Awakening “sleeping dragons” of ethnicity and race

When Word is mightier than the Sword

By Murli Dhar

A row broke out these past days on account of two incidents. First, there was a posting on Facebook by a young lady condemning certain alleged dietary practices during fasting. Second, an article on the Creole community aroused uproar among some of the community’s leaders against the statements made in that article, meant to be the author’s explanation for the plight faced by this community. Both had the effect of awakening “sleeping dragons” of ethnicity and race.

Few realize that despite the cosy representation we make of ourselves living in peaceful coexistence in a multicultural place, Mauritius is indeed a very fragile social construct. It is enough to make the least act of provocation to see pent-up passions of separateness taking over. Statements made or other happenings, such as tampering with places or items of worship, are quickly cleverly juxtaposed to show that the real intent was actually to hurt entire communities. The consequence is that tensions are quickly created whereby groups of people belonging to distinct clusters of the population find themselves pitched against each other. The malaise is dormant, ready to be aroused at the least provocation by an external foe.

This being the case, one cannot emphasize enough the need for one and all to exercise caution and care before expressing opinions from an inter-communal platform. In fact, there is no need to pronounce one’s views on the approval or otherwise of doings of entire groups. Keep your perceptions to yourself (they may be flawed or based on inadequate objective observations) and let objective research establish the actions which need be taken in particular circumstances. It must be realized that in a place like Mauritius, where identity susceptibilities abound, people cling so much to their respective socio-religious identities that more damage may ensue by pointing out any perceived shortcomings of the group one does not belong to than by remaining silent, no matter what. In this case, silence is a golden option.

Why? This is because we live in an age of globalized information flows. You may write something unflattering towards another to a friend on social networks like Facebook, Twitter, etc., believing that it will remain within the scope of your immediate contacts. That is not so. You will be stunned to realize how fast and far this private exchange is immediately transported by cross-networkings across the web. The whole thing becomes a public issue, faster than you could have imagined. This kind of fast transportation of views is achieved the more so when texts have a negative content. We may like it or not, but this is so. It tends to expose those imprudent enough to voice their privately-held views, to being taken to task by people they are not originally addressed to, the more so if one is deemed not to belong to the criticized group, given our given social construct. There is a tendency to amplify the damage done beyond the single individual. There is no overall profit from such undertaking as nothing is sealed off anymore for good to one’s immediate contacts. Just recall all those state secrets going out thanks to WikiLeaks.

The liberty to express one’s views is therefore constrained by how damaging they might be perceived to be from another one’s point of view. This situation requires a careful balancing of one’s opinions today before expressing them. Before putting them down in public, one has to make sure that they cannot be construed as being hurtful to others in their beliefs, rites, rituals, lifestyles and their feeling of togetherness. It is true that from the past, we have examples of writers like Noël Marrier d’Unienville (popularly known in the colonial days as NMU) who took the liberty to openly denigrate other groups of the population on a regular basis regarding their beliefs and customs.

Despite the extreme contempt expressed by NMU openly and persistently in editorials against an entire community, no mass condemnation was brought up against him as he went on castigating without restraint his target community. He liberally inferiorized his victim community by reference to what he held as cardinal values of a higher and unreachable character which were, in his opinion, culturally out of bounds for the latter. Darlmah Naeck of Le Défi Quotidien, who wrote an editorial to state what according to him was failing the Creole community, should have known that that period of our history is long past and that the context has changed so much that it would be misplaced for him to talk patronizingly to any other part of the population regarding its upkeep.

He should leave that to accredited leaders from within that fold to do this job.  They are better qualified to deal with the situation in modern Mauritius. In any event, there were many other subjects of current preoccupation to deal with than to sermonize the community about “fixing” its alleged shortcomings. It would have been better to look at the brighter side of the picture and eulogize those who are achieving from within not only this group but all the others, if only to bring out the path by which one can rise up despite all immediate constraints. This recent episode would nevertheless have illustrated once again, if at all it were necessary, that there are invisible barriers one should avoid trespassing on and that there are broader parameters which are better brought out without causing offence. Things like structural issues in individual communities were better left to be dealt and recommended upon by impersonal bodies such as by a Truth and Justice Commission rather than by an individual.

We have oftentimes been told that a certain amount of self-restraint helps to build up social harmony. We should go for that. We saw how several forces combined in 1967 and after to rouse up parts of the population against others. The wounds inflicted by the liberties taken on those occasions may not have been healed entirely to this day. This shows that there are certain chapters of social life which require to be handled with extreme care by all. Retaliations do not cool off quickly and no one, irrespective of the group he/she belongs to, should give an opportunity anymore for entire groups of the population to be at daggers’ drawn against each other and tear apart the flimsy social fabric.

When this sort of thing happens, we are led away from what should actually be our essential economic, social and political concerns. An economy in the use of words would certainly help to put behind and for good the recent unnecessary tensions which are distracting us from pursuing certain other matters of immediate concern likely to affect indiscriminately the fate of the entire population of the country.

* Published in print edition on 17 August 2012

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