Op-Ed for the Republic Square (Sri Lanka)

Originally published here.

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The Namal Rajapaksa Twitter fiasco: Sri Lanka, sexism & political correctness

Subha Wijesiriwardena is a Sri Lankan blogger and theatre practitioner currently living in Bangalore, India.

The Namal Rajapaksa Twitter fiasco of March 4th revealed to us a great many interesting and disturbing things about Sri Lanka, Sri Lankan politics and gender politics. The bottom-line, I can tell you right now, is that we obviously continue to live in a desperately polarized world with no hope of bettering ourselves. Those of you for whom that is too depressing a conclusion to arrive at; you may as well stop reading now.

The issue at hand, one assumes, is sexism. But what I’d like to examine is the claim of some that the issue at hand is not actually sexism at all. In fact, when Namal Rajapakse retweeted a meme (featuring Anarkali Akarsha, himself and a second man, clearly at a political meeting, and showing the two men discussing her ass in an extremely vulgar manner) with a big smiley face next to it, the dominating arguments in defense of his actions were about the idea of ‘political correctness’ and how it is the death of the sense of humour.

Namal uses it to defend his actions, tweeting, ‘Sri Lankan Meme images are taken as lighthearted jokes & i never take them seriously or get offended by them.’ (sic) In fact, Anarkali herself uses this argument to defend Namal. On her Twitter feed, she says we should have a sense of humour, and if she didn’t take offense at the meme, no one else should.

She also says Namal is her friend so she’s not bothered by it and encourages us all, in possibly what is the world’s best advice, to be more like him. Effectively, she’s saying she’s not offended by sexism, or actually, sexual harassment, directed at her, especially if it’s being directed at her by her friend. She’s saying sexism, as a concept, in principle doesn’t bother her. And we should all just, you know, chill out.

Now, there are several things wrong with her argument.

  1. She doesn’t understand that sexism is always offensive to some of us – yes, even in those awkward situations when the person it’s directed at, isn’t offended. The part of the world that is usually offended by sexism will be offended by it in principle. Her point here only proves that we live in a world that is so wholly accustomed to and comfortable with sexism, especially sexism in politics, that we’re not even able to recognise it sometimes.
  2. If Anarkali really believes Namal was her friend and had retweeted the idiotic meme in a ‘friendly’ way, she’s incredibly naïve. As her friend, he should have retweeted it chastising it, not with a big smiley face next to it, which to his readership, connotes a sense of approval from him. This is what makes him seem sexist – not just the meme.

Another Tweeter defends Namal using the ‘sense of humour’ argument, too. And this is where it gets interesting.

Tweeter Nisansa de Silva chastises anyone who has expressed having a problem with the insulting meme and Namal’s retweet, for not having a sense of humour and taking the ‘political correctness’ thing too far. He says political correctness is an American concept, and therefore presumably believes it’s un-Sri Lankan. The idea that political correctness is a) modern and b) Western is not a new one. In fact, often in Sri Lanka, the eagerness to create more politically-correct behaviour, especially on public forums, is discouraged and criticised for being too heavy-handed and over-sensitive. You are cast as a hysterical drama-queen if, God forbid, you take offense at something offensive.

Nisansa de Silva expresses his frustration at how unruly children in schools need to now be called Behaviourally-Challenged and can no longer simply be called brats. Let me point out the major flaw in this argument: the point is that political correctness has made us a more culturally and emotionally sensitized society. People like Nisansa believe that this sensitivity to each others’ feelings and struggles makes us weak and boring. He’s effectively saying we should go back to living in a prejudiced world that discriminates indiscriminately, and is ruder, more insensitive and less considerate as a whole.

While I fundamentally agree with the idea of everyone needing a sense of humour and, in particular, the ability to laugh at oneself, any one person being offensive –because of a sense of superiority or righteousness – about another person’s identity,  be it their gender, sexuality, religion, is something we in the ‘modern’ world won’t accept. We like to believe we’re better than that. We like to believe we’ve transitioned from being the ignorant society we once were: a society which thought the mistreatment of animals, violence against women and destroying the environment for our gain were all OK. So forgive us our ‘modern’ ideals of equality, compassion, knowledge and sensitivity. In this transition, we’ve also left behind lots of other destructive practices that we learned, the hard way, were not good for us – would you like, in that case, to argue for bringing back the tradition of sacrificing virgins at the altar every time a city fell on bad luck?

People who fear modernity fear it for exactly this reason – because they are unprepared for what it means; like, sexism is not OK. And because they are actually unchanged in a changing world, they see that the world around them has no place for them.

So in fact, the issue at hand is sexism – very much. And the very fact that those arguing in defense of Namal’s tweet, the meme and Namal himself, calling it ‘humourous’ and claiming it is not sexist, are a part of that group of people – fearful, displaced. But that’s not really a surprise, is it?

One thought on “Op-Ed for the Republic Square (Sri Lanka)

  1. Well written, Subha. I enjoy your blog posts and look forward to them.

    When people elect the likes of Anarkali as leaders, and the elected female leaders themselves (or young candidates) fail to address or even highlight issues that are directly affecting women, I am afraid all this falls on deaf ears and empty brains. It puzzles me how women themselves continue to perpetuate discrimination and sexism. Which is precisely why it is important to keep the conversation going and all the ‘drama queens’ continue to be offended by what is offensive.

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