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Choosing Our Imaginary Communities and Identities
J. Hughes   May 18, 2009   Ethical Technology  

In June 1983 I arrived in Sri Lanka with a starry-eyed commitment to grassroots Buddhist social change, and a lot of romanticism about national liberation movements and Asian Buddhism. The Sri Lankan civil war that started five days later forced me to confront how dangerous all identities and communities are unless we understand that they are fundamentally imaginary. My two years in Sri Lanka convinced me of the desperate need for a new project of global citizenship.

Today, 26 years later, the Sinhala-Tamil civil war has wound to a close with the decisive defeat of the thuggish Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. During the two years I lived in Sri Lanka the Tigers were one of half a dozen guerrilla groups fighting Sinhalese Buddhist chauvanism and trying to establish an independent country in northern Sri Lanka. Since then the Tigers systematically destroyed their rivals, and pioneered the modern practice of suicide bombing in their campaign. My horror at the realities of guerrilla movements and the cycle of violence they breed tore away my naive romanticism about “national liberation struggles.”

But it was the deep racial-religious nationalism of the Buddhist clergy and populace that even more profoundly effected me. Being in the midst of rioting mobs targeting Tamil shop-keepers, incredulous that they were burning out their neighbors instead of focusing their anger on global elites, I became convinced that all tribal and religious identities were reactionary. Even the old left answers of global worker solidarity seemed inadequate to the need to build a united world.

That was when I began to dig deeper into the question of what we primates should see in one another, or in any intelligent creature, that should call out for our deepest sympathy, our respect and solidarity.  What is it about having a thinking feeling mind that might create sympathy in another thinking feeling mind? I began to find answers in the language of citizenship, but pushed to its most radical. A citizenship of awake minds, a galactic citizenship of all creatures that were intelligent and aware of their own existence.

I was rediscovering the ideas of citizenship implicit in the Enlightenment, which I imbibed from my humanist upbringing, from Unitarian Sunday school and the Star Trek mythos to left politics and Buddhism. To boldly go and discover all sentient beings and enlist them in a united federation. Sitting under curfew, and then meditating with my fellow monks, I began to re-imagine my own political and religious identity beyond Buddhism and left politics to what I eventually called cyborg citizenship.

The week after I left Sri Lanka a long monograph I had written on the corrosive effects of racial nationalism on Buddhism was confiscated and burned. For years I would dream that I was back on the streets of Colombo unbeknownst to the Sri Lankan police, looking for something, waiting to be deported. Now that the Sri Lankans are putting this long dark chapter behind them, even with all the work ahead, I feel their relief. I wish them well, and choose to see this as one small step beyond the confines of race, nation and religion to the pluralistic, dynamic, cosmopolitan global citizenship this world so desperately needs.

To build this new imagined community requires new political and cultural projects equal to the nation-building of the last centuries. We build global citizenship when we focus on the need for global governance to address global threats, and provide global affluence. We re-imagine even the imaginary community of “humanity” when we focus on our solidarity with other intelligent species such as apes. We keep our new imagined communities and identities from becoming rigid like the old ones by focusing on how quickly we will become strange and wonderful and diverse, as individuals and clades, in the coming century.

This new community and identity may be as imaginary as the old ones, but it offers so much more.


James Hughes Ph.D., the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is a bioethicist and sociologist who serves as the Associate Provost for Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning for the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is author of Citizen Cyborg and is working on a second book tentatively titled Cyborg Buddha. From 1999-2011 he produced the syndicated weekly radio program, Changesurfer Radio. (Subscribe to the J. Hughes RSS feed)


Great post James,

I would be interested to hear your take on the death of the Tigers and how you think it will impact long-term peace in the region.

Thanks Kevin. I think there are a lot of unresolved issues in establishing pluralism and Tamil rights in Sri Lanka, but there are a number of Tamil political parties, and human rights groups on both sides, to work on those issues. The war waged by the Tigers did not advance pluralism or Tamil rights, it set them back for twenty five years. They were a murderous and suicidal terrorist group led by megalomaniac trying to establish a pointless, inevitably impoverished, state, responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people, including their own. Their defeat is an enormous relief. That said their are still quite few racial-nationalist Sinhala groups that now need to be confronted anew, starting with the Buddhist monk’s party, the Jathika Hela Urumaya ( Even in a Buddhist country it is important to have a separation of church and state, and the rise of monastic fascists has made this very clear.

Dear Dr.Hughes,
Thank you for your very impartial article written with ill-will to none.  I have a question for you. The ideal of a separate State for the Tamils existed even before Independence and was later couched in the demand for federalism. This snow-balled later into the separatist war.
A very strong feeling among many here is that the Tamil mono-ethnic population in the North will invariably lead once again to the claim for a traditional homeland for the Tamils comprising the North-East. Tamil Nadu politics in South India and its pressure on the Indian Central government will as always exert their own pressures in this regard, i.e the demand for a separate State. The Tamil diaspora is at this very moment continuously fostering and promoting this idea. What is your opinion please.
Thank you
Mario Perera, Kadawata

No war, no peace: the denial of minority rights and justice in Sri Lanka, Report by Minority Rights Group International, 19 January 2011: With the end of the conflict between Sri Lankan government forces and the Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam in 2009, for members of the country’s two main minority groups – Tamils and Muslims – living in the north and east of the country, harsh material conditions, economic marginalisation, and militarism remain prevalent. Drawing on interviews with activists, religious and political leaders, and ordinary people living in these areas of the country, MRG found a picture very much at odds with the official image of peace and prosperity following the end of armed conflict.
Add this to the list of grievances that prompted the conflict in the first place and remain unaddressed – lack of access to land, lack of political autonomy and failure to implement existing legislation relating to the use of the Tamil language – and it is easy to see why those interviewed for this report spoke of their despondency, fear and lack of hope for the future of minority rights in Sri Lanka.
In light of the findings of this report MRG calls on the government of Sri Lanka to respect the economic, cultural and political rights of minorities living in Sri Lanka and to ensure that they gain from post-conflict reconstruction and development projects in the areas where they live. Failure to do so may have long-term repercussions for peace and stability in the country -

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