“The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read”, wrote Mark Twain. Yet the man who can read but does not, considers himself superior to someone who cannot read. That is Literate Chauvinism, which extends to Linguistic Chauvinism, when “my language is superior to yours”, and onto Cultural Chauvinism.
Chauvinism, after the mythical French soldier Nicholas Chauvin, means prejudiced belief or unreasoning pride in any group to which one belongs.
We cultivate our chauvinist ideas from our very young days. In our days, classes were grouped according to the students “abilities” and the kids in class “A”, would always look down on those in class “C”, and then in grade nine, only the kids who get “good” marks are selected to do ‘science’, others are dumped into the ‘arts’ stream, and chauvinism continued. When it comes to exam results and sports “our school is better than yours”.
“Our school is THE school”, was the theme in Sundara Nihahamani de Mel’s ‘Mahinde Tamai Iskole’, launched last week. There was not even standing room at the Sri Lanka Foundation auditorium. Most of those present were proud Mahindians, proud of their ‘Alma Mater’, and the children produced by her. There were also a large number of Old Boys and Old Girls from other schools, who did not agree with Sundara and with the other Mahindians present and the discussion arranged as a school debate ‘Mahinda Vs. other schools’. Proposed by Dr. Nihal Somaratne and opposed by Prof. Sunanda Mahendra (Ananda), Prof. Dhammika Ganganath Dissanayake (Dharmaraja), Ms. Sumana Saparamadu (Vishaka), Dr. Ariyasena U. Gamage (Richmond), Saman Wickramarachchi (Central Colleges), Saman Athavudahetti (Royal). Chauvinism disguised as nostalgia, ‘going down memory lane’.
This is Literate chauvinism, and Sundara has planted a new virus in the minds of all other literates from other schools. ‘Mahinde Tamai Iskole’ could lead to a plethora of ‘Ape Tamai Iskole’ to try to establish the superiority of one’s own school, and also tempted by possible demand for such books among their school chauvinists, another golden opportunity for publishers.
It is literate chauvinism, which makes us feel so superior to a farmer in a remote village who has to place his thumb print because he does not know how to sign his name. Superior to a child who had his education in a village school, or even a Maha Vidyalaya. Superior to a person with just a high school education, or only a bachelor’s degree. Superior to a person who had not read Kafka and Sartre and Plato. While others show their superiority by dropping names like Coelho and Allende and Murakami.
Would the chauvinist who parades his ‘Honorary’ doctorate and insists on been addressed as ‘Doctor’, be considered a ‘Literate’ or a ‘Pseudo-literate’? We should admire and respect the real literates who still prefer to use the title Mr. instead of Dr. even though they have earned the title the hard way, who have not been touched by the chauvinist virus. When Somapala, a seagenarian farmer in a remote southern village, who had dropped out of school in grade one, writes a novella, we have to accept him as a literate too.
Like the Male Chauvinist, who lives in a dream world believing he is superior to women, all forms of chauvinistic behavior is a disillusion created by man’s own ego. Literacy is really nothing to be proud of. The pre-historic man who did his symbolic paintings in his cave were able to express with a few lines, what would take a thousand words for us to convey now. But still we think of them as “primitive”, as “barbarian”, as “subhuman”, even though they would have been more intelligent, more capable and would have had superior memory capacity.
These pre-literate humans had a memory capacity far greater than all the capacity available in today’s computers. They had to store all their data in their brain and process them and store the processed knowledge in their own brains, and also be able to pass it on to the next generation. They did not have digital storage devices, or cloud storage facilities, or backups.
The ancient Vedic scholars, who were caste chauvinists perhaps did not bother to develop writing, because once written, the knowledge could be acquired by those of other castes. All orally transmitted knowledge could be easily restricted on a real ‘Need to Know’ basis. Illiteracy was the ‘firewall’ they used to protect their knowledge.
Even among the literate, a ‘hyperliterate’ group emerged, mainly among the elite and the religious institutions and they used the most elaborate language possible in the religious writings, to keep them out of reach of the less literate. Chauvinism takes many forms among mankind.
Some of us feel superior because we have mastered the ‘white man’s language’ and anyone who does not speak English is a semi-literate. In multilingual countries, those who believe their language is superior to that of others, would look down on the other languages used in their country. They would also look down on the ‘link language’, which often happens to be English, thus taking chauvinism to create greater conflict.
Mel Gussow said about V. S. Naipaul in the New York Times, “..he has bitter feelings …India is unwashed, Trinidad is unlearned, England is intellectually and culturally bankrupt”.
If ‘male chauvinists’ are ‘pigs’ what do we call all other chauvinists?