21 June 2014

The world is made of humiliation and insult

“If the insults and humiliations of all time were woven into a cloth would not the tapestry wrap the earth many times over?”

There are times when I feel the world is made of advertisements.  Look around you.  So many people, so many ideologies, so many businesses, each of them with something to sell, each of them trying to persuade us to make a purchase of one kind or another.

Blank out all signs, all words, all visuals and all subtle appeals whispering ‘buy me, buy me’ and it’s still a lot of advertising.  Look around and try counting the number of walking CVs you encounter.  It’s a world of like me’, love me, hold my hand, feel my pain, let’s make a deal, I am better than he/she, I am pretty, I am honest, I am strong, I am sensitive etc etc.

Perhaps it has always been like this, but I like to think that there was a time when work was the best advertisement, when action counted more than anything else and I like to think that someday we will revert to that bullshit-less time.  Perhaps I am being nostalgic and naïve.

A few days ago I thought to myself ‘if only it was advertising and nothing else!’  I am saying this because even as the glitter really covers a lot of nasty stuff one doesn’t exactly need a magnifying glass or some special kind of training to see that the world is made of advertisements and also humiliation.

I am not a fan of ‘weak-equals-good’.  The ‘weak’ when empowered are no less bad than the strong.  They too exploit, they too humiliate and they too derive profit and joy in these processes.  Perhaps, therefore, it is a condition that is part and parcel of being located in the higher rungs of structured hierarchies.

Should it be this way always, though?  Is it possible for there to be exploitation without humiliation or vice versa?  Is ‘revolution’ the answer?  I am no longer sure. One set of hierarchies being replaced by another will only change the so called masters of our fate; they will replace one kind of exploitation with another, the humiliating and humiliated with another set of people looking down their noses at another set of people who have to ‘grin and bare’ or worse. 

It’s about belong to clubs.  Non-members are shown the door if that’s possible. Or they are made uncomfortable.  They are made to understand that they don’t belong. No, that’s not enough, they are also made to understand that they are somehow lesser mortals. 

Check out the hierarchies around you.  Take an office.  Take parliament.  A defence establishment.  A sports body.  An I/NGO.  A diplomatic mission.  A village made of multiple castes.  A church.  A school.  We are insulted by the media, its lies and covering-up.  We are insulted by ‘scholars’ who defend and justify all kinds of tyrannies.  We are humiliated when Barack Obama wants to hide footage of what his troops have done in Iraq, when the British Prime Minister tells us that there’s no ‘Britain’ in ‘British Petroleum’ and tries to wash the hands of white capital in the destruction that is spewing out in the Gulf of Mexico.

How many times have you seen a word dropped or glance thrown with deliberate intent to insult the ‘receiver’?  How many times is a question passed without being answered and the questioner made to feel that silence is a legitimate answer? How many times is a person turned away and asked to come the next day or next year for the flimsiest of reasons? How many times have you heard of a teacher adding insult over and above punishment warranted by need to correct?  How many times a word dropped to point to some social category that is held to be ‘lower’ in some structured hierarchy?  How many times has this happened to you? How many times have you done it?

It is not just in formal settings.  It happens within families, in the household.  The older and the stronger protect and provide but sometimes exact a price for this by exercising some kind of ‘right’ to ridicule, humiliate, control and punish.  It happens to little children. It happens to women. It is a quickly learnt practice, with older children doing to younger siblings what their parents and other elders do to them.  Time passes, and when the older get very old and the powerful become weak, they are returned the favour.  It’s called ‘bossing’. 

What can stop bossing?  It is a two-way street isn’t it?  The boss has to do a re-think. The bossed too.  At some level it is about negotiating the terms of bossing; what is acceptable and what is not.  That’s the reality of power relations.  Somewhere along the line we seem to have resigned ourselves to this ridiculous situation that is sometimes used as excuse for all kinds of violence: ‘the poor ye shall always have’.  It can be extended, this line: ‘people will always be subjected to humiliation’, ‘what will the world be without bosses?’ and ‘if we have to have bosses, how can we stop bossing?’

I am of the view that anything and everything in this world can be justified.  I watched recently a special screening of Athula Liyanage’s amazing debut film, ‘Bambarawalalla’ (Whirlwind), which won the Remi Award for 2010 at the World Fest International Houston Film Festival.  One line struck me down: ‘Good and bad exist only when we are alone with our thoughts; out there when among others, in society, in the world, they don’t count’.  For all the talk of ethics, morality and even the more formalized structures of coding behaviour and defining boundaries that mark ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’, the truth is that it is all a lie. Paradoxically.  We can do as we like as long as we don’t get caught and even if we do, there are ways of escaping depending on factors like money, power, ability to arm-twist, friends in high places etc.  Worse, even if we don’t get away, the fact that there are hundreds and thousands out there ‘free’ even though they are as guilty as we are, makes a mockery of all such processes frilled with righteousness. 

I return, again and again, to the incomparable teachings of Siddhartha Gauthama, the Enlightened One, Lord Buddha and the teachings of ego. We are not on that path, I know.  We do not explore and when we do we neglect to investigate the non-negotiable: self.  Still, even a cursory reading of the Buddha Vachana (Word of Lord Buddha) would teach us the virtue of examining this thing called ‘ego’ and all the bile it dishes out and bathes us with.

I am convinced. It boils down to self and what we do and do not do with it. My friend Pradeep Jeganathan is right.  It’s about ethics.  And ‘ethical conduct’ despite the implication of social contract and relevant codification the term is decorated with, is a personal choice and draws from that moral universe we inhabit when we are alone, that place of solitude and terror where along ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ has relevance, as Athula Liyanage points out.  That’s what gives us ‘hope’ in the end, it is what makes things that little bit more bearable.  We need more of it. A lot more.    

I spoke of a tapestry. Would it be a bandage that covers for a while, or a healing paththuwa, a fermenting pack that draws out the world’s poisons?  What will we do with it when its work is done?  Toss it into the night sky, with pus and blood and all that’s not nice?  No, we retreat to self.  We go out to ‘self’.  We sober up.



Sharmini Jayawardena said...

Do check out R D Laing's 'Politics of the Family' and 'Conversations with Children'.

More like bullying and not bossing...

Advertising copywriters slave and toil to out out those advertisements.

If you follow the five precepts diligently then you take the first step to giving up your ego.

Everything in life is both good and bad. You surpass this dichotomy by following the muddle path.