The cul­ture trap

The Pak Banker - - Front Page - Aasim Sa­j­jad Akhtar

CUL­TURE is a strange thing. It is des­per­ately dif­fi­cult to de­fine, and yet at the same time very eas­ily rei­fied. For Pak­ista­nis bred on the two-na­tion the­ory cul­ture is of­ten equated with re­li­gion; many of us rhetor­i­cally lay claim to a uni­form ‘Is­lamic’ cul­ture. In prac­tice, how­ever, we all wear ex­tremely di­verse cul­tural prac­tices on our sleeves. In fact, we spend a great deal of time re­in­forc­ing cul­tural stereo­types about one an­other.

There are, for in­stance, few gath­er­ings in non-Pakhtun house­holds that con­clude with­out the in­evitable joke about the thick­skinned and slow ‘Pathan’. Not­with­stand­ing our lim­ited in­ter­ac­tion with Pun­jabi Sikhs since Par­ti­tion, lat­i­fas cel­e­brat­ing the in­tel­li­gence of Guru Nanak’s fol­low­ers are also com­mon­place.

Na­tive Urdu speak­ers of­ten sit to­gether laugh­ing and/or cry­ing about the ac­cented Urdu of the un­cul­tured ple­beians with whom they have been forced to share a coun­try. Such ban­ter is good and well up to a point. Be­yond fun and games such cul­tural ‘oth­er­ing’ be­comes offensive, and when politi­cised, po­ten­tially racist and vi­o­lent.

It is this politi­ci­sa­tion of dif­fer­ence that ex­plains what is hap­pen­ing in our big­gest ur­ban cen­tre. Karachi, the coun­try within a coun­try, the prover­bial melt­ing pot, the city that boasts about its cos­mopoli­tanism, stands badly di­vided. Eth­nic/ra­cial/cul­tural pro­fil­ing and vi­o­lence are a daily af­fair.

Xeno­pho­bic ten­den­cies have be­come in­creas­ingly wide­spread in Balochis­tan, as in­dige­nous cul­ture comes to be viewed as ir­rec­on­cil­able with that of the non-Baloch, and Pun­jabis in par­tic­u­lar. With the pas­sage of time it is em­i­nently pos­si­ble that the cul­tural dif­fer­ences that have al­ways ex­isted be­tween Seraikis and Pun­jabis morph into con­flict. The list could go on.

Con­fronta­tion be­tween dif­fer­ent ‘cul­tures’ is os­ten­si­bly as old as set­tled hu­man so­ci­ety it­self. Europe’s Dark Ages, for in­stance, are still of­ten un­der­stood by most laypeo­ple as a pe­riod of in­ces­sant war along reli­gious and sec­tar­ian lines. We are prone to think­ing about our re­la­tion­ship with the ‘West’ in ex­clu­sively cul­tural terms. Even the com­pe­ti­tion be­tween Western and Chi­nese cap­i­tal­ism is of­ten de­picted as a deeper cul­tural tug of war that can be traced back a few thou­sand years.

Such an un­der­stand­ing of the dy­nam­ics of con­flict in hu­man his­tory amounts, in my un­der­stand­ing, to a cul­ture trap. By this I mean the ten­dency to re­duce multi-di­men­sional con­flicts to ex­clu­sively cul­tural ones, thereby ex­ac­er­bat­ing the di­vide be­tween ‘them’ and ‘us’. His­tor­i­cal study can con­firm that cul­tural dif­fer­ences par­tially ex­plain the emer­gence and es­ca­la­tion of con­flict, but it is more of­ten than not the case that other fac­tors are just as, if not more, im­por­tant. There are enough ex­am­ples in the his­tory of this coun­try to ver­ify this hy­poth­e­sis. Al­most all of the ethno-na­tional move­ments that have chal­lenged the Pak­istani state over the past 65 years have sought to re­dress per­ceived po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic in­jus­tices in the first in­stance.

Au­ton­omy of cul­ture, in­clud­ing lan­guage, has also been an im­por­tant mo­ti­vat­ing fac­tor but by no means the pri­mary one, and def­i­nitely not a stand-alone fac­tor.

Un­for­tu­nately, but not nec­es­sar­ily counter-in­tu­itively, the con­sol­i­da­tion of non-egal­i­tar­ian po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic struc­tures deep­ens per­cep­tions that ‘we’ are be­ing op­pressed by ‘them’.

This is why in­creas­ingly bit­ter mul­ti­di­men­sional con­flicts come to be ar­tic­u­lated in in­creas­ingly black and white, cul­tural terms. As re­sis­tance takes on a more cul­tural id­iom, dom­i­nant forces in turn be­come more de­fen­sive about their own ‘cul­ture’.

All of this oth­er­ing flies in the face of ac­tu­ally ex­ist­ing re­al­ity. As I men­tioned at the out­set, cul­ture is no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult to pin down inas­much as it is not eas­ily iden­ti­fi­able with one spe­cific prac­tice or sym­bol. Per­haps more im­por­tantly, cul­ture is ever-chang­ing. Even ma­jor mark­ers of cul­ture such as lan­guages have evolved over time, both in the form of di­alects and their over­all lin­guis­tic struc­ture.

In short, while cul­ture is of­ten per­ceived as peren­nial in na­ture, it is any­thing but. Eco­nomic and so­cial change, evo­lu­tion of (or es­tab­lish­ment of en­tirely new) in­sti­tu­tional struc­tures and a whole host of ‘non­cul­tural’ fac­tors have a great bear­ing on the evo­lu­tion of cul­ture.

In­deed, what I want to em­pha­sise most of all is the fact that cul­tures of­ten over­lap, influence one an­other, and give rise to en­tirely new hy­brid forms that would not be recog­nis­able to the orig­i­nal bear­ers.

The prob­lem, as ever, is that the sim­pli­fi­ca­tion of re­al­ity and its de­pic­tion in ex­clu­sively ‘cul­tural’ terms has be­come a mat­ter of course for a large num­ber of opin­ion­mak­ers at many dif­fer­ent lev­els of state and so­ci­ety. The me­dia, ed­u­ca­tional es­tab­lish­ment and reli­gious in­sti­tu­tions in par­tic­u­lar have per­fected the cul­ture trap, and re­sist any al­ter­na­tive world­views in which cul­ture is prob­lema­tised to a much greater ex­tent.

And this hap­pens not only in Pak­istan. ‘Us’ and ‘them’ bi­na­ries rule the roost in many other coun­tries, in­clud­ing the United States. The western academy has been af­flicted by ‘cul­tur­al­ism’ for the past two decades as part of the larger aes­thetic move­ment that has be­come known the world over as post-mod­ernism.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Pakistan

© PressReader. All rights reserved.