In the recently released film Good Night, and Good Luck there is one scene where a pair of worried news reporters are discussing the fact that they have been asked to sign a loyalty oath. This was something that was instituted during the anti-Communist witch hunts of the 1950s led by Senator Joe McCarthy. The reporters said that if they did not sign, they would lose their jobs. Even Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly, two people who challenged McCarthy, had signed the pledges.
That scene brought back bitter memories of the time that I had to sign a loyalty oath or lose my job. It was one of the things in my life that I most regret having had to do.
The year was 1983. Sri Lanka had had a long history of ethnic tension between the majority Sinhala community and the minority Tamil community to which I belonged. In July of that year, a small group of Tamil guerillas, determined to seek a separate state, attacked a military convoy and killed thirteen troops. In the days that followed, Sinhala mobs went on a rampage, killing Tamil people and setting fire to their homes. The government and the security forces stood by for days, either doing nothing or providing tacit support to the mobs, leading to speculation that the government itself had organized and initiated the mob rampages as part of a political strategy, to serve as a warning to the Tamil separatist movement that their actions would have negative consequences for other Tamils. It seemed as if the government was essentially trying to blackmail the guerillas into ceasing military action, using the Tamil population as hostages.
My wife and I and our three month old daughter, and my mother and sisters and their families, had to go into hiding for about some days in the homes of courageous Sinhala friends of ours, who knew full well that they risked having the mobs attack them too if they were discovered to be harboring Tamils. We returned to our homes after nearly a week of chaos, when the government finally gave the order for the police and army to take back control of the streets from the mobs. Fortunately, our homes had escaped the mobs’ attention, making us luckier than most.
I was furious that the government had not carried out its most basic duty, which was to protect the lives of its citizens. But that was not the end of it. To make matters worse, the government then declared that the way to counter the Tamil separatist movement was for everyone to sign an oath that they would not advocate the creation of a separate state.
This is typical of the way that governments everywhere tend to handle unrest and dissent. Instead of looking at the causes of the unrest, they declare that it is the very act of dissent that is causing the problem. This is much easier to do than to examine and rectify the root causes. This is why governments constantly seek to stifle speech and intimidate opponents and why advocates of civil liberties have to be constantly on guard against curbs on speech. This kind of government strategy rarely works but that does not stop them from trying. The Sri Lankan government’s action in 1983, far from stopping the separatist movement, seemed to only serve to increase its vigor with the result that the strength of the guerilla group increased over two decades until it effectively fought the government army to a draw. There is currently a tenuous ceasefire, with the separatists controlling a significant part of the territory that they consider to be their own homeland.
But back in 1983 I was furious that I was being asked to sign this pledge, essentially a loyalty oath to a unitary state. My opposition was not because I had any separatist sympathies. I had opposed a separate state then and still prefer to avoid it now if at all possible. But the very fact that I was being forced to swear what was effectively an oath of allegiance to government policies made me angry. If anything, being coerced into signing made me more sympathetic to the separatist movement, not less.
But I had no choice. All universities in Sri Lanka are run by the government. If I did not sign, I would be fired and would not be able to get other jobs. We were not independently wealthy people. We had only our jobs to support us, and a newborn baby to take care of. So I signed. I have never forgotten that feeling of anger and resentment when I signed that worthless document.
Some might argue (and do) that if you agree with the substance of an oath, then what is the harm in signing? In this view, only those who object to the ideas being sworn to have reason to protest. Hence they view such oaths are a way of flushing out dissenters or forcing them to shut up, and this type of thinking was common during the McCarthy era as well. But this is wrong. The principle that is being upheld by those who object to such oaths is that they change things in an important way. The presumption then becomes that if you don’t sign, you have something to hide.
The fifth amendment to the US constitution says that no one “shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” I think it is an excellent sentiment but I would like to generalize and expand it even more to everyday life with a “none of your business” or a “right to be left alone” attitude which says that no private citizen should be forced by anyone else to express an opinion on any issue.
My view is that private people have the right to believe whatever they like and have the right to not voice their views on any topic, without any inferences being drawn from their silence. To require such people to say oaths is something that has to be reserved for very special situations, like in court trial, where lying can have serious consequences for the rights of others. There also may be situations like joining a society or club, where one is required to make some kind of symbolic affirmation of the goals of the organization. But these are different from government inspired loyalty oaths.
I oppose all symbolic acts of loyalty when they are coerced, either explicitly or implicitly, like standing for the national anthem, saluting the flag, saying the pledge of allegiance, and so forth. These things should be done only by those who genuinely want to, and no aspersions should be cast on those who decide not to. Forced acts of loyalty are as worthless and demeaning to all concerned as forced acts of religious piety.