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St. John's College Jaffna : 

The True Johnian Spirit

by Prof. S.Ratnajeevan H. Hoole's speech at the prize giving ceremony at St. John's college, Jaffna

Continued from 25.08.2004

What I would like to advance now is the idea of empathy - the ability to identify with others' emotions - as a basis from the heart and a means of promoting rights.

I am sure that many of us would agree that when we hear of thousands dying in an earthquake somewhere, we receive the news blandly, even as entertainment. But when we see on TV, a mother crying at the site of the earthquake, we feel a tinge of emotion. It is because the pictures have established empathy.

We feel the humanity in the victim. We vicariously feel the crying mother's pain. That new empathy is brought about through familiarity. The picture of the suffering mother allows us to feel pain vicariously. For we feel we are in her shoes.

And importantly, when the mother or the dead child resembles someone we know, the pain is even greater. When our own child or brother is of the same age as the dead child, the pain is more acute. Thus familiarity with the sufferer, a connexion to the one suffering - this is my thesis - establishes a right to human rights based on our appreciation of the pain that would result when rights are denied.

Let me turn to a Sri Lankan example that we can feel. A Tamil hears of a Muslim baby in the East having its head smashed against a wall or of Sinhalese pilgrims being gunned down in Anuradhapura. For many Tamils, it will be simply news.

Then we hear of the Air Force dropping a bomb on a Church in Araly where Tamil refugees are gathered or Tamils being burnt in Colombo. We feel the hurt and certainly a lot more than when we heard of the Muslim baby or the Anuradhapura pilgrim; even as presumably Sinhalese and Muslims would feel much more pain than Tamils feel when they hear of the pilgrims and the baby respectively.

Or think of routine death due to natural causes. We cry when the deceased is a close one. Indeed we cry even when the deceased is close to someone close to us and we see that someone close to us crying. But we rarely cry when we know the deceased less.

What makes the difference? It is identification with the deceased. It is recognition of the humanity of the sufferer. It is familiarity. We feel that what happened to the victim, happened to us. We easily feel ourselves in the victim's shoes.

This then I think is the clue to resolving the dilemma posed by the justification of human rights. The basis certainly is emotive: We must be able to feel and cry for each other. If we can justify the other as human just like we are then we cannot deny a better qualified member of the other community a job to give it to a member of our community.

As a clerk at the pensions office, we would not callously ignore a pensioner who is appealing over a delayed pension if we were familiar with the person.

If we recognised the humanity in the other as just like ours, we cannot kill a member of the other community or callously stand by as a member of the other community is killed. We cannot riot and burn in Colombo. We cannot kill innocent pilgrims. We cannot rape women. We cannot smash babies' heads on walls. We would feel revolted by such action instead of being divided as we presently are, as some of us justify these actions and other decry them.

At a less shocking level, we will never deny a woman a job she badly wants and is qualified for, by dismissing her as a person with no right to aspirations outside of bringing up children. We would never delay pensions or watch as the public waits in lines while we have extended lunch breaks.

We would not react with anger when a snide comment is made about our ethnic community while we laugh when a caste-aspersion is made by a member of our caste on someone of lower standing. We would not be angered by ethnic jokes against us while laughing at ethnic jokes about others. Even though we may hold dearly to our religious faith, we would not dismiss the right of another to worship according to his choice. We would not argue that people have a right to change to our religion but not the right to change from our religion.

These positions need our ability to recognise the humanity in all of us. To empathise with the others. This explains article 29 of the CRC: the preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups, and persons of indigenous origins.

How then do we make people feel for those outside their communities? I firmly believe that there are two key ways of making us recognise the humanity in each other.

Education and mixing with each other on a substantive basis are the key. But sometimes gatherings to promote multiculturalism can be an exercise in tokenism at great cost in rupee terms.

The government is famous for flying students from Jaffna into Colombo for a match or something like that. It is a nice event that can make for a nice project report. But it fails to achieve its objects. As the Ombudsman, Justice R. B. Ranaraja has observed the government can easily arrange at no cost for Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese to study in the same school instead of having so many separate schools for them.

My own daughters, three of them, were privileged to study at Methodist College Colombo. All communities study there. Music, English and religion (when it is Christianity which is common to Sinhalese and Tamils) are taught together in the English medium. They get to know each other intimately. When something happens to one, the others feel. I doubt that any one MC girl will support a member of another community being massacred.

Unfortunately, except for the schools in multiethnic towns like Kandy and Colombo, mixing so as to be able to empathise with each other is not a real option. For the others, the ability to empathise must be built up through the curriculum. The curriculum must be more liberal and less technical.

We must move away from technical education to liberal studies. We must move away from ethnic stereotypes. When school texts misrepresent Tamils and Sinhalese as being from different races, students must be sufficiently informed to be able to ask the right questions in class.

When textbooks and the NEC reports identify Christians as being alien to this land, there must be informed people to ask the right questions. When school textbooks speak of Sinhalese accomplishments in writing and irrigation as if South Indians did not know of them, informed public opinion must be able to resist this stereotyping. So also when Buddhist accomplishments are assumed to be non-Tamil despite a well- established rich Tamil Buddhist heritage of several centuries.

I firmly believe that although we as a nation are sorely divided and badly wounded, the human rights regime that is growing upon us has pulled us back from the brink. We are now in a self-correcting mode although dark forces are still at work and we have faced several setbacks. To ensure continued success education must be tailored to meet the new rights based mode.

Whether we will ever accomplish an egalitarian Sri Lanka where all can live happily and securely is in your hands, in the hands of you, the youth of our country. You must be empowered by education that aims to teach you your rights and responsibilities in the new world order. Our time, the age of my generation, is seeing the setting of the sun upon us. Tomorrow's dawn would usher in your time when you lead us.

You must ensure that you do not make the same mistakes that our generation made. Be aware - be warned - that you as our offspring are susceptible to the poisons of communalism, national hegemony and ethnic supremacy that overcame us and ruined our generation.

Prepare yourselves earnestly for your times that will soon be upon us. The key to that preparation is recognising the humanity in all of us and being able to feel and cry for each other.

The spirit of St. John's must be to prepare the youth for this mission. St. John's must break out of the typical parochialism of old-boy networks into the new order of multiculturalism. To paraphrase the British Minister for Overseas Development, the Johnian must be world class.

And for that the Johnian must be world aware. A world aware Johnian would empathise with all and have an extended family of persons of shared values.I wish you God Speed as your generation takes over the rudder of State from us to steer us to that egalitarian land, a land where the sun will never set on human rights.


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