How about a ‘leeeetle’ bit of integrity, people?
I just finished reading an excellent article by Gamini Gunawardane,
Retired Senior DIG, in The Island of November 12, 2009: ‘How men of
integrity saved Sri Lanka’. He was paying tribute to all the individuals
whose contributions, especially their commitment and integrity, paved
the way for the nation’s most glorious post-Independence moment, the
historic victory over terrorism that few believed was possible.
In this excellent exposition of the term ‘integrity’ in terms of this
overall effort of utmost national interest, the following paragraph
caught my attention and provoked deep reflection.
“Rather than eulogizing personalities, the purpose, is to illustrate
how even a few people could make a huge difference with a modicum of
integrity in a fleeting situation despite flourishing corruption, which
could produce such astonishing achievements for a nation.’
He hopes such fleeting moments be more frequent and that there will
be more people of such courage. That’s a wish that many would share, I
believe. We know that there are serious flaws in our institutional
arrangement and there’s a woeful lack of integrity all around, not just
among politicians and public servants, but in the private sector, the
informal sector, religious orders of all faiths and also the public.
Last evening I went to see Rajitha Dissanayake’s award-winning play,
‘Veeraya Merila’ (the hero is dead). Rajitha explores, with
characteristic wit, humour and amazing insight, the issue of integrity
in the media, its political economy and in the process enumerates the
numerous booby traps that make for easy purchase of well-intentioned
Having been in this field for almost a decade, I have enough reason
to endorse what the late Ajith Samaranayake once said: ‘when you read
newspapers you might think journalists are people with a strong sense of
justice and they embody the virtue of integrity, but we who work in
newspaper officers know this is not true’. Rajitha elaborates extremely
well and does it with theatrical finesse for the most part. The fact
that he can provoke more than a few laughs indicates that the public is
not unaware. Indeed he has shown a lot of courage in saying out loud
that which people in the media industry pretend does not exist or that
it is an affliction someone else suffers.
The truth, however, is that we all have a price. Some go cheap, some
are expensive. Some cannot be purchased and they are killed or die,
metaphorically and sometimes even literally. The truth is that all
journalists have to operate within more or less clearly defined
frameworks. The truth is that in most cases, journalists operate at a
considerable distance from these limiting lines. The truth is that in
most cases, journalists fight shy of stating bias, trying to show the
world that they are ‘neutral’ and somehow ‘objective’, both untenable
propositions when you come to think of it. And sometimes, there is
‘virtue’ in the written word but in life it is absent and this is
probably what Ajith alluded to.
On the other hand, one never gets integrity in a nation-wide sense
and even in an individual it is a ‘now and then’ thing, predicated on
issue, moment and location. What Gunawardena points out is this reality
does not rule out the intersection of integrities at key
moment/situations and that when this happens, it is not an issue of
whether there is majority-integrity, so to say, but that there is
critical-integrity. The coming together of key personalities with shared
vision, commitment and unrelenting purpose can produce wonders and
compensates in a way for decades of compromise and servility.
Integrity, it must be understood, is not something that one calls
upon only in terms of crisis, although at such moments its absence or
presence will produce tragedy and triumph respectively. I believe that
it is in the ‘micro’ that integrity is possible and also lacking. I am
thinking of trade union action in particular. Someone referring to the
current work-to-rule campaign launched by some unions, made this witty
observation yesterday: ‘productivity levels might have gone up because
it means they are actually working!’
What is he saying? He is saying that in the general we have a labour
force that does not do justice to contractual agreement. This is why the
public views unions in unfavourable terms and even curse them for the
inconveniences they cause. On the other hand, this ‘public’ also works.
The public is made of a millions of working people, all with some form
of contract with employer. Do they ask themselves if they have the moral
authority to question the absence of a decent work ethic in a striking
worker? Do they possess that modicum of integrity Gunawardena speaks of
to have the write to point fingers at those who lack integrity? Aren’t
these questions we need to ask ourselves? Can those who show a gap
between rhetoric and practice find fault with others who are similarly
Rajitha’s play reminded me of that telling exchange between Galileo
and his student Andrea Sarti in Brecht’s play. Galileo, having recanted
the truths he had discovered under pressure from the Vatican which
included the threat of torture, is taunted by his student: ‘unhappy is
the land that has no hero’. Galileo’s reply is a classic: ‘no Andrea,
unhappy is that land that needs a hero’.
The truth is everyone can be a hero, not necessarily in ways that are
nationally recognized, but in the everyday. Having integrity, in these
time and circumstances, one can argue therefore is heroic. There is
heroism then in being honest to job contract, in practicing that which
one preaches, in making such that one doesn’t find fault with someone
for doing or not doing something that one does or does not do as the
case may be.
We have moved from the ‘mega’ to the ‘micro’. The world has rebelled
against ‘big’ and brought it down to size. These then are ‘micro’ days.
We have microfinance as the new mantra of development and poverty
alleviation. There’s talk of ‘micro justice’. ‘Micro integrity’, then,
is perhaps a remedy for the ills of our times.