Monday, October 19, 2009

Qualms about Culture

Has multi-culturalism gone underground? I think it has. But using a word like culture, I’m necessarily talking about a mysterious structure nobody can reduce to a science; hence I go by hunches and feelings. A laudable impulse to promote toleration lies behind that notion, but little in the way of reasoned reflection. Behind that idea is the understanding that culture is something like self-expression, akin to that peculiarly modern concept of Speech. Since any human action may be interpreted as speech in New-Speak, multi-culturalism translates in practice to free expression. What proponents of this kind of toleration overlook is that culture contains more than manners, dress, social behavior, customs, rituals, and language. Cultures more potently enforce relationships between people and carry values at their core.

Rightly or wrongly, I’ve always interpreted the idea of multi-culturalism as asserting that all cultures are equal; that amounts to saying that all value-systems are equal. There I demur. Cultures are certainly containers of good and bad habits. They transcend time in that the past is still actively present in them (as habit) and they also carry theories of the future. Ours, at present, still has a progressive character; a habitual mode of feeling in our culture is that the future will be an improvement over the past; some of our uneasiness at present comes from observing that this may not be true. Once we’ve digested that message, the culture will change again.

Cultures are particularly different in defining male-female relationships. The western culture still carries residual strains of the Roman view that the male head of the family is a law onto himself. The same sort of barbaric view colors Hindu culture too; widows once were ritually burned when their “owner” passed on. The biological destinies of humans are, to be sure, a kind of natural imperative. The child-bearing female and the needs of the child have produced the division of labor between males and females. These are blurred in our super-rich modern civilization. And, over time (if power really tends to corrupt, as we routinely repeat) the male, dealing with the dangerous outside world, began to exert dominance inward as well as out. That’s a bad habit. The culture crystallized and made it legitimate. Why? Males, who shape the Outer, liked it that way. The Muslim culture, despite the Prophet’s mostly token attempts at reform, reflects the cultural modes of the Arabs of the time of the founding—which was not that different from the Western way. Hence, there too, the males dominate in ways we find outrageous; female genital mutilation in Africa is an extreme example. It takes enormous efforts to imagine a culture in which female dominance was an accepted habit, yet we have some, to be sure almost eroded, traces suggesting that once it was so.

But to return to my initial thought: multi-culturalism has gone underground, or so it seems to me, as soon as external conflict, thus the 9/11 attack, reminded us that cultures carry value systems. And once we’ve become sharply aware of that, the promotion of this kind of thing becomes difficult to maintain consistently. We are forced to think about details, the values that cultures carry, not merely outward and peripheral matters like dress. And even regarding dress, there is the Muslim veil and, worse yet, the full-bodied burqa with slits or holes in the head-piece where the woman can modestly to peer out. (I am making horrid faces at my screen.) You cannot draw arbitrary lines anywhere. Cultures are eco-systems on another plain above the physical but impress their patterns even on dress. And these methods of enforcing “modesty in dress” (hijab) have a lot to say about male dominance and the structure of values that underlies it. As for our own aggressively projected public sexuality—that too proclaims a kind of value system that, if we reflect upon it rationally, is no better. Indeed, as feminists have rightly pointed out, it too promotes a false relationships between men and women.

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