There’s a culture of systemic violence in Sri Lanka here that I find entirely alien. I’ve honestly never been in a fight before and I can count the times I’ve lost my temper on one hand. Everyone here, however, has a story of some ass-kicking – either delivered or received. The fights usually have a kernel of fuck-all at the center – they’re ultimately for group loyalty more than any tangible reason. What I find more disturbing is that the same mentality seems to pervade Sri Lankan political and social life. This isn’t my observation, but it is telling that the electoral process often boils down to the same rush of raw numbers as the typical bar fight. This whole bleeding blue and black (or green, or red) drives society much more than any rational economic model of behavior. Sri Lankans won’t fight for love, money, or reason, but they will break a bat over someone’s skull for school, party or racial loyalty.
The typical structure of a fight, aside from the lubrication of alcohol, is that you count your boys and you count their boys, and if X is bigger than Y then you get to shoving. Every crowd has an irrational asshole that they love regardless, and once he throws a punch the thing just snowballs based solely on group loyalty. The original ‘reason’ may be as mundane as scuffed sneakers but everyone joins in simply to defend their friends. Like, when I walk around with my particular strangle-marks people ask me if I want those guys beaten up, which is the whole fk problem. No one cares ‘why’ I got my ass kicked, and they wouldn’t be motivated by that anyways. Any ‘reason’ for violence quickly gets lost in a domino effect of personal loyalty. A good example is this memory from this 1968 Old Boy.
Something happened during the lunch interval when someone hit my good pal Fi. Thereafter, we went looking for the guy and ended up hammering about a dozen guys. Are you there Fi…..Machan, who hit you…..can you show me the fellow….. Each time Fi suspects someone, he would point him out and this poor bugger gets hammered. I remember hitting a fellow so hard that he got airborne and ended up on the barbed wire fens. Another fellow tapped me on the shoulder to ask me for a â€˜lightâ€™. I turned around and hit the bugger so hard, he fell flat on the ground. I was like King Kong marauding the grounds and getting rid of anyone who looked suspicious. All this because of Fi. Fortunate to have the fullest backing of the clan who had circled me and protected me from any harm.
As a model, you could say that every Sri Lankan has two triggers for violence. The first is rational and somewhat predicable, jealousy, personal offense, etc. The last one, however, is loyalty pure and simple. If someone fucks with my boy I will back him, no question. Now, in new and largely anonymous cultures like the West, shit can only get so out of hand before strangers start imposing some reason. In Sri Lanka, however, everyone is so tightly networked that one spark of reason-based violence can trigger a chain reaction of loyalty-based violence completely disproportionate to the original cause. As a loose equation,
Violence = (Reason OR Loyalty) + Booze
This is actually the same motivator that militaries have used since time immemorial. When you’re out there in the dirt and mud trying to kill another human being, ‘reasons’ like patriotism or WMD evaporate pretty quickly. All that’s left is loyalty to the guy next to you, and the knowledge that he’d die for you and you’d die for him. The traditional wisdom is that espoused by historian S. L. A. Marshallâ€™s â€œMen Against Fireâ€ in 1942. â€œI hold it to be of the simplest truths of war that the thing which enables an infantry soldier to keep going with his weapons is the near presence or the presumed presence of a comradeâ€¦He is sustained by his fellows primarily and by his weapons secondarily.â€ More recently, there’s a study by Leonard Wong that finds similar motivation in the Iraq War (PDF Link). It’s hard as hell to get people to fight for a ‘reason’, but if you gather then in a large enough group you get a critical mass where group loyalty can keep them fighting indefinitely for any half-assed reason. I mean, G Dub’s rationale for Iraq is entirely different than when he started. This, however, makes no difference on the ground cause the Army is driven by group loyalty, not reason.
Now, as mentioned, this group loyalty effect gets diluted in Western Civ cause you’re surrounded by anonymous people. I could never kick the shit out of someone at an Yankees game cause 99% of the people would have the appropriate reaction of ‘Who is that asshole?’ At a Royal/Thomian match, however, you get 5% going, ‘Oh, machang, I know that asshole’. Even the cops are like ‘Machang, I know that asshole’s dad.’ That critical mass is enough to turn a crowd into a blind army of dickheads. A Critical Masshole if you will.
Anonymity protects a culture by preventing the Loyalty part of the violence equation from cascading out of control, and allowing reason to play some part. In Sri Lanka, however, you’re never anonymous. Either you’re with your people who would die for you, or you’re surrounded by people who would kill you. I’m not saying normally, but if shit hits the fan some people have your back, and some people would stab you in it. You’re either ‘One of Us’ or ‘One of Them’ and you’d better pray that the former is bigger. The mentality reminds me heavily of Mobb Deep’s Infamous album, songs like Trife Life. I used to be like, ‘Who lives like that?’, but now I’m like ‘Oh shit, that’s me’. I mean, not me, I’m a non-entity, but I swear to God my friend got in a bar fight over some girl dragging him to the wrong part of town, same thing.
Sri Lanka is so tightly networked that dropping a spark anywhere will set of an immediate loyalty reaction and you will get your ass beat for no good reason. If you hit a pedestrian in even a normal part of Sri Lanka it’s very likely that that man’s neighbors will drag you out of the car and kill you. That is seriously no joke, it happened to someone close to me and he was only saved cause he knew someone that ran him to safety. Someone hit a University of Colombo student once and his fellow students beat and I think killed the driver. If you get in a fight with one particular Royalist at a match, 30 guys will kick your ass without asking questions. Simple group loyalty. Even if that particular Royalist was wrong, no one fucking cares, or even asks.
I suspect there’s the same social logic behind horrors like the 1983 riots. In Ohio I didn’t know 90% of my neighbors so I a) wouldn’t know who to kill and b) my other neighbors would be like ‘who is this homicidal asshole?’. In Colombo, however, people knew their neighbors and where the Tamil houses were, and the authorities that should’ve controlled the violence were like ‘Ah, machang, I know that asshole’. The Tamil citizen getting his house lit on fire, however, had no racial loyalty to bind him, and the only tales of salvation I’ve heard are when a Sinhala neighbor of conscience stood up to say ‘Who are you assholes? Get out of my neighborhood’. 1983 was a huge Critical Masshole and it was freaking horrible.
At the same time, the interconnectedness of Sri Lanka is part of its charm. Being anonymous in the West kinda sucks and you can die in your apartment and not be found for days. That anonymity, however, allows for quaint stuff like ‘rule of law’ to operate on humans as presumed rational actors, rather than part of a seething collective. People still fight for loyalty, but they’re also forced to live with people that aren’t loyal to them. This, conversely, leads to a more safe society because you never get a critical mass of people fighting for each other (as people do, with a feeling of honor). You can get that effect in bars or ghettos or high schools, but on a larger level you can never reach Critical Masshole cause the network isn’t dense enough. In Sri Lanka however, the network is so incredibly dense and interlinked that one little spark can start a chain reaction that reaches the highest levels of government and the lowest levels of depravity. And people bloody other humans with a feeling of honor, because they’re fighting for loyalty. What they don’t (and can’t, psychologically) see is that there’s no reason behind this violence. Furthermore, the network is so dense that authority and law enforcement are compromised by the very same binds of group loyalty, so rule-of-law is devoured by the Tribal State. In that sense the anarchy and violence we see isn’t due to any particular character flaws, but simply the psychological properties that allow the very honorable urge to defend your friends to be perverted into mass violence in a condensed network. That urge works well for defending the genetic material of you and yours in small tribes, but spread across a whole country it makes for a whole lot of ruckus. When it comes to collective violence, Sri Lanka has enough fissionable material to be a veritable asshole superpower.
PS. In psych they called this phenomenon ‘deindividuation‘. I actually wrote a paper (PDF) saying it was a flawed concept, but it sorta makes sense if you add group loyalty as a mechanism, as per the military literature. Actually that paper kinda makes sense now, though none of the research refers to (or even acknowledges) cultures like Sri Lanka where crowds are not anonymous.