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Thursday, February 23, 2006

About choosing your "culture"

Amartya Sen, Nobel prize winner in '98, was a writer on economics and poverty who transformed my thinking back in 1983 when I was doing my Masters.

Now he writes words of wisdom about mulitculturalism, following on from the confusion of the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed:
One of the central issues concerns how human beings are seen. Should they be categorized in terms of inherited traditions, particularly the inherited religion, of the community in which they happen to have been born, taking that unchosen identity to have automatic priority over other affiliations involving politics, profession, class, gender, language, literature, social involvements, and many other connections? Or should they be understood as persons with many affiliations and associations, whose relative priorities they must themselves choose (taking the responsibility that comes with reasoned choice)? Also, should we assess the fairness of multiculturalism primarily by the extent to which people from different cultural backgrounds are "left alone," or by the extent to which their ability to make reasoned choices is positively supported by the social opportunities of education and participation in civil society? There is no way of escaping these rather foundational questions if multiculturalism is to be fairly assessed.

He goes on to write some hilarious experiences of his life as a hybrid in Britain, including one where he is describing the way Britain has changed:
The distance traveled has been in many ways quite extraordinary. I recollect (with some fondness, I must admit) how worried my first landlady in Cambridge was about the possibility that my skin color might come off in the bath (I had to assure her that my hue was agreeably sturdy and durable), and also the care with which she explained to me that writing was a special invention of Western civilization ("The Bible did it"). For someone who has lived--intermittently but for long periods--through the powerful evolution of British cultural diversity, the contrast between Britain today and Britain half a century ago is just amazing.

And he articulates something much better than me when he asks if a person is born with their culture:
A person may decide to seek closeness with more than one of these pre-defined cultures or, just as plausibly, with none. Also, a person may well decide that her ethnic or cultural identity is less important to her than, say, her political convictions, or her professional commitments, or her literary persuasions. It is a choice for her to make, no matter what her place is in the strangely imagined "federation of cultures."

He concludes by reinforcing the difference between multiculturalism and plural monoculturalism.
There is a real need to re-think the understanding of multiculturalism, so as to avoid conceptual disarray about social identity and also to resist the purposeful exploitation of the divisiveness that this conceptual disarray allows and even, to some extent, encourages. What has to be particularly avoided (if the foregoing analysis is right) is the confusion between a multiculturalism that goes with cultural liberty, on the one side, and plural monoculturalism that goes with faith-based separatism, on the other. A nation can hardly be seen as a collection of sequestered segments, with citizens being assigned places in predetermined segments.

Is the word "diversity" US discourse for multiculturalism and does it stand the same test?

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Blogger Joitske said...

Thanks, this is very interesting. But on being born with a culture- or chosing - I do think your family and environment make a mark in determining your deeper convictions (but not that it can not change, working with lots of different cultures already challenges it and makes you more flexible). Maybe I misunderstood that part- but it sounded like you can choose whatever identity or culture around- I don't think that's the case.

2/23/2006 11:29:00 AM  
Blogger bev trayner said...

Joitske ... I guess I couldn't decide one day to take on the culture of the Eskimos ... say.

But I identify with what Sen says about having choices within the national, ethnic, academic, professional worlds that we live in.

2/23/2006 06:01:00 PM  
Blogger bev trayner said...

Just trying out Cocomment. Nothing to do with the post!

2/24/2006 11:08:00 AM  

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