Violence and shame : local constructions of masculinity in a Sinhala village.
My thesis explores a violent episode which took place in a Sinhala village in Sri Lanka. This
episode involved a series of events which unfolded between November 1989-January 1990,
when 22 schoolboys were abducted from their homes, tortured and killed by personnel based
at a neighbouring army camp.
This episode took place in the wake of a popular armed upnsmg. Yet an Intelligence
investigation conducted by the regime-in-power in 1991 exonerated all the boys from any
complicity in insurgent activity.
Though Sri Lanka has seen collective violence ranging from inter-ethnic to class-based to
gender-specific, in this event, both victims and perpetrators share the same Sinhala-Buddhist
ethnic, linguistic and religious ethos and male gender. Thus local constructions of masculinities
within Sinhala society become increasingly pivotal; it was not their politics, I argue, but their
demeanour as young boys which was central to their fate. This involves the posture of
deference (lajja-bhavu or the 'fear of being [publicly] shamed') that adolescent offspring in
Sinhala society almost involuntarily assume vis-a-vis parents, older sibling and other figures
of authority. Bodily demeanour, remarks Bourdieu, exemplifies social class and gender
identity (1977; 1984). But I would argue that in the South Asian context demeanours of
deference do not always imply hierarchichal relationships of power, though sometimes of
course they may. They remain a courtesy which retains the fiction of precedence. Withdrawal
of such deference creates anxiety and unvoiced rage.
But with the incursions of the global into everyday life, local demeanours of self-hood are
pervaded by the effects of the tabloid/electronic media, mass education, discourses on political
rights etc. and fraught with new ambiguities. And even more than a withdrawal of deference,
such ambiguity provokes unease. But since - much of the time - demeanour is involuntary,
the young actor may not always perceive that his demeanour is now more charged, and he may
not grasp the enormity of the emotions this occasions. It is in the public domain that such
withdrawal/ambiguity is most clearly seen to undermine the role of it's receiver, whose outrage
becomes to that extent culturally validated. This creates a space for the performative acting out
of such emotions.
The act or violence now becomes an attempt to restore meaning/significance to the life of the
actor. seen to have been in some way untenably diminished by the withdrawal of deference.