We are how we frame


By Sanjana Hattotuwa

When and under which conditions is rape acceptable? Is raping a male more acceptable than raping a woman? If it is your wife, is hitting or kicking her once in a while ok? When killing a child, is it better to die quickly or slowly, individually or in a group? As a measure of paternal love, is it ok to abuse one’s own children just to discipline them? Is it ok, only sometimes, for priests to abuse younger monks as a test of faith? When and where can a teacher have a sexual relationship with a student in school? Not before O/Ls? Anytime after A/Ls? Only if the student comes to tuition class, which is outside of school premises? Is it ok running over a beggar on the street and not caring too much? If it is our dog, cat or pet, should we not be allowed to cut, kick, starve and burn it as we see fit? When throwing away an unwanted baby, should one kill it first, or just dump it in a bin?

These may not be the questions you want to start your Sunday or arguably any day of the week with. And yet, our justice system and police are often called upon to bear witness to or act on all this and much more. When there is the occasional sensational framing of an incident on these lines in the media, responses reflect what is appreciated as an aberration or abhorrent. We don’t wait for a journalist or social media update to tell us that rape or infanticide is wrong. It just is, at any time, by anyone and anywhere. You’d think that because of what at least society in the South of Sri Lanka sees itself as – which in JR Jayewardene’s framing was a ‘dharmishta samajaya’ (a society resplendent with the teachings of the Buddha) – this moral code would extend to all transgressions, including the excesses of war. Clearly not. And therefore a particularly violent question posed on Twitter last week, though distressing, wasn’t surprising.

The tweet was anchored to when and if it was appropriate for extra-judicial murder to take place, especially in the context of war. Even though the question in its formulation included words which very clearly gave away the fact that what was asked is entirely unacceptable and illegal, the original tweet generated a lot of responses from those who thought that it was entirely appropriate, given certain conditions. As someone who studies domestic Twitter at a very vast scale, it is with some authority that I can say that no one on it who has a large following or influential footprint has fought in or been anywhere close to the frontlines of any war, leave aside Sri Lanka’s own. This doesn’t stop posturing, and opinions that one would expect came from those who were once embedded in the rank of the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol or black-ops units of the Army. The risible nature of the responses, which fly in the face of established humanitarian norms and rules of engagement, offer some insight into the mentality of those who have grown up with, or in the propaganda exhaust after the end of war a decade ago.

The open support of extra-judicial killings come from those who have concretely formed and go on to publicly express an opinion based on repeated media frames they have been exposed to. Academics have studied this at some depth. Media frames capture the perspectives and bias of family and friends as well as journalists, their Editors and owners of large media platforms. Politicians also play a role, through promises and appointments made, what they say, do, as well as what they are silent on and don’t do. Jayewardene’s ‘dharmishta samajaya’ is one that has countenanced and justified the murder of tens of thousands, which Black July and the war aside, in the late-80’s was pegged to the UNP’s brutal response to the JVP insurrection, as much as the JVP’s signature brand of violence involving tires, trees, rope, stakes and fire. In 2019, the majority on Facebook weren’t born during the ‘bheeshana yugaya’ but grew up in the shadow of Mullivaikkal’s scorched earth. And there is no meeting of historical narratives. This year, a snapshot of how the end of the war was commemorated on Twitter in May revealed differences in framing, focus and language so vast, the data independent of context suggested one was looking at two completely different countries. There is no common narrative, language or frame. No shared heroes or history. No shared empathy. No recognition of grievance beyond one’s own community. Little to no patience with divergent narratives or different perspectives.

Last week also saw the appointment of a new Army Commander. The open support of a former terrorist – responsible for LTTE child recruitment, their deaths and the deaths of policemen amongst other victims – towards the campaign of a leading Presidential aspirant. The campaign did and said nothing to distance itself from this endorsement by and proposed campaign alliance with a terrorist. This isn’t entirely surprising since the campaign’s platform aimed at intellectuals in the country featured individuals who openly and on a public stage, wanted to torture those they called traitors, drag their bodies on the streets strung by barbed wire and also deny last rites by Buddhist monks. We also had the incumbent Chief of Defence Staff’s term extended till the end of the year. We can only guess that in doing so, the President took into account and as necessary qualifications for this office the fact that the incumbent is out on bail after allegedly harbouring the main suspect of a Navy abduction ring that, amongst other deeds, is reported to be responsible for the abduction and enforced disappearance of 11 children and young men, around 2009. The details of all this is in the public domain and a Google search away.

What connection does a question on Twitter have with sickening Presidential appointments and murderous endorsements of a candidate by terrorists? Our acceptance of it. On Twitter, some latched on to the individual who posted the tweet as much as the violent nature of the question itself. Some suggested the question was valid - a seemingly measured, principled position. But this is willful ignorance, strategically fuelling debates in order to render more acceptable a plasticity of law or cynicism of facts. Man landed on the moon. The Titanic sank. Sri Lanka is officially measles free, because vaccinations work. Climate change is real. Extra-judicial killing is wrong and illegal. Torture is wrong and illegal. Abductions are wrong and illegal. But why is there resistance to this?

When a President or Presidential aspirant embraces or endorses terrorism and violence, it is immediately normalised so the argument goes. Their opinion becomes the baseline to appreciate other, competing views. When media doesn’t question these appointments, and almost every day, confuses stenography with journalism, public debate becomes one-sided, aligning itself with racism and power, anchored to Sinhala-Buddhists and how we see the world. So little has focussed on accountability, the mere mention of it – in the data I am witness to – results in a tsunami of violent incomprehension around how anyone can doubt that was what done in 2009 was anything other than justified and necessary. We had to become who we were fighting against, else those like myself would have the space to write what I do today – or so the argument goes. And now, we must focus on future, which is best underwritten by men in uniform, camouflage or saffron robes. At scale, these narratives, every week, engage millions. Through syllabi in schools or principled politics, nothing that contests majoritarianism is promoted, published or projected. Save for revanchists who want to capture country for dharma chakra or fanged Tiger, the toxicity of everyday media frames, for decades, is the fuel for everyone standing for the Presidential election in a few months. Some will court this more than others. All are a product of it. And that’s the real problem with that tweet, now deleted. Not that it was published. But that out of curiosity or ignorance, asking if extra-judicial murder is somehow negotiable is taken seriously, with some noting it’s fine as long as those killed were the enemy.

That should frighten you and much as it does me.

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