28 January 2012

How about a leeeetle bit of integrity, people?

Gamini Gunawardane, Retired Senior DIG, wrote an excellent article in The Island of November 12, 2009: ‘How men of integrity saved Sri Lanka’.  He was paying tribute to all the individuals whose contributions, especially their commitment and integrity, paved the way for the nation’s most glorious post-Independence moment, the historic victory over terrorism that few believed was possible. 

In this excellent exposition of the term ‘integrity’ in terms of this overall effort of utmost national interest, the following paragraph caught my attention and provoked deep reflection. 

“Rather than eulogizing personalities, the purpose, is to illustrate how even a few people could make a huge difference with a modicum of integrity in a fleeting situation despite flourishing corruption, which could produce such astonishing achievements for a nation.’

He hopes that such fleeting moments be more frequent and that there will be more people of such courage.  That’s a wish that many would share, I believe.  We know that there are serious flaws in our institutional arrangement and there’s a woeful lack of integrity all around, not just among politicians and public servants, but in the private sector, the informal sector, religious orders of all faiths and also the general public. 

Last evening I went to see Rajitha Dissanayake’s award-winning play, ‘Veeraya Merila’ (the hero is dead).  Rajitha explores, with characteristic wit, humour and amazing insight, the issue of integrity in the media, its political economy and in the process enumerates the numerous booby traps that make for easy purchase of well-intentioned journalists. 

Having been in this field for almost a decade, I have enough reason to endorse what the late Ajith Samaranayake once said: ‘when you read newspapers you might think journalists are people with a strong sense of justice and that they embody the virtue of integrity, but we who work in newspaper officers know this is not true’.  Rajitha elaborates extremely well and does it with theatrical finesse for the most part.  The fact that he can provoke more than a few laughs indicates that the public is not unaware.  Indeed he has shown a lot of courage in saying out loud that which people in the media industry pretend does not exist or that it is an affliction someone else suffers.  

The truth, however, is that we all have a price.  Some go cheap, some are expensive. Some cannot be purchased and they are killed or die, metaphorically and sometimes even literally.  The truth is that all journalists have to operate within more or less clearly defined frameworks.  The truth is that in most cases, journalists operate at a considerable distance from these limiting lines.  The truth is that in most cases, journalists fight shy of stating bias, trying to show the world that they are ‘neutral’ and somehow ‘objective’, both untenable propositions when you come to think of it.  And sometimes, there is ‘virtue’ in the written word but in life it is absent and this is probably what Ajith alluded to. 

On the other hand, one never gets integrity in a nation-wide sense and even in an individual it is a ‘now and then’ thing, predicated on issue, moment, location etc.  What Gunawardena points out is that this reality does not rule out the intersection of integrities at key moment/situations and that when this happens, it is not an issue of whether there is majority-integrity, so to say, but that there is critical-integrity. The coming together of key personalities with shared vision, commitment and unrelenting purpose can produce wonders and compensates in a way for decades of compromise and servility. 

Integrity, it must be understood, is not something that one calls upon only in terms of crisis, although at such moments its absence or presence will produce tragedy and triumph respectively.  I believe that it is in the ‘micro’ that integrity is possible and also lacking.  I am thinking of trade union action in particular. Someone referring to the current work-to-rule campaign launched by some unions, made this witty observation yesterday: ‘productivity levels might have gone up because it means they are actually working!’ 

What is he saying?  He is saying that in the general we have a labour force that does not do justice to contractual agreement.  This is why the public views unions in unfavourable terms and even curse them for the inconveniences they cause.  On the other hand, this ‘public’ also works.  The public is made of a millions of working people, all with some form of contract with employer.  Do they ask themselves if they have the moral authority to question the absence of a decent work ethic in a striking worker?  Do they possess that modicum of integrity Gunawardena speaks of to have the write to point fingers at those who lack integrity?  Aren’t these questions we need to ask ourselves?  Can those who show a gap between rhetoric and practice find fault with others who are similarly ‘gapped’?

Rajitha’s play reminded me of that telling exchange between Galileo and his student Andrea Sarti in Brecht’s play.  Galileo, having recanted the truths he had discovered under pressure from the Vatican which included the threat of torture, is taunted by his student: ‘unhappy is the land that has no hero’.  Galileo’s reply is a classic: ‘no Andrea, unhappy is that land that needs a hero’. 

The truth is everyone can be a hero, not necessarily in ways that are nationally recognized, but in the everyday.  Having integrity, in these time and circumstances, one can argue therefore is heroic.  There is heroism then in being honest to job contract, in practicing that which one preaches, in making such that one doesn’t find fault with someone for doing or not doing something that one does or does not do as the case may be. 

We have moved from the ‘mega’ to the ‘micro’.  The world has rebelled against ‘big’ and brought it down to size. These then are ‘micro’ days.  We have microfinance as the new mantra of development and poverty alleviation.  There’s talk of ‘micro justice’.  ‘Micro integrity’, then, is perhaps a remedy for the ills of our times.