Saturday, 4 December, 2021

Overcoming The Cultural Cringe Essential

Dev Raj Dahal

The ability of individuals to carry on social learning of tradition, ideals, norms, habits and symbols and its transmission to posterity shapes a nation’s culture and adjustment to predictable behaviour. De-acculturation, by contrast, breeds anomies and inferiority of one’s own culture defined as cultural cringe. The injection of modernity in Nepal helped its leaders, political pundits, policy makers and writers to internalise the Western epistemological order in both context and reference and apply its learning, tools and technology to the realities of native society considering its past prime enemy of progress.

Infusion of alien ideas
Leo E. Rose and Martin Landau argue that after the onset of democracy, intellectuals’ receptivity allowed donor agencies to transplant into Nepal the principles of “administration, management and organisation based upon Western concepts of efficiency, economy and rational decision-making.” Modernization, guided from the bureaucracy, steadily eroded the clout of old landed, educated elites, their dominant social status and their say in national policies.
Now, the Nepal’s constitution, National Planning Commission papers and educational curricula are full of fads, concepts and ideas of the Western origin what Clifford Greetz calls “experience-distant” for the Nepalis as they are not well indigenised to fit native condition. This infusion of unpractical idea of rationality into Hindu-Buddhist and native societies without appropriating its own dialogical habit for testing their suitability assumed the Western nations a superior model of progress to be copied.
Scholar Harka Gurug says, “Implosion of ideas does become a matter of concern when one realises the overexposure of Nepali intelligentsia to alien concepts in contrast to their ignorance of native reality.” He finds their reliance on outside influence and advice “dictated by prevailing trend rather than the country’s need.” In a world where cross-cultural fertilisation of knowledge has become a trend only cultural talent can hone confidence in the adaptation of human nature. But the disjuncture between the idioms of Nepali laws couched in the fit of rights and incapacity of its progress to animate basic decency have only jerked the leaders with the recoil of trendy ire.
The craze and caricature of ideas, rights, policies and laws hurled the Nepalis into all the grandeur and seduction of modernity opening to a stress between the belongingness to native values and alienation from it with no moral reflection and accountability for policy flaws and failures. It thus manufactured a split identity of modern Nepali elites in their thinking and behaviour exposing themselves to the cultural cringe, a feeling of inferiority of one’s own culture and knowledge before others. Now they seem being torn between Nepal and the West, between passivity and passion, duty and free will and between ancient wisdom and modern lure.
The expert judgment of native society solely by the social science criteria of rationality or ideological rationality of political leaders, however, in no way represented Nepali people’s aspiration and dignity beyond a crave for material goods. The first one refused to learn from the experience of varied life of Nepalis and the second distorted the representation of native condition and thus barely contributed to enrich the mainstay of life. This has only inverted native practices which defy the binary values of the East and the West against a “cosmic illusion, a lila, where liberated mind (from ego, prejudice, hatred, hypocrisy and the temporal life) discovers all the species in the interconnection of life, not taking humans as absolute end.
Cultural revolt symbolised in Guthi and Indrajatra stems from Nepalis reactive anxiety. The modernised elites consider that the Western stimulus is required to dissolve their traditional traits and a sense of national claustrophobia - a natural fear of closed spaces and huge landmass of neighbours. The patriotic elites fear its costs for national sovereignty. The captive ones easily forget the competitive edge of the nation that ensured the nation’s independent resilience and locate self in semi-colonial mentality. The outpouring of tourists and scholars in Nepal reflects the view to get the view of what they have lost in their own nations. Eminent poet Laxmi Prasad Devkota made a searching critique on the inferiority complex of Nepalis in his essay “Is Nepal Small?” which projects a great message to boost national confidence.
Charismatic leader B. P. Koirala too bemoaned about upstarts’ inferiority complex while King Birendra refused to accept Nepal’s position as a buffer and detested thought-conditioning strategy of international regime - “Nepal is poor and daily becoming poorer.” Now cultural cringe is obvious in almost all party leaders, rights-based organisations, such as human rights, trade unions, teachers’ unions, women’s associations, business chamber, lawyers association, etc. which borrow ideas from abroad and seek to base the Nepali state on “rational choice,” social contract and competitive or adversarial, not cooperative mode of progress.
The ideological analysis of Nepali society and the state by leaders of political parties outside the frame of its genealogy of knowledge is another sign of cultural cringe. It has evoked a tension between the nation’s identity and the affinity it entailed to India, China and the West and growing lure to the learning of their names, language, dress, values, art, food, interests and ideology epitomised by modernity. In this sense, modern Nepali elites and leaders seem to be the product of “conditioned reflexes” of various worlds rather than an outgrowth of native reality. It would be absurd to insist that the subtle differences nourished by Nepalis have nothing to do with their dislike of micromanagement or with Nepal’s clear inferiority complex.
Nepal’s inclusive, secular, federal and democratic republic identity seeks to preserve its native traditions and religions without making them the spirit of Nepali state requiring all citizens to conform. Cultural pluralism has not been an obstacle to democracy though there is a vague separation among religion, polity and the state. On the contrary, the effects of Western policies, consumer goods, media, human values and institutional practices have been internalised to such an extent that collective national awareness has become less elemental. A large number of elites have developed a taste, language, culture, knowledge and values, not of their own, but of most advanced nations.
In this pull, it is hard for Nepali leaders to embrace popular culture - music, art, literature, drama, heroes, myths and national symbols - so that young citizens’ preference for civic nationalism is fortified without being prejudiced. The aspiration for strengthened international cooperation means sharing of policy outside the frame of national parliament. In this sense, new legitimacy requires sharing habit and dispelling cultural cringe. The Nepali elites of all strata send their children in the Western schools and universities to be socialised into its culture unreflective of its own. The accusation of elitism, therefore, seems not entirely unfair as the opportunity they leave for ordinary Nepalis trained in public schools is very little. The elite culture that separates itself from the rest conveys a lack of faith in the national vision.
Only the value of citizenship helps those in public education endure the pressure of social mobility eased by their education, exposure and opportunity. Equal job opportunity at home enables them to restore civic pride in national polity. Civic patriotism is the core virtues of citizens involving duty, discipline and loyalty to the nation. In a weak Nepali state torn by parochialism of leadership, democracy risks being inverted if national pride does not serve as glue to nation-building. Post-national attraction of Nepali elites, however, is not a new creation. Since old days, major temples, monasteries, mosques and churches abroad became a site of cultural and religious pilgrimages. Study and job abroad became extra cause.
Most of well off Muslims make a pilgrimage to Mecca, newly baptized top elites to South Korea while there is special attraction of Nepali workers to the Gulf countries, East Asia, Europe, Australia and America. Regular exposures have played a key role in the acculturation to global values. The influx of those elites, including South Korean and Western Christian missionaries question the native beliefs and rituals and inclined Nepali elites towards post-national affection. The recruitment of Nepalis into foreign armies, especially Britain and India as lahurey and UN Peace-keeping, has added another powerful incentive to this affection.
Many landed persons who had served as social elite, money lenders, leaders, teachers and who had the compassion and responsibility to the villagers in time of need migrated to urban nodes. To remain in a village is to deny oneself of all the opportunity concentrated in urban areas and the national powerhouse, Kathmandu, charged with capitalist fervour. Key urban areas are producing the palatial buildings, technological culture, artistic and promotional enterprises and statistics of economic growth. Yet they are atomised and unrelated to the needs of ordinary Nepalis for they are too utilitarian. They display the new alchemy of the enlightenment - law, education, science and economic practices yet they have lost positive yearning for the nation’s ecology, heritage, cultural pride and family dignity, community and statecraft.
Kathmandu now stands something of a favoured island, with material, political and cultural conditions utterly different from the periphery. The further one goes from it, the more powerless one becomes. It evokes a call for regional-national axis of progress. Modernity failed to detribalise and de-stratify the Nepali society, break the wall of class, caste and gender and inspire them to distribute scale of freedom. Many tribes still live nomadic lives on the margin of progress. Other caste, clan-based and ethnic has formed associations for the claim of their sectional interests. To a great extent, modernisation encouraged individualism, rationalism and consumerism.
Nanda R. Shrestha argues that modernisation helped Nepali elites evolve “post-national attitudes and behaviour as they are more concerned about their Western affiliation than their national affirmation and affection.” It has outdated the Nepali intellectuals in knowledge, vision and practice in an ahistorical and asocial style. The current mantra of sustainability is only tantalising. The denial of native mode of thought for utilitarian rational choice has made non-economic aspects of Nepali society irrelevant. It has posed a risk to its free-spirited Nepali character so stoutly guarded for centuries.

Neoliberal drive
The current neo-liberal modernisation drive has emptied the public space, monetised the public good and cut the Nepali parliament’s policy sovereignty as it is imported. The cultural cringe emerges from the incapacity of policy elites and lack of their ability to design, direct, finance and administers policies and projects without external support. It is not clear whether the tension between the traditional practices and modern values is conducive to the creation of a new civic culture in which citizens have ample stake. The wisest path would be to blend its own values and the need of modernity to beat cultural cringe and liberate Nepalis from inhuman determinism.

(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)