14 April, 2016

Ideas and identities

For a long time now, I have resisted any effort to bring research on topics like language, culture and history into my lab. It is not that I think that these topics are unimportant. But it is because I think that as a society, we do not have the skill to extract ideas from identity for scholarly perusal.

Topics like language, culture, history etc. are teeming with issues and controversies regarding social and cultural identities. Identity driven politics is an intense element that we endure daily.

A research lab is by definition, a battleground. It is a battleground for ideas, where ideas clash and transform and evolve.

But when identities masquerade as ideas, it spells nothing but trouble.

A clash of ideas is invigorating, dispassionate and impersonal. We end up energised and enthusiastic after a successful clash of ideas.

A clash of identities is disspiriting, passionate and deeply personal. We end up feeling battered and bruised after a clash of identities.

Much of the issues in academic environments (including the recent JNU controversy) are because of our collective inability to separate ideas from identity.

A clash of ideas makes no noise and is hardly apparent to anyone other than those involved in the clash. A clash of identities on the other hand, spills over to the streets, gets paraded on news hour, along with a whole lot of other dispiriting elements.

Ideas do not have boundaries, while identities do. Cultures that are supposedly enemies of one another, watch each other so much with trepidation, that they end up exchanging and adopting ideas from one another.

One of the worst things one can do to subjugate others is to impose our idea of their identity on them. And that is what happens quite routinely, in studies of language, culture and history. Sure, there objective elements of language, culture and history; but these things are also deeply personal. Oh, and let us not even talk about religion.

The origin of language and culture is the human mind. The language that we speak is created by us in our minds. We only borrow linguistic constructs like vocabulary, metaphors, etc. from whatever we interact with, to help in reducing the effort in building our language.

Similarly, culture is an emergent characteristic of our values and the way we interact with others when driven by our values. We borrow cultural constructs from the environment, but it is we who create our culture.

If an alien virus were to infect the human race such that, the human mind were to stop functioning and stop interpreting our world, language and culture would cease to exist.

The same is true with history and religion. We all have our personal history and a personal sense of spirituality. The objective elements of history and religion we study are driven by clash of identities to result in some dominant idea.

None of the above arguments imply that we should stop studying subjects like language, culture, history and religion. If anything, these subjects require a lot more discipline than the study of the impersonal physical world or the elegant mathematical world. A discipline that requires one to separate ideas from identities and allow the ideas to clash in a way that is elucidating and empowering, rather than passionate and disspiriting.

Sure, all of us like to believe that we have such a discipline. But allow me to be sceptical of such over confidence.

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