VIEW: A living culture —Zaair Hussain - Friday, April 15, 2011

Tradition should be a foundation, not a cage. It should be the solid bones of a living, breathing, evolving culture, not a grand, cold statue on display, magnificent and mindless, no more capable of guiding us than a rock 

Far too often, at those moments where we should be poised to take up arms against our oceans of troubles, someone holds up ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’ as shields and, flinching, averting our eyes, we lay them down again.
The poorest among us have children they cannot possibly support, who are put to work, while every daughter is seen as a burden. If we believe the now infamous senator from Balochistan (and his sympathisers), women are a treasure — to be kept under lock and key, and occasionally buried. The rot of corruption from the top down is chided, but expected, accepted as part of everyday life, no more worrisome than a hard summer.
But this article is not meant to be a laundry list of cultural flaws; every culture manifests them. Instead, it questions the idea that some practices, some obvious problems cannot be debated or criticised, for no reason other than the behaviour that causes them is cultural, traditional.
Tradition is that which we do because we have always done it. Our bad habits along with our good are coalesced and enshrined, putting them beyond the reproach of the very people whose forefathers created the traditions in the first place.
We may hope that a rigorous philosophical ideology governs our actions, but that is rarely true in practise. Human beings tend to look around, not within, for guidance, and our moral ideology too often becomes diluted by what we see and hear. Corruption and cronyism become the new normal, the abuse of privilege becomes the point of privilege, blind prejudice becomes patriotism, sexism becomes manliness and ignorance becomes respect for tradition.
Average intelligence, and certainly access to information, does not decline with time. With knowledge at our fingertips today, we cannot assume that our forefathers were always right, or that their truths were universal across time.
Our fetishist reverence of tradition springs from a tragic untruth: that culture is a solidified thing, an engraved tablet handed down by mysterious wise men many years ago, and will cease to nourish us as a people if we deviate from its commands. Tradition should be a foundation, not a cage. It should be the solid bones of a living, breathing, evolving culture, not a grand, cold statue on display, magnificent and mindless, no more capable of guiding us than a rock.
Two fundamental human characteristics fuel our powerful bias for tradition: our fear of change, which is natural and inherited (yes it is) from our parents, and our magnificent ability to rationalise.
Every generation, as it silvers, aches for a time when the world made sense to them. Home is a time as well as a place, and the older we get, the further we are forced to march away from it. And so we cling to the shape and not the heart of our past, elevating it into an idol, and bring fury upon those who question its outdated contours.
To do as we have always done is the death knell of civilisations, and an unchanging, immovable culture, is as clear a symptom to a sociologist as a tumour is to a doctor. The winds of change come, whether we will it or not, and in this age of lightning technology and globalisation, they will blow swift and far. We can break, or we can bend. I am not nearly naïve enough to believe that culture has no place in this brave new world, and not nearly jaded enough to believe our culture has nothing to offer.
A profound example can be found within our values of kinship and generosity, not merely of the purse but of the spirit. The hospitality of our region is legendary, and was put to the most stringent rigour during the earthquake, the IDP crisis and the floods. It survived with its reputation not only intact, but shining: for all the corruption and underhanded dealings in Pakistan, no country in the world can claim they are our betters in looking out for our own in a time of crisis. Millions were taken in by their (often distant) relatives, and given food and succour.
Beyond this, we should take great pride in our classical music and folklore, our art (both fine and folk), our inspired poets who seared souls in more than a dozen languages, our complex and crafted dances, and the food that every expat Pakistani places on a high and gleaming pedestal.
This is our cultural capital, without which one of the challenges of modernity — carving out an identity in this increasingly small and crowded world — will trip us at the first hurdle. But the rest of the way, reason must guide us. A mature culture must at times look beyond its own boundaries, absorb the commendable and filter the pernicious.
And, in a strange way, we have, but only by turning this idea on its head. We have imported an aloof and consumerist elite from the US, and left behind work ethic. We have absorbed England’s snob factor about languages, but ignored their noblesse oblige. We cheer the often brutal decisiveness of China, but have never showed the discipline to get through a five-year plan.
Neither the West nor the East are anywhere near perfect either, but they are not our concern. We can, and should, and must be better, willing to learn, willing to grow and most of all willing to question.
We can begin with the simplest question of all: where do the harmful aspects of our culture come from? Much of the unspeakable excesses against women in rural areas, dressed up in the garb of religious modesty, come from regional customs centuries old, which were not particularly Islamic. In contrast, our current spate of moral policing, our modern imperiousness about codes of conduct and dress and speech can be traced leisurely back to the time of Ziaul Haq, little over a quarter century ago.
And indeed, if Zia and others led us astray, they proved at least that culture can be tempered, ‘what is done’ can be redefined with the wisdom of both the young and the old.
After all, culture is a living thing, and we, the people, are its muscle and tissue. It is no better or worse than we are.

The writer is a Lahore-based freelance columnist. He can be reached at 

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