Political symbolism and Infections of the Mind

A Symbol is something that represents, stands for, or suggests an idea, belief, action, or entity. In the recently concluded presidential election, the defeated candidate – Mahinda Rajapaksa – was viewed in two diametrically different ways by the two major players - the Sinhala Buddhists on the one hand and the Tamils on the other. Let us take the Tamils first. The former President (MR) was viewed symbolically – rather than as a practical achiever - by this ‘chagrined’ community in the North and East. This translates into the fact that a picture was created of MR based not on direct knowledge of his characteristics (and political agenda) but his place in a mythology of collective self-healing. Thus MR is necessarily the Ogre while Prabhakaran is the valiant hero who would have brought glory to the Tamils but for the untimely appearance of this Southern Fighter. How else can we explain the near-total support of the unknown Sirisena in the Tamil areas that has benefited so much from the uncompromising generosity of MR in recompense for the damage done by a war that was not started by him? Demonizing is a large-sale political adaptation in populations troubled by dilemmas that have no clear avenues of resolution. The overwhelming vote for Mr Sirisena is a turning away from a troubling reality that justifies a vote for the unknown. Vulgarly, the expression ‘Hobson’s Choice’ is most apt.

Let us look at the Sinhala-Buddhist voters. A striking fact is that the Anti-MR vote is patchy showing what naturalists call ‘discontinuous distribution’. It is as if a ‘mental virus’ – called a ‘meme’- appears focally and spreads in regions where a ‘pabulum‘ or ‘background’ exists for the spread of this invasive idea. The notion of a ‘meme’ or ‘Mental Virus’ was introduced by the famous evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins to account for the rapid spread across populations of ideas that bring comfort and are easily copied’ but are rarely adaptive. The notion ‘Our troubles are due to the rottenness of the political leadership and the grand larceny of government cronies who rob and cheat shamelessly’ is a meme that spreads rapidly in disgruntled and envious populations. City folk – ranging from taxi drivers to shop assistants. Constables and barbers on the one hand and professors of learning and legal luminaries on the other were infected with the meme or virus that created a raging fever of hostility towards a regime that had done much good and little harm to the citizens of this country. Those infected shout –‘they have robbed cheated, swindled, lied and bankrupted the country’. This is the ‘phenotype’ of the meme or mental virus that has ‘invaded’ large populations – nobody has been physically robbed or cheated by the maligned class of rulers but truthfulness is not a characteristic of a meme or mental virus. Its success in changing mental states and infecting others in the course of social interactions are alone significant. That this ‘virus’ had such success betrays an underlying meanness of spirit that fosters envy and hatred of a supposed elite. That some Buddhist monks were ‘leaders’ of a hate-campaign against a supposed evil leadership is a matter that must dishearten all sincere Buddhists.

Let us cut a long story short – MR was defeated by the successful spread of a mental virus in the Sinhala Periphery that changed a one-time grateful population into a growing horde of bad-mouthed skeptics and accusers. This virus failed to hold successfully in the rural areas but its conquest was sufficient to defeat MR and change the course of Sri Lankan history.

R. Chandrasoma

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