04 July 2023

Manufacturing passivity and obedience

Noam Chomsky, considered by some as the ‘Father of Modern Linguistics,’ and perhaps better known for being a public intellectual for his relentless activism, wrote and spoke extensively on the pernicious ways in which consent is obtained.

The following is from ‘How the world works,’ made up of edited speeches and interviews with Chomsky, edited by Arthur Nalman:

‘The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.’

This method seems far more cost-effective than using violence to quell dissent, although it may come to that eventually, i.e. when the ideological state apparatus crumbles. The coercive machinery, typically held in reserve for the most part, is activated when this happens. Until then, this works.

In other words, set a limited spectrum, feed it when necessary with click-bait that amounts to distraction to the point that the more critical issues are left alone, and it’s smooth sailing, relatively, for those in power. The system may be threatened if its foundations are attacked, but if people are persuaded to scratch surfaces, complain that some tiles have come off, the floors are unpolished and the walls unpainted, all is good.

About twenty years ago, Prof Carlo Fonseka laughingly told me, ‘I read your articles for the style, not the content.’ He was alluding to the fact that we were ideologically at odds with each other. So I smiled and pointed out, ‘Uncle, your friends who write content you agree with, they don’t talk about capitalism, about exploitation or class, do they? I do!’

‘And I appreciate it,’ he said.

I suppose his contention about content was a general observation; I don’t critique capitalism or write about class as much as I do about other things.

Chomsky, though, is correct. It’s not that some clever, scheming people sit around a table and brainstorm to come up with ideas that can generate lively debate. Some of it is planned, obviously, but most of it is not. The system will have uneven floors, a broken window or two and paint coming off some wall at any given time. If, on the other hand, it seems perfectly refurbished, it is not difficult to break a window, spill some ink or punch a hole somewhere. Something, anything, that someone will notice and be upset about. That’s a nice recipe for managing dissent.

The system, one could argue, is flawed. The solution then is to play up correctable flaws. People will scream and the particular angst can be duly put to rest. The system needs such flaws at all times because it helps prevent people from detecting the most serious flaws and anomalies, examine them, find underlying reasons and think of ways to deal with them, even consider overhauling the system. That’s scary for those who benefit from the system, typically the rich and powerful.  

It is fortuitous that capitalism generates disasters. The increasing incidence of floods, droughts, earth slips etc., are attributable to the dominant paradigm of development and its economic first cousin, capitalism. But no, we are discouraged from linking ‘climate change’ to capitalism or the dominant paradigm of development. If there’s a calamity of any kind, the preference is for all debate to be focused on the location, the victims, the relief efforts.

Of course not all ‘issues’ are attributable to capitalism. You can have someone in power saying something stupid and be assured that public attention will focus on the person. You can have someone complain about someone else building something that is made out to be some kind of environmental crime.

You can have different versions of the infamous ‘Dhammika Paeniya.’ You can have a version of the ‘Kandalama Hotel’ and it could be a chaitya on Bathalegala. You can have environmental issues, gender issues, sexuality issues, ethnic issues and talk about relevant histories day in and day out, but capitalism in any serious way, the system in a serious way, hell no!

It cannot be coincidental that former leftists and revolutionaries embrace issues such as ecology, gender discrimination, sexuality, ethnicity, secularism and others that offer a veneer of liberal respectability, that they also set up NGOs and turn their alleged righteousness into lucrative business models but leave the most abiding and most pernicious anomaly-generator of them all, capitalism, strictly alone.

It is ok to talk of historical homelands and in the same breath scream, ‘history is irrelevant.’ It is important for history to be pooh-poohed because bringing that into the debate would make things uncomfortable for those whose historical claims are toilet wash, but more importantly, when you banish history, you cannot trace process. Capitalism is thus a given, a fact, an incontrovertible truth, something that is and will be and therefore something that does not call for objection. It is a ‘goes without saying’ thing.

And, ladies and gentlemen, as the French sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu pointed out, ‘that which goes without saying, comes without saying.’ 

And that which goes without saying typically falls outside the spectrum of permissible dissent. So it is incumbent on the citizen to examine the parameters of issues, detect the limits, ponder reasons for limitations and step out of that comfort zone designed by the comfortable and comforted. Outside the permitted spectrum is where meaningful ‘aragala’ find their not-so traditional homeland.  That's how manufactured passivity and obedience can be bested.

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below]

Other articles in this series:

Precept and practice

Sanjeew Lonliyes: rawness unplugged, unlimited

In praise of courage, determination and insanity

The relative values of life and death

Feet that walk

Sarinda's eyes

Poetry and poets will not be buried

Sunny Dayananda

Reunion Peradeniya (1980-1990)

What makes Oxygen breathable? 

Sorrowing and delighting the world

The greatest fallacy 

Encounters with Liyanage Amarakeerthi

Beyond praise and blame

Letters that cut and heal the heart

Vanished and vanishing trails


A forgotten dawn song from Embilipitiya

The soft rain of neighbourliness 

The Gold Medals of being

Jaya Sri Ratna Sri

All those we've loved before

Reflections on waves and markings

A chorus of National Anthems

Saying what and how

'Say when'

Respond to insults in line with the Akkosa Sutra

The loves of our lives

The right time, the right person

The silent equivalent of a thousand words

Crazy cousins are besties for life

Unities, free and endearing

Free verse and the return key

"Sorry, Earth!"

The lost lyrics of Premakeerthi de Alwis

The revolution is the song

Consolation prizes in competitions no one ever wins

The day I won a Pulitzer


Ella Deloria's silences

Blackness, whiteness and black-whiteness

Inscriptions: stubborn and erasable 


Deveni: a priceless one-word koan

Enlightening geometries

Let's meet at 'The Commons'

It all begins with a dot

Recovering run-on lines and lost punctuation

'Wetness' is not the preserve of the Dry Zone

On sweeping close to one's feet

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

To be an island like the Roberts...

Debts that can never be repaid in full

An island which no flood can overwhelm

Who really wrote 'Mother'?

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember

On loving, always

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal

When you turn 80...

It is good to be conscious of nudities 

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday 

There's a one in a million and a one in ten

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature

Pathways missed

Architectures of the demolished

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts

Who the heck do you think I am?

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha'

The Mangala Sabhava

So how are things in Sri Lanka?

The most beautiful father

Palmam qui meruit ferat

The sweetest three-letter poem

Buddhangala Kamatahan

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked

Pure-Rathna, a class act

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles

Matters of honor and dignity

Yet another Mother's Day

A cockroach named 'Don't'

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara

Sweeping the clutter away

Some play music, others listen

Completing unfinished texts

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn

I am at Jaga Food, where are you?

On separating the missing from the disappeared

Moments without tenses

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have)

The world is made of waves


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya'

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced

Some stories are written on the covers themselves

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time 

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists?

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords

The books of disquiet

A song of terraced paddy fields

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart