Culture in Confinement

We are born into a family, community, and country engraved with their social, religious and economic traditions that become part of our cultural DNA. We are indelibly stamped like cattle with a number. Like automated androids we go about our lives in the cultural milieu.

Every so often there comes along individuals who are born out of the mould. They become pioneers in their fields of vision leaving behind lesser mortals.

So how do we shatter the mould once and for all?

Maybe we need to get out of the rut we have ploughed ourselves into – Prisoners of our own culture. Someone once said that variety is the spice of life. Probably there is some truth lurking in this remark. Imagine getting up every morning doing the same cultural gymnastics for the rest of our life? And going one step further, preserving this way of life in the garb of either nationalism or tradition and enforcing it on our offspring thus shaping their minds into readymade mix; Enlightenment not being the operative word here.

Recently a friend from Down Under patiently explained to me the subtleties and intricacies of adopting a culture, arguing that it was essential to belong to a culture so as not to lose one’s identity. Why do we need to have a cultural identity? Worse still why do we need to adopt a culture? Are we orphaned culturally that we need so desperately to adopt or to be adopted by a culture in order to be accepted in one club or another – to adorn the uniform of a particular school? Isn’t this the first step towards succumbing to cultural bondage?

Now I don’t mean to be impolite but these questions need to be asked,

“Why do people from many countries refuse to accept their culture and instead see themselves as belonging to another country and culture that their forefathers may have come from? What difference does it make? Do we need to have a label to gain an acceptance in the land we are visiting or temporarily residing in? (I am talking about the expats roaming the island.) So why do people become defensive about – from whence they cometh? Is it an inferiority complex brought on by encountering a more dominant, vibrant and pervasive culture?  Or is it the need to maintain a distinct cultural identity that assures them a sense of belonging?

One has misgivings about the method of defining a culture. The measure normally used by self appointed guardians to make a culture pastry is by adding a mixture of the apparent i.e. the activities of a community in terms of the way of life, religious pursuits, music, arts etc. But is this a foolproof method to give a rating to each of them? And who decides this?

Take for instance, religion, a sensitive volatile subject that immediately brings to the fore rational and irrational behaviour in equal amounts, which is normally borne out of cultural imprisonment. From place to place a religion changes its features ever so subtly e.g. attire, important dates and marriage ceremonies. This is to do directly with cultural barricades erected to keep out the unknown.

Is it possible that in the pursuit of maintaining exclusivity people have created a permanent wedge between their culture and others thereby enhancing the incentives for wars?

In the last century Europe was the world’s battleground. Better sense prevailed and the citizens of this previously fragmented continent realised that a combined economic area would be a safer bet against the onslaught of cultural interests. Of course there are irritating political incidents and nagging doubts about its long-term effects but it has brought about a reasonable level of prosperity and peace.

Another example is the United Arab Emirates. I have had the pleasure of travelling and residing in the cities and found it acceptable culturally. I could go to a church, temple or even a mosque without being confronted by cultural bigots or questioned about my affiliations and way of life. And so could Alisha my friend who was accompanying me at that time.

In my opinion, Bali doesn’t impose its culture on visitors. People are allowed to dress and live the way they choose so long as it’s not disrespectful to the religious sentiments of the Balinese. This I can deal with. But when racism or casteism is involved in many countries the ugly face of a culture raises its head. Casteism and racism are two sides of the same coin; both impostors find a home in a culture that has been fine-tuned to serve a select few for economic control rather than anything else. The visible effects are seen in the inequality of classes, exploitation of the masses and gender bias.

We come back to the subject of whether culture imprisons us or we imprison it. Many have acknowledged albeit reluctantly that we have imprisoned ourselves in our culture – Created imaginary boundaries of dos and don’ts thus locking out the unfamiliar.

Maybe people are afraid of opening up their societies to other cultures for fear of being inundated by “corrupting” influences that could possibly dilute the control that is exercised in their lives. Again apprehension of the unknown or racism could be the issue at hand. That’s why it is (I presume) essential that if we are to be truly free of cultural bondage we must open up to the big “bad” world.

If our culture sustains the influx of outside influences then it is probably more progressive and it would be pragmatic not to discard or alter its components. Otherwise if it doesn’t then it is evidently suffocating and self-restraining thereby curtailing the natural growth and evolution of a society. Stagnant cultures will sooner or later collapse into disarray e.g. communal disharmony or worse still erosion of social structures.

A bird’s eye view of the world today only confirms this theory. There is social strife, racism, casteism, and genocide etc. all in defence of one culture that purports to be superior to another. It is impossible to judge who is right and who is wrong because whoever decides this will belong to one culture or another. And therefore the thinking will be influenced by that culture of which the person has been embedded with.

Many have said that the world is becoming a smaller place – a global village as some so succinctly put it. It’s a misleading term considering the ongoing cultural fight for supremacy – deliberate clash of cultures to instigate and destroy one another.

Maybe the world is imploding and it’s time now to take cognizance of the stark reality that we have imprisoned ourselves in our own cultures thereby alienating our neighbours and creating divisions that could fuel endless wars of hatred.

Truth speaks of cultural bondage that enslaves us all in one form or another. We are afraid of losing our cultural inheritance and becoming paupers therefore we erect walls to insulate ourselves from the unknown.

Perhaps we should look closely at how the Balinese have allowed us to live on this island free of the shackles of a culture and to integrate with them in sublime harmony. It is a melting pot of people from many cultures who have congregated on the island.

Is Bali the breeding ground for visionaries of an imminent age of enlightenment or is it sowing the seeds that will germinate minds, which will free us from cultural bondage?

Only time will tell.

And until then let us embrace all cultures that we encounter in the hope that one day the world will truly become a global village of peace, tranquillity and prosperity.

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om