15th February 1998


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Why ape the values of the bazaar?

By Stanley Jayaweera

"It is not possible to separate public morality from private morality. Public morality is largely the collective expression of the morality the individuals practice privately. Public morality merely reflects back to us ourselves."

Speaking in Sinhala, so said Neville Jayaweera while addressing the Annual General meeting of Avadhi Lanka at the Center for Culture and Religion recently. Professor C.S. Hettige, Professor of Sociology of the Colombo University presided.

Mr. Jayaweera congratulated Avadhi Lanka on the initiative they had taken to subject public morality and civic accountability constantly to public scrutiny and reminded them of Mao's admonition that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. He hoped that Avadhi Lanka will grow into a major moral force in this country.

He defined public morality as the moral environment that grows of the moral choices the human beings make. It is comprised of those values and norms around which a society organizes itself. But its content is ultimately determined by the values whereby its individuals live out their lives in private. The separation of private morality from public morality is fatal to the later.

Mr. Jayaweera identified four principal influences in the shaping of public morality. Firstly it is shaped by the values which the principal actors of the State manifest in their private and public lives. That is to say the values shown forth by political leaders who direct the affairs of government have an enormous impact on public morality, not the values they recommend to others but the values they actually live by bad practice themselves. Similarly the values manifested by public officials holding leadership positions and the values revealed in the conduct and work or judges shape public morality in a significant way.

Secondly the values principles and ideologies followed or not followed by political parties either inspire people to great endeavor or breed contempt and cynicism. In Sri Lanka the sharp decline in public morality may be attributed largely to the peoples' disenchantment with political parties and politician.

He recalled how in the immediate aftermath of Independence the Marxist parties instilled in to peoples' hearts an intense awareness of their rights but failed to instill into them an awareness of their duties as well. Consequently two whole generations grew up in the belief that state and society owned them everything from free rice to free education, free health, free this and free that while they in turn owned the state and society nothing. So now, fifty years after Independence we have a "Me Only" moral environment. Likewise capitalism has also bred a selfish, totally self centered moral ethos, within which private gain at what ever cost, in total disregard of the other person is the driving energy.

In addition the opportunism, the lack of scruple and the abandonment of principles by individual politicians in their pursuit of power have bred a pervasive cynicism throughout our social system.

If one were to identify the single most potent factor in the deterioration of public standards it is the example set by politicians.

Thirdly the role of the media in shaping public morality is crucial. Television propagates values and stimulates expectations which drastically overhaul the values of a society. Newspapers create new idols and project new images which people tend to emulate. Advertising generates new tastes and new status symbols which serve as magnets that turn people away from traditional habits and values.

Likewise magazines, the cinema, videos and to a lesser degree drama and song impact on public values and tastes, for good as well as for evil.

When these media are driven solely by the profit motive, traditional values and morality tend to be swept away to be replaced by the values of the bazaar.

Fourthly and very importantly Civil Society can play a vital role in shaping public morality but in Sri Lanka it has failed to play its role to its optimum potential. By Civil Society is meant religious institutions, religious leaders, intellectuals and academics, NGOs, grass roots awareness groups, environment and human and animal rights groups, consumer resistance groups ect. Avadhi Lanka is typical of an institution that can strengthen Civil Society.

However an important requirement of their effectiveness is that they must clear of political partisanship and must be unafraid in their witness.

If civil society is bold and courageous it can play a crucial role as a countervailing power against state power and against the corrosive influence of politicians.

Reversing the deteriorating standards of public morality requires action at two important levels. At one level, every defection from public morality must be challenged, exposed and publicly critiqued, relentlessly and systematically, but at all times observing the highest standards of integrity and with due regard for facts. Furthermore judgmentalisn and condemnation at a private level must be avoided at all times. Also there must never be a departure from the truth.

However, the most effective remedy for a decline in public morality is for individuals who comprise society to observe themselves the values and standards they recommend to others. Ultimately the environment merely reflects back to us who we really are. Public morality is in the final analysis merely the outworking of our individual consciousness.

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