IDENTITY, CULTURE AND THE AGE OF PARADOXES

The contradictions suffered by the latest forms of liberalism as well as neoliberalism are of a serious nature. On one hand, these ideologies—which have betrayed their colonial character in the last three decades since globalisation—advocate individualism; and on the other, these encourage people to define themselves by racial, sexual, gender and many other markers of identities.

By Sreejit Datta, Director of Civilisational Studies Practice & Resident Mentor at Rashtram

Image Source : TheDailyGuardian.

The article was published in the TheDailyGuardian.

“It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity.”

In the operational doctrines of colonialist and imperialist ideologies, the conceptual path to normalising the coloniser’s culture in an invaded and/or occupied land often passes through what we may call the ‘Uniqueness Argument’. It works as follows: At the initial stage of colonisation, invasion followed by forceful occupation of parts of a country takes place, which is sometimes accompanied by a drastic demographic change of those parts. This almost always gives rise to political dominance by the invader over the land and administration of the invaded.

Then, a significant portion of the invaded and/or partly occupied land, originally belonging to the victims of invasion, is painted as a ‘unique’ cultural zone. This depiction is incessantly repeated through aggressive propaganda, using the powerful channels of academia and media. As the propaganda penetrates increasingly into all levels of public discourse, it acquires the air of an undisputable, default position from which all discussions around the subject must proceed—an unmistakable mark of ideology which is false consciousness. This is the stage of turning manufactured narratives into powerful discourses. It requires some time and a certain amount of indolence on the part of the intellectuals produced by the culture under siege.

The purported ‘unique’ cultural character of the demographically and/or politically colonised area is then exploited to project this area as a distinct sociocultural identity, altogether different from the mainland. As is the nature of invasions, such attacks advance from the border areas and move gradually inward. The very next step—and the most crucial one in the process—is to claim a distinct political identity of the colonised area. This is where benign and diverse cultural nuances are painted with the broad strokes of monolithic category-driven identity politics, and identity turns into a tool of power. Identity politics is thus activated.

The primary goal of this politics is to amplify intra-cultural nuances of the besieged civilisation and thus foreground them as cultural differences that are seemingly set in stone. In reality, however, those cultural nuances are hardly ‘differences’ per se; instead, they are the local expressions of a broader civilisational outlook—the local manifestations of an orthogenetic development (which is a series of gradual and slow changes occurring organically and brought about by internal or indigenous factors, as opposed to changes brought about by disruptions that are by nature sudden) within a great civilisation, such as India. The amplification of intra-cultural nuances is then forcefully applied in the discourse as well as in day-to-day actions, to cut off a region’s culture from its civilisational roots, from its fountainhead, so that the process of a cultural takeover by the predatory religion representing a foreign culture—the coloniser’s culture—is made easier.

Having achieved this, the next stage of establishing a cultural hegemony through the instrument of various social institutions, brought into the invaded land by the coloniser, is activated. This completes the process of cultural colonisation, granting it the kind of resilience which is difficult to break through for whatever remnants of the indigenous sociocultural structures that survive the onslaught. We are inclined to think that at such a stage, any hope of a cultural recovery, or ‘decolonisation’, requires nothing short of a deus ex machina.

The pathway described above is a mutant form of the more classic colonial strategies, a new algorithm if you like. The other interesting feature observable in the age-old phenomenon of cultural colonisation, employed generously by ancient Romans and ancient as well as modern Chinese—and perfected by the European colonisers in the last two centuries—is that of universalism. We have seen the European colonialists, and in recent times their civilisational inheritors the American neo-colonialists, employing the universalist argument in the most effective of ways to destroy variety which is not just the essence but indeed a precondition of life. This becomes evident from one look at the natural world.

In the natural world, lack of variety means death of organisms and extinction of entire species. At the genetic level, more genetic variety within a population ensures more phenotypic variation, which means greater variety at the level of observable physical properties of an organism, including the organism’s appearance, development, and behavioural patterns. Whether or not the organism has the ability to develop two or more alternative forms of gene, given it has access to a suitable environment that affects the development of the genes, directly determines the organism’s ability to survive. Universalism, on the other hand, robs a social organism (like a group of humans exhibiting various shades and nuances in their cultural practices in relation to the other, fairly similar or analogous groups of humans) of its incentive to increase variety as well as the suitable environment which could have helped it materialise new possibilities at the sociocultural level. It stunts the orthogenetic development of a culture, something which we have mentioned earlier in this exercise—something which is essential for the survival of the culture in a recognisable form.

The contradictions suffered by the latest forms of liberalism as well as neoliberalism are of a serious nature. On one hand, these ideologies—which have betrayed their predatory, colonial character in the last three decades since globalisation—advocate individualism; and on the other hand, these encourage people to define themselves by racial, sexual, gender and many other markers of identities and become obedient members of these multifarious flocks, which only helps aggravate the conflict and power drive inherent in identities. Paradoxically, emphasis on individualism has resulted in the multiplication of group identity markers—and consequently in more groupthink—instead of independent, original thinking in recent decades. Neo-colonialists are back in their erstwhile colonies through the backdoor portals created by institutions that were meant to be the torchbearers of freedom and anti-colonialism—which is yet another paradox.

Indeed, this seems to be the “Age of Paradoxes”, and no easy solution to any of its confounding anomalies seems to appear on the horizon. Things haven’t changed much since Dickens wrote: “We had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period…”

Ominously enough, the contemporary reader discovers that the accent tends to fall on the final words in that passage: “The period was so far like the present period”!

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