Do you know someone so defined by their identity that without it they’re dead? He may be a business leader whose glory passes after premature retirement. She might be a successful hostess in cocktail society whose custom stales when her favourite charity goes bust.
They could be companies whose stock portfolio crashes when their trail-blazing CEO is charged with white-collar crime. Corporations which don’t survive rebranding exercises. Countries that are never the same again after changes of name and face or even style of government. These are examples of people and entities inextricably linked to who they were and what they did. Take the tag, name, label, title, style, ethos, power away… and pop goes the weasel!
Identity is a two-way street. You are not only whom you present yourself to be, you are also whom you are perceived to be. Psychologists would call the latter your personality, and the former your persona. Which is, perhaps, a distinction without a difference? Because in the subtly shifting kaleidoscope of the still-dawning Postmodern Era, the one blends almost imperceptibly into another! You’ve heard the mantras on many fronts. What’s true for you may not be true for me. One man’s hero is another man’s terrorist. There’s no telling it as it is because all of it ain’t. Etc. Pretty painful stuff for realists, Platonic idealists, pragmatists, and we who don’t like to call a spade a gardening implement. But you get the point. We’re running the gauntlet of shades of truth.
Now, people may survive this gamut of identities in the minefield of interpersonal relationships. In fact, in order to survive, one has to be a bit of a chameleon. At one end of the spectrum, there are the ambiguous Julius Caesar-types (he was unkindly described by his critics as being a man to all women and a woman to all men). At the other end of the continuum, there are Pauline apostolic savants who are all things to all people, so that by all means they may save at least some. Most, if not many, of us fall in-between the two extremes. And there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that… if you’re a person, people! But if you are a place, or a space, or a polity, the shifting sands of a mercurial identity – buffeted by the winds of fate and chance – can be quite fatal to your future … to say nothing of placing your present prospects on slippery grounds. High time, then, to break the mould from which Democratic Socialist Republics which are “none of the above” are made, and take a closer look at three issues. Who they are, how they’re seen, and what they want to be.
Who we are is perhaps the easiest of the three casks to broach. If, for argument’s sake, we can dispense with our chauvinistic jargon, nationalistic lingo, and jingoistic argot in the same breath, we can safely move past the Scylla of our ancient civilization and the Charybdis of our valued culture! Other societies that can boast the same pedigree (Iran and China, for instance) may not be the best examples to follow in terms of the society we want to emulate. Is it feasible for us to begin defining ourselves not on our past – but rather, what we want to become in the future?
Admittedly, to do this, we must be courageous enough to consider our history in a more humbling light than even before. No doubt there were bright shining beacons of achievement in our past and towering infernos of accomplishment that still burn bright in the eyes of nations. Now and then, though, it must give us pause to recollect that some of those fires illumine not Golden Eras, but Dark Ages… of tyre-like funeral pyres, thick clouds of smoke from state condoned/sanctioned or neglected/ignored pogroms, resonating echoes of rebellious terrorism and inverted patriotism fuelled by the flames of war, race hatred, cronyism, corrupt cabals, and an ignorant and apathetic people. But enough of that! History has given us a chance to turn the page…
Which brings us neatly to how we’re perceived in the present. As a land like no other. Reputed the world over for our tea, gems and jewellery, apparel, tourism, people skills and friendly smiles. A potential paradise on a precious property rarely surpassed on the face of the planet – spoiled only by the stubbornness of a small section of our people who persist in wearing the mask. The Greeks had a word for it. (Hypocrites.)
But our sporting heroes have shown in no uncertain terms (win or lose) that the false gods can and must be stripped of their mystery and majesty and might. We did it once, by winning the hearts of the world. We can do it again, by cherishing body, mind, soul – our all-new, emerging, precious national identity: based on win-win, built on trust, bought at great price by the willingness of Sri Lankans everywhere to forge a new sense of collective self.
We are the champions – and beyond the realm of cricket, at that. So, naturally, our new national identity will be a victorious one. Now if only we can convince the diehard Old Guard to let go – and let the nation at least begin talking to itself about the new name and face we will have and wear… when the mask slips.