Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The Case for Contamination

Read this and you will understand that I appreciate cultural differences, but I don't believe they are so sancro-sanct that they should not change in the face of a changing world.

So liberty and diversity may well be at odds, and the tensions between them aren't always easily resolved. But the rhetoric of cultural preservation isn't any help. Again, the contradictions are near to hand. Take

another look at that Unesco Convention. It affirms the "principle of equal dignity of and respect for all cultures." (What, all cultures - including those of the K.K.K. and the Taliban?) It also affirms "the importance of culture for social cohesion in general, and in particular its potential for the enhancement of the status and role of women in society." (But doesn't "cohesion" argue for uniformity? And wouldn't enhancing the status and role of women involve changing, rather than preserving, cultures?) In Saudi Arabia, people can watch "Will and Grace" on satellite TV - officially proscribed, but available all the same - knowing that, under Saudi law, Will could be beheaded in a public square. In northern Nigeria, mullahs inveigh against polio vaccination while sentencing adulteresses to death by stoning. In India, thousands of wives are burned to death each year for failing to make their dowry payments. Vive la différence? Please.


From my perspective, if a woman wants to wear a chador and play domesticated house rug to her husband, go for it: as long as it is a choice she makes as an informed "consumer" and not forced by government or group of people. If she can partake of all ideas and still consider that the best way to live her life, then that is the appropriate way to preserve "culture", not with threats of death, mutilation, imprisonment or exiled excommunication from country, family and friends. That is "oppression" not cultural preservation.

If a young man wishes to grow a beard, pray faithfully to Allah five times a day and follow the five pillars of Islam, I have no objections. Unless, of course, his culture chooses to "preserve" this by cutting off all other information, threats of exile, death, mutilation and imprisonment. Then it is not practicing faith nor preserving culture, but oppression.

Similarly, if the young man wishes to convince others of this practice through words and reason, let him, but the minute he decides that he must make this decision for those around him through violent Jihad, death, mutilation or imprisonment, he is no longer preserving his faith or culture, but is practicing oppression.

True enlightenment understands that people will live as they want, regardless of outside pressures; that many cultures have excellent moral and economic standards that may improve the global construct; that we will tolerate those practices and people who choose to live by those standards when it is a choice, but to tolerate cultural standards or morals that are, in fact, oppressive by their very nature (such as slavery, forced oppression or repression of women, child abuse, sex with children, etc), is not "enlightened" nor "cosmopolitan", but is in fact condemning many to live in conditions we would not make our dog live in for the sake of "cultural preservation".

Finally, I have had the pleasure more than once of people who decry as criminal every aspect of globalization, particularly western growth, because it did cause some cultures to be changed irrevocably and even some to disappear in everything but in books. The fact is, I find these arguments specious because the entirity of human growth and evolution has been the transmogrification and transpollenation of cultures. As I noted in a previous discussion, the first time a caveman took his flint tools and prepared animal hides, walked across the valley to a neighboring cave and traded them for berries, plants or a stone axe, both cave clans were forever changed in culture, language, technology, economy, diet, clothing and even politicaly as now some sort of diplomacy would be required to interact on this new economic and cultural plain.

It's unstoppable and those who demand it stop are not just swimming against modern capitalist globalization, but the entire history of man.

The ideals of purity and preservation have licensed a great deal of mischief in the past century, but they have never had much to do with lived culture. Ours may be an era of mass migration, but the global spread and hybridization of culture - through travel, trade or conquest - is hardly a recent development. Alexander's empire molded both the states and the sculpture of Egypt and North India; the Mongols and then the Mughals shaped great swaths of Asia; the Bantu migrations populated half the African continent. Islamic states stretch from Morocco to Indonesia; Christianity reached Africa, Europe and Asia within a few centuries of the death of Jesus of Nazareth; Buddhism long ago migrated from India into much of East and Southeast Asia. Jews and people whose ancestors came from many parts of China have long lived in vast diasporas. The traders of the Silk Road changed the style of elite dress in Italy; someone buried Chinese pottery in 15th-century Swahili graves. I have heard it said that the bagpipes started out in Egypt and came to Scotland with the Roman infantry. None of this is modern.

Our guide to what is going on here might as well be a former African slave named Publius Terentius Afer, whom we know as Terence. Terence, born in Carthage, was taken to Rome in the early second century B.C., and his plays - witty, elegant works that are, with Plautus's earlier, less-cultivated works, essentially all we have of Roman comedy - were widely admired among the city's literary elite. Terence's own mode of writing - which involved freely incorporating any number of earlier Greek plays into a single Latin one - was known to Roman littérateurs as "contamination."

It's an evocative term. When people speak for an ideal of cultural purity, sustaining the authentic culture of the Asante or the American family farm, I find myself drawn to contamination as the name for a counterideal. Terence had a notably firm grasp on the range of human variety: "So many men, so many opinions" was a line of his. And it's in his comedy "The Self-Tormentor" that you'll find what may be the golden rule of cosmopolitanism - Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto; "I am human: nothing human is alien to me."


Read The Case for Contamination

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