Wednesday, 27 October, 2021

How Culture Shapes Politics

Dr. Tulasi Acharya

Without culture, and the relative freedom it implies, society, even when perfect, is but a jungle. This is why any authentic creation is a gift to the future: Albert Camus.
There are many definitions about culture. In brief, cultures are our values. Cultural variations inform people differently, so is the understanding and perception of people about the world. As Camus said in the statement above, cultures are essentials to authenticate the society, but it also implies “relative freedom.” If our culture cannot guarantee our freedom, such culture has no meaning. The freedom is associated with the culture of freedom of expression, of the right to live without fear, of being critical and creative and imaginative, of speaking our mind and the like.

Thus, we elect our politicians and have policies in place to guarantee the freedom, to put some bad cultures in check and balance. Although the policies are formulated to address social and cultural problems, we fail to formulate such policies to deal with such problems due to the way politicians and policymakers think and understand our culture and its significance in our lives. Following what we have witnessed, seen, observed and learned culturally, we seldom question the bad culture, thus hindering all kinds of progress—social or cultural or political.

Nepal is such a place where diverse cultures are into play because its geography, ecologically speaking, is unique. However, some of the cultures are in common across the three different ecological belts, i.e. mountain, hill and the Terai. As we know, our behaviours, actions, attitudes, perceptions are based on our upbringing or the culture where we are raised. We define who we are and our ideals based on what we eat, what we wear and other cultural values that are in practice around us. We learn those cultures looking at and observing them around us, witnessing and observing them in front of us, listening to our parents and grandparents preaching about such cultures.

Such observations are deeply rooted in our brain, and we feel the culture in our heart; we assume that going beyond such cultural practices is something unusual and bizarre and unethical. Culture guides our ideals and the way of life, demeanours, manners and philosophy of what is good and what is bad. Whatever we consider as bad might be something very good for people from another culture. A simple example could be, especially for Hindus, because the majority of Nepali are Hindus, eating beef is considered something sinful. Thus, someone raised in Hindu culture can hardly think of consuming beef in their meal. Similarly, we join our hands to elders, instead of shaking and that already creates a hierarchy between the older and younger, so the younger one, no matter how visionary s/he is, always hesitates to share or boldly bring their perceptive with/in front of the elder ones.

We hardly encourage younger people to put forth front their perspectives. This culture is in practice in all strata of Nepali society, whether that be in the field of academia that always remains hierarchical, creating an unhealthy gap between teachers and students, or in many bureaucratic institutions, or even in politics.
Our politics and the way it is running works like a culture that teaches us morals such as loyalty, tolerance, patience, faith, and dependability. We are hardly taught to question the authority or the person in power unlike the culture in European countries where appreciation is received for being critical of the person in authority. We hardly accept the change, for example the one — who is attached to one party and the history shows his predecessor, including his grandfather and father have been voting for the same party — hesitates to vote for another party even if the leader is more visionary. It is all because the person does not want to break the tradition of remaining in the same political party and wants to continue to keep the legacy of their forefathers. The person does not want to disrespect the tradition of voting for the same political party his parents and grandparents voted for.

Our Nepali cultures place a primary emphasis on tradition and the wisdom is passed down from older generations. Such cultures show a great deal of deference and respect for parents and other elders who are the links to these past sources of knowledge or cultural practices. Such cultural practices play a pivotal role in Nepali politics too. That is the reason why we hardly find a person with strong leadership in Nepali politics. In terms of maintaining a cordial relationship, our culture mentors the rules like how to talk with whom, discouraging direct eye contact while speaking with people in authority, which is just the opposite of European cultures, discouraging a handshake with elders, and so on. A cultural belief is too much eye contact is disrespectful and even confrontational. On the other hand, in the context of American society, not making eye contact can be misconstrued as an indication of insincerity or discomfort.

Our Nepali culture is more of an I-am-the-one-so-none-can-be-critical-of-me-or-speak-bad-about-me kind of culture. This sort of tendency will boast the person in power. In our culture, there is a heightened sense of decorum and politeness to be required when meeting with the person in authority. However, our younger generation these days somewhat become critical of the government, the political party, and the leaders, trying to correct those cultures and thinking out of the box to practice the culture that guarantees people’s “relative freedom.”

Silent cultures
We need to keep such cultures in check and balance to understand how cultures shape politics and policies. Such silent cultures that are taken for granted are powerful to communicate strong messages. Thus, being able to acknowledge such messages may help better understand politics and policies in the making. We tend to say “a picture is worth a thousand words”. Such cultures are like pictures. When analysed its effect and impression upon our lives, we will be able to thoroughly understand the functioning of the society that guides our politics and policies. Politics without good culture is like a jungle that has a place for wild creatures.

(Acharya is an Assistant Professor of English at South Georgia State College, USA)