Rhetoric matters

The childhood sing-song “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me” and all of its “grown up” versions are pernicious. They are pernicious because words can do real damage. Events here in Sri Lanka can serve as a lesson to Americans about the potentially terrible effects of rhetoric.

During the most recent American presidential campaign, both sides had partisans that used extreme rhetoric in describing the opposing candidate. Extremists on the right characterized Obama as someone who would befriend terrorists, bring on a socialist state, pack the Supreme Court, and destroy America and its ideals. Extremists on the left characterized McCain as someone who would take away our civil rights, pack the Supreme Court, emasculate Congress, govern as a near dictator, and destroy America and its ideals. Support our candidate, the extremists proclaimed, or you are electing a traitor, the devil incarnate, a Hitler.

In the US, we protect freedom of speech and we do not silence those who use such extreme rhetoric. Some try to say that such things are only said in the heat of a campaign. McCain acknowledged as much in his concession speech. He “approved” many TV ads that falsely portrayed, in often fairly extreme ways, Obama’s positions. Then, in his concession speech, he congratulated Obama and called Obama “my president.” He seemed to be demonstrating that all is fair during the campaign, but that once the campaign is over we go back to the real world in which the difference between the Republicans and the Democrats is sometimes no more than nuance. But you only had to listen to the partisan shouting in the hall in which McCain gave his speech to know that some of McCain’s supporters would carry on their campaign extremism into the political arena as policy debate continues. And while I used the reaction to McCain’s concession speech as an example, there are plenty of examples from the left of similar behavior.

In America, I blame this state of affairs on people who should know better. These are the cynical people who are profiting by turning what should be serious political discussion over important issues into a shouting match cum sporting event. The two “teams” are the right and the left. Points are scored with verbal “gotchas” and zingers. Facts are treated as fungible. Studies are countered with anecdotes, often invented anecdotes. No one is trying to find a practical, workable solution that is best for the people affected, rather everyone is attempting to promote whatever is best fitted to their ideological framework. Anyone who tries to stake out a nuanced or moderate position, or looks for a win-win compromise, is marginalized. The media loves this as a form of reality TV with plenty of drama and emotion with no foreseeable end. The participants and the media should be ashamed of themselves for this debasement of the democratic process that realistically could destroy America and its ideals. Rhetoric matters, and our problems are too serious not to be engaged in serious, respectful, and constructive discussions of their solutions.

Rhetoric matters here in Sri Lanka as well, but it is playing out differently. Here, many political parties have extremist supporters that resort to violence in support of their cause. I wrote recently about the “scariness” of the Sri Lankan government accusing the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka of being involved in an international, criminal conspiracy involving the Sri Lankan opposition party and the Western powers. I am happy to report that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is still among the living and the government defused the fuel price situation somewhat by announcing an economic stimulus package that lowered the price of gasoline among other things.

But other recent events have not been so peaceful. The day before yesterday, a gang of men invaded the studios of an independent TV and radio station, roughed up the employees on duty, used automatic weapons and hand grenades to destroy broadcast equipment, and finally set the building on fire. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured. No one has taken responsibility for this action, but it is widely believed to be the work of extremist supporters of the party in power. Why this TV station? The government included it among media outlets that the government labels as insufficiently “patriotic” in reporting on the conflict.

The government claims not to be responsible. The president responded to the event by denouncing the attack and called on the police to arrest those responsible. Then, incredibly, he added to the instructions to the police. He told them to be sure to investigate the possibility that the attack was carried out by the opposition to discredit the president’s administration! Frankly I doubt that the president directed anyone to invade that station. He does not need that kind of publicity in these crucial times. But he and his party cannot escape a measure of responsibility. Rhetoric matters, especially if you know there are violent extremists listening carefully to your words.

And today, an even worse tragedy. Two men on motorcycles blocked the car of Lasantha Wickrematunga, the editor of a Sri Lankan newspaper, the Sunday Leader, and shot him to death in cold blood, on a public street, in front of multiple witnesses. Apparently, he too was “insufficiently patriotic.”

I hope that the irresponsible people in the US who have jacked up the rhetoric to extreme levels come to their senses. I know some of us who remember the assassinations of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Medgar Evers are worried about Obama’s security. If something violent happens to Obama, then, even though Rush Limbaugh and his ilk did not pull the trigger, they must bear some measure of culpability.

Please, everyone, on the right and on the left, let’s tone it down, let’s talk together in a civilized manner, and let’s find real-world, not ideological-fantasy- world, solutions to our Nation’s problems.




  1. Tim said,

    January 9, 2009 at 11:37 am

    Copied from today’s Island newspaper (emphasis mine):

    “The government yesterday denied that it had anything to do with the killing of Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunga.

    Media Minister Anura Priyadharashana Yapa, questioned during yesterday’s Cabinet press briefing, while Wickremetunga was being treated for critical gun shot injuries at the Colombo South Hospital, said that the government had nothing against Wickremetunga.

    “President Mahinda Rajapaksa told me that he was very concerned about the incident and has ordered a high level inquiry,” he said.In fact Mr. Wickrematunga had invited President Rajapaksa for his wedding recently, but he could not attend due to security reasons. The President subsequently invited Mr. Wickremetunga and his wife for a reception at Temple Trees, he added.

    Non-Cabinet Media Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena claimed that the attack on Wickremetunga was a conspiracy by forces opposed to the forward march of the security forces and the capture of Kilinochchi.

    “The government is in a very strong position and there is no need for it to attack the media. The government gains nothing by killing any journalist,” the Minister said.”

  2. Tim said,

    January 9, 2009 at 11:51 am

    A statement from Reporter’s Without Borders (emphasis mine):

    “Sri Lanka’s government was “directly to blame” for the fatal shooting of a newspaper editor, the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said on Thursday.

    Lasantha Wickrematunga, 52, was gunned down as he drove to work on Thursday outside the capital Colombo.

    He edited the Sunday Leader newspaper, which was sharply critical of the government’s military drive against the Tamil Tiger rebels.

    “Sri Lanka has lost one of its more talented, courageous and iconoclastic journalists,” the press watchdog said in a statement.

    “President Mahinda Rajapakse, his associates and the government media are directly to blame because they incited hatred against him and allowed an outrageous level of impunity to develop as regards violence against the press.”

    The government has condemned the killing and the president asked the police to speedily investigate. The main opposition said they had no faith in the police and demanded an international probe.”

  3. Tim said,

    January 9, 2009 at 12:03 pm

    See also today’s Times Online (emphasis mine):

    “On May 22, 2008, Keith Noyahr was driving home from work. As he arrived he was dragged from his car, abducted and subjected to a six-hour assault. He was returned to his frantic family just before dawn.

    He was a journalist on an English-language newspaper, in which he had criticised the Government. He was also my Editor.

    For the three months in 2005 that I worked in Sri Lanka as an aspiring reporter recently out of university, he was my mentor: patiently explaining a political landscape populated by multiple ethnic animosities, decades of tense war and endless, endless acronyms. Much of my work involved covering the election of President Rajapaksa, who promised a tougher line in the civil war. The Defence Ministry – headed by the President’s brother – later declared journalists to be “an internal enemy” in that battle.

    Almost immediately after the election, the atmosphere changed. By the time of our office Christmas party a month later, the ceasefire had broken down in all but name. At the party, Keith proudly introduced me to his excited young children. A little more than two years later they were left traumatised by the attack on their father.

    After yesterday’s killing, President Rajapaksa promised a thorough investigation to catch those responsible. In the days after the assault on Keith the police also promised “extensive investigations”.

    Did he believe them then? He has not talked to me about the attack and he did not speak to me before I wrote this article. He still has relatives in Sri Lanka. Soon after leaving hospital, however, he and his immediate family fled to Australia. “

  4. Kris said,

    January 9, 2009 at 7:10 pm

    Thank you, Tim, for stating so well what many of us think and feel. In addition to your observations on rhetoric abetting a climate of noise without communication, I would like to add my sorrow that journalists are losing important ground. In a free society, journalists’ efforts to write true stories make people angry and sometimes vengeful; but in an unfree society, this effort marks them as canaries in coal mines. Free societies protect the right to try to publish the truth, even though this means untruths are confused with truths. Unfree societies cannot seem to wait until next week for this week’s story to unfold, or be amended, or corrected–the journalist is hanged for his or her effort. At the risk of using a cliche, I would offer the observation that a just resolution to any conflict, or even a disagreement, depends on good information. It is frustrating to see diminishing support all over the world, including the free nations, for the important work that the media should be doing. We hold the options in our own hands, by the media we patronize and our willingness to stand by. So you are right, Tim–by watching media frenzies and not complaining officially about them, we are letting them happen. Educated people provide an example for those who are less educated; we can offer a better example of skepticism, of questioning and debate, of study and observation. And we can support mental health care for delusional individuals who think assassination is a path to a just society.

  5. Charles said,

    January 11, 2009 at 6:55 pm

    To survive in Sri Lanka these days, the best policy would be to keep a low profile and cultivate a garden. If you are outspoken, you’d just end up as part of the food chain. Let me tell you a story that I learnt from my father, which has always helped me survive (especially in the University)

    On a cold rainy night a Sri Lankan peasant wanders back home to his village. Suddenly he stops as he sees a small bird on the ground, almost dead from cod and starvation. He feels sorry and picks up the bird and warms it. The bird soon recovers and the peasant wonders what to do next. At that moment a herd of cattle come by and one of them drops a large dollop. Realizing that if he put the bird in the steaming cow’s crap the bird will stay warm till the morning and the be able to fly, he places the bird in the dollop and goes home. Then a second peasant comes along and hears the bird chirping happily to itself in the steaming mess. This peasant seizes the bird, breaks its neck and takes it home for supper.

    This story has three morals: they are, in Sri Lanka,

    1. Do not believe that everybody who drops you in the shit is your enemy.
    2. Do not believe that everybody who gets you out of the shit is your friend.
    3. Whenever you are in the shit, keep quiet about it.

  6. Tim said,

    January 13, 2009 at 1:12 pm

    Here is a remarkable piece of journalism that should be read by everyone interested in the importance of a free press. It is the final editorial by Lasantha Wickrematunga, the murdered editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper, written before his death, to be published on the occasion of his death. I have cut-and-pasted it without permission from http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/peter_foster/blog/2009/01/12/sri_lanka_a_voice_cries_freedom_from_beyond_the_grave, because it is obvious from that site that the site’s author would approve, since he did it himself. And somehow I think the editors of the Sunday Leader would agree. It deserves the widest possible circulation:

    ‘And Then They Came For Me’

    By Lasantha Wickrematunge

    NO other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism. In the course of the past few years, the independent media have increasingly come under attack. Electronic and print-media institutions have been burnt, bombed, sealed and coerced. Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened and killed. It has been my honour to belong to all those categories and now especially the last.

    I have been in the business of journalism a good long time. Indeed, 2009 will be The Sunday Leader’s 15th year. Many things have changed in Sri Lanka during that time, and it does not need me to tell you that the greater part of that change has been for the worse. We find ourselves in the midst of a civil war ruthlessly prosecuted by protagonists whose bloodlust knows no bounds. Terror, whether perpetrated by terrorists or the state, has become the order of the day. Indeed, murder has become the primary tool whereby the state seeks to control the organs of liberty. Today it is the journalists, tomorrow it will be the judges. For neither group have the risks ever been higher or the stakes lower.

    Why then do we do it? I often wonder that. After all, I too am a husband, and the father of three wonderful children. I too have responsibilities and obligations that transcend my profession, be it the law or journalism. Is it worth the risk? Many people tell me it is not. Friends tell me to revert to the bar, and goodness knows it offers a better and safer livelihood. Others, including political leaders on both sides, have at various times sought to induce me to take to politics, going so far as to offer me ministries of my choice. Diplomats, recognising the risk journalists face in Sri Lanka, have offered me safe passage and the right of residence in their countries. Whatever else I may have been stuck for, I have not been stuck for choice.

    But there is a calling that is yet above high office, fame, lucre and security. It is the call of conscience.

    The Sunday Leader has been a controversial newspaper because we say it like we see it: whether it be a spade, a thief or a murderer, we call it by that name. We do not hide behind euphemism. The investigative articles we print are supported by documentary evidence thanks to the public-spiritedness of citizens who at great risk to themselves pass on this material to us. We have exposed scandal after scandal, and never once in these 15 years has anyone proved us wrong or successfully prosecuted us.

    The free media serve as a mirror in which the public can see itself sans mascara and styling gel. From us you learn the state of your nation, and especially its management by the people you elected to give your children a better future. Sometimes the image you see in that mirror is not a pleasant one. But while you may grumble in the privacy of your armchair, the journalists who hold the mirror up to you do so publicly and at great risk to themselves. That is our calling, and we do not shirk it.

    Every newspaper has its angle, and we do not hide the fact that we have ours. Our commitment is to see Sri Lanka as a transparent, secular, liberal democracy. Think about those words, for they each has profound meaning. Transparent because government must be openly accountable to the people and never abuse their trust. Secular because in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society such as ours, secularism offers the only common ground by which we might all be united. Liberal because we recognise that all human beings are created different, and we need to accept others for what they are and not what we would like them to be. And democratic… well, if you need me to explain why that is important, you’d best stop buying this paper.

    The Sunday Leader has never sought safety by unquestioningly articulating the majority view. Let’s face it, that is the way to sell newspapers. On the contrary, as our opinion pieces over the years amply demonstrate, we often voice ideas that many people find distasteful. For example, we have consistently espoused the view that while separatist terrorism must be eradicated, it is more important to address the root causes of terrorism, and urged government to view Sri Lanka’s ethnic strife in the context of history and not through the telescope of terrorism. We have also agitated against state terrorism in the so-called war against terror, and made no secret of our horror that Sri Lanka is the only country in the world routinely to bomb its own citizens. For these views we have been labelled traitors, and if this be treachery, we wear that label proudly.

    Many people suspect that The Sunday Leader has a political agenda: it does not. If we appear more critical of the government than of the opposition it is only because we believe that – pray excuse cricketing argot – there is no point in bowling to the fielding side. Remember that for the few years of our existence in which the UNP was in office, we proved to be the biggest thorn in its flesh, exposing excess and corruption wherever it occurred. Indeed, the steady stream of embarrassing expos‚s we published may well have served to precipitate the downfall of that government.

    Neither should our distaste for the war be interpreted to mean that we support the Tigers. The LTTE are among the most ruthless and bloodthirsty organisations ever to have infested the planet. There is no gainsaying that it must be eradicated. But to do so by violating the rights of Tamil citizens, bombing and shooting them mercilessly, is not only wrong but shames the Sinhalese, whose claim to be custodians of the dhamma is forever called into question by this savagery, much of which is unknown to the public because of censorship.

    What is more, a military occupation of the country’s north and east will require the Tamil people of those regions to live eternally as second-class citizens, deprived of all self respect. Do not imagine that you can placate them by showering “development” and “reconstruction” on them in the post-war era. The wounds of war will scar them forever, and you will also have an even more bitter and hateful Diaspora to contend with. A problem amenable to a political solution will thus become a festering wound that will yield strife for all eternity. If I seem angry and frustrated, it is only because most of my countrymen – and all of the government – cannot see this writing so plainly on the wall.

    It is well known that I was on two occasions brutally assaulted, while on another my house was sprayed with machine-gun fire. Despite the government’s sanctimonious assurances, there was never a serious police inquiry into the perpetrators of these attacks, and the attackers were never apprehended. In all these cases, I have reason to believe the attacks were inspired by the government. When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.

    The irony in this is that, unknown to most of the public, Mahinda and I have been friends for more than a quarter century. Indeed, I suspect that I am one of the few people remaining who routinely addresses him by his first name and uses the familiar Sinhala address oya when talking to him. Although I do not attend the meetings he periodically holds for newspaper editors, hardly a month passes when we do not meet, privately or with a few close friends present, late at night at President’s House. There we swap yarns, discuss politics and joke about the good old days. A few remarks to him would therefore be in order here.

    Mahinda, when you finally fought your way to the SLFP presidential nomination in 2005, nowhere were you welcomed more warmly than in this column. Indeed, we broke with a decade of tradition by referring to you throughout by your first name. So well known were your commitments to human rights and liberal values that we ushered you in like a breath of fresh air. Then, through an act of folly, you got yourself involved in the Helping Hambantota scandal. It was after a lot of soul-searching that we broke the story, at the same time urging you to return the money. By the time you did so several weeks later, a great blow had been struck to your reputation. It is one you are still trying to live down.

    You have told me yourself that you were not greedy for the presidency. You did not have to hanker after it: it fell into your lap. You have told me that your sons are your greatest joy, and that you love spending time with them, leaving your brothers to operate the machinery of state. Now, it is clear to all who will see that that machinery has operated so well that my sons and daughter do not themselves have a father.

    In the wake of my death I know you will make all the usual sanctimonious noises and call upon the police to hold a swift and thorough inquiry. But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one, too. For truth be told, we both know who will be behind my death, but dare not call his name. Not just my life, but yours too, depends on it.

    Sadly, for all the dreams you had for our country in your younger days, in just three years you have reduced it to rubble. In the name of patriotism you have trampled on human rights, nurtured unbridled corruption and squandered public money like no other President before you. Indeed, your conduct has been like a small child suddenly let loose in a toyshop. That analogy is perhaps inapt because no child could have caused so much blood to be spilled on this land as you have, or trampled on the rights of its citizens as you do. Although you are now so drunk with power that you cannot see it, you will come to regret your sons having so rich an inheritance of blood. It can only bring tragedy. As for me, it is with a clear conscience that I go to meet my Maker. I wish, when your time finally comes, you could do the same. I wish.

    As for me, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I walked tall and bowed to no man. And I have not travelled this journey alone. Fellow journalists in other branches of the media walked with me: most of them are now dead, imprisoned without trial or exiled in far-off lands. Others walk in the shadow of death that your Presidency has cast on the freedoms for which you once fought so hard. You will never be allowed to forget that my death took place under your watch. As anguished as I know you will be, I also know that you will have no choice but to protect my killers: you will see to it that the guilty one is never convicted. You have no choice. I feel sorry for you, and Shiranthi will have a long time to spend on her knees when next she goes for Confession for it is not just her owns sins which she must confess, but those of her extended family that keeps you in office.

    As for the readers of The Sunday Leader, what can I say but Thank You for supporting our mission. We have espoused unpopular causes, stood up for those too feeble to stand up for themselves, locked horns with the high and mighty so swollen with power that they have forgotten their roots, exposed corruption and the waste of your hard-earned tax rupees, and made sure that whatever the propaganda of the day, you were allowed to hear a contrary view. For this I – and my family – have now paid the price that I have long known I will one day have to pay. I am – and have always been – ready for that. I have done nothing to prevent this outcome: no security, no precautions. I want my murderer to know that I am not a coward like he is, hiding behind human shields while condemning thousands of innocents to death. What am I among so many? It has long been written that my life would be taken, and by whom. All that remains to be written is when.

    That The Sunday Leader will continue fighting the good fight, too, is written. For I did not fight this fight alone. Many more of us have to be – and will be – killed before The Leader is laid to rest. I hope my assassination will be seen not as a defeat of freedom but an inspiration for those who survive to step up their efforts. Indeed, I hope that it will help galvanise forces that will usher in a new era of human liberty in our beloved motherland. I also hope it will open the eyes of your President to the fact that however many are slaughtered in the name of patriotism, the human spirit will endure and flourish. Not all the Rajapakses combined can kill that.

    People often ask me why I take such risks and tell me it is a matter of time before I am bumped off. Of course I know that: it is inevitable. But if we do not speak out now, there will be no one left to speak for those who cannot, whether they be ethnic minorities, the disadvantaged or the persecuted. An example that has inspired me throughout my career in journalism has been that of the German theologian, Martin Niem”ller. In his youth he was an anti-Semite and an admirer of Hitler. As Nazism took hold in Germany, however, he saw Nazism for what it was: it was not just the Jews Hitler sought to extirpate, it was just about anyone with an alternate point of view. Niem”ller spoke out, and for his trouble was incarcerated in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps from 1937 to 1945, and very nearly executed. While incarcerated, Niem”ller wrote a poem that, from the first time I read it in my teenage years, stuck hauntingly in my mind:

    First they came for the Jews

    and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.

    Then they came for the Communists

    and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.

    Then they came for the trade unionists

    and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.

    Then they came for me

    and there was no one left to speak out for me.

    If you remember nothing else, remember this: The Leader is there for you, be you Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, low-caste, homosexual, dissident or disabled. Its staff will fight on, unbowed and unafraid, with the courage to which you have become accustomed. Do not take that commitment for granted. Let there be no doubt that whatever sacrifices we journalists make, they are not made for our own glory or enrichment: they are made for you. Whether you deserve their sacrifice is another matter. As for me, God knows I tried.

  7. Tim said,

    January 19, 2009 at 8:47 pm

    A news report about suspects being released on bail in the attack on the TV station. (emphasis mine):

    “Suspects of Sri Lanka private TV station attack released
    Monday, January 19, 2009, 15:11 GMT, ColomboPage News Desk, Sri Lanka.

    Jan 19, Nugegoda: The Nugegoda Magistrate today ordered to release the five suspects produced in Courts this morning over the attack on MTV/MBC station complex at Depanama in Pannipitiya.

    When the case was heard this morning the Magistrate further said that the police is attempting to mislead the investigations.

    Maharagama police toady produced the five suspects to the Courts including the three who surrendered to the police yesterday over the incident.

    Police spokesman SSP Ranjith Gunasekara yesterday said that all three people including a councilor of the Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte Municipal Council were most wanted suspects.

    An armed gang attacked the station complex of the Maharaja Broadcasting Corporation, better known as MTV/MBC in the early hours of January 06th and completely damaged its properties.”

  8. Anna said,

    February 21, 2009 at 12:54 pm

    I am saddened but not surprised that a free press is one of the first targets in order to gain control. It has been true in so many other places and times. It is important to keep that freedom from eroding anywhere.

  9. March 21, 2009 at 5:36 pm

    […] I did spend a few hours writing and sending variants on my “Keep the Marines out of Sri Lanka” posting to President Obama and Senators Brown and Voinovich (both Ohio senators). It turns out that both of Ohio senators are on the subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that recently held a hearing on the situation in Sri Lanka. The only one to reply to me so far is Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), but it was a canned reply that showed no evidence that my email had been read. For example, the reply included the phrase  “innocent civilians” . I argue that using that phrase is a way of framing the issue in a way that hinders thoughtful discussion of what the right thing is  for the US to do (or not do) about the situation. Rhetoric matters! […]

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