Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Rajpal Abeynayake

Liberalism – Lexical Ambiguity

This article appeared in Lakbima News on December 4 2011.

Liberalism has got itself a bad name in many and different quarters. Suren Raghavan, writing in the Colombo Telegraph, was one of the many criticising NORAD’s analysis of Norway’s contribution to Sri Lanka’s “peace process”. “The Peace Process was hegemonised by a naive liberal peace discourse. It gravitated around the liberalism II model of minority rights, right to self-determination and ethnic federalism etc. By which it pre-constructed solutions at the cost of analysing the depth of the actual problem.”

So then, it was “liberalism” as much as the LTTE terror or Sinhalese or Norwegian politicians to blame?

Recently Rajpal Abeynayake had a look at liberal democracy as it is preached by  the West and practised by the West – not always the same thing. : “Look at how the man who was touted as one of the most liberal and left wing members of the US senate turned out to be! Once he became president, he turned out to be a fine old Republican, in an articulate liberal’s clothing. Liberal democratic values never had so much premium however, because they are supposed to be what the Arab Spring and all that is all about. But then they go and kill Gaddafi, and people are wondering what the hell that was all about — that baying democratic pack of people ushering this new brand of tolerance?”

So here, liberal and left-wing are conflated.

In North Carolina, a rich man called Art Hope, CEO and owner of Variety Wholesalers, a discount store conglomerate – that means he makes his fortune by selling to the very poor in North Carolina, products made by the very poor in China and elsewhere – has worked very hard to make sure the governance of the state suits his own extreme right-wing agenda. John Snow, (not the Channel 4 chappie with the silly socks, or the cricketer, or the man who discovered how cholera spread) a retired judge who had represented the Democrats in the state senate for three terms, found himself under vicious attack from the right. Snow’s deep-seated conservatism suited his constituents. He often voted with the Republicans – hardly a dangerous radical. ”My opponents used fear tactics. I’m a moderate, but they tried to make me look liberal”.

In the USA, it seems, liberal means radical, immoderate.

According to the right-wing think tank Freedom Center: “Liberalism just isn’t very popular in America”. The semi-annual Gallup political identification poll found a declining percentage of Americans, just 21%, adopting the ‘liberal’ label in 2020. By way of comparison, 42% of respondents called themselves ‘conservative’. Gallup noted in June that if the trend continued for the remainder of 2010, conservatives would boast their largest annual share of the American public since the survey started in 1992.

The word “liberal” has become a code word in certain circles in the USA for all the kind of things that right-wing conservatives detest. Right-wing Americans see ‘liberalism” as an obscenity and basically alien to the American Way. Left-wing Americans are afraid of “the L-Word”.

What we have here is a good example of “Humpty-Dumptyism”.”When I use a word, it means just what I want it to mean- neither more nor less”, said Humpty Dumpty. The posh term for this ploy is “stipulative definition”. Some philosophers call it lexical ambiguity.

Some definitions would be helpful.

According to Raymond Williams in Keywords: “Liberal has, at first sight, so clear a political meaning that some of its further associations are puzzling. Yet the political meaning is comparatively modern, and much of the interesting history of the word is earlier”. Williams was writing in 1976 and the situation has become more confused since.

One standard dictionary definition is “generous, noble-minded” which is clearly not apt for any context involving politicians. “Liberal democracy” is defined as “a state or system which combines the right to individual freedom with the right to representative government”. Surely, not even the Tea Partiers and Christian fundamentalists could object to that!

According to Professor Will Kimlicka in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy: “A liberal state does not seek to resolve these conflicts (different beliefs about the meaning of life), but rather provides a ‘neutral’ framework within which citizens can pursue their diverse conceptions of the good life. Liberalism, on this view, is the only human response to the inevitable pluralism and diversity of modern societies”.

Who could possibly object to this benign philosophy?

Raymond Williams notes that there is a long history of ‘liberal’ being used as a pejorative from all sides. Marxists in particular have used liberal as a bad word with connotations of weakness and sentimentality and lack of intellectual rigour. Because liberalism is based on individualist theories of man and society, it is in fundamental conflict with strictly social theories. Liberalism is anathema to strict socialists because it is the highest form of thought within bourgeois society and is the philosophy of capitalism.

Yes, that’s right capitalism.

Douglas Massey argues in Return of the “L” Word that sometime in the 1970s, liberals in the United States lost their way. After successes like the New Deal, they became arrogant. Faced with the difficult politics of race and class, liberals used the heavy hand of government to impose policies on a resentful public. Conservatives capitalized on this with a staunch ideology of free markets, limited government, and conservative social values.

In an interview with Mother Jones magazine, Massey argued that markets are essentially human constructions, and liberals should not seek to oppose markets with big government, but rather, ensure that these markets are working in the public interest. “The time has come,” he writes, “for liberals to tell the public that markets are not ‘free,’ but human-created institutions that citizens have a right to supervise and manage for their own benefit. Liberals need to abandon their lingering hostility toward market mechanisms, embrace them, and substitute a new rhetoric of ‘democratic markets’ for the false metaphor of the ‘free market’.”

Hang on! Didn’t ”liberal” used to mean laissez faire? Today, the dominant religion is liberal economics, which the Financial Times defines as “Another term for the classical theories of economics emphasising the concept of the free market and laissez-faire policies, with the government’s role limited to providing support services.” Neoliberalism, John Williamson’s Washington Consensus, which seeks to transfer control of the economy from public to the private sector and deregulate markets, has been the dominant religion of globalisation.

What Massey seems to be talking about is Keynesianism rather than liberalism as it is generally understood. Keynesianism is defined by the FT as: “optimum economic performance could be achieved by influencing aggregate demand through government fiscal (public spending and taxation) policy, not through the free market philosophy characterised by the classical and neo-classical schools.” FDR’s New Deal was Keynesianism in practice.

What the American right wing, as typified by such great intellects as Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, mean by “liberal”, does not have to mean anyone as dangerous as a real communist or socialist of any kind. Let the unfortunate John Kerry stand as an emblem of liberalism. The right hated him because he spoke French, liked fine wines and had an extremely rich wife. He represented the hated élite, unlike GW Bush, who was also rich and privileged but affected folksy ways and was of limited accomplishment or intellect. Perhaps more important for these rightniks is cultural issues such as abortion and gay marriage.


Let Professor Kimlicka have the last word:

“Dire warnings about liberalism’s inability to contain the centrifugal tendencies of individual freedom can be found in every generation for the last three centuries, yet it appears that liberal societies have managed to endure while various forms of monarchy, theocracy, authoritarianism, and communism have come and gone… the basic language of liberalism – individual rights, liberty, equality of opportunity – has become the dominant language of public discourse in most modern democracies.”

Broadband, Narrow Minds.

Colman's Column3


This article was published in Ceylon Today February 5 2014


Shamindra Kulamannage, editor of the excellent business magazine, Echelon, did me the honour of inviting me to the Innovation Summit last year. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend and was disappointed to miss the opportunity to hear my Ceylon Today colleague Nalaka Gunawardene speak about the internet.  Nalaka impressed me with his ideas when I met him at a CEPA Symposium in December 2012 and I have been following his writing ever since.  At the Innovation Summit, Nalaka said that in Sri Lanka, the internet was still immature judging by the behaviour of some of the “netizens” prowling around cyberspace. “We must nurture trust – not in terms of cyber security but in cyber civility”. He referred to the amount of hate speech found on the web. “We are cyber-stunted and still not able to take advantage of its uses. We have broad band but narrow minds”.

Hate speech and incivility are phenomena on the internet world wide, not just in Sri Lanka. I have been following a thread on Facebook about an article concerning Holocaust Memorial Day by a blogger who calls himself Old Holborn. One of the Facebook commenters summarised the issue: “ the true lesson we should learn from Holocaust Memorial Day is that he should be allowed to be rude to people on Twitter.” People died on the Normandy beaches so that Old Holborn could enjoy freedom to insult. Another commenter said: “to equate infringement of his right to being an arse on the Internet to being a victim of the holocaust is fatuous in the extreme.”

Professional contrarian Brendan O’Neill wrote on his Spiked website: “It’s time we referred to this fretting over trolls by its real name: a moral panic, as unfounded in fact and motored by irrational fears as any of the moral panics of the twentieth century…”.  O’Neill believes that media sensationalism has fuelled the skewed idea that trolling is a mass and dangerous phenomenon, rather than just streams of words in a virtual forum. Sociologist Stanley Cohen coined the term “deviation amplification” to describe the media’s exaggeration of small numbers of deviant folk into fabric-tearing folk devils.

In Sri Lanka, which is undergoing a difficult reconciliation process after thirty years of brutal war, the online incivility of pseudonymous troll is more dangerous than in other countries.

The editor of the pro-Government Daily News, Rajpal Abeynayake, thought that there was better level of debate in UK comment threads than in Sri Lanka. He wrote in September 2011 in Lakbima News: “Website commentary is so well-written and argued a lot of the time that it gets equal attention as the writer does… In this country, the assault on free speech is also on the side of responsibility. With a few Rambo-like grunts, they make their opinions known … This is like allowing children with dodgem cars to enter a Formula One race.” I check comments most days on the Independent, the Guardian, Huffington Post, and Slate. They are not always very cogent.

Abeynayake He did a good bit of grunting himself on Colombo Telegraph. See:

Now, CT is going after him in a big way including attacks on his appearance (calling him a “midget” and “pint-sized prick” and comparing the reduction is size of his paper’s main section with the size of  the editor’s)  and private life.

Abeynayake  does have a point about comments in the SL Daily Mirror. The Island and Ceylon Today are strange cases as they appear to be open to comments but comments never appear. The Sri Lankan commenter can be seen in all his (there are some females, but commenting is generally a male pursuit) glory in habitats such as online sites like Colombo Telegraph and Groundviews. There is much about CT and GV that is excellent. They both publish informative articles by distinguished writers of all shades of opinion.

However, the comment threads are problematic. There is a general tendency for the same crowd of pseudonymous trolls to resort to ad hominem attacks, going for the man rather than the ball. Whenever Dayan Jayatlleka posts an article, the usual suspects immediately accuse him of looking for an ambassadorial job. Here is a recent example from CT: “How is it that this Bugger Dayan De Silva escaped the eye of the International Crooks, not to have appointed him as the UN Sec Gen? It is not too late even now.” Rajiva Wijesinhe takes the trouble to make suggestions for improving governance at the most minute nut-and-bolt level. Rarely do his suggestions attract anything other than personal abuse. “Shitty Sinhala majoritarian ‘professor’ is condoning, pretending not to know about it, the genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka. He is worried about the Buddha Ariya Sinhala state of Shit Lanka.” Michael Roberts brings his years of distinguished academic service to the task of reporting historical facts. “This is another moron who is selling his Pseudo ‘Dr.’ title to gain an upper hand in reporting fairy tales & presenting it to the public to be believed. He is in the business of licking the back of MR regime for paying him handsomely for his service.”

Just for balance, CT allows virulent anti-Tamil comments like this from Fathima Fukushima”:   “In vain I real wish 150,000 Tamils died in the last few days”. The “moderators” often allow this kind of comment. “Whatever the arguments and counter arguments are, SL is better off without the dead Tamils…Well done SL army – the best in the world. If need be, do the same thing again in higher numbers. Anything that is bad for Tamils is good for SL”.

In his 2007 book, Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment, Antony Lewis warns the reader about the potential for governments  to take advantage of periods of fear and upheaval to suppress freedom of speech and criticism by citizens. In Rwanda, President Kagame has banned writing about ethnic differences. Ostensibly, this was to prevent a repeat of genocide but critics see it as an excuse to suppress criticism of his regime. Free speech campaigner Josie Appleton argues that: “Hate speech regulation curtails the moment of ideological conflict, when no crime has been committed. In this, the state appears to be defending the victim. But it is actually defending itself, as the mediator and moderator of public debate, and the judge of what is and is not acceptable.” She describes many frivolous and harmful prosecutions in the UK. We must have the right to offend. No-one has the right to be protected from being offended.

Jeremy Waldron, who is professor of social and political theory at Oxford University, argues the need for a public climate of mutual respect and tolerance. “‘[The] peaceful order of civil society and the dignitary order of ordinary people interacting with one another in ordinary ways, in the exchanges and the marketplace, on the basis of arm’s-length respect.” Waldron argues that it is sometimes necessary to use the law to curtail freedom of speech if speech infringes on the freedom of another.

It should not be necessary to resort to the law. Most publications and websites have their editorial and community standards. For example, Groundviews tells potential contributors: “Attack the issue, not the person. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.  Comments that seek to inflame tensions on the ground, or are of a defamatory nature, will not be approved, or will be taken off the website as soon as possible.”

Colombo Telegraph has similarly high-minded guidelines: “We welcome debate and dissent, but personal attacks (on authors, other users or any individual), persistent trolling and mindless abuse will not be tolerated. The key to maintaining the website as an inviting space is to focus on intelligent discussion of topics.”

I leave it readers to judge if CT is serious about this. Dip a toe into the world of CT here:

Is the Appleton/Lewis line feasible in a country like Rwanda? There is still plenty of scope for conflict in Sri Lanka. Is it sensible to allow hate speech continually to stoke the fires of conflict? War still raged when Dr Rajasingham Narendran wrote: “Better communication, awareness and sincere debate, I am sure can yet resolve our problems sensibly and silence the guns permanently. It is about time we truly get to know each other after several decades of relative separation and mutual suspicions, begin to celebrate our commonalities and accept as normal our differences.”

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