The United States does not look well. For some time now, every news story coming from America has looked like the latest in a series of painful convulsions. The United Kingdom seems to be in a similar state. In both countries, everyone seems to be fighting everyone else on everything from public healthcare and housing to whether men who identify as women should be allowed to use public restrooms meant exclusively (so far at least) for the biologically female. These questions are creating seemingly impassable fault lines in American and British society.
Douglas Murray has recently observed that, perhaps for the first time, a large section of American society believes that America’s foundations are deeply racist and unjust, and that the country must start over:
A portion of the American people still revere their history, the Founding Fathers, the constitution, flag, anthem and much more. They see them as symbols of a glorious past, a country which has fought for its own and others’ liberty, and the once admired idea of American exceptionalism.
Another portion believe that America is exceptional only in being exceptionally bad … they see the whole American experiment as unusually unfair and uncommonly unequal.
What is unusual, and odd and unhealthy, is for a large portion of a country to only have one set of ideas about their country’s past, and for all of those ideas to be negative. [emphasis mine]
The pattern that Murray points out is also present in another, very different place—India. Much like the US, India is being ravaged by a massive culture war. And much like their counterparts in the US, one half of the warring parties have only one set of ideas about the country’s history—a negative one.
Far from being unusual, though, this sentiment is mainstream. India’s backwardness and immorality, its cruel, casteist, inegalitarian society is taught to Indian children at primary school. Aspirants to India’s coveted civil services (the large, creaky bureaucracy India was handed down by the British) are regularly asked to write essays on a social evil in Indian society as part of an examination that selects the future bureaucrats who will man the levers of India’s vast state machinery. A pervasively negative view of India’s past has hitherto been a prerequisite for any view on India, from the inside or outside.
A large section of the Indian population believe that their country is fundamentally unjust and immoral. The more radical conclude that India must be undone and remade. In retaliation, another significant section insist that India is the greatest, most egalitarian and most scientific of cultures. This side’s radicals have set out to prove this and, in the process, might irreparably damage what is great about India in the first place.
The two groups are tearing the country apart, as they have for centuries. India’s culture war is, in large part, an outcome of colonialism and British rule.
So can the Indian experience be of relevance to the US? Can it provide insight into what happens to a country after centuries of being torn apart by groups that hate and love it, both with the same short-sighted singlemindedness?
India’s long culture wars have eroded Indian society’s mechanisms of conflict resolution and peaceful coexistence. The Indian traditions, which have allowed us to learn from one another, reach remarkable insights about human beings and build mechanisms that teach us how to live happily, have repeatedly come under assault. Groups that seek to fix the many wrongs they see have repeatedly demanded that Indian traditions identify and prove their core doctrines and dogmas and expunge everything that other people have labelled superstitious, misogynistic or casteist. Meanwhile, on the other side of the temple gates, Indian traditions are being hollowed out from the inside, having been repeatedly used to achieve political or ideological ends that have nothing to do with attaining knowledge or happiness.
The result is a nation deeply wounded, unsure of who it is and what it has to give to the world. But a small but growing third section is emerging within Indian society. They reject both alternatives: that India is a debased, immoral culture and that it is the greatest, most advanced culture in the world. Instead, they are grappling with the vital, fundamental questions, that, as S. N. Balagangadhara has argued, Indians will need to address in order to break free from the stranglehold of western ways of speaking, thinking and being. We will have to ask, what does it mean to be Indian? What does it mean to be a non-western culture? What does it mean to have been colonised? What does it mean to have no religion, but innumerable traditions? What does it mean to live together peacefully, notwithstanding India’s diversity? In their search for answers to these questions, this third section of Indian society might put an end to the country’s long culture war.
Meanwhile, we must ask ourselves, how do large sections of any society come to have pervasively negative ideas about their country? What factors influence the self-perception of a society? And what do we do if those perceptions are distorted? In order to put an end to culture wars, we’re going to have to figure out why we all seem to either be embroiled in or hurtling towards them.