One of the aspects of Human Rights is Cultural Rights. What is culture? In simple words, ‘culture is a way of life’. Anthropologist Edward B Tylor defines culture as a ‘complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society’. This definition was considered important, as it was for the first time the word ‘culture’ was taken in the universal sense, breaking barriers of civilized and uncivilized distinctions. Humans are capable of adapting to any culture they live in.
For that matter, we all are born in some culture or the other and if we go by this definition of culture, we all have a way of life. Then it really doesn’t matter if we were encultured into it or we got accultured to it. According to the standards of Human Rights, we all need to respect one’s culture and one’s way of living. When we fail to understand cultures of other people, we land up making judgments and making false allegations on others. The approach we have towards others needs to be culture sensitive. This is how we can ensure the true spirit of cultural pluralism. Individuals who are known to take interest in culture perform well in social relationships than others. They are also able to connect with global cultures and can translate ideas that are based on culture. They are culturally sensitive and engage in dialogue respecting cultural diversity. Many development programmes have failed, as the aspects of culture are not taken into consideration while designing the programme. Thus, cultural studies are vital to understand people’s behavior in society. Cultural Pluralism is not an intellectual discourse but is a celebration of diversity in the human society. Cultural pluralism is a term used when smaller groups within a larger society maintain their unique cultural identities, where their values and practices are accepted by the wider culture provided they are consistent with the laws and values of the wider society.
Why I feel dialogue in cultural pluralism is important? We often take children to the museum to introduce them to historical happenings, artifacts and along with all possible historical facts, we introduce them to so called primitive cultures. The concept of ‘primitive cultures’ unfortunately has not been erased from our minds. The impressions of ‘the other’ still reign in our society. With a huge number of migration in our world today, ethnicity and multiculturalism became a sensitive issue where dialogue is needed. Recently while visiting a mall, I encountered a five year old boy running all around the place and finally his mother got hold of him. Looking all annoyed at him she said, “Why do you act like an Adivasi?” (Adivasi means indigenous people in India, a literal meaning would be adi-original, vasi-inhabitants). When I saw this, my next question as a child could be, “Who are Adivasis? Are they like the bad guys?”. Here, the child has constructed a mental image of indigenous people in all innocence. What amused me the most was this so called educated and well to do lady who confidently made this statement in public. Just wondering if I was an adivasi how would I react to this aspect of cultural pluralism. Another common statement that I often heard while growing up was, ‘people of X, Y, Z community are not trust worthy, are insensitive, are intelligent, are characterless, are greedy, are poor, are lazy, are money minded’ and so on. I as a child probably didn’t understand much, but when I met people from these communities, I always had this tape running at the back of my mind. These social constructions are so difficult to unlearn. Where do you think all these thoughts operate from? Do you think we really understand the essence of Cultural Pluralism? The fact that we till date make these statements in our day to day lives itself is a sign of our poor attitude towards cultural pluralism.
In India I often find people praising the diversity of cultures and religion, but failing to respect their fellow citizens. Many local fights in India may be in residential places, work places or local trains, and they often have the elements of a blame game pointing out to characteristics of one’s culture. Likewise, there are some jokes or characters in movies and on television that build cultural stereotypical attitudes. Media has been very much influential in this area, most of the time being culturally insensitive. For example: a South Indian always has an accent, a Parsi always is a nerd, a Sardar is known as a foolish angry man or a person who is helpful, a Christian is a drunk, A Muslim is poor or a terrorist, a Gujarati is business minded and rich, an indigenous community is always helpless and in poverty, a farmer is a simple man and illiterate etc. Most of these are also associated with gender roles in these communities.
In an anthropological perspective, the true locus of culture is the human mind. We often are in the process of reflexivity by which we create a social reality through our thoughts and actions, and most of the time we are not even aware of the process. We feel insecure as minorities, as indigenous communities, as people of ethnic groups in foreign countries. If only we truly understood the meaning of cultural pluralism we would have not been so conscious of our cultural identity or would have not been ethnocentric. There is a universal language for humans hidden under the blanket of cultural pluralism and that language is human emotions. Our emotions are universal though our way of expression may vary. We can understand the loss of a dear one, we can understand what a broken relationship is, we can understand the joy of being a family, and we can understand the value of an agricultural land for a farmer. It is only because we can connect to human emotions, we feel united as one human family. When we develop this attitude in our societies, cultural pluralism will certainly be a boon to our world.