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Human Rights Education in Asian Schools Volume Ⅰ

Cultural Choices in Accelerated Societies

Siddhartha
Bangalore, India

The story goes that Carl Jung was on a trek somewhere in Africa accompanied by some of the locals. Jung noticed that the Africans wanted to rest rather frequently through the journey. They were walking at a leisurely pace and had agreed on a number of stops along the way. But to his consternation he found his companions eager to have more breaks than were necessary. Jung, sensitive soul that he was, did not wish to jump to the usual culture-specific conclusion that the locals were lazy. He kept his calm and went along. But the Africans kept asking for more stops.

   Eventually, Jung could take it no longer. With some distress, he asked them why they needed to rest so frequently. He was taken aback by the reply: "When we go on these treks we stop every now and then when we notice that our souls cannot keep pace with us. If they are left some way behind we wait to let them catch up. Without them we are confused and lost."

   The point he was making is not lost on us. Globalization is sailing too near the wind and we run the risk of losing our souls. In a similar vein the philosopher Raimundo Panikkar talks of modern technology, and modernity in general, doing a mega-pirouette which cannot keep step with our own natural rhythms. Panikkar makes a distinction between technology and techne.

   Technology has to do with permanent acceleration. Improved gadgets and faster means of communication push us to sprint, spurt and hustle even when there is no particular advantage to be gained. It is a mindset. For many people living in post-industrial societies leisure is a 'commodity' they cannot 'negotiate'. Even where they do make the time, chances are they wouldn't know how to unwind. Cruising in overdrive it's hard to know how to slow down. Techne, on the other hand, keeps pace with our own rhythms. The bicycle is a good example. We may peddle along silently, with the wind in our eyes, tarrying with the impulse. We are in touch with the ordinariness of everyday life.

   Fortunately there are still people around who are in touch with the rhythms of the quotidian. Indigenous peoples are a case in point. They have little difficulty in intuiting that all things are connected, although even they are being swept by the intrusive winds of modernity. I found the tribal elders of Mysore District, like their counterparts in other parts of the world, immediately empathizing with 'connectedness'. For them it was more than an idea. They had lived this connectedness with each other and with nature and the cosmos before modernity ravaged their ways. Human beings were never placed outside nature, for dominion over it. The metaphor of the web is often used to describe this interconnectedness. Like all other lifeforms each person is a strand in the web of life. The destruction of a single strand weakens the whole web. What we are experiencing today is the gradual destruction of the strands of the web, a serious weakening of the earth's carrying capacity and it's life-support systems. This is the result of a paradigm of development that continues to simultaneously seduce and savage in the name of globalization. Its seductive power is such that we only see the mouth-watering layer of cream on the top of the cake. For a generation of radicals, the challenge was to distribute the cake equitably so that no one was excluded.

   But today many realize that the cake itself is the wrong one. It is hollow and will eventually implode. The ecological consequences of partaking of it are severe. Culturally, the cake offers little scope for variety. Powerful homogenizing forces transform communities while masquerading as universal values. At best, a veneer of pluralism offers cosmetic solace. Even this is under attack by western scholars like Samuel Huntington who pit the West versus the Rest. With more than a hint of malice, Huntington warns that the new cold war will spring from the challenge non-western cultures pose to the West. The Western world should be prepared to face provocation from an increasingly confident non-western world, referred to as the Rest.

   For several years I have interacted with the Jenu Kuruba, Betta Kuruba and Soliga tribes in and around the forest known as the Nagarhole National Park, in Mysore district. Some 25 years ago a dam was built in the area and the authorities forcibly displaced a large part of the tribal population. In those days there was nobody around to defend their interests. About half the displaced population were given one hectare or so of government wasteland as part of the rehabilitation program. The other half had to fend for themselves. Even those who got land were unable to do much with it. The land was for the most part full of stones and rock, with no water or electricity. For those who did not get land, life was even more precarious. They were left to the mercies of the local landlords or had to manually construct roads for the government, a task they were totally unprepared for. The forest laws got more and more strict for the tribals who remained in the national park. They were not allowed to hunt anymore; cultivating crops became more restricted and cutting wood to build their huts was prohibited. (Recently, there is a move from the government to throw the rest of the tribals out of the forest under a World Bank supported scheme.)

   We started working in this area more than ten years ago. The task was to build a strong tribal movement which could resist the atrocities committed against them by the forest department, local bureaucrats and the landlords. Modern trade union methods were employed and in the course of a few years a reasonably strong movement had sprung up. This movement was capable of negotiating with the bureaucrats and forest officials. Many small successes were garnered. Like getting back the land given to them by the government, which the local landlords had earlier expropriated. Or getting borewells put into some hamlets for drinking water. Or securing old age pensions under a government scheme. It was sometimes even possible to challenge the might of the government, as in the case of a tribal woman who was chased and raped by a forest officer. Normally he would have gotten away with impunity, as this was the done thing. But in this case he was hauled up in court and suspended from service. The case is still going on and the tribal movement is seeking a conviction.

   All this work was tenacious and well meaning. But where we had tripped was in the cultural arena. We had assumed we were on the right path. The tribals had to be brought around, through appropriate participatory techniques, to see the rightness of our approach. When the movement was being built it was discovered that the tribal chiefs were too traditional to understand modern ideas of confrontational politics. After all, the tribals had only known consensual ways of solving conflicts. So we worked with the younger lot and trained them into an activist force. In the bargain, the rug was pulled from under the feet of the chiefs. They lost their authority in the hamlets. With that, the disintegration of a way of life, which had begun with the government throwing them out of the forest, received a further impulse. It was the sanctity of the tribal chief which held the small communities together. Disrespecting them meant weakening the sense of community. The chiefs were certainly disoriented, confused and unable to discern the forces at work. They could not act.

   But if the movement had dialogued with them it may have attained some of the objectives without threatening the internal cohesion of the communities. If we had understood the tribals better we may have learned a few things from their own consensual way of solving conflicts. As we knew the importance of 'cultural action' we taught them revolutionary songs written by non-tribal activists from other parts of the state. At the primary schools, the children learned these songs. It was only later, perhaps after the damage was done, that we realized that the tribals had their own songs, some of which were more appropriate than the ones we brought from the outside. It was the same case with the stories that were taught the children. Again, they were stories from the outside, including Hans Christian Anderson in translation. There was nothing wrong about learning these stories, but it was tragic that we were unable to see that the stories and fables of the tribals themselves were at least as good as those of Hans Christian Anderson.

   Besides the songs and the stories, we had difficulties in knowing what to do with a way of life that seemed significantly superior to the Modern, in terms of it's underlying values. Tribals believed in cooperation rather than competition. Their sense of 'rights' was community oriented and not individual. They believed that a consensual approach to problem solving was better than a confrontational one. They did not plunder the earth and save for the months ahead. They lived each day as it came, collected food only for the day. If they took a tuber out of the ground they let a portion remain to regenerate. For them the Earth was mother. There was no question of speculating with their mother, of buying and selling her.

   All this may sound somewhat romantic, but compare their ways with our own pragmatic, modern understandings. Our values of competition, of mechanical hard-sell, of consuming with ennui (for those who can afford it), of destroying the earth's ecology for private gain, of the need for instant gratification, watching television for several hours a day because we are afraid to be alone with ourselves - the list can go on and on. Still, it would be misleading to see modernity as undifferentiated and lump it all together, suggesting that little of value can emerge. This is the trap the cultural romantic inevitably slips into. It is as futile to see tradition exclusively as it is dangerous to accept modernity uncritically. Modernity, and successive modernities, will have aspects that are inimical to human well being. But there is almost always a beneficial flip side. Take the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as an example, a thoroughly modern document. It has played a significant role in defending the rights of human beings all over the world. Nation states have been obliged to consider it as a guide to formulating their own policies. Critics may argue that it focuses too narrowly on liberal individual rights. But the document is not the final word on the subject, which is evolving all the time.

   This leads us to the point that both traditional and modern contributions need to be critically evaluated and reworked if they are to respond to the actual needs of communities and the biosphere. This is an ongoing process. In the case of the Universal Declaration cultural understandings offer the possibility of expanding it along pluralistic lines. We may need to agree on what is basic to us and the biosphere. Once we have common guidelines (however fluid these may be) the 'universal' may appear as plural avatars. This may be the only way to avoid the mechanicity and boredom of sameness.

   Needless to say, what we define as 'culture-specific' cannot be taken for granted, as cultures are evolving all the time. In today's wired-up world the specificity of a culture is only as real as its relationship with other cultures. And specificity can be sensed only in the flow. Still, we are not talking of a level playing field, as the cultural dominance of the West (less a geographical area than a mind-set) inexorably pushes us towards a homogenized global village. We had little difficulty in acknowledging the heritage of the West. With little choice in the matter we took the good with the bad. It remains to be seen if all the other heritages have to totally abdicate in favor of the Western mindset. If this happens, and there are signs that it may, it would make us all infinitely poorer. But the West, as we see it today, is also a defeated civilization. Among the various choices available to the West, the utilitarian-rational stream gained ascendance, sidelining saner options like Joanna Macy, Schumacher, Rilke, Meister Eckart, Blake and Aristotle.

   Our discussion of the tribals of Mysore district is of more general relevance. In hindsight, I can see that there was little the social activists could do to prevent the cultural degradation which followed the displacement of the tribal communities. To be fair to them, they fought their battles with the abandon of romantic anarchists, which is probably the only manner of meaningful dissent left to us. But, the outside forces were relentless and cultural disintegration was written into the script. Salman Rushdie, in his essay on John Berger, has a few lines on the effects of migration on people. Rushdie writes: " to migrate is certainly to lose language and home, to be defined by others, to become invisible or, even worse, a target; it is to express deep changes and wrenches in the soul. But the migrant is not simply transformed by his act; he also transforms his new world. Migrants may well become mutants, but it is out of such hybridization that newness can emerge." Rushdie is right about the creative possibilities of mongrelization. It often surprises us to find that we have much in common with somebody who lives on the other side of the earth than with people in our own neighborhood. In the modern world some of us may be in a position to consciously construct our identity and build a community of like minded persons living in different parts of the city, or even in different parts of the globe.

   Cultural roots are either inherited or constructed, depending on where one is located. Both processes take place consciously and unconsciously. For many there is little choice in the matter as factors related to caste, class, religion and exposure to global cultural currents play a determining role. Most of us are a mix of both the acquired and constructed varieties.

   Some may even argue that the future of identity has less to do with inherited roots than the values we give ourselves, the psychological moorings we choose to construct. But, returning to Rushdie, even if we were to argue that hybridization may have a positive side for migrants, it is always traumatic for displaced persons. The interaction of the displaced person with the host society is asymmetrical and the mutant often emerges as a caricature. For people who earn twelve rupees a day on the average,the disintegration of identity need not lead to another that is self-affirming. It often means little more than joining the faceless ranks of agricultural workers.

   The dark side of globalization has to do with homogenization, acceleration and instant gratification. The globalization process leaves us with few choices unless we choose to be attentive, alert and aware. The process itself is fragile despite the aura of invincibility. An academic once told me that if every Chinese citizen was to have the standard of living of a middle-class American we would need three planets to make that possible. Add the Indians and we would need five. Unlimited progress, unlimited development and unlimited consumption is an illusion. Social alternatives may only be meaningful if they are part of a strategy of sustainable cohabitation with our biosphere. In constructing such a vision we do not have to reinvent the wheel. We are fortunate that contemporary notions of wholeness and connectedness find strong echoes within our traditions. It is not a coincidence that biocentric understandings of development can draw inspiration from Asian spiritualities. The insight that the biosphere is an interconnected and organic web is integral to Buddhism, Hinduism and Indigenous traditions. It may sometimes be expressed in metaphysical terms, but it is there.

   Above all, we will have to change our perceptions of 'progress' and reconsider our paradigms of knowledge. A touch of humility is called for. We may have to concede that we still cannot answer the fundamental questions of where we come from or where we are going. We only have to look into the clear night sky to see our own smallness and acknowledge that the planet Earth is a mere speck in the Universe, which has billions of other objects we know next to nothing of. Talking of humility and pluralism, the story goes that the Buddha clasped a handful of fallen leaves and asked his favorite disciple Ananda what he saw before him. "A fistful of leaves," said Ananda. "But are these, all the leaves in the world?" asked the Buddha. "No, there are millions of other leaves," replied Ananda. "So is my teaching," said the Buddha, "a handful of leaves among millions of others."


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