28 November, 2015

Connundrums around culture preservation

As a researcher interested in understanding how the Web is shaping the world, studying cultural challenges in India provides enormous insight into issues that the world at large is facing.

India is a country with incredible, innate diversity. This diversity is not something that is brought by immigrants joining a great big melting pot, like in the case of the US. Our diversity is innate. It has been there for centuries. There is no larger melting-pot infrastructure that can override and overrule cultural differences. Each cultural group believes they represent the real India.

In addition to myriad languages and cultural practices, there is also diversity in paradigms -- or mental models about how the world works. There is a saying that Indian culture is like a long snake. One end of the snake is in the 21st century, writing software and launching Mars missions; while the other end of the snake lives with a lifestyle that has not changed ever since recorded history.

There are places that pride themselves to live with 19th century values. There are subcultures that are still emotionally attached to 17th century rulers. And then there are tribes like the Jaruwa and the Sentinels who live in a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in secluded islands cut off from the rest of the country.

The question about how or whether to integrate these disparate cultures have been the subject of intense debates.

On the one hand, "cultural preservationists" argue that culture should be preserved as they embody not just practice, but also knowledge that is deeply local and relevant. Culture preservation is also seen as a humane philosophy of governance, in stark contrast to colonialism or imperialism that impose a culture on the population.

But on the other end of the spectrum are "cultural integrationists" who are worried about effects like entrenchment and cultural isolationism, and the social, economic and biological problems it creates. Too much of cultural protection creates an element of isolation and inbreeding that has severe consequences both in the biological as well as cognitive development of the individual.

As an example, following the 26th Dec 2004 tsunami, an Indian Air force helicopter went on a sortie around the Sentinel island in the Nicobar to assess damage to the tribes if any. They reported that the tribes came out in force and shot arrows at the helicopter to drive it away.

Now imagine a young man in that tribe, seeing a helicopter for the first time. His curiosity would likely be aroused to an extent that he would want to explore the world outside. But the strong tribal norms in his culture would have likely prevented him from pursuing his dreams and he would most likely end up learning how to spear fish like all others.

Cultural isolationism, and even milder forms like cultural entrenchment (cultures having too little interaction with the outside world) lead to problems of "local minima" where there is a lot of resistance to new ideas and practices that could potentially hold solutions to their long standing problems.

Entrenchment also fans ideologies of "us versus them" and poses a hurdle towards understanding universal human values. A collection of entrenched subcultures would likely nurture distrust, xenophobia and discrimination across subcultures.

On the other hand, cultural integration is not without its problems either. The Sentinels for example, are known to be extremely vulnerable to some of the diseases that are common in the rest of the world. As their tribe have never faced these diseases, their bodies have not developed the required immunity. Forcing them to integrate with the rest of the country, might actually put them in mortal risk.

In addition, often times "integration" simply means "homogenization". A stronger subculture usually bullies itself on the rest, in the name of integration. Like the term "globalization" getting equated to "Mcdonaldization." A city is called "globalized" if it has McDonald's or Pizza Huts. But it is not considered necessary for a "globalized" city to also have a Darshini or an MTR or a Saravana Bhavan.

Similarly, it is said that Bollywood is a great engine of national integration. In a Bollywood movie, the actors could be from any part of India -- say Gujarat or Bengal or Tamil Nadu or Chattisgarh. But ultimately, in their hearts, they are all Punjabi, and break out into a bhangda at weddings! :-)

While homogenization in movies is likely benign, when it comes to cultural integration it is just as dangerous, if not more, than cultural isolationism or entrenchment. It leads to eradication of a highly pertinent local knowledge, practices and paradigms.

This is exemplified by an anecdote mentioned in our convocation address by a professor from IIT Kharagpur. As part of their outreach efforts, they were given the mandate to bring "development" to tribal areas in their state. However, despite several efforts, they found that the tribals were opposing digging of borewells that would mitigate water shortage in their area. When asked why are they opposing, they had this to say: "We consider the Earth as our mother and drink whatever water she has to offer on her surface. We do not believe in injecting her with a syringe and pulling out her blood, if she does not provide enough water!

The profundity of this statement stumped the folks wanting to bring "development" to them. The tribals were not asking for water. They were asking to get back their lifestyle where they lived in harmony with nature, and not in confrontation with it!

In their worldview, nature has personal boundaries too. The water that is below the surface -- it is believed that nature keeps it for its own functioning, while the water that is on the surface is what it provides for us to live on.

A worldview that establishes personal boundaries for nature and treats it as an interested party in any decision-making is solely missing in our "developed", "globalized" worldview.