The Sri Lankan Social Psychology of Cyberbullying and Dog-whistle Politics

My grandparents were hard workers, who started from scratch and worked extremely hard to build their own businesses.  When they became established businessmen, they took care of their communities. They helped out everyone they could. I’ve heard the legends; it’s almost hard to believe how much they gave back. Decades after their passing, they are not remembered for their wealth; it is  the good they did for others that still remains. When I think of being successful, I think of having what they had in them, the ability to be so successful that you felt no insecurity, or need to demean anyone and you could give back unconditionally. I’ve seen my parents take after their parents so much. My father is from a rural town in Kurunegala named Bingiriya and my mother is from Nugegoda. They met at Colombo University.  If not for how hard they worked on their education, coming from worlds apart, they would have never met, and my brother and I wouldn’t exist.  Having won many battles in life, my parents always reiterated the fact that there is no such thing as winning alone and that we must do all we can to help others win too. 

 Today’s society is filled with people who are looking to replace hard work with shortcuts like defaming the successful through mudslinging campaigns. It’s taking a toll on our youth, and if you look carefully you could see today’s youth slowly adapting this technique and trying to defame whoever they feel threatened by. They are given the wrong impression of what success means and how to get there.   

I always look to surround myself with hard workers, people who work so hard that they live with a sense of contentment, that takes away the insecure need to hate on others. This trait is something I have a bias on.  I see it in my family,  I see it in my closest friends and I see it in the politicians I support.

 There’s something about hard workers. You can spot them from far away. They know the struggle and they live with a sense of discipline that reflects how they got there. And they are happy to pull other hardworkers along with them as they make their way up. Because they know, that they were at the bottom themselves at one point, and they needed someone to help them too. And more than anything, they know it’s the work ethic that matters, and nothing gained by defaming  and tearing others down lasts for very long.

With the growing culture of tabloids within social media, we live in a world where people are continuously looking for reasons to belittle other’s successes. People feel the need to find excuses to blame other people’s successes on, so they can justify their own weaknesses and failures. Attacking and defaming others for quick personal fame and attention is soon becoming something so common.  But why is that?

This post explores the social-psychology of why people choose to act this way towards others through direct cyber bullying and deceptive bullying (dog-whistle politics).

Cyberbullying is so common in Sri Lanka today. But if you look closer, you will notice that it is a very specific group of individuals that is victim to this.
In recent Sri Lanka, tabloids and social media platforms have consistently targeted social minorities and verbally abused them either directly, or indirectly. These social minorities have included outspoken young women, celebrities, and sons and daughters of politicians. While most may argue that the cyber bullying is the masses reacting to their disagreements with popular culture, I argue that this is a sign of a much larger and deeper social issue: social minorities, (i.e individuals belonging to social groups the masses fail to identify with, positively or negatively,) are shamed and discouraged to keep being who they are.  In this process of cyberbullying, society forgets to remember that there is an individual with feelings on the other end of the conversation taking the punches, most of the time, undeservedly. While you may choose to brush it off as childish humor, it may be worth considering the deeper social implications that this culture creates. .  The higher the number of youth who feel the need to sit behind a computer,  cyber bully and shame people to feel better about themselves, higher is the level of social decay.

Causes behind the rising level of cyber bullying?



While direct cyber bullying is cheap, ugly and outright immature it is the indirect kind of bullying that we really need to be concerned about. While anyone who can tell black from white can identify bullying from criticism, the indirect kind is much harder to tell.  The indirect verbal abuse I am talking about is the kind that may not seem abusive or politically incorrect to readers on the surface, but  under the surface these can be devastatingly abusive to those whom the words are targeting. More than the direct verbal abuse it is the indirect kind that is harmful because it comes with its own sense of agency of creating stereotypes in the readers mind.    There’s a definition for this kind of verbal abuse and it’s called dog whistle politics.

 Dog Whistle Politics
 *What exactly  is Dog-Whistle Politics?
Dog-whistle politics is a type of political messaging using coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has a much more specific resonance for a targeted subgroup. It’s inherently deceptive and convinces the general public to assume, on their own, a certain picture about the target group, that is not directly stated through the words used. Just like a dog whistle,  where the high-frequency whistle is only heard by dogs but inaudible to humans, only the targeted group can identify with the truly offensive nature of the words used.
Below I will explain to you 3 of the most common ideologies promoted through dog-whistle politics in Sri Lanka.
Dog Whistle Politics (2)
Classism promotion in Sri Lankan social media is extremely subtle, trapped in a web of dog-whistle politicking and it takes very careful observation to grasp it.
The hashtag #aiyoSirisena is a great example of a classic case of dog whistle classism in Sri Lanka. Anyone who initially encounters it would not notice the underlying derogatory classism code within it. But if you look at the context of the origin of this phrase and  the most frequent users of this hashtag, the classism is absolutely visible.
This phrase was initiated during the November -January election season when Wimal Weerawansa, in an unsurprising move, made fun of President Sirisena’s social class. He referred to him as “Sirisena goiya” and spoke of him derogatorily repeating the phrase “Aiyo Sirisena.”
We have to understand that what happened on January 8th was a social revolution in Sri Lanka. President Sirisena is the first Sri Lankan leader who did not originate from an elite family and was not driven by the political capital of elitism. He is the first President in Sri Lankan history that is purely a product of hard work and rose from the grassroots to the very top. While most of us appreciate and applaud it, there’s a considerable group of social circles in Colombo that dislike and detest this change.
Dog Whistle Politics (3)
Women are often spoken of as victims, as a group that needs to be protected. And that in itself is a form of sexism.The idea of rape as something that can only happen to women is dog-whistled throughout about 95% of the news and literature available on rape in Sri Lanka.Women are not the only victims. Boys, men and individuals who identify with other genders get sexually, physically, verbally abused and cyberbullied on a daily basis in Sri Lanka. However the media chooses very carefully, to avoid speaking of it. Because the idea of the possibility of a male being sexually abused is socially unacceptable  and an insult to masculinity.
This has also created a culture that believes rape is the best way to threaten women. When I wrote an anti- death penalty piece following the rape and murder of Seya and the huge pro-death penalty wave that followed, thousands reacted to it by saying I must be raped, and that my daughter must be raped. Popular (most “liked”) comments included “I can’t wait for the day she has a daughter and her daughter gets raped, maybe she’ll change her mind on the death penalty then.” As if women are so incompetent that they need to experience rape to understand how traumatizing it is.  As if, my son cannot be raped. As if every woman who has the audacity to speak her mind, and does not share a man’s opinion, must be raped.
Dog Whistle Politics (4)
It’s 2015 let’s grow the hell up and stop giggling about the gay politicians. It’s not just an immature joke, it’s downright offensive and reflects a lack of education and exposure. Some of them are open about their sexual orientation some of them aren’t or have for the longest time assumed to be gay.
(which, btw, is unacceptable: sexuality is an extremely personal thing, it is not society’s place to comment on a public figure’s sexuality. If anything it’s just a petty political tactic used by campaigners to convince society into bullying individuals under unconfirmed pretenses. Again, another instance where people feel the need to attack the successful, and use petty ploys to achieve it.)
If we, in fact, have LGBTQ politicians in our parliament, we must not just come to terms with and accept it, we must applaud them; in a country and a world where these communities are marginalized to an unimaginable extreme, we must be proud that some of our own citizens have found the courage to not let society’s ignorance hold them back from rising above, living their lives and serving their country.   
However, tabloids and even mainstream media continue to dog whistle around this topic. Whenever one of the politicians concerned is criticized, it is not rare for there to be sly comments and homophobic jokes made at their expense. These jokes are sometimes direct, sometimes not but anyone who carefully watches the dog whistling could pick it up.
Dog Whistle Politics (5)
Something else that is frequently dog-whistled is racism. There are numerous times when mainstream media speaks of individuals belonging to minority races and their political views (Tamils, Muslims and others) using a subtle derogatory undertone. Sometimes the tone isn’t so subtle. For instance almost all Sinhala tabloids when referring to Tamil and Muslim politicians, regardless of their actual political stance, imply that they’re pro- LTTE. It is not a rare sight to come across a Tamil national with absolute no evidence of being affiliated to the LTTE, being referred to as a “Kotiya” (a tiger). Muslims and Catholics are constantly painted as an anti-Buddhist collective.
Although we were primally coded to be competitive, and build the optimum environment for us be the fittest that survives, we have to be evolved enough to believe that there’s space for every one of us to thrive in this world. And if not we should make space.
Instead of attacking others in order to get ahead and serve our own insecurities, let’s work hard to build a Sri Lanka that is inclusive of all of us.
Hard work is everything, but it means nothing if it doesn’t serve anyone other than yourself. Thrive to be someone who works hard to live their dreams and help others live their dreams too.
Life is too short for hate.

One thought on “The Sri Lankan Social Psychology of Cyberbullying and Dog-whistle Politics

  1. Remember how dilka samanmali @ derana got mocked for her interview with sannasgala? Just because she was a woman.
    And also we should remember that rajspsksa supporters were also bullied heavily online after jan 8th.

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