Fighting for preservation of culture is not intolerance

One is often encountered by various people fighting for the preservation of various facets of one’s culture. This tendency is sometimes debated by social thinkers and political observers. They think that it is aggression in its worst form to try to fight for what one might think is the preservation of one’s culture. According to them, such a fight is the result of intolerance with differing viewpoints or contrarian perspectives that in one way or the other question the validity of the cultural facet that is trying to be preserved.

The cultural artefact or history in question might be a legend, personality, place, language, tradition, or monument. When can one rightfully fight for one’s cultural identity? Is it completely wrong or unadvisable to do so? Does one need to lose one’s cultural identity to agree to disagree with other viewpoints? These are questions that have plagued the minds of many conscious citizens.

To conclude that an individual has no right to stand up against any attempt to question any aspect of one’s culture would be illogical. This is so, because that argument can be turned on its head by stating that everyone should be free to question and also have a tolerant or accepting attitude to live with differences among cultures. For example, let us say someone states that singing of a particular song is wrong as it hurts the sentiments of some particular group that cherishes some traditions for a long time. Objecting to such statement by saying that one has the right to say anything and the other person has to be quiet is illogical. If one agrees to such an objection then, killing a person can also be said to be something that one has to accept! Such a conclusion would indeed be absurd!

The above discussion shows that the problem at hand is not that of kind but one of degree. It is alright if one critiques or questions some cultural facets of any group or individual. It becomes a problem only when such critique or questioning hampers the doing, enjoying, or consuming of some socially permissible thing. In our example, it is alright to question or critique the tradition of singing a song that might be considered offensive today. However, such critique or questioning becomes wrong when it hampers the singing of that particular song. In other words, X might not like Y’s face and might express such dislike in many words. Such criticism is alright as long as X does not hurt Y or does not make it difficult for Y to show one’s face. The essence of cultural criticism is that such criticism itself should also be open to criticism.

There is a deeper problem of cultural invasion or cultural supremacy. Humanity has witnessed the systematic wiping off of various cultures for several centuries now. The main cause for such decimation of cultures is the strong belief by some cultural groups that their culture is indeed better than that of others. One cannot deny that most norms of acceptable social behaviour are promulgated by some races that are mighty in terms of power, wealth, and knowledge. An elitist worldview might not be one shared by all and it is definitely alright for it to be so. Even virtues like cleanliness, equality, and balance need not have straitjacketed meanings and every cultural group should have the liberty to have their own perspectives and stands on these supposedly egalitarian values. I use the word ‘supposedly’ because by branding these values ‘egalitarian’, we are immediately being a part of the bigger task of marginalising other values.

To get closer to the ground, one can understand the abovementioned problem of cultural supremacy if one looks at the undue global emphasis on the fairness of the skin. Is it at all right to even suggest that it is only fairness that construes beauty? If we do so, then we immediately label hopeless all those billions of persons, who can never achieve a fair skin, at least not naturally. When so-called ‘civilised’ races migrated to parts of the world with people who went unclothed, they forced the idea of the importance of clothes on these ‘indigenous’ races, because remaining naked hurt the sensibilities of these ‘civilised’ races and not because staying unclothed was harmful.

In conclusion, one can fight for one’s culture if one sees that one’s culture or an aspect of one’s culture is at the risk of extinction. After all, even a worm, when trampled, tries its utmost to live.

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About the author

SWAMI NARASIMHANANDA

The author is a monk of the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission and the present editor of the monthly English journal Prabuddha Bharata started in 1896 by Swami Vivekananda

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