The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- A clash of civilizations may also lead to a bridging of gaps

In these times of globalization, it may seem odd to be concerned about the ways in which the distrust between peoples may be overcome. Such cleavages are, however, as much a part of contemporary social and political reality as globalization itself. In the context of lifestyles, for instance, the similarities are usually of form and style, and mask underlying substantive differences. Outward expansion in the economic and political arenas is held in check by inward-looking tendencies. The nation-state everywhere is challenged externally by multinational formations and internally by sub-national identities. One of the best examples of such contrary pulls is to be found in Europe where the teething problems of the Union are far from over.

On a much wider scale, we have been warned of dangerous cultural conflicts along the fault lines between civilizations. Moreover, the world is not necessarily getting to be a better place because globalization in its own grooves seems to be unstoppable. As for rampant identity concerns, these are often a throwback to the primordial bonds of culture, language, religion, etc., comprehensively experienced as ethnicity-pulls. In short, our times are marked by hazards and tensions of many sorts, calling for thoughtful responses. In what follows, I will briefly discuss a few formulations of intercultural relations that have been written about lately.

In these discussions, culture is used in its anthropological sense of a way of life. Cultural anthropology, although tainted by its association with colonialism and cultural imperialism, has contributed significantly to our knowledge of the world and humanism by showing that there are many ways of being human. It has effectively challenged absolutism, the idea that it is the others who are barbarians and we alone are civilized. It has promoted the idea of cultural relativism. As an anthropologist has put it, if all we want is home truths, we should stay at home. While the broadening of the mind and the widening of sympathies are obviously desirable goals, there is a risk that attends cultural relativism, that of nihilism, a total loss of values. Dazzled by the variety of cultures, one may end up losing one's foothold in the historically established unities that define our humanity such as respect for life and the right of making significant choices that are an inescapable characteristic of the human condition. To do this, we need the yardsticks that are also called judgments of worth. The setting for the making of choices and judgments of value is that of cultures in contact which could also be in conflict. Given the information explosion and unprecedented connectivity of our times, there are no isolated cultural enclaves anywhere anymore: the few that are there are the exceptions that prove the rule.

One choice that has been offered is that of cooperation. Who would find fault with this, were it not for the fact that it often only means co-existence. It is a passive choice of living and letting live, a back-to-back state of affairs dangerously close to an ecological model of existence. Little thought goes into its definition and maintenance, except perhaps some calculation of immediate advantage. The apparently benign state of co-existence collapses all too easily under stress. We are familiar with the dismay and disbelief that follow the recurrent incidents of inter-community violence in India. 'How could it happen here' the bewildered commentators ask. They recall rather na'vely that the hostile groups had been known to live together peacefully, cooperating in those daily chores that brought them together. They overlook the fact that social arrangements, unless grounded in deeper understandings and shared values, are necessarily fragile.

A second choice that is said to be available to cultures in contact is convergence. Like co-existence, it seems at first blush an attractive idea, a working out of the details of co-operation, but its attractiveness is deceptive. It is an old idea and has had many enunciators including those who spoke of the White Man's burden, or those (like Marx) who invited the non-Western nations to see their own future in the image of the industrialized West of the 19th century, or those who (in the manner of Max Weber) proclaimed the inevitable worldwide triumph of the European Enlightenment, with rationalization as the core process.

In the middle of the 20th century, the economic, political and cultural programmes of a homogenized world came packaged as modernization or development. Modernization theorists, development experts and national elites joined hands in helping 'old societies' to become 'new nations' through socio-economic development along the capitalist/liberal or socialist paths. Half a century later we may hope we have learnt at least three lessons. First, the models of modernization/ development were homogenizing and hegemonic in character, and convergence spells unequal distribution of power today as it did then; second, the models offered the so-called modernizing and developing societies futures that would always find them in transition, trying to catch up with the 'exemplars'; third, and most importantly, things have not turned out exactly as the 'programmers' (foreign and native) had predicted they would.

At the beginning of the 21st century we are headed towards a world of multiple modernities. Western modernity is not the only authentic model as the Japanese were perhaps the first people to demonstrate. This does not mean that all the misleading signposts have been removed and all the 'saviours' of the world have retired. But we must not make the mistake of treating the historical experience of the West as irrelevant. There is no turning back from the use of modern technologies in the conduct of everyday life, and this requires certain institutional and value adjustments that are imperative, and for which the West provides not the blueprints but instructive reference points. Modernity is not a closed project; it is (in Leszek Kolakowski's words) 'on endless trial'.

The third option, besides co-existence and convergence, that is mentioned only to be rejected is the clash of cultures or civilizations. If by clash we mean mutual destruction, then it certainly is not the way to follow. But clash can also connote disagreement, and disagreements could lead to critical reflection on one's cultural tradition as well as a questioning, but not negative, attitude towards other cultures. The point is that the recognition of gaps between cultural perspectives need not necessarily lead to the breakdown of communication or to inimical clashes. There can also be the bridging of gaps, 'the merger of horizons'. Cultures are best understood and appreciated, I suggest, through mutual interpretation. This points the way to cultural pluralism, which is the basis for multiple modernities. Gandhi's position on religiousness provides an excellent lead to cultural pluralism. To say that religious tolerance means recognition of the truthfulness (or validity) of every religion in its own context was not a good enough idea for him. What he showed by his own thinking and practice was that to be more wholly and wholesomely religious, one must learn from other religions whatever is missing in one's own tradition. His repeated acknowledgement of the Sermon on the Mount is well known.

Expanding Gandhi's notion of religiousness, we could speak of participatory cultural pluralism. This implies that no one living within the limits of his or her own culture is fully human: other cultures too are needed for this to happen. If Gandhi's ideas sound old fashioned, let me restate them in the words of Paul Ricoeur. In the context of providing cultural substance to the experiment of the European Union, he has called for 'multiple readings of tradition', 'exchange of memories', and 'forgiveness'. These are ideas that are good enough for India too and indeed for the world. They stand for a dialogue, not hegemonistic convergence or clash, of cultures.

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