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Culture, Reality

Enjoy your Paradox

by Kavish Chetty, image Laugh It Off / 17.01.2011

The syllables that make up ‘liberal’, when stuck together like that, have started to sound immediately flimsy. There’s something oily about the way it comes out. Something ineffectual. Weak. It’s a word that sounds paralysed, hinting at the moral stasis it inevitably gives rise to. Conservative assholes may bleat and berate over this phenomenon in a nauseating wave, but even Sam Tanenhaus of the New York Times is hip to this logic. He writes, “Liberals, no less than conservatives – and for that matter revolutionaries and reactionaries; in other words, all of us – believe some modes of existence are superior to others. But only the liberal, committed to a vision of harmonious communal pluralism, is unsettled by this truth.” The upshot? Liberalism has to choose between cultural relativism (the principle that an individual’s beliefs and activities should be understood by others in terms of that individual’s own culture) and cultural imperialism (the practice of promoting a more powerful culture over a least known or desirable culture). Nice.

If you’re liberal (as am I; as you probably are too, if you’re reading this online do-rag), you have to essentially believe that liberalism is a ‘superior mode of existence’ – if not, you’d take a la carte from the ideologies which you find more suitable. But liberalism, founded on those grand and desirous principles – to ensure the autonomy of the individual, to protect personal liberties from the tyranny of the majority – is based on a practical paradox. And this paradox is never more properly pronounced than when it flounces out calling itself ‘multiculturalism’.

Liberal multiculturalism believes that minority (or oppressed) cultures need to be given special rights – group-specific rights, or rights of preservation. The logic is compelling and noble; if we discriminated against minority cultures, we’d just be injecting our own cultural apartheid into the mix: a ‘speak English or die!’ attitude. But this veil of pluralism obscures the brute fact of cultural pluralism: something’s got to give! Cultures trying to assert the superiority of their practices upon each other will inevitably spark and fight. It’s just a matter of how long the postponement will last.

In The Satanic Verses, a masterpiece of postcolonial magical-realism, Salman Rushdie (or rather his character Otto Cone) writes, “Anybody ever tries to tell you how this most beautiful and most evil of planets is somehow homogenous, composed only of reconcilable elements, that it all adds up, you get on the phone to the straitjacket tailor… the world is incompatible, just never forget it: gaga. Ghosts, Nazis, saints, all alive at the same time; in one spot blissful happiness, while down the road inferno. You can’t ask for a wilder place.” In fact, the reaction to The Satanic Verses itself acts as wonderful, if less-than-contemporary, exemplar of liberal moral stasis. Remember 1988, when the book was published? The Ayatollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of wonderful Iran (come visit sometime!), issued a fatwa against Rushdie, a theological death-warrant, calling on all good Muslims to ‘kill Rushdie, or point them out to those who can kill him if they cannot themselves’. The Muslim community erupted in a Mexican wave of threats and violence because of perceived blasphemous references in the book – translators were stabbed, publishers had to dodge assassinations. Never mind the fact that most of them hadn’t even read the novel, which if they’d bothered, they’d have discovered is an extraordinary thesis on diaspora, hegemony and imperialism.

That religious reaction is laughable, but, to be expected. What was more surprising was the reaction from the international liberal community. See the lily-livered, the ineffectual, the relativists, as they condemn Rushdie for provoking the religious reaction! Non-religious figures like Marxist writer John Berger, and espionage scribbler John Le Carré all voted Rushdie ‘the author of his own troubles’ for offending a monotheistic religion. This essentially demonstrates the liberal moral stasis. The West can’t pronounce on the East – do not interfere in practices you don’t understand! The gulf between the Occident and the Oriental is not purely a matter of physical furlongs, but cultural kilometers too.

But let’s return to the present and the choice between cultural imperialism and cultural relativism which inheres in the multicultural doctrine. Take South Africa as an exercise: this cosmopolitan joint is home to eleven official languages, never mind the range of cultural expressions which run from middle-class, upper-campus ennui to rural polygamy. The Constitutional Court has been audience to a gamut of cultural conflicts – we’ve had Indina girls who want nose-rings in public schools and we’ve had tribal male primogeniture (the rule that only male descendants should have dibs on the deceased’s estate) on circuit too. In each case, the choice to be made is imperial or relative. Either the culture’s practices are whipped in line and integrated into the greater liberal project of our Constitution, or there’s an uneasy “Hmmm… we disagree, but as you’ve been doing that for decades, you can keep on doing it.”

Let’s start with imperialism, certainly a contentious word to employ in this context, but come on: it’s a rhetorical sledge-hammer. If we disagree with a practice like male primogeniture (which was outlawed in the 1990s for, primarily, just being further female oppression under the guise of ‘culture’ – which conflicted with our Constitution’s Section 8 ‘equality clause’) and we outlaw it, we’re essentially saying the following: your cultural practice doesn’t agree with our own. It isn’t liberal enough. Either you make it liberal enough or we’ll make it liberal enough for you. We’ll impose our esteemed values of liberalism on your culture. Make your culture like ours in all the important ways. This goes a long way in explaining why the host of cultural practices which have been undisputedly preserved are largely aesthetic and non-frictive: wear your funny lampshade hat or belt out your quavering hymn at dusk – these don’t bother the liberals. But the moment a practice steps outside of the aesthetic and starts wanting to affect the world in its own, cultural, non-liberal way, here comes the liberal police – step aside!

What about cultural relativism? If we disagree with a practice but allow it to survive, it’s the political equivalent of saying, “Ag, shame. What they’re doing isn’t alright for us, but they don’t know any better and they’ve been doing it for decades. So let them have their quaint cultural practice.” There’s something about polygamy that is essentially unpalatable for the modern liberal (perhaps it’s more opaque than just ‘something’ – perhaps it’s the rather obvious misogynistic motivation which informs the practice, that relegates women to dependants, and denies them the equality to take multiple husbands, if they like). Yet, by extending the bounties of customary law, we’re operating by two laws: one for the liberals here in the city and another for the tribes out there in the dust. Equally condescending and just as dangerous.

As globalisation marks out its trans-continental territory in 2011, this dynamic is being played out all over. From Zulu bull-slaughter practices, to Japanese whaling on the other side of the world; and somewhere in the middle, the French burqa-ban for Muslim girls.

Is it possible for liberalism to recuperate itself and offer a multiculturalism that isn’t morally bankrupt at its core? Should liberalism reconstitute itself and continue doling out little brown bags of individual freedom, forgetting about the ‘culture’ that wedges itself in the way of that liberating task? Josef Goebbels once said, “When I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver.” Vicious and violent words – but the logic is clear and sonorous. Either we six-gun the shit out of this ridiculous idea that the word ‘culture’ should be trembled at and respected… or we just sit back and enjoy our paradox.

*Image courtesy and © Laugh It Off.

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