Bad Legacy

A reader sent me the link to this interesting item in the Guardian. The subhead starts things right off – ‘Colonial attitudes linger, finding their most xenophobic expression among liberal defenders of free speech.’ Uh oh.

The argument is basically a ‘taboo’ argument. Every culture has some sacred things, which should be beyond criticism, and certainly beyond mockery. In the UK, it’s the Queen that’s sacred; all cultures have ’em.

Neither is rationalism alien to eastern cultures. Science and mathematics thrived both in the great age of Hindu civilisation and Islamic ascendancy. Eastern cultures have long traditions of theatre, reform movements and of absorbing criticism. But when a creative work offends the sacred, it loses its message.

Well, that’s debatable.

Sikhism believes that the rational is as speculative, variable and subjective as any other construction of belief. From that philosophical premise, the sacred cannot be dismissed. Jacques Derrida similarly analyses the subjectivity of rationalism. Further, Sikhism holds that language is limited. The Guru Granth Sahib uses several tools of communication including poetry, music and pragmatic symbolism. Again, a 20th-century western philosopher – Foucault – has also articulated the limits of language.

And therefore ‘Behzti’ had to be stopped? Not sure I get the connection.

The sacred may not make sense in the constructed paradigms of rationalism, but it sustains people through traumatic times, as well as giving strength to the successful. Offending the sacred wounds those whose hopes and culture are orientated around the subjective inscrutability of sacred icons. Fifty years after the end of colonialism, most British people are comfortable living with people of different colours. But many are still uncomfortable with different cultures. The legacy of colonialism lingers, now disguised as a defence of “free speech”. Ironically, it finds its most xenophobic expression among liberals.

What if the defence of free speech is actually not disguised colonialism but in fact a defence of free speech? How can you be sure it’s the one rather than the other? Are you sure you can tell the difference? Or are you in fact using the dread phrase ‘legacy of colonialism’ as an intimidation-device.

Now if you want to see someone else, this time a ‘Westerner,’ take on the dratted old legacy of colonialism, here’s a fun item. It’s at Salon, so that means clicking through an ad, but it’s worth it. The item you get is really quite staggering. This link was also sent by a reader. The item is an advice column, the question is from a guy in love with a woman who can’t bring herself to introduce him to her family because he’s not of the right religion or ethnic background. The columnist pins his ears back. The columnist gives that man what for. The columnist is a piece of work.

Consider how you have been indoctrinated since birth in a secular, scientific, cosmopolitan faith. Cosmopolitanism teaches us to be broad and accepting, but it’s easiest to be broad and accepting of others who are also broad and accepting. When the other seems genuinely narrow and parochial, we see that narrowness and parochialism as a barrier to some other higher, truer reality — our Western reality.

Very true. It is easier to be broad and accepting of others who are also broad and accepting. I’ve noticed that myself. Similarly it’s easier to be kind to people who are also kind, and polite to people who are also polite, and considerate of people who are also considerate. In a like manner it’s easier to be a pissy rotten bastard to people who are also pissy rotten bastards.

In order to see things a little differently, try to imagine that she is not being held prisoner by a narrow-minded family and culture but rather is struggling to preserve her identity against the onslaught of your intoxicating Western-ness, your powerful banjo of I, your hypnotic gaze, your KitchenAid mixer of desire and promise, your Cadillac and your Camels, your plantations and riding mowers and frontier hats, the echo of imperial riches in your thick, sweet voice, your arrogant swagger…

Wha…? Cadillac? Plantations?? The guy didn’t mention any Cadillac or riding mowers, let alone any plantations. I like purple writing now and then, if it’s done well, but there is a limit.

For the sake of argument, consider how innocently our genocidal forefathers went about curing the world of its savagery, and consider how harshly they later were judged. Consider how with progressively fine gradations each generation codifies its righteousness. Consider even the possibility that you may be in fact a wretched criminal in the eyes of history…You don’t need to lie to yourselves or to anyone else. If you do the hard work of accepting how closely she, her family and her culture are knitted together in one collective, diffused identity, you may come to feel a little differently about what we in the West revere as “telling the truth.”

Aaarrrggghhh! The kind reader who sent the item said this: ‘I’ve been enjoying b&w on and off for a while now. I made the mistake of reading this, was completely deflated with revulsion – and thought “what would Ophelia Benson think?”‘ Well, that’s what I think – a loud guttural inarticulate scream of disgust, that’s what.

It’s not that I think there’s no such thing as a legacy of colonialism, or that I think ‘Westerners’ are never arrogant or intolerant. But – oh well. You get the idea.

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