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     Volume 4 Issue 5 | July 23, 2004 |

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What's brewing in the "Melting Pot"?
The Dilemma of Global Cultrue

Imran H. Khan

Culture is the learned, shared and transmitted information or facts from one generation to the next. It is the behaviour, learned and practiced, that defines and distinguishes one society from another. Culture gives individuals an anchoring point, a sense of belonging and thus, an identity. This identity demands adherence to certain rules of conduct. But what happens when the barriers are broken; when there are no boundaries between two cultures and when people are faced with the question: where do we belong? Debates may shuttle among economists, administrators and the academia but it is the ordinary people, the men and women in the streets who are experiencing and metamorphosing the effects of globalisation.

For the consumer the local markets are bursting with cars, cosmetics and confectionery among numerous other goods. Almost everything that is produced in one country can be made available to another country, even in another continent. The transfer of human capital is also on the rise. The driving power behind all this seems to be 'cable television'. It is not restricted to urban dwellers but penetrates the community centres of the deepest rural areas. Not only are we seeing what other cultures are like, we are also seeing how they behave, how they dress, what they eat and what they do.

Celebrities have always been role models, if not with their life styles, at least their hairstyles and wardrobe. In the past many fashion conscious people looked westwards for fashion but their sights were set nearer home. Now they've been teleported much further west and hair styles of Julia Roberts, Jennifer Aniston and David Beckham are turning up in the elite circles of Dhaka society. Not to be outdone, tokais in the little alleys of Dhaka and other little street urchins can be seen singing tunes from Michael Jackson's songs and emulating 'moonwalks'.

It is not just monkeys who fit the adage "Monkey see monkey do." Put people in their place and we act likewise. But, unlike monkeys, we have the ability to mutate the concepts or ideas and adapt them into our own. A clear example of this is in the world of fashion, where the mundane and lowly <>fatua has leaped to the heights of fashion. It has lost its gender restriction and young boys and girls (and sometimes even their parents...) can be seen flaunting multicoloured, tie-dyed, printed, painted (and at times pulverized) fatuas on top of jeans or pants. The ultimate is the fatua made out of the rainbow coloured gamcha, thanks to Bibi Russell. Someone was heard to remark the other day that they saw a foreign fashion show where all the models had gamchas wound around their head. Our farmers and rickshaw drivers can now be seen as trendsetters and the pioneers of this fashion. There were times, so my granny told me, when T-shirts were frowned upon not because they were too casual, but because they were seen as a depiction of Western culture. But nowadays, all wardrobes are considered incomplete without at least a few of these.

The "Human Development Report" by UNDP (2004) has efficiently summed up the contradiction of globalisation in the following words. "For many people this new diversity is exciting, even empowering, but for some it is disquieting and disempowering. They fear that their country is becoming fragmented, their values lost as growing numbers of immigrants bring new customs and international trade and modern communications media invade every corner of the world, displacing local culture." (p85)

The report outlines four principles which underlie multiculturalism in globalisation. The first principle makes an important distinction between preserving tradition and protecting cultural liberty. "Preserving tradition can help to keep the options open, but people should not be bound in an immutable box called "a culture". The report emphasises the difference between tradition and freedom of choice. Tradition and cultural conservatism can restrict people's options for adopting a different lifestyle. "There is much to cherish in traditional values and practices and much that is consonant with universal values of human rights. But there is also much that is challenged by universal ethics, such as inheritance laws that are biased against women, or decision-making procedures that are not participatory and democratic." (p89) The report continues with issues at a more international scale, "anti-immigrant groups often defend national identities in the name of tradition. This narrows their choices as well by shutting countries off from the socio-economic benefits of immigration, which brings new skills and workers to an economy."(p89)

The second principle is that diversity promotes cultural liberty. Again, it is to do with choice. "Much of the fear of a loss of national identity and culture comes from the belief that cultural diversity inevitably leads to conflict or to failed development."(p89) According to the report this is not true. "It is not diversity that inevitably leads to conflict but the suppression of cultural identity and social, political and economic exclusion on the basis of culture that can spark violence and tensions." It is thus isolation and parochialism that leads to conflict.

The third principle is related to, and an outcome of, the second principle. "Diversity thrives in a globally interdependent world when people have multiple and complementary identities and belong not only to a local community and a country but also to humanity at large." (p88) So while being the citizens of a state which has its own culture(s) we should not forget that we are also the citizens of the world. This can be expanded to include shared values, communication and commitment. "Cooperation among people and nations with different interests is more likely when all are bound and motivated by shared values and commitments. Global culture is not about the English language or brand name sneakers; it is about universal ethics based on universal human rights and respect for the freedom, equality and dignity of all individuals."(p90) This may seem ironic if we look at the inconsistency in power and wealth between nations. The final principle addresses that issue: "asymmetric power". Economically powerful cultures tend to spread and less economically powerful ones wither. The report gives a number of examples: "Powerful corporations can outbid indigenous people in using land rich in resources. Powerful countries can out-negotiate weak countries in recognition of traditional knowledge in World Trade Organisation (WTO) agreements. Powerful and exploitative employers can victimise defenceless migrants."(p91) In our own part of the world, the booming Bollywood industry has pushed Dollywood into a corner. This has not only resulted in Hindi CDs and DVDs flooding the market but has helped the linguistic ability of our young generation to evolve. In Bangladesh, the English language that has been taught since primary school has failed to give our young people communicative fluency, yet many are growing up with a better understanding of Hindi without any formal training.

The UNDP report ends with emphasis on choices and these choices are to be made not just by states, communities and institutions but also the individual. For states and communities the options are to be totally "culture bound" or open its arms to diversity, and allow its societies to evolve. For international institutions the options are "persist with rules that adhere to particular cultural and legal tradition," or "recognize, respect and promote the products and resources of their cultures." And last but not least, YOU and I: Do we stick to our own identities in isolation (if that were even possible) or see ourselves as "part of an interlinked humanity", the much quoted, "global village?"

"I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any."-- Mahatma Gandhi

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