11 November 2008

Culture as constraint

To be the psychological product of a specific culture is to be limited in one’s way of being in the world. For every language you do not speak, read or write, an entire universe of meaning is closed to you. For every system of semiotics and catalogue of symbols you cannot decipher, a whole realm of comprehension is denied to you. For every collection of human gestures, relational forms and social dynamics alien to you, a complete dimension of existence repels you as the stranger, the outsider, that you are. The less culture badges you wear, the more susceptible you become to delusions of your culture’s superiority and exceptionalism. A monoculture grows ignorant bigots.

The mind – and its possessor’s associated character – is defined both by the culture(s) it stores and by those that it lacks. We are each as much a product of cultural possession as we are of cultural omission. To be unfamiliar with a particular culture is not only to be passively missing its influence on one’s character, but also to have that character actively shaped by the lack. If a Westerner unfamiliar with, say, a Middle Eastern culture were to experience it, whether in a foreign land or locally, his ignorance – that is, his innocence of that culture – actively determines the nature of his every interaction with that culture, with its natives and its forms (script, dress, language, architecture etc). In relating to the strange culture, his character would be of a certain kind in that specific context because of the cultural knowledge he lacks. It is in this way that one’s character is actively shaped through a lack of knowledge as much as it is through possessing knowledge. Every cultural piece missing from our mental jigsaw puzzle is significant. To not know about a certain culture is to necessarily be a certain kind of person.

Yet many of us won’t have mastered four languages, or have lived in three continents, or have parents of different ethnicities. Such circumstances will help in creating a multi-cultured individual who holds the promise of the unbounded Global Citizen. But fate doesn’t have a monopoly on the production of a multi-cultured mind. In the modern globalised world where a smorgasbord of cultures mingle as never before in the history of our species, the means to ‘multi-culturise’ ourselves are easily available. There are language schools, cross-cultural organisations, international media and the increasing opportunity for socialising with people of various cultures, at work, school and play.

Given the abundance of options for people to familiarise themselves with other ways of being, to acquire additional modes of thought and perception, the uninterested and insular individual demonstrates a regrettable self-limiting with his indifference. A desire for comfort, a propensity for mental inertia and a fear of the unknown all conspire to prevent us from engaging with other cultures, much less imbibing those aspects which would enrich our own lives through educating our sensibilities. But the bold and adventurous have, not just a few, but a veritable galaxy of cultural planets to discover and, should conditions prove amicable, inhabit.

Buddhist thought is correct in identifying ignorance and fear as the root causes of hatred and strife between otherwise loving and peaceful people. To willfully remain limited in one’s cultural scope is to incubate that very ignorance and fear which breeds violence and suffering. Inaccurate and unfair stereotypes aside, it is no mere coincidence that ignorance of other places, people and ways of living is usually accompanied by hostility towards whole groups of individuals labeled as ‘other’ and hysteria against perceived threats (often imaginary) from outsiders. Conversely, a multi-cultured mind exhibits greater tolerance, even acceptance, of differences in behaviour, beliefs and lifestyle choices.

Though each of us inevitably occupies a room whose boundaries are delineated by our lack of omniscience, where the walls contain our ultimately private existence, we can still open doors into other rooms and enter them. In this act of engagement we enlarge our lived experience without losing the necessary comfort of a personal space for our solitary self to call home. Ensconced in our private room, we tend to forget that there is an entire apartment block of rooms to explore. And in this particular building there are some six and a half billion occupants who are mostly warm, friendly and delighted to invite us in for nourishing conversation.


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