His source was a recent analysis by the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, which pooled knowledge from many studies. See: http://tiny.cc/WarHist
Not everyone agrees. Sanjana Hattotuwa, a researcher in peace building, replied in a tweet: “Unconvinced. True perhaps of violent conflict but systemic conflict, with Human rights abuses and discrimination, prevalent.”
I’m no expert on the subject, but even a layman’s understanding shows how violence has become more sophisticated and insidious. At the same time, we have a better understanding of the many faces of violence.
While fewer people die today in conflicts between nation states, we still face many types of structural violence and systemic violence.
That’s a key point I made this week at the World Conference on Youth 2014 held in Colombo, where I was invited to speak on the theme ‘Realising Peace, Reconciliation and Ending Violence’.
Structural violence as a concept was first used in 1969 by the Norwegian sociologist and peace researcher Johan Galtung. He defined it as: “any form of violence where some social structure or social institution may harm people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs”.
There are many examples of structural violence around us. Among them: institutionalized elitism; ethno-centrism; racism; sexism; classism; and nationalism. Structural violence affects people differently in various social structures, and is closely linked to social injustice.
In a broad sense, campaigns for human rights and social justice are attempts to resist structural violence. These include the civil rights movement in the US; women’s rights movement worldwide; anti-apartheid struggles in South Africa; current global efforts to reduce absolute poverty; and the on-going struggle for recognizing rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups.
Here, definitions and nuances matter. Those using a narrow definition of ‘peace’ contend that Sri Lanka achieved peace five years ago this month when the long drawn civil war ended. Never mind the collateral damage, they say, be grateful for the end of hostilities.
Yes and no. Yes, we are relieved and grateful that guns are silent and bombs are not going off indiscriminately. But no, peace is much more than the simple absence of hostility.
Likewise, reconciliation entails more than the mere co-existence of groups who were once engaged in a conflict. I won’t enter that big debate here, but reconciliation cannot be decreed by leaders, or legislated by governments.
Technocratic solutions (such as those recommended by Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, LLRC) are helpful — but not sufficient — to achieve full reconciliation.
Building sustainable peace requires time, effort – as well as a switch in our mindset. We must face hard truths, acknowledge them, and hopefully, forgive. Has that even begun to happen in Sri Lanka? It’s debatable…
Meanwhile, there are also cultural factors that get in the way of true peace and healing. Historically, many societies have glorified war, weaponry and combat. Aggression is often seen as a sign of strength — and of masculinity. The language of peace is seen as soft, even weak.
George Barnard Shaw summed up this stark reality in Man and Superman (1903): “There is nothing in Man’s industrial machinery but his greed and sloth: his heart is in his weapons…Man measures his strength by his destructiveness.”
With this inertia of history and culture, how can we replace confrontation and conflict with cooperation and collaboration?
The religious case for harmony is well known. But I would hesitate to invoke any religions – they have inspired so much division, hatred and violence through history.
Are there other insights or imperatives? For one, there is a growing body of scientific evidence and theories that argue that collaboration has a greater survival value than aggression.
Really? It goes against the long held Darwinian notion of the ‘survival of the fittest’ (often interpreted as the strongest and meanest). It appears that virtues like kindness, generosity and sharing are more than just moral choices: they are useful evolutionary traits too!
Survival of the Kindest?
Developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello has been studying the evolution of tolerance and trust among human beings and the role it plays in today’s societies. He and other researchers have drawn attention to the evolutionary benefits of collaboration and altruism.
There is no consensus yet among experts. Anthropologists, evolutionary biologists and sociologists keep debating about individual selection vs. group selection in evolution. The jury is still out on whether aggression or collaboration has a greater survival value.
At least there is a counter narrative not rooted simply in moral or faith based arguments. I’m not sure if the eager youth discussing a safer and saner world tomorrow can factor these big points into their plans and strategies. But it helps to keep an eye on these evolving debates.
Our big challenge remains: How to tame our worst evolutionary baggage, and instead bring out our best as a species? Can we break free from a supposed inevitability of aggression? Can it be fully redirected?
As Harvard biologist Edward O Wilson summed it up in his recent book, The Social Conquest of Earth: “The human condition is an endemic turmoil rooted in the evolution processes that created us. The worst in our nature coexists with the best, and so it will ever be.”
And that, coming from a grand old man of biological sciences, might well be the ultimate co-existence we must all achieve.