Friday, July 21, 2017

The problem of the fifth precept

It’s not easy to come across a politician you have mixed feelings about who says something you at least partly agree with. And yet, three weeks ago, that’s exactly what happened with Mangala Samaraweera, the Foreign Minister turned Finance Minister who has maintained a colourful profile for the last three decades.

What he said had nothing to do with his office, although it did touch on the country’s finances. Mr Samaraweera, who is not prone to the kind of Puritanism most of us are, suggested that we rethink our policy on selling liquor on Poya Days. Because of the backlash this would provoke, he inserted a caveat: “This is my personal opinion.” He was stating the obvious: opinions are nothing but personal.

Now we don’t have a record to be proud about when it comes to alcohol consumption. The statistics aren’t pretty. We have one of the highest incidences of cirrhosis in the world. That’s roughly 55 for every 100,000 people, in a list topped by Moldova, which, by the way, is a nation of vodka drinkers. More than 60 people die each day from alcoholism, amounting to more than 20,000 every year. These deaths weren’t due to the liver only, since alcohol is linked to heart disease, epilepsy, and stomach ulcers. Above everything else, most of those who take to it tend to consume either hard or illicit brew. Which is why Mr Samaraweera’s suggestion makes sense.

His proposal is twofold, actually. Firstly, it would help divert drinkers from hard brew to softer, less harmful beverages, which in turn would be supplemented by the relaxation of the issue of licences to taverns and bars. Secondly, it would relax the onslaught of drinkers on the day before Poya, which is a blessing in disguise: the incentive for them now is to rally around the taverns knowing they would be shut the following day. With this proposal in action, the drinkers will continue to drink, yes, but not with such ferocity. It’s not quite the same argument that exists for marijuana (since certain commentators are drawing parallels between the two): the issue there is about preventing illicit consumption of a completely illegal substance, while the issue here is curtailing the consumption of harmful and black-market variants of a legal substance, essentially whiskey versus kasippu.

We are not the most virtuous nation in the world. It’s difficult to define virtuous, since it’s a rather fluid term, but if the way it’s tossed around these days is anything to go by, we are not virtuous by any stretch of the imagination. We talk of Ape Kama (Our Way) without realising that it can’t be rooted in or framed by that simplistic good/bad dichotomy our society has been forced to run on. So no, we are not a nation of angels, or for that matter devils. We are a nation of people, and people are, as we ought to know, imperfect. So when we react hostilely towards Mr Samaraweera and his argument, we are merely displaying our feelings of anxiety and inferiority.

When we raise hell over issues labelled and condemned as taboo, we aren’t being culturally sensitive. We are merely substituting one defence mechanism for another. If we are against drinking, we react against it with so much anger that we leave no space for debate, or even discussion. I don’t think that constitutes virtue, rather duplicity. The reason’s obvious enough: when we react against proposals to relax drinking laws, we salivate over what we feel to be their culturally insensitive character without realising that they are trying to solve the very problem(s) bemoaned by us.

As a Sri Lankan and one who is ideologically opposed to the politics that Mr Samaraweera and his party stand for, I nevertheless support his position on this matter, because it makes sense. And not just economically. That problem is real, substantive, material. It’s not conditioned by ideology or theology, it exists and is very much alive everywhere. Which is why, I should think, we ought to reflect on the Utopias we try to build in our society. Starting with this: the campaign against liquor and tobacco, when rooted in cultural dynamics, loses its character and sizzles away. This is true today and will be true tomorrow.

Censorship, even in its mildest form, does the exact opposite of what it intends to do. When Handagama’s Aksharaya was (unduly) banned, for instance, those who hadn’t even heard of it read of the themes it explored. Whether or not it was a great work of art (it was “art” alright, etched in black and white rather theatrically) is beside the point. The fact is that by forcibly repressing something arbitrarily deemed as obscene, the authorities succeeded in disseminating it even further. The same could be said of every other act of censorship throughout history, including Lawrence’s Chatterley and Pasternak’s Zhivago. Both were, to be sure, overrated works of art (in particular, Zhivago). But it wouldn’t have taken a ban to get us to realise that. What those bans ended up doing was the complete opposite of what the censors intended. The argument against prohibition isn’t just moral, therefore: it’s also logical.

Logic would dictate that when a reservoir is full, the sluice gates should be opened. Logic would dictate that when a work of art is subverting the so-called cultural mores of a given society, banning it would spur more interest among the general population of that society. Logic would dictate that when our people are dying from cirrhosis, stomach ulcers, and other diseases provoked by alcohol, the solution (given that alcoholics, like horses, can be only temporarily forced away from a habit) would be to cut down on its consumption by encouraging them to opt for less harmful beverages.

Logic, ladies and gentlemen. Not necessarily cast in stone or in black-and-white, but firm and unyielding all the same. The debate over tobacco and alcoholism, going by that, has been watered down to a simplistic dichotomy between Our Way and Their Way, simplistic because even those without as much as an inkling of what Our Way is confuse between the two and think they are veritable guardians of culture. They are not, because in repressing or promoting the repression of habits they consider as alien, they manage to ignore the real, substantive aspect to this issue.

I don’t think Mangala Samaraweera’s proposal, even if it sees the light of day after those necessary amendments, debates, and enactments, and assuming our people pierce through the cultural garb that clouds our judgment with respect to it, will be the be-all and end-all solution. I don’t know for certain whether it will. All I know, and all anyone can ever know, is that Mr Samaraweera’s statement, notwithstanding the invective it will attracts, merits further discussion.

So let’s go through those numbers again. 55 for every 100,000 people, 60 deaths a day, 20,000 deaths a year, and that while regulation after restriction, enacted in the name of cultural correctness, diverts the heaviest drinker from arrack to the more dangerous kasippu. By ignoring the elephant in the room, we are ignoring what can be the biggest menace this country has encountered. Conceding to that cultural garb, in the form of what we think to be the Fifth Precept (if one is a Buddhist, that is), would hence mean conceding to the continuation of that problem. That’s not my opinion. That’s the opinion of those who value reason over rhetoric.