#GoHomeGota2022: A Critical Realist Reading of the On-going Non-Violent Protest in Sri Lanka.
Updated: Apr 20
I observe that a diverse array of economic, financial and political analyses has emerged concerning the on-going protest - #GoHomeGota2022, a non-violent protest against the existing Government of Sri Lanka. Yet, I have not seen any sociological reading of the situation. Hence, I thought to put down some thoughts as a critical sociologist, mainly based on publicly shared new-media information, to emphasise that important (sociological) lessons (social bonuses) could be learned from this protest with vital implications for Sri Lanka to become an advanced nation in the (far) future, regardless of its outcome.
As a critical realist, I acknowledge that all human knowledge is bound to be fallible and that new forms of knowledge will always emerge, including my reflections in this piece. I view social reality as emerging from the inevitable, enduring, dialectic of individual [agency] and society [structure]. More importantly, these fundamental elements that constitute social reality – structure, culture and agency - are interconnected through personal reflexivity. Each of these elements possesses emergent powers of their own (water possessing the power to drown someone or quench their thirst or one’s middle-class social contacts enabling to find a middle-class occupation are basic examples of emergent powers of entities). Even ‘absence’ can be considered to possess causal powers: for example, a plant that is not watered dies or absence of fuel or electricity leading to a protest.
Reflexivity is a power all individuals possess, a non-routine human action that responds to the socio-cultural impact upon our lives. We exercise reflexivity through internal conversations [self-talk] in consciously crafting a life of our own, in that we mediate social powers which enable and constrain us. Examples include gaining qualifications in order to get a desired job, using middle-class privileges of socio-cultural capital in establishing a business or gaining professional qualifications in mediating gendered ideology of full-time motherhood. Yet, individuals or segments of population with under-developed reflexive powers (e.g. primitive societies) tend to operate relatively non-reflexively, habitually and routinely [habitus] and unquestioningly accepting and respecting traditions established by their ancestors (I will leave the reader to position themselves and different segments of Sri Lankan society within my claim above on developed and under-developed reflexivity).
Every individual is on a life-journey from birth, moving through the world, acquiring a sense of self, a personhood, reflexive powers, a personal identity, social identities and so on, towards a [fallibly] satisfying life situation [a modus vivendi]. In this life journey, conscious acquisition of social identities [identity work - including acquisition of professional identities] and desired social positions is crucial in countering socially ascribed identities such as constraining caste and class identities or gendered norms to ensure their social becoming. Individuals are oriented to one of four (fluid) dominant reflexive modes. While advanced societies consist of large numbers of autonomous and meta-reflexives (respectively focused on upward social mobility transforming existing social structures and volatile social mobility reorienting existing social structures), traditional societies like Sri Lanka and India consist of large segments of rural populations oriented to communicative reflexivity. These tend to reproduce and sustain existing sociocultural configuration which is reflective of post-independent mono-political culture of Sri Lanka. Fractured reflexives are those who cannot engage in successful internal conversations. However, one needs to be very cautious in understanding the above claim as it only suggests that presence of autonomous and meta-reflexives within Sri Lanka may be relatively lower. I also do not generalise any segment of population but assume the younger generation as (representing all classes/castes/races/ethnicities/genders/sexualities), as well as most middle-class individuals in Sri Lanka possess more developed reflexive powers than others. I consider #GoHomeGota2022 to be driven predominantly by meta-reflexive individuals, heavily supported by strong autonomous reflexivity. Cumulatively, these forces impact the large majority of communicative reflexive Sri Lankans to transform their dominant reflexive orientation, one of the greatest outcomes of this protest.
With the above in mind, let me now look at Sri Lanka's emerging non-violent collective movement #GoHomeGota2022. This phenomenal collective force of resistance against existing Government is one of the largest-scale demonstrations of collective agency in any society in recent times. Crucially, this collective force of resistance emerges as a co-creation of physical and digital protests e.g. new [digital] media/social media such as Facebook, YouTube and WhatsApp (posthuman elements) and physical demonstrations. Social media, supported by a range of digital objects such as smartphones, serves as the hub to consolidate the diverse array of protests and acts of resistance. Although this protest [resistance] emerged from restrictive economic, financial and political conditions, it is predominantly driven by socio-cultural forces, typified by artistic, literary, philanthropic, religious, environmental and social-entrepreneurship type initiatives. These initiatives demonstrate that peoples’ lives are not merely constitutive of survival needs – rather, these are made up of unique, subjective, emergent needs such as finding meta-goals in life such as meaning of existence, justice, harmony or a future for the younger generation.
I also feel that critical sociological input within the governance of organisations and the country is lacking in the present micro, meso and macro socio-political and economic spheres. The way the systems work within Sri Lanka grossly overlooks the hidden mechanisms that operate to create a multitude of morphogenic cycles (producing, reproducing and transforming existing social phenomena). Such mechanisms possess vital causal powers and operate within the intransitive (invisible) domain of social reality, concealed from the objective, observable capacity of the ordinary individual. Thus, solutions driven by economic and financial bases are only partially capable of solving social problems. Such solutions/approaches do not adequately address the subtle, subjective, problems which emerge from the intersections of race/ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, sexuality, caste and class. Such social stratification systems either privilege or marginalise only a segment of population, e.g. gross neglect of the gendered impact of the Pandemic. To become an advanced society in the distant future, Sri Lanka’s problem-solving approach must include a critical sociological perspective to augment the existing ‘objective’ (quantifiable, measurable, calculable and predictable) approach to governance.
Why did this protest emerge? The long-term accumulation of disadvantage, injustice and suffering has given rise to the present demonstrations of resistance. The extreme, constraining, unequal social conditions of rising prices of goods and services, power cuts, fuel shortages currently, historical (temporal) disadvantage and their disproportionate impact upon Sri Lankan middle and working classes is the root-cause. A critical realist morphogenetic observation would suggest that members of Sri Lankan society have initially experienced a state of fractured reflexivity (in varying degrees) and later their reflexive powers were triggered, developing advanced levels of reflexivity leading to deep biographical transformations. Such enhanced reflexive powers led [and lead] individuals to be conscious about themselves and the world around them. This situation is supported by the possibly highly reflexive younger generation and the middle-classes of Sri Lanka who are accustomed to a digitalised way of life. Elsewhere, I have demonstrated digital media and objects as having the potential to trigger high levels of reflexivity. Emergence and continuation of a multitude of interactions (working as mechanisms) interact to form more complex (second order) mechanisms which generate diverse emergent powers with further compounding effects (countless amount of morphogenic cycles). Examples of such interactions are; individual and collective social media discussions (e.g. WhatsApp Groups), influencers and protests, digital activism (operated through social media), cultural capital of celebrities, community groups, fuel queues, media personnel, media organisations, student communities, professional bodies, religious organisations, and trade unions. GotaGoGama is one such powerful emergent. #GotaGoHome2022 has emerged as a large-scale digitalisation-induced collective resistant force, evidently, possessing emergent powers that can generate objective impact upon Sri Lankan political, legal, educational, occupational and socio-cultural domains. This collective force contains a range of subjective powers, for example, individual and collective agency of people, the narratives, labels [hashtags] and discourses - objectively shaping social structures and cultural forms as well as human behaviour - e.g. ministers becoming independent, Cabinet resignation, new Cabinet, fuel queues becoming sub-cultures of resistance, self-sufficient existence of GotaGoGama. Government initiated control mechanisms such as internet restrictions in the area and other sanctions suggest that the collective force induced by digitalisation generates a range of relational goods (and also evils) for the protesters, which challenge the existing socio-political structure.
Despite its possible outcome, the country must focus on nurturing, sustaining and benefitting from the large range of relational goods/bonuses with transformative potential #GoHomeGota2022 has already generated rather than attempting to control and oppress them. A new reality/social configuration will emerge as an outcome of collective reflexivity. This large-scale reflexive transformation of people means more and more individuals will be self-critical (self-reflexive), e.g., previously pro-government allies openly critical about their past actions and join hands with #GoHomeGota2022 movement nationally and internationally. Further, socially stagnant communicative reflexives in particular will transition themselves towards more upward social mobility focused autonomous reflexivity and volatile social mobility, political, philosophical & philanthropic oriented meta-reflexivity. This fundamental transformative experience is necessary for a society essentially to become an advanced nation. The protest has generated new thinking (development of advanced individual and collective reflexive powers among people). Such emergent new thinking challenges traditional gender roles, generating emancipatory potential for the marginalised: e.g. mothers at the protest, girls protesting overnight. Existing traditions, customs, norms and practices are being challenged, revised, redefined, transformed and reoriented (e.g. questioning generational political loyalties). Socially constructed stereotypes, beliefs and discriminatory mechanisms such as racism, sexism, bigotry, xenophobia, harmful forms of masculinity are also being challenged and questioned. Post-#GoHomeGota2022, social conditions will consist of individuals with enhanced reflexive powers capable of challenging and revising own assumptions. Unlike traditional people - who were reluctant to challenge themselves and the world around them e.g. lineages devoted to specific political parties reproducing traditional socio-cultural systems – the emerging meta-reflexive base in Sri Lanka will prioritise selfless, philanthropic actions over personal gains and goals, in striving for a better world. Emergent powers of new discourses with transformative potential, e.g. creativity, humour, songs, poems, drama, slogans and new New-Year raban-padha (රබන් පද) as non-violent apparatuses of impact, will continue to shape reflexivity of future generations. The proliferation of relational bonuses - such as helping each other, harmony among religious and ethnic groups, justice through rightful law enforcement, caring for each other, recycling and environmental concerns (plastics and waste) - are prime features of living the good life. What is being achieved relationally and collectively cannot be reduced just to individuals alone, showing the emergent nature of #GoHomeGota2022 movement. A changed media culture supported by new media will challenge mainstream media (e.g. threatening mainstream media with negative reactions from public if they telecasted customary New Year message from the president). The existing legal framework will be reimagined (e.g. a lawyers' collective in defending the victims who were attacked by the armed forces or mediate unethical behaviour of armed forces). Increasingly, individuals are realising that society [structure] is not given but emerges from their (agency) actions - in turn, society shapes their own actions (a phenomenon called double-morphogenesis). This belief leads people to demand good governance (e.g. demand for auditing assets and wealth of politicians). Social media and digital objects are instrumental in effecting this change that essentially shape individuals' reflexivity [consciousness] (presence of posthuman conditions). Further, advanced reflexivity triggered by the protest also leads to high levels of creativity (e.g. GotaGoGama, use of 3D projections as a non-violent demonstration of resistance). It appears that the subjective, collective agency of the #GoHomeGota2022 movement has an objective impact upon the social, cultural and political and crucially on the present and future financial and economic landscape of Sri Lanka. The current conditions also lead to the realisation that unity, peace and harmony are an emergent power of people which cannot be enforced. There are a few questions that need to be asked:
Can this non-violent struggle be sustained and continued in the event that a speedy solution to the demands is not reached?
What can be done to mitigate or prevent any violent interference of government or pro-government allies, as seen in Sri Lanka's past, in order to avoid further detriment, de-flourishing, fracturedness and suffering for people and the country?
What will be the impact this revolutionary struggle will have on the youngest generation of Sri Lanka? Will they grow up with a different political outlook [habitus] with strong reflexive powers to constantly challenge and transform existing political culture, so that we can lay the foundation for Sri Lanka to become an advanced nature in the future [generational social transformation]?
Will this protest grow further (for example, the public sector joining in a nationwide strike) or will it continue as an organic non-violent creative protest as it is now?
Will this nationwide non-violent protest have an objective impact upon the governance and constitutional framework of Sri Lanka?
It is important to bear in mind that the very transformative mechanisms and objects (such as social media, new discourses and labels) possess the emergent powers of social evils and constraints. Such sources can be used to create counter forces to weaken the power of non-violent protest. A key example of this is various social media posts projecting racism to weaken the harmony that is emerging from this protest. While diverse ideas, ethos and values are inevitable in any society, the only way forward for Sri Lanka undoubtedly lies within understanding, accepting, valuing and celebrating ‘differences' among people (race/ethnicity, religion, caste, class, gender, sexuality), rather than demanding minorities fit-in with the Sinhalese Buddhist ideology: a new way of living is paramount.
Finally, I propose, all people in positions of power, leadership and mentoring should identify the 'merits' within this struggle… Forgive and forget the 'bads' if there are any… e.g. selfish motives (here I did not mean the corruption or injustice). Protect and ensure everyone's right to be different, well-being, welfare and peace. Use such merits to nurture the present and future generations. Effect, support and nurture the development of advanced reflexive powers in individuals in the hope of generating a highly reflexive nation. Develop every individual, parent, teacher, manager, religious leader, political leader to be conscious and reflexive… to question, challenge, revise, redefine and transform the established and existing norms, traditions and ideologies… Curricular, organisational training and development programmes must encourage such advanced reflexive powers among all, the rich and the poor, of all genders, races, ethnicities, sexualities, castes and classes to be constantly self-critical and self-reflexive. Decision makers and influencers must acknowledge that the individual and collective reflexivity associated with this struggle is significantly, qualitatively and positively different to any financial and economic loss or gain. Only If a society consists of large segments of highly reflexive [autonomous & meta-reflexive] individuals, the flourishing and the good life [eudaimonia] can be accomplished for all, this is my sincere hope for my beloved Sri Lanka for a better future! There is absolutely no short-cuts but if all responsible people become more mindful, conscious and reflexive, we might be able to shorten the distance of that journey!
By Dr. Lakshman Wimalasena