by Sanjana Hattotuwa
What binds a community together? Initially one might assume it is to do with having the same language, external enemies or economic interests. However, something generally precedes all that: common ideas that are passed down from generation to generation and that shape the development of the community.
These ideas lend a distinctiveness to the collective and eventually form the foundation of a national identity.
‘Ideen Schweiz’, or ‘Ideas of Switzerland’, is a permanent exhibition at the Swiss National Museum in Zurich. The text introducing the exhibits features the excerpt above. The Director of the museum, Andreas Spillmann, goes on to expand some of these ideas in a blog post, stressing that the supranational Swiss identity is defined by narratives, independent of an individual’s background. Stories, in other words, matter.
In Switzerland, stories around a common identity and shared history are, to Spillmann, more consequential than personal origins, religion or ethnicity. The question driving him and the exhibition is of trans-national importance. What makes a country what it is?
What are the ideas that bind, around a common, shared set of stories that capture the past, frame the present and help envision shared futures? As crucial in Sri Lanka – a country about as far removed as possible from Spillmann’s thesis of narratives as social glue – what are the stories that divide us? How are they selected, told and amplified? Can we capture the socio-political dynamics of a country through stories?
A map by the Swiss General Guillaume-Henri Dufour is part of the ‘Ideen Schweiz’ exhibition. The map – which is available in very high resolution online – is simply stunning, and considering it was done between 1845 and 1864, a remarkable technical achievement. Drawn to a scale of 1:100,000, one can see the whole of Switzerland in all its topographic complexity – valley to village, ravine to river. Every peak and every city is meticulously drawn. You are your own scroll-wheel – zooming into the map by walking closer to it and zooming out by walking away from it. From a distance, the contours of the country are immediately visible.
Closer inspection reveals in-depth geological and glacial features, over millions of years, geographically dividing the land long before cantonal boundaries. It’s truly breath taking, and the version online offers many hours of pan and zoom exploration, fuelled by a mix of wonder and discovery.
Imagine then this cartography around conversations, or better yet, stories.
This column, this paper, the TV you watch and the radio you listen to are all, in some sense, stories. The news is a narrative that excludes as much as it includes. And it is the same with all news media. Syllabi in school choose which histories to focus on. Pornographic stories were for many boys in school the first and only lessons around what to do with penis, how and to whom. Disastrous psychological consequences of these initial frames haunt us our entire lives, impacting social and sexual relationships.
Buddhism was taught through jathaka katha. Bible study, through parables. As a child, I was addicted to Muwanpalassa on SLBC. The news during the Bheeshana Yugaya in the late 80s was a series of stories pegged to the State. Soon after the A9 opened in 2002, going up to Jaffna, I encountered stories never before heard, seen, taught or even remotely imagined existed. The purchase of anything at a shop resulted in a story. Parents waiting for their children on Temple ground on Sundays indulged in salacious gossip. Tuition classes were full of stories – made up to impress or seeded and spread to name and shame. Selvadurai’s ‘Funny Boy’, through compelling fiction, normalized same-sex relationships at a time when homosexuality – even as something that was reviled – didn’t even openly feature in conversations, unless of course, one was gay. Stories in school had gender, religion and identity framed in specific ways. Tuk-tuk drivers are born raconteurs.
If Switzerland has a few binding narratives, Sri Lanka feature a limitless number of stories. And this is where stories and cartography meet.
At the scale I study content on social media, visualizing data becomes a necessity to make sense of what the chief contours of conversations are. Not unlike Dufour’s map, I can opt to see at scale, or in precise, granular detail, the origins of a conversation and how it has spread. Also like a map, what I can plot is dwarfed by subterranean content I cannot see or access, like for example content on instant messaging apps like WhatsApp.
My doctoral research is a daily reminder of how little I know, the more I map. But in what I do see and study, stories matter a great deal. Plotting stories as cartography is a different way of seeing country, context, cultures and communities. It is creating a new geography. From state propaganda to mainstream media bias, communal hagiography, religious frames and the constant spin by politicians, social media content can be mapped in ways which indicate who or what dominates, and also what stories are being crowded out or erased entirely. Social media content redraws – every single day – an appreciation of country, community and politics.
Which brings us back to the question posed in Zurich – what binds a community together? I don’t know. However, I do understand better what drives us apart. Stories I see, at a scope and scale far greater to most, render each of us as somehow different to and better than someone else.
Every day, I see a thousand different versions of a country. Each story promotes a vision or version of Sri Lanka entirely distinct from, and often violently opposed to, any other definition. Every day, as a result of the stories we tell and consume, we draw a mental map of ourselves in relation to others. Sometimes consciously, and often, subconsciously, we’ve done this since school.
Our stories – from what they frame to how they are told and drawn – matter more than we acknowledge. Seeing what it results in, I’m concerned that – ironically – the more we are connected through social media, the greater the risk of being rent asunder by stories that weaponise incomprehension, anxiety, suspicion and myth.
Obviously, this risk isn’t entirely new or solely because of ‘social media’ as many would have us believe. We are and own our stories, as much as we create them. Maybe we need to secure, seed and share better ones, to map a more democratic, peaceful future.