Thursday, 21 December 2017

The Two Cultures (With Apologies To CP Snow)

Synopsis: Many conflicts between cultures, such as the never-ending battle between liberals and conservatives in every society, or the problem of assimilation of immigrants in Western countries, are symptomatic of the fundamental difference in outlook between two kinds of societies - those based on the notion of individual rights, and those based on the idea of community honour.

In 1959, the famous British scientist and novelist CP Snow delivered a lecture titled "The Two Cultures and The Scientific Revolution". It dealt with the dichotomy of contemporary British intellectuals into two distinct camps, i.e., The Sciences and The Humanities. I remember liking a particularly wicked piece of Snow's wit in the transcript of that lecture, where he talked about "literary intellectuals (who had taken to calling themselves intellectuals when no one was looking)".

This blog post of mine has nothing to do with the two cultures of the Sciences and the Humanities. The only connection it has to Snow's lecture is superficial, because it borrows the title he used.

My post deals with the prevailing cultures of the world today, which I believe fall into one of two camps. In my view, a culture is either based on the notion of individual rights, or on the notion of community honour. [As a quick self-check, ask yourself what you think about people standing up (or not standing up) for the national anthem, and you'll know which culture you belong to.]

Psychologist Steven Pinker classified humanity's notion of morality itself into five distinct strands - fairness, harm, community, authority and purity. He quotes a study that claims that "liberals put a lopsided moral weight on harm and fairness while playing down group loyalty, authority and purity. Conservatives instead place a moderately high weight on all five." [I don't agree with the latter part of this assertion, by the way. From what I have seen, conservatives are the mirror-image of the liberals in that they place a higher ("lopsided"?) weight on community, authority and purity, while playing down fairness and harm.]

We had a glimpse of this schism during the Charlie Hebdo controversy. We had people who held that the freedom of expression trumped any hurt feelings that anyone else may suffer. And there were other people who were outraged that the honour of their prophet was being impugned. That was the classic non-meeting of minds between a rights-based society and an honour-based one. There is no compromise possible.

Rights-based societies do place some restrictions on individual rights, but only where the rights of other individuals may be violated. For example, restrictions on free speech typically apply only to hate speech that may credibly incite someone to violence. Hurt sentiments by themselves are not seen as a reasonable justification to muzzle the freedom of expression.

I hadn't always seen the world in terms of these two cultures. But in early 2013, in response to a shocking event that had taken place the previous month, I felt a strong compulsion to create an image, which took the form of an acrylic painting. This was my reaction to seeing a certain stereotyped image in the media. At the time, I still hadn't understood that the compulsion I felt was a symptom of the clash of two cultures, one that I subscribed to in my own mind, and one that many in the world outside seemed to subscribe to.

The shocking event that I'm referring to was the brutal rape of a young woman in India's capital, New Delhi. (She died of her horrific injuries shortly after.) Here is my painting, which I call "The Stigma of Rape":

The Stigma of Rape (and where it belongs) - A viewpoint that I felt had to be expressed in order to counter a regressive idea that I kept encountering

You see, this was the kind of image that invariably accompanied stories of rape in the media:

Does this portrayal outrage you as much as it did me?

What's wrong with all these pictures used in the media?

They portray a woman feeling shame. For a crime she did not commit, but on the contrary, was committed against her!

Would the media show a (male) victim of a violent assault or a robbery looking ashamed? Or would the victim be more likely to wear an indignant, aggrieved expression?

My immediate response was to create the painting that placed the stigma of rape on the rapist, where it belonged. The victims of rape in my painting had no reason to hide their faces in shame. The only one hiding his face in shame was the rapist. (You can read more about my thoughts here.)

Which is as things should be. But aren't.

It has taken me much longer to understand why this is so, and it has come about after many bruising arguments on social media. These arguments intensified in the wake of the electoral victory in India of the Bharatiya Janata Party, a right-wing Hindu party with many sympathisers even among the educated elite. The advent of the BJP has ushered in a culture war in India, complete with historical revisionism and an aggressive questioning of values that had hitherto been taken for granted.

Some common themes have repeatedly surfaced in these debates. These are:

1. The distinctness of Indian values compared with those of the West (with the implication that Indian values are superior).

2. The specific identification of the notion of individual rights as being corrosive to society; a sense of community, and community values, are held to be superior.

3. Feminism has come under frequent attack as a corrupter of values. Often derided as "Western feminism", it is generally caricatured and trivialised ("bra-burning, cigarette-smoking, wild women"), and held responsible for misleading Indian women and obscuring the true source of their "power", which of course lies in the performance of their traditional roles.

4. Assertions of minority identity are angrily condemned as divisive and anti-national. The only acceptable identity is a pan-national one, which implicitly subsumes minority identities into that of the majority.

What surprised me during these debates were not so much the points of disagreement (which I was fully prepared for), but the points of seeming agreement.

When something like a case of rape was discussed, for example, all parties agreed that what had occurred was wrong. However, when solutions and preventive measures were discussed, a major dichotomy tended to arise.

People like me were in favour of education to sensitise boys early on to the notion of consent, to sensitise law enforcement to women's issues, and to improve women's safety overall without constraining their freedoms.

However, many others resorted to victim-blaming arguments, and favoured measures that would further constrain the freedoms of women. Prescriptions on dress codes, curfews, a ban on women carrying mobile phones, rules against intermixing of genders, etc., were rife. Such people also exhibited an inability to make a distinction between situations of rape or molestation on the one hand, and situations of consensual non-marital sex on the other. They tended to consider both situations equally immoral and stemming from similar causes, e.g., the "excessive" freedoms granted to women.

The specific issue of rape illuminated for me the stark difference between the two cultures of the world.

For one culture, rape is a violation of a person's rights. The perpetrator and victim are clearly identified, and redressal is equally clear - punishment of the perpetrator, and support for the victim.

For the other, rape is a violation of honour - the honour of a woman, her family and her community. (For this culture, the rape of a man is perhaps too dishonourable to even be acknowledged as a possibility.) The identities of the perpetrator and victim are much fuzzier. If the victim is perceived to be the woman's community rather than herself as an individual, then she herself may be seen as a perpetrator! ("She has brought dishonour to the family!") Honour killings are a natural corollary of this kind of thinking.

Furthermore, since people of this culture do not place any value on the notion of individual consent, their notions of honour relate purely to whether a woman has had sex outside of marriage or not. Marital rape as a concept does not exist for this culture. Rape and consensual sex outside of marriage are both considered equally dishonourable. And again, since individual rights are not given any importance, "dishonourable" behaviour is not seen as an individual choice. Dishonour to communities is a bigger issue, and since much of a community's honour relates to the "chastity" of its women, these cultures are also patriarchal. Women then have to be guarded as property and provided as few rights as possible.

This is a breathtaking difference in worldview, but it explains why people belonging to both cultures could superficially agree that rape is a crime, and may demand redressal for that crime, yet their actual prescriptions to prevent or redress it could be very different. The most dramatic illustration of this occurred in Pakistan in 2017.

A boy raped a girl in a certain village, and the case was brought before the village's council of elders. The facts of the case were not in doubt. The crime was established, and the boy admitted his guilt.

Now, here is what you or I might expect the council to decide as a redressal of that crime:

Crime and redressal - what you or I may expect (Click to expand)


However, the council of elders belonged to an honour-based society. They saw redressal in very different terms, and their decision was consequently very different.

Crime and redressal in an honour-based society (Click to expand)


To you and me, this shocking verdict would end up creating a second victim rather than redressing any crime. Yet it made perfect sense to that village council, and we can understand their thinking too, if we remember their cultural background. An honour-based society does not recognise individual rights. It only recognises honour, especially family or community honour. In the council's view, the rape was a case of one family offending another family's honour. The girl who was raped was incidental within this larger social transgression. To restore its honour, the offended family had the right to retaliate in kind and "even the score".

This is a fairly dramatic case, but it illustrates my point perfectly about there being two cultures in this world. From a historical perspective, it's the older cultures of the "East" that still tend to be honour-based today. The newer cultures of the "West" tend to be rights-based. The West used to be an honour-based society too, until the Enlightenment elevated reason to the foremost position of authority.

The Western Enlightenment was the point at which humanity diverged into two cultures, two modes of thinking. The separation of church and state, the notions of religious tolerance, of constitutional government, individual liberty, respect for the spirit of enquiry, and in general, the principles of secular-liberal humanism were developed during the Enlightenment. The rest of the world has more or less followed the lead of the West in form, but hasn't always adopted these ideas in spirit.

To be precise, what complicates the picture in the "East" is the fact that many of its societies have been colonies of the "West" at some stage and have inherited its legal systems, but the populace at large has not internalised the mindset that gave rise to them. Hence these imported legal systems are an uneasy fit with the value systems of their native societies.

The specific case of India

India is best described as a hybrid civilisation. Its earliest culture, its Hindu one, itself seems to have arisen as a result of the admixture of two groups of people - the Aryans and the Dravidians, each with a distinct set of deities that merged to form the composite Hindu pantheon. A second cultural layer was added with the invasion of the Muslims, who settled and assimilated, however uneasily, into Indian society. A third layer came with colonisation, when the British imposed a system of government, an administrative framework, a model of jurisprudence, an educated class schooled in a Western way of thinking, and a link language to the wider world. Today's India displays all three layers of its hybrid civilisation, and the turbulence of the country's politics stems in part from the friction between these tectonic plates.

While there has been constant friction between the Hindu and Muslim elements of Indian society, there is a second and more fundamental conflict between the Westernised mindset on the one hand, and both of these Eastern cultures on the other. Interestingly, this latter conflict is not being actively fostered from outside by Western powers. It is entirely an internal one, since the Westernised element in India is self-sustaining.

India is an interesting case of a traditionally honour-based society that happens to have a constitution inspired by a rights-based one. The jostling between the two worlds makes for interesting headlines from time to time, if nothing else. India is quick to ban books and movies that may offend people, even though the constitution guarantees the freedom of expression. Indian governments, which have to answer to a fickle electorate, do not have the courage of conviction to defend constitutionally granted rights in the face of "hurt sentiments". They take the populist route of avoiding controversy. This often makes things worse, since communities then begin to compete at being thin-skinned in order to get the best deals in terms of immunity from offence. It's therefore clear that India's constitution, respected as it may be, does not have strong roots in the country's cultural soil. Yet, as I will argue later, the opposition to the ideals of the constitution, while widespread, is too disunited and riven by internecine strife to pose it any real threat.

In an earlier blog post, I described the three layers of the Indian justice system:

Formal jurisprudence based on the values of a rights-based society are an uneasy fit with the values of an honour-based society

The Indian Constitution represents the thinking of a rights-based society, and it towers over the rest of the Indian polity like a behemoth that is virtually impossible to dislodge. While it is often flouted, it does have teeth because of an assertive judiciary, particularly an activist Supreme Court. The values of a rights-based society, as enunciated in the Indian Constitution, are imposed on Indian society with a heavy hand in case after case. These are periodic reminders of the values that the state stands for, and there is no doubt at all as to who is in charge of asserting those values. It is the Supreme Court, which, unlike the executive and legislature, is an unelected body with the luxury of not having to answer to a society that subscribes to honour-based values. More than a few "traditional values" have been ruled unconstitutional and prevented from being practised. (However, since judicial positions have to be filled from the ranks of Indian society, elements of native modes of thinking sometimes surface in the pronouncements of Supreme Court judges, such as this, this and this.)

Paradoxically, a significant segment of traditional Indian society chafes under these liberal ideas, because they act as a check on the systemic injustices that pass for a traditional social order. Whether the Western-inspired constitution is out of step with traditional Indian values, or a regressive Indian society is out of step with the enlightened constitution, is of course a matter for debate, and one's viewpoint depends entirely on the culture one belongs to. [Remember the self-test with the national anthem.]

When the head of the Hindu nationalist organisation, the RSS, calls for the Indian constitution to be rewritten to be in line with "Indian values", this lack of alignment is precisely what he is talking about. The Indian constitution is a document drafted by a generation of Indians influenced by Western thinking, particularly the Enlightenment. It envisages a secular-liberal democracy with protection for individual rights as in any Western country. It even calls for the inculcation of the scientific temper, spirit of enquiry and humanism!

Obviously, this kind of thinking is not native to most Eastern cultures, which are based on the notion of community honour. The interests of the individual are subservient to the perceived interests of the "community", be it the family, the caste, the religion, the linguistic group, or the state itself. What the RSS wants from a revised constitution is a much reduced emphasis on individual rights and increased powers to organisations representing the "community" at various levels, to police and control individuals so that they behave in a culturally acceptable manner.

With the political ascendency of a Hindu right-wing party that has unabashedly expressed its antipathy to "Western values", the clash between the values of the native Indian honour-based society and its formal justice system that is based on the notion of a rights-based society is now out in the open.

The next few years will reveal how this battle will go.

My friend Seshadri Kumar predicts the triumph of the honour-based society through the formal establishment of a theocratic Hindu state. I am not that sure. I see insecurity where others may see an aggressive assertion of identity, and consequently, I don't believe the reaction from the conservatives is based on enduring strength. I believe that enough people have experienced the benefits of a rights-based society, and would not be that willing to give them up. It will be a real battle, and the RSS will not have an easy time imposing its vision on all of Indian society, especially not when it will create stark winners and losers. There are enough powerful groups among the potential losers here (Dalits and women being two of them), and it is my prediction that they will not give up without a fight. Contrary to Seshadri Kumar's gloomy prediction, I do not think India will simply roll over and become another Iran.

The reason I think so is that even what is referred to as "traditional Indian society" is not a monolith but a composite entity with more than one set of fault lines, and these run in mutually orthogonal directions. Identities are therefore not cast in stone but may change fluidly depending on the needs of the moment. For example, Tamil Nadu has seen caste-based polarisation with EV Ramaswamy's self-respect movement in the 1950s, an assertion of linguistic identity with the anti-Hindi agitation of the 1960s, and an uprising fuelled by cultural pride (in support of the tradition of jallikattu) in 2017. Each of these has been a genuine expression of identity, yet they have divided and consolidated sections of society along different lines. It will be a major ask to mobilise all sections of Indian society to set aside their differences in opposition to the constitution. Good luck to any such endeavour!

In addition, the RSS has an idealised view of Indian society in which upper-caste, North Indian, heterosexual Hindu males will be dominant. That view automatically disenfranchises the majority of India's population, and many of these groups have now understood this very well. Far from gaining widespread support, the RSS is likely to encounter widespread resistance to a cultural coup.

In this recently escalated war of The Two Cultures, the honour-based society, however popular it may be among certain sections, will not be able to prevail against the rights-based society that has given many a taste of what they stand to lose if it disappears. When Ayatollah Khomeini came to power, he famously said, "Democracy is a Western word. We don't want it. Ours will be an Islamic Republic." However, even that Islamic Republic has had to hold regular elections to satisfy its people that their government is legitimate.

Some ideas cannot be unlearned. The Age of Enlightenment cannot be overcome by the Dark Ages.
Post a Comment