18 April 2012

Neutral I am not and I don’t think you are either!

[This was first published in the Daily News of May 5, 2010.  It refers to issues that were talked of around that time, but I am posting it here because I am amused when people make charges about bias without having the courtesy of stating their biases or even acknowledging that neutrality is purely and simply, balderdash!]

This is old. Really, really old. And we all know that some old things are so old that people think they have never been talked about, never thought about.  They are so old that some people even think they are fresh and brand new.  That’s how old the idea of ‘neutrality’ is. 

I write about neutrality today because it is old and it is new and some people (like this utterly confused and despondent dude who thinks he is a renaissance man writing to a Sunday newspaper) don’t seem to have a clue about the ‘realities’ pertaining to ‘neutrality’, especially the fact that the notion is patently untenable.  

My late mother believed in being partisan. She was partial to the family, to the school she attended, the University of Peradeniya, Sangamitta Hall, the schools she taught at, her students and friends.  For her, such things came first. She also expected her children to be like this. I was not.  I remember one of the last conversations I had with her very vividly. 

She had got into a huge argument with her brother, who was staying in the same house, and was insisting that he leave.  I happened to be in the house at the time. It was around 9.00 pm.  I told her that it is not right to throw someone out of the house at that time, especially not someone who didn’t have anywhere to go to and especially not after she herself had invited him to take up residence.  She replied that she had got my father’s permission for this. I said that was not relevant to the issue at hand. 

She had a dismissive retort: ‘In all your life you have never taken my side’.  It was impossible to argue with her, but I got my last-line in before I left: ‘All my life I have sided with what I thought was right’.  All loyalties came second to this, or at least, I’ve tried my best and to the extent possible to keep ‘loyalty’ out of all right-wrong, good-bad type deliberations.  I attribute this approach to something that the then Vice Principal at Royal College (Christie Gunasekara) told me during my last days as a schoolboy: ‘Do what you think is right whether or not the world appreciates’. 

I am not unaware that my knowledge is like a speck of dust compared with the universe of my ignorance, and I do many a conscious effort to qualify statement and desist from grand, totalizing claims.  I slip, I know, but am not ashamed of this and am open to both criticism and correction. 

I can’t be neutral not because I don’t place a lot of value on loyalty but because ‘truth’ itself is not neutral. It is value laden, heavy with preferences, a necessary product of a person’s experiences, learning, cultural upbringing and religious, and the philosophical and ethical universes he/she tend to inhabit.  One cannot talk about The Truth in most instances, therefore; one talks of the truths one chooses to believe in, defend and promote. 

Perhaps an example would help make things clear.  About a year ago I got a lot of fan mail, praising my writings.  At the time we were in the last phase of the military struggle to eliminate the LTTE.  Sri Lanka was getting a lot of flak internationally, thanks to intense lobbying by pro-LTTE groups abroad.  This was the time when people like David Miliband and Bernard Kouchner were at their vile best.  I was applauded for taking them on.  The applause slowly and naturally subsided after May 18, 2009. 

Then came Sarath Fonseka the Presidential Candidate.  All of a sudden, people who had backed both Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sarath Fonseka, found themselves in a situation where they were forced to pick one over the other, at least as default option.  Then there were those who had vilified both as well as the effort to liberate the country from the clutches of terrorism.  They had to pick Fonseka over Rajapaksa in view of the fact that their preferred party, the UNP was backing the former.  I am thinking of the renaissance loser who had to twist himself quite a bit to salute Fonseka and even fooled himself into believing that it would be a ‘close fight’ (more fantasy than extrapolation based on ground reality, but highly pardonable in someone who’s clearly struggling to come to terms with realities in general). 

All of a sudden I was accused of not being ‘neutral’.  Excuse me!  The charge of being ‘partisan’ was utterly ridiculous coming from people who were not at all neutral.  Neutrality, to them, meant something like this: ‘you are not supposed to back those I dislike and you are supposed to refrain from being critical of my man/woman’.  Interestingly, as I pointed out above, there were no calls for ‘neutrality’ when I sided with the state, government and the security forces in opposition to LTTE-interests.  I was not required to treat Prabhakaran kindly and would have been chided had I overly criticized the military operation (indeed, I was, even when the criticism was mild and qualified).

Some, like the renaissance tripper thinks that anyone who writes to the Daily News is in the pay of the UPFA. Interesting, since the man writes to a newspaper that openly admitted that it was backing Sarath Fonseka and the UNP, and he doesn’t have enough intelligence to turn the argument on himself and admit that he must be in Ranil Wickremesinghe’s pocket.  Also, since I write for several newspapers, this man who obviously reads very little ought to conclude that I am in the pay of all the parties and personalities that have connections with these media institutions. 

Let’s forget the little whiner.  Neutrality is our subject.  I am not interested in neutrality claims because people have choices, they vote, they promote, they criticize unequally and do all this without stating bias.

As for me, I have never been neutral.  I’ve always been partial to certain things.  The truths I believe in. The kinds of endgames that I think are better for my country, my fellow citizens and my children.  The improvement of life chances all around. Equality before the law.  Transparency. Accountability. Love.  Compassion. The cultural soils of this land. 

I recognize also that embedded in the making of choice is the rejection of other options.  I reject federalism because I don’t think it makes any sense, historically, geographically, economically and demographically.  I reject the 13th Amendment because it was illegal, inefficient and eminently objectionable for the same reasons given above. I believe it should be implemented because it is part of the constitution but argue for its abrogation, legally.  I reject all attempts to colonize and re-colonize this country and in this I resist attempts to destroy Buddhism (from within and without) because I am convinced that to the extent that any religion constitutes a core element of our overall cultural ethos it is Buddhism.  I think ‘modernity’ is a big lie and that western scientific paradigms are highly overrated. 

I side with the poor, the marginal, the underprivileged. I shall not be ‘neutral’ in the face of oppression and exploitation.  I side with the exploited and the oppressed and if I qualify my support it is because I know things are not always black and white; and I will always write and express the shades that make me conclude one way and not another.  No, I was never neutral and doubt if I ever will be.  

Here’s what confuses a lot of people: they think I am a reporter, i.e. someone who is required to dispassionately write fact.  Well, even reporters are not neutral. They can pick and choose fact, add or subtract colour, be selective in writing context and so on. The editor can pick and choose where to place the story, what kind of prominent is given or suppress it in numerous ways. That’s ‘politics’. That too is ‘partisan’. 

I write commentary.  This does not mean that it is all passion and no reason.  There is, I hope, some logic and I welcome objections that challenge the logic with superiority of reason and introduction of facts and factors not considered or suppressed.  Outside of such an approach there is only dismay at not siding with one’s choice. Sad, but not a tragedy, surely? 

For the record, I believe that I have been as critical of all the players I tend to side with than most critics and in ways they have refused to be critical of the parties, positions and personalities they prefer.  Even in this, I have not been persuaded by notions of being ‘neutral’ or ‘balanced’ but fidelity to the things that I prefer, as enumerated above. 

If you want to ‘be neutral’ go ahead and indulge yourself in the illusion.  There are no laws against it.  As for me, I am not neutral. To be quite blunt I think professed neutrality is one of the most insufferable fibs I’ve come across in my life. 



Shaik Ahamath said...

Of course, it is much easier to be biased than be neutral because, if biased, you have to hear, or choose to hear, only one side of the argument whereas if neutral, you have hear and weigh both sides.

Biso Menike said...

Dear Mr. Seneviratne,

wish you happy new year sir!

this is a good topic to talk and discuss. i really do not know how this happen but i always biased get the side of my children when talk about my children or when ever i think of their needs and it is same with my my husband. i do not understand how these things happen but that happens very naturally. i always get the side of my favorite novelists and the side of my favorite lyricists. i always get my own side and trying to prove that my idea is right and here in this case i am biased to my own ideas. my goodness for me that is not an easy thing to do. this is a different and interesting topic to discuss and i see some novelty in this.