Saturday, May 22, 2004

Is it ‘a cultural thing’?--II

Disclaimer: tentative with so supporting links. Might revise!!

So we start here again with that same riddle Aaronovitch employs to close his piece. If true that everything is indeed “a cultural thing,” he taunts, “then what the hell is it all for?” The manner he poses the issue does indeed open the possibility of a qualified yes to the culture question. But it need not necessarily lead to the tragic consequences he fears.

Notice, for instance, that he has chosen to ask here a “What” question and by this he immediately reveals a certain cultural orientation. The “What” question is characteristic of the Ancient Greek thought! (“What is justice?”) The Persians on the other hand tended to personify abstract concepts and ask the “Who” questions. (Who is Contract? Why, Mithra, of course!)

The Buddha’s “Dependent Origination,” I think, might lead to a “Which” question (set of conditions) and as for the Ancient Chinese Taoists, all questions and indeed discourses generally, become indistinguishable from the “chirps of hatchlings.” Fasting, emptying of the mind and stillness are the bread and butter of Confucius of the Taoist texts—however enigmatic they might first appear to the provincial glance.

Now all of us may decide to repeat after Hegel and dismiss the Oriental wisdom as “Childish.” Hegel is good at that kind of a language. For him China, for instance, is the land of the “most prosaic understanding,” and the Chinese he thinks only manage to “perpetuate a natural vegetative existence.” But Hegel, you see, has a way of knowing the ins and outs of the concrete universal from which, he thinks, the Orient has divorced itself ---a luxury neither Aaronovitch nor the rest of us mere mortals should feel we can still afford today.

Lacking the broad reach of a Hegelian intellect, and his certainty, I am a little more self conscious when it comes to thinking about cultural issues. Remember this whole line of inquiry started when I began to wonder why Modern Persian lacked dual pronouns. The question wouldn’t have occurred to me without my having spent time learning foreign languages, yes, but it also means a lot more.

To want to learn another language I presuppose a sense for the limits of my own culture and a curiosity about culture of others. Postulating centrality of culture, however, does not release any of us from the burden of myriad “I” questions.

Let’s visit a language class for now. You learn a few things in any language class you attend. The first thing you learn about is the concept of limits. Some students tower above others and immediately see through the rules, roots and connections as if they were genuinely transparent. I am not one of those students. I struggle.

You additionally learn that there are certain things you can control and others that you can not—not immediately any way. You will have to do the best with the hand that’s dealt you. And so you learn about the need for hard work, for cooperation, and for pooling resources together, and for negotiations. Sometimes you would want to even change the “rules of the game,” but that too often takes longer than you might suspect.

You also come to appreciate the need to make choices--sometimes very unpalatable ones. You learn that all personal choices come with a price; a cliché for sure, but no escaping the consequences. You come to learn about human frailties as well, and the need for being there.

Persians might indeed, as some claim, be good at being multi-lingual, but I struggle. Persian thought might indeed be cosmopolitan, but I have to work on my cosmopolitanism. Persian culture has great poetry, but I can’t rhyme. Persian literature is simply magnificent, but I am an atrocious writer. There are so many languages to choose from, but I choose these particular ones--why? What do my choices indicate about me? What holds true for me, quite naturally also holds true for others-- no matter where they are.

In other words, Our/Your/Their culture might indeed be superior, but I/you/s/he can still be complete imbeciles, Something, I suppose, we should all work on more diligently given the atrocious state of our planet these days. We humans are a bundle of visceral reactions --reactions we often do not fully control or understand.

Understanding, though, assumes self-introspection. This element [of introspection/ self doubt] is what I find missing in Aaronovitch and it makes me wonder… why? What is the cultural context of it?

Take the poignant tale of his conversation with an Iranian businessman in England. His Iranian interlocutor claims he had not heard from an Iranian lover for a while and when he finally managed to receive words after about a year

An aunt advised him to stop looking for the girl. 'She is dead,' the woman said. 'She was pregnant and they executed her. So don't ask any more.' And this, the Iranian man said with contempt, in the 21st century.
And this sends Aaronovitch scrambling to determine the exact scope of honor killings in the Islamic World. The story made me sick to the pit of my stomach--the sheer brutality, the callousness and the perniciousness of it all. That I live in a society that allows such travesty I deeply regret. That we have not been able to put these murderous thugs out of business of ruining lives I am profoundly ashamed of. But let us look more closely at the narrative.

Just so you don’t miss some of the central issues here: here is a man who tells us with a straight face that he impregnated a lover and then left her abandoned, choosing to settle instead in a free UK. The family and/or authorities then found out and executed the woman—his lover. Is there a hint of remorse? Does Aaronovitch engage him or us on that front? Why not? These omissions too have a cultural context.

Yes, the authorities should be held accountable, the Laws changed and some family dynamics altered. That said, let us also ask a series of “Which” (set of conditions) questions here. Would she have been dead without having encountered him? Would she have been dead without him impregnating her? Would she have been dead if they had married? Would she have been dead if he had stayed behind and helped her navigate the labyrinth? Would she have been dead without his help?

There are certain things beyond one’s immediate control. We all know that just as surely as we hate to admit it. It is often a difficult struggle, after all, controlling the behaviors of the 70 million Iranians, the military, the security forces, the judiciary and the ruling clergy.

Is it, however, just as hard controlling one’s own penis? Is it that difficult pulling on a condom? Is it really impossible to keep one’s commitments? To not abandon a lover you impregnate? To not surrender another being --who trusted you her body and soul --to the jaws of death?

Yes, there are certain things easier to control even living in hell. Culture is no alibi here. No one needs the rotten scaffolding of any culture in order to tell this man he is an accomplice to murder. But that Aaronovitch doesn’t even feel the need to broach the subject at all is a cultural problem.

There are always choices. All questions have contexts. Certain types of questions lead to loopholes and then to technicalities which unfortunately make one miss real possibilities—possibilities of the more humane set of alternatives.

That there are omissions of significance to me is a lot more interesting than the frenzy of the originally postulated false conditional. (If culture, then what the hell for?) This issue I will explore in the next installment.

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