modernity and postcolonial violence 4
Analytic attitude, dissent and the boundaries of the self
Looking for me
It is possible to re-envision individualism, self-identity, and even the borders of the self. Some points of departure are available and it is our responsibility to confront the violence of our age by pursuing these possibilities. We also have to remember that the communities that have kept alive these possibilities, despite enormous pressures to change or conform, are a beleaguer ed lot. The forces of globalisation and cultural homogenis ation threaten their lifestyles. Take the case of the Meos. Muslim fundamentalists, Islamic nationalists and many modern Muslims have not been comfortable with Meo religious culture. Many Meos, too, having been victims of religious violence on and off during the last fifty years, now feel that their Islam is flawed. Indeed, Professor K. Suresh Singh, who headed the Indian Anthropolog ical Survey’s study of communities, tells me that the multi-religious communities revealed by his survey are the last remnants of a phenomenon that was once much more widespread in the region. They have ceased to be the norm in India, as in other parts of South and Southeast Asia. The official, enumerative world in which we live has no respect for such traditions. It works with a more Cartesian concept of the individual self.
I reaffirm that there are possible ways of looking at the person to which the modern world has few clues. These possible ways cannot be explained away as mystificat ions or as romantic invocations of the past. Indeed, it is we who have been living in a make-believe world that ignores other concepts of the boundaries of the self with which a huge proportion, perhaps even a majority of the world, still lives. The new slave trade flourishing in our times, with the full support of a large cross-section of the intellectual community, exports such people from our neighbourhoods to history. We talk about them in the past tense and accuse anyone concerned about them of incurable romanticism.
Secondly, not only can the self be seen as being in dialogue with others, as most currently fashionable theories of multiculturalism have come to acknowledge, the self can also be seen in the other and the other as telescoped in the self. This is not unheard of in clinical literature. There are studies that explain homicidal hatred towards outgroups as an attempt to exorcise alien parts of the self, the ghosts within. From the beginning, projection and displacement have been important defences in psychological studies of racism and ethnophobia. However, the healthier, more integrative possibilities in the story have not been explored. The same defences of projection and displacement can sometimes bond diverse communities within a shared cultural space. As I have already said, the Enlightenment’s tradition of demystification bares the material, the corporeal, the unhealthy and the ‘ugly’. It undervalues forms of second-order demystification that might reveal the sources of creativity and psychological health that underlie manifest ill health.
Recently, I studied a city in South India, Cochin, where at least fourteen major communities have lived for centuries. It is a small city which was cosmopolitan and international much before the present idea of cosmopolitanism was imported into India in colonial times. The communities range from two Jewish communities, one of which claims to have been in the region for more than two millennia, to Yemeni Arabs, who claim that they were in touch with Cochin even in pre-Islamic times, to the Eurasian Parangis who came into being as a community only in the last four hundred-odd years. These communities live there and have lived there in peace. I studied the city to learn how.
It took me some time to find out that their co-existence was not dependent on brotherly love. The communities were often ambivalent towards each other; sometimes they positively disliked the other. But while they did so, no person or community considered itself complete without the others. Cochin lives in what I have elsewhere called an epic culture, not a linear, empirical, historical concept of culture and community. In that epic vision of life, you need villains to complete the picture, though these villains are usually fashioned out of the same defensive structures that students of ethnic and religious violence have come to fear. Such a vision has to reaffirm, ritually and regularly, the existing configur ation of the contests between the godly and the ungodly. You simply cannot do without the demons because you cannot even represent the gods without the demons. They are symbiotic al ly related and are an unavoidable part of each other and your self. You do not have to love the demons, but you cannot nurture annihilatory fantasies about them either. It is a bit like the story of the Jewish Robinson Crusoe who, I am told, had to build two synagogues, one to pray in and the other to set up as the one into which he would never step. The second synagogue was important to him. He might have hated it, but his self-definition was not complete without it.
During the last two centuries, in the area of social knowledge and knowledge of self, we have managed to destroy such visions by bringing in a peculiar evolutionary perspective on the relation between space and time. That perspective has drawn upon the various nineteenth-century theories of progress to convert geographies into histories, histories into geographies. At one time, one had the right to dislike other communities because they did not conform to one’s ideas of morality and propriety. However, usually one was forced to yield to the others, even if unwilling ly, the same right to dislike one. It is no longer fashionable to exercise such rights or to own up to such prejudices. The triumphant culture of globalised cosmopolitanism has convinced us that we must pretend, even if we do not believe so, that everyone is the same. Yet, the same cosmo politan ism allows us to classify cultures according to the distance they have traversed on the time-scale of history. So, I may not detest you — as representing a culture, a religion, nationality or ethnic group — but I retain the right to believe that you are what I was yesterday or in the last century. And if you behave well, if you obey the textbooks I have produced on self-improvement — through economic development, technological growth, acquisition of scientific rationality or ‘proper’ political education — you could be like me tomorrow. It is like Albert Schweitzer’s idea of fraternity, as recalled by Chinua Achebe. "The African is my brother," Schweitzer appears to have said, "but a younger brother." Only this idea, which today infects virtually all liberal and radical theories of social change, is apparently an improvement on Immanuel Kant’s or David Hume’s belief in the natural inferiority of the blacks, browns and yellows.
For in Schweitzer’s view, some cultures are only living out the pasts of others and are, to that extent, obsolete and redundant. A few cynics may claim that this is a way of pre-empting the future of some of the oldest civilisations of the world and annihilating the present of hundreds of humble micro-cultures that keep open our options by acting like cultural gene banks of alternative, dissenting or even fantastic concepts of selfhood. But that is certainly not a popular view in the mainstream global culture of common sense.
I am optimistic enough to believe that the new century will define the capacity to listen to others as a major human virtue. An earlier generation of psychotherapists spoke of the need to listen with a third ear. Perhaps the next generation, less burdened by the ghosts of yesteryear, will not be embarrassed to speak of the need to listen with a second heart.
Ashis Nandy, political psychologist and social theorist, is Senior Fellow of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi