The culture trap
CULTURE is a strange thing. It is desperately difficult to define, and yet at the same time very easily reified.
For Pakistanis bred on the two-nation theory culture is often equated with religion; many of us rhetorically lay claim to a uniform ‘Islamic’ culture. In practice, however, we all wear extremely diverse cultural practices on our sleeves. In fact, we spend a great deal of time reinforcing cultural stereotypes about one another.
There are, for instance, few gatherings in non-Pakhtun households that conclude without the inevitable joke about the thick-skinned and slow ‘Pathan’. Notwithstanding our limited interaction with Punjabi Sikhs since Partition, latifas celebrating the intelligence of Guru Nanak’s followers are also commonplace.
Native Urdu speakers often sit together laughing and/or crying about the accented Urdu of the uncultured plebeians with whom they have been forced to share a country.
Such banter is good and well up to a point. Beyond fun and games such cultural ‘othering’ becomes offensive, and when politicised, potentially racist and violent.
It is this politicisation of difference that explains what is happening in our biggest urban centre. Karachi, the country within a country, the proverbial melting pot, the city that boasts about its cosmopolitanism, stands badly divided. Ethnic/racial/cultural profiling and violence are a daily affair.
Xenophobic tendencies have become increasingly widespread in Balochistan, as indigenous culture comes to be viewed as irreconcilable with that of the non-Baloch, and Punjabis in particular. With the passage of time it is eminently possible that the cultural differences that have always existed between Seraikis and Punjabis morph into conflict. The list could go on.
Confrontation between different ‘cultures’ is ostensibly as old as settled human society itself. Europe’s Dark Ages, for instance, are still often understood by most laypeople as a period of incessant war along religious and sectarian lines. We are prone to thinking about our relationship with the ‘West’ in exclusively cultural terms. Even the competition between Western and Chinese capitalism is often depicted as a deeper cultural tug of war that can be traced back a few thousand years.
Such an understanding of the dynamics of conflict in human history amounts, in my understanding, to a culture trap. By this I mean the tendency to reduce multi-dimensional conflicts to exclusively cultural ones, thereby exacerbating the divide between ‘them’ and ‘us’.
Historical study can confirm that cultural differences partially explain the emergence and escalation of conflict, but it is more often than not the case that other factors are just as, if not more, important.
There are enough examples in the history of this country to verify this hypothesis. Almost all of the ethno-national movements that have challenged the Pakistani state over the past 65 years have sought to redress perceived political and economic injustices in the first instance.
Autonomy of culture, including language, has also been an important motivating factor but by no means the primary one, and definitely not a stand-alone factor.
Unfortunately, but not necessarily counter-intuitively, the consolidation of non-egalitarian political and economic structures deepens perceptions that ‘we’ are being oppressed by ‘them’.
This is why increasingly bitter multi-dimensional conflicts come to be articulated in increasingly black and white, cultural terms. As resistance takes on a more cultural idiom, dominant forces in turn become more defensive about their own ‘culture’.
All of this othering flies in the face of actually existing reality. As I mentioned at the outset, culture is notoriously difficult to pin down inasmuch as it is not easily identifiable with one specific practice or symbol. Perhaps more importantly, culture is ever-changing. Even major markers of culture such as languages have evolved over time, both in the form of dialects and their overall linguistic structure.
In short, while culture is often perceived as perennial in nature, it is anything but. Economic and social change, evolution of (or establishment of entirely new) institutional structures and a whole host of ‘non-cultural’ factors have a great bearing on the evolution of culture.
Indeed, what I want to emphasise most of all is the fact that cultures often overlap, influence one another, and give rise to entirely new hybrid forms that would not be recognisable to the original bearers.
The problem, as ever, is that the simplification of reality and its depiction in exclusively ‘cultural’ terms has become a matter of course for a large number of opinion-makers at many different levels of state and society.
The media, educational establishment and religious institutions in particular have perfected the culture trap, and resist any alternative worldviews in which culture is problematised to a much greater extent.
And this happens not only in Pakistan. ‘Us’ and ‘them’ binaries rule the roost in many other countries, including the United States. The western academy has been afflicted by ‘culturalism’ for the past two decades as part of the larger aesthetic movement that has become known the world over as post-modernism.
Much of the scholarly interest in ‘culture’ has, of course, been motivated by a desire to redress ethnocentric biases inherent to much of the modern social science and humanities discourse. Yet there is little question that this ‘cultural turn’ in the academic world has coincided with wider political and ideological shifts in the post-Cold War era.
Coming back to our very unique context, it is remarkable that the idea that we are the bearers of a unitary culture centred on religious identity continues to be so dominant in this country, given just how divided we actually are in practice.
This rather glaring contradiction would suggest that we spend far too little time reflecting on the fuzziness of culture, even while we spend a great deal of time actually reinforcing cultural differences in practice.
In the final analysis, we need to accept the differen-ces that do exist between us in cultural terms, yet not insist that these differences should necessarily precipitate conflict.
It is the pervasive and persistent inequities of our political and economic life that produce so much of the conflict that we see around us.
By falling into the culture trap we not only obfuscate political and economic exploitation but also push one another into clinging to unchanging conceptions of culture.
It is thus that we become willing to sacrifice everything in the name of protecting culture, even though there is no culture throughout history that has remained untouched by the objective forces of change.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.