Sunday, February 6, 2005

Postmodern Pluralism and the Rise of Fundamentalism

For the last two days (February 4th & 5th), I was attending a conference - Postmodernism:Theory and Practice - organized by the Mumbai University English Teachers' Association (MUETA) at the Kalina campus of the University of Mumbai.

The keynote address of the conference was given by Prof. Aijaz Ahmad, the well-known theorist, cultural critic, and academician. In his speech he elucidated on a number of facets of Postmodernism vis-a-vis Modernism. He also questioned some of the stances and postures adopted by Postmodernism. I found his criticism of the concept of Pluralism in postmodernism particularly thought-provoking.

Postmodernism, as a movement, is all-inclusive allowing the existence of many different (and often opposing) ideas, theories, and cultures at the same time. Unfortunately this acceptance of plurality - of other ideas and cultures is unquestioned in postmodernism.

What it means (Prof. Ahmad pointed out) is that while different cultures are a part of postmodernity, none of the cultures can be questioned or critiqued by an outsider.

The reasoning behind this is as follows:
To understand a particular culture, a person has to be a part of the culture, has to be brought up in that culture. Postmodernism posits that outsiders, because they lack the intimate understanding of that particular culture, are not in a position to question or criticize the practices of that culture. Postmodernism assumes that even the rational faculty of humans is a result of, and is influenced by the culture that they are brought up in. Therefore as outsiders lack the same "common reason" they are not in a position to criticize - they are not allowed to criticize.

Postmodernism thus glorifies diversity for the sake of diversity. It doesn't allow outsiders to engage it in a dialogue. Postmodernism allows outsiders to merely discuss a culture; it doesn't allow them to suggest changes that can make it better.

Prof. Ahmad pointed out that such a posture on pluralism (in the context of the real world), has now dwindled into a stance where people are afraid of criticizing other cultures for the practices that they think are not good or which can be improved if they are modified. He also pointed out that a culture will not accept criticism or suggestions from an outsider because the outsider, according to them, is not in a position to do so. This refusal of engaging in a dialogue is what keeps cultures from enriching and growing.

He then let the audience draw its own conclusions from it.

What he was trying to say is something akin to this:
I know Bihar is in big trouble - that it is a failed state. Law and order has ceased to exist . . .blah, blah, blah. But I cannot criticize Bihar for what it is since I am an outsider to its way of life, to its culture. There is no common ground, no "common reason" and therefore I cannot understand Bihar's way of life.
And even if I were to offer a criticism and some suggestions, Bihar wouldn't recognize them or even take any notice of them because they have come from an outsider with no understanding of the Bihari culture.

It is the second part of the above example that worries me more. What it means is that cultures and ideas are growing insular. It means that no culture or idea can be questioned -- because the proponents know that what they are doing is right, that the others can never understand because they are outsiders and are different.

And we wonder why fundamentalism is on a rise.

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