By Sanjana Hattotuwa
Every year, for close upon two decades, on Christmas Day, I watch ‘Love Actually’. There is a scene in it where Hugh Grant, playing the British PM, takes on the American President, played by Billy Bob Thornton. The trans-Atlantic relationship between the UK and US, in the film, is strained by the American President’s lewd remarks on and sexual harassment of a member of the British PM’s staff. And while today, life not just imitates art, but is stranger and more violent than what the film depicts, the PM’s comments to the press corps sprang to mind over an exchange on Twitter last week.
In it, a tweet of mine calling out the signature chutzpah and hypocrisy of the SLPP was mindlessly responded to by someone associated with and benefitting from the party, very active on social media. The submission that we were friends prefaced the response. Disabusing my interlocutor of this fiction resulted in the mawkish, self-indulgently sentimental response so many on social media project, produce and promote, which is a study in itself.
I did highlight the fact that one didn’t need to be a friend, or my friend, in order to engage or debate in a civil, principled manner around matters of mutual interest. This fiction of friendship prefacing the most insulting innuendo, insipid insinuation, vapid or violent commentary isn’t unique to Sri Lanka’s social media sphere, but is interesting to flag, nevertheless.
I wonder, but do not know for certain, if there’s a link between this loose, self-serving definition of friendship and the increasing use of Facebook, with its capture and presentation of ‘friends’ and the transactional, virtually mediated values of friendship in ways very different to what I grew up with, and still treasure. But this is not a rant against the dilution of human relationships because of technology.
I am sure that for billions on social media, and especially for those separated by geography, key traits of friendships including love, caring, trust, empathy, confidentiality, respect and support, are present and as authentic as what I hold as markers of a deep friendship. What I am more interested is in the display or manufacture of friendship, unilaterally expressed, which serves to preface much of what one would not say to friends, in the manner expressed and with the language used.
Many posthumous accounts published after Lasantha Wickrematunge’s murder, including his last editorial in the Sunday Leader, very clearly highlight the friendship shared with the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The country’s worst racists, including those in our immediate and extended families, never lose an opportunity to publicly proclaim their friends include Tamils and Muslims. This often happens just before, or immediately after rabid commentary that justifies boycotts, normalises violence against them, renders them alien or projects hate.
Not long after the constitutional coup late last year, Maithripala Sirisena, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mahinda Rajapaksa were seen seated together, enjoying a music concert. Mangala Samaraweera’s commemoration of three decades in politics, in February, included both Sirisena and Rajapaksa.
In June last year, after the communal violence and riots in Ampara, Digana and elsewhere, Gotabaya Rajapaksa attending an Iftar ceremony said that his brother, Mahinda, “was a long-standing friend of the Muslim community”.
In 2014, UNP MP Harsha de Silva castigated the then Rajapaksa government for dealing with a Chinese company, debarred by the World Bank for corrupt practices, to develop the Colombo Port. He also noted that Chinese loans would bleed the country dry. Last year, MP de Silva, referring to Chinese investments under the Belt and Road Initiative noted that Sri Lanka must “attempt our very best to partner with all our friends to leverage our ports”.
Searching for the phrase ‘friend’ on the official Twitter accounts of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sirisena and Wickremesinghe reveal much about mentality, man, charisma and politics. Many, for Rajapaksa, are good or old friends including Subramanian Swamy, Hamid Karzai, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih and before him, Abdulla Yameen, the late A.H.M. Azwer, Scott Morrison and Imran Khan, who is apparently an all-weather friend.
Sirisena follows suit, with PM Modi to Pundit Amaradeva listed as friends. Wickremesinghe, pictured with, in the presence of or referring to many of the same and others, rarely refers to individuals as friends. The late Senator McCain and PM Modi are the only two references to friends in just under one hundred tweets over a year. For Sirisena, Putin is a good friend, while PM Modi and President Danny Faure are true friends.
Exactly three years ago, an exchange between PM Wickremesinghe and NFF Leader Weerawansa in Parliament was also pegged to friendships, with former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. The actual issue being debated was post-war reconciliation, but much of the exchange was pinned to friendship as a vector of attack, with who was friends with whom, why and around supplanting more pertinent facts. In 2014, a New York Times article on the then Presidential campaign dynamics quoted Rajitha Senaratne as “a friend of the Rajapaksa family for more than 40 years”, who found it “painful” to leave his friend, Mahinda Rajapaksa.
There is a serious point in all this. The projection of friendship, or calling someone a good, special, true or old friend, is in public discourse now on social media and for much longer, in Parliament and politics, entirely distinct from any real, meaningful markers of friendship. And while there may well be decades old friendships with political partners and opponents, the democratisation of spaces for conversations to occur around difference and divergent opinion is often unprincipled, ugly, vicious, violent and vindictive.
If these are friendships, they sound, look and feel terribly dysfunctional. The sort one would in other circumstances recommend distancing, divorce or therapy. There’s also a nuanced power play at work. Called a friend, only to deride or demean, few would push back and say that there is, in fact, little to no meaningful friendship.
When someone says he or she has good Tamil and Muslim friends, few would question him or her on the timbre of these relationships. The culture of dissent or the expression of difference in public space like social media seems to now require some obsequious flattery or signifiers of friendship – almost as if by not doing so, or not appearing to be friends, you can’t disagree or get away, as easily, with what one says and how one says it.
The appropriation of words and their meaning to further violence is a feature of dominant power structures. The pushback against the submission that someone was my friend, when it was a fiction at best, wasn’t anchored to the insensitive rebuke of a well-meaning overture. If we must and are to move forward as a society that can mature into discussing emotive, hard issues, pretences have to fall.
Not being my friend doesn’t make you my enemy. Not being a friend doesn’t make an opinion, well-articulated, any less credible or important. We choose our friends. Those choices and relationships, in public life even out of mainstream politics, define us.But how we treat, speak to and engage with those who aren’t our friends and, especially, those we disagree vehemently with, is what shapes us more.