Diversity, Equality, Naming

Padraig Colman, in the Sunday Island, 14 August 2011

Pic courtesy of imagesofceylon.com -depicting “snakecharmers” that is the Ahikuntakayo (usually)

I have a favourite quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson: ” all generalisations are dangerous, even this one”. Putting people into categories and expecting them to be happy in their boxes is a dangerous delusion. Putting people into racial or ethnic boxes is particularly risky. I got into a dispute with my editor at Le Monde diplomatique when she asked for my views on an article she had published by a Frenchman, Cédric Gouverneur, who had parachuted into Sri Lanka. I said that I was not sure if his phrase, “the government, overjoyed at being able to divide the Tamils” was useful. It seems to me to verge on racism to lump all Tamils together and assume that they all have the same interests and opinions. Neither author nor editor welcomed my contribution. People of a leftist persuasion, including my good self, hate to be called racist.

I complained to the BBC, The Independent and The Irish Times about their sloppy use of language in describing the last days of the LTTE in terms of the government trouncing “the Tamils”. Robert Kaplan, in the Atlantic Monthly September 2009, wrote “Sri Lankahas experienced more than a quarter of a century of civil war between ethnic Sinhalese Buddhists and Hindu Tamils.”

In my writing for western audiences, I have tried to disabuse my readers of the delusion thatSri Lanka is a nation where two races are always at each other’s throats. I tell them that, for such a small nation (a little larger thanWest Virginia, a little smaller thanIreland, but with 16 million more people thanIreland) there are many fault lines of ethnicity, political philosophy, language and religion. I tell my western readers that, despite difficulties, people of all groups co-exist reasonably well.

The Sri Lanka cricket team has been a good example of multiculturalism. In his Lords speech, Kumar Sangakarra said: “I am Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim and Burgher. I am a Buddhist, a Hindu, a follower of Islam and Christianity. I am today, and always, proudly Sri Lankan”.David Cameron said multiculturalism has failed, arguing for a stronger sense of British identity (a difficult concept for most Brits to understand). Cameron was speaking in Germanywhere Chancellor Angela Merkel had already said “multikulti” did not work, and immigrants needed to integrate. A recent survey suggested more than 30% of people believed Germanywas “overrun by foreigners”. Nazism is on the rise. Susanne Wessendorf argues that support for multiculturalism stems from changes in Western societies dealing, after World War II, with the racist trauma of the holocaust and ethnic cleansing. African and Asian nations became independent, highlighting colonial racism and exporting their people. In theUSAblack militants criticised assimilation, implicit in which was prejudice against those who did not act white. Multiculturalism in western countries was seen as a useful strategy to combat racism.

Supporters of multiculturalism argue that culture is not one definable thing based on one race or religion, but the result of multiple factors changing as the world changes. Multiculturalism allows people to truly express who they are within a tolerant, adaptable society.

Anti-multiculturalism covers a spectrum ranging from genuine anxieties to outright toxic racism. I recently read an extremely distasteful blog post entitled “Multiculturalism kills another Libtard”. A young Swedish woman was violently raped, killed and mutilated. The culprit was black. Someone chastised the blogger: “Since you don’t know this woman, how dare you call her a libtard in your title — do you know her political leanings? Multiculturalism doesn’t kill, people kill. The right wing favorite “Guns don’t kill, people kill” meme applies here too, not just for your NRA bumper stickers. Depending on monitor / browser settings those who do not wish to see a mutilated corpse (me, for example) may see it despite your lame warning. The only person you have effectively insulted with this disgusting post is the dead woman. Classy.” The source blog the poster got his information from was pornographic with comments along the lines of “Kill all niggers”.

Academics have noted legitimate public fears about multiculturalism. Harvard professor of political science, Robert D Putnam, surveyed 26,200 people in 40 American communities and found that the more racially diverse a community is, the greater the loss of trust. People in diverse communities “don’t trust the local mayor, they don’t trust the local paper, they don’t trust other people and they don’t trust institutions,” writes Putnam. In the presence of ethnic diversity, Putnam maintains that “[W]e hunker down. We act like turtles. The effect of diversity is worse than had been imagined. And it’s not just that we don’t trust people who are not like us. In diverse communities, we don’t trust people who do look like us.”

Australian ethologist Frank Salter writes : “Relatively homogeneous societies invest more in public goods, indicating a higher level of public altruism. For example, the degree of ethnic homogeneity correlates with the government’s share of gross domestic product as well as the average wealth of citizens.” Salter has developed a theory of Universal Nationalism. “The realisation that ethnicity is extended kinship at the genetic level led to the realisation that individuals have a large genetic stake in their ethnic groups, which could help explain the ubiquitousness of ethnic identity, solidarity and conflict from tribal times to the present.” Salter does not recommend strengthening the gene pool by interracial marriage. He is popular with the American New Right and those who believe it is vitally important for whites to defend their legitimate group interests. However, Salter is not quite right-wing enough for them.

This is all rather depressing as many scientists argue that the concept of race or ethnicity is meaningless. According to John H. Relethford, author of The Fundamentals of Biological Anthropology, a race “is a group of populations that share some biological characteristics….These populations differ from other groups of populations according to these characteristics.” Race is fluid and thus difficult to pinpoint scientifically. “Race is a concept of human minds, not of nature,” Relethford writes.

I recently had my knuckles rapped for using the word “gypsies” to describe a group of people living in the Aligambay area. Their mother tongue is Telugu and they seem to originate from Andhra Pradesh. They are Inaccurately, referred to as gypsies in Wikipedia and The Island. What’s in a name?

I asked my knuckle-rapper what I should call them. She thought they would prefer to be classed as Tamil, as that would place them in one of the common ethnic groups inSri Lanka. Although ethnicity is a fluid concept, these people are definitely not Tamil and it is doubtful if Tamils would accept them as such. My interlocutor said people settled inSri Lanka, whatever their historical origin, would like to be identified as Sri Lankan. However, this is an aspiration rather than an actuality. Whatever they might hope, they are not as fortunate as Sri Lankan cricketers. People do see them as outsiders.

Categorisation and the act of naming can exclude. However, it may be necessary to identify and name those in need of affirmative action to encourage their inclusion. Naming should be sensitively applied.


PC Gawn  Mad Innit!

By Padraig Colmanin http://www.lakbimanews.lk/portal/news/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1884:pc-gawn-mad-innit&catid=41:mag&Itemid=12

I recently had my knuckles rapped for using the word “gypsies” to describe a group of people living in the Aligambay area. I had a recollection of reading about this group in an academic paper and was keen to learn more.  

What’s in a name? I’m afraid I still don’t know the correct name I should be using to identify the group. When I eventually found the paper, it named the people as Kuruvan. Other people call them Ahikuntaka. Wikipedia calls them Ahikuntaka gypsies. J.B. Muller calls them gypsies in The Island. Even well-meaning NGOs like Dilmah Conservation, seeking to empower the group, call them gypsies.
I concede that, whoever these people are or where they came from, they should not be called gypsies. Firstly, because it is inaccurate, and secondly, because, it seems, they don’t like it.
There are similar problems of naming with a certain group of Irish people. Ignorant English people call them gypsies, which they clearly are not. Their origins are obscure – some believe they have descended from the people dispossessed by Cromwell’s ethnic cleansing. They certainly have no connection to the Roma. They used to be called tinkers but now that is forbidden by the word police. Officially, they are the “travelling community.” Whereas shops used to put up signs saying “no tinkers,” they now put up signs saying “no travellers.”
What’s in a name? Ways will be found, whatever the approved words, to discriminate. The toxicity of taxonomy!

Political Correctness (PC): Widespread use of the term politically correct and its derivatives began when it was adopted by the political right in the 1990s as a pejorative term suggesting Stalinist orthodoxy. The right claimed sole ownership of Common Sense. All else was mere ideology. The term Political Correctness used by the right means “excessive deference to particular sensibilities at the expense of other considerations.” The term “politically incorrect” came into use as implicit self-praise, indicating that the user was not afraid to speak plainly. Some might say they were just rude and insensitive.
   When I worked at the Department of Health in London, training was given on the sensitive use of language. It long ago became unacceptable to refer to “the handicapped.” For a while it was acceptable to say “the disabled” but that seemed to be defining people solely by their disability. So we were taught to say “people with disabilities.” I have been out of the loop on this, but it seems that current approved usage is “differently abled.”
I recently had an argument with someone for sloppy use of the word schizophrenic. She was using it to mean someone undecided about an issue. She thought of herself as someone on the left, an American who had chosen to live in New Zealand. When I pointed out that some might find her use of the word offensive, she proudly said that she refused to be censored. She is a psychiatrist. Lisa Solod, whom I know personally to be sensitive about racism, can write on Huffington Post: “Is feminism schizophrenic or what?”

Sloppy and hurtful language; Ian Mayes was the first Readers’ Editor, a kind of Ombudsman, of the London Guardian. He fought a long, but ultimately futile, battle against sloppy and hurtful language. The paper’s style guide has this under the heading of “mental health.” “Take care when using language about mental health issues. Avoid clearly offensive and unacceptable expressions as loony, maniac, nutter, psycho and schizo because they stereotype and stigmatize.”
Mayes’s heart was clearly in the right place: “I feel a strong commitment to this policy. It has nothing to do with political correctness. It has a lot to do with the way we treat each other, or wish to be treated, and in particular the way in which we relate to each other in times of need.”
It was sad to read Mayes’s columns over the years because however many times he returned to this subject he just could not stop Guardian journalists using the word schizophrenic in a sloppy and hurtful way.
In more recent times, the word “retard,” and its more obscene variants, has become popular in the blogosphere. Blogs are often compared to kindergarten and the current prevalence of such abuse recalls playground use of “spaz” (spastic) and “menck” (mental) as insults.
On June 16, 2011, Caitlin Moran published a book, How to Be a Woman,   described on Amazon as “A new way of looking at feminism from one of our funniest writers.” “Kitchen goddess Nigella Lawson wrote: “I adore, admire and – more – am addicted to Caitlin Moran’s writing.”
Not everyone gushed so much. Diane Shipley, a freelance journalist who has contributed to the Guardian, the LA Times, and Mental Health Today, and who describes herself as “a woman with disabilities,” wrote: “I enjoyed the description of her adolescence until I read one line that I’m convinced made my heart stop beating for a second. Talking about herself at


Filed under citizen journalism, cultural transmission, historical interpretation, life stories, LTTE, Sinhala-Tamil Relations

2 responses to “Diversity, Equality, Naming

  1. padraigcolman

    Michael, can I pick your anthropologist brain about the Ahikuntaka or Kuruvan?

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