Sunday, April 03, 2011

Vijay TV Westernization debate

The Vijay TV debate show "Neeyaa Naanaa" covered the issue of Westernization last week. The topic of the debate was "Is Westernization desirable or not".
The comments by the people involved made me consider the topic in some detail. Here are my opinions:

Individual preferences
One of the participants in the show maintained that he preferred western food; but went on to claim that this was a matter of individual freedom.
I have encountered this argument before - and it is simply a means to shut the opponent down. It is truly a matter of individual freedom whatever someone chooses to eat; but, once you publicly talk about it in a debate show, any other person also has the freedom to criticize you.
Remember Richard Gere kissed Shilpa Shetty in a show and there was a big hue and cry over it? We were discussing this in a restaurant - and I said public displays of affection were ok. Another guy said he was offended even if a couple held hands in public. I said that seemed a pretty low bar to get offended over. He immediately said it was his personal opinion; and so by implication no one could talk about it.
It is only your personal opinion when you have a thought in your head. When you publicly express a thought, you have the freedom to do that. At the same time, others have the freedom to condemn your thought.
This is a not a trivial issue - it is the basis of a very bad misunderstanding of Freedom of Speech rights. Freedom of Speech right protects you from government censorship. It does not protect you from criticism at all. Your critic has the same Freedom of Speech.
Therefore the issue of Westernization in the private or public sphere is certainly open to commentary - as long as you are not advocating hanging everyone who orders a pizza.

Westernization and Sociology
There is certainly a case to be made that our society is changing rapidly. The pace of this change, the nature of it, its causes are all subject matter for Sociology. If a lot of people in the United States started using Hindi words while talking, do you think everyone would say "Ah...individual freedom at work" and throw up their hands? No, they would study the phenomenon to death - that is exactly why the pace and causes for Westernization are open to study.
Let us take the case of the Valentine's Day celebration. This has become a lightning rod for fights between the Indian culture police such as the Shiv Sena; and people who believe in individual freedom. That is fine. I think the Shiv Sena are thugs too.
But ANALYZING the sudden popularity of that day and the causes for it are completely game for an inquiring person. Such analysis itself does not mean that I want to ban the Valentine's Day - it simply means I want to find out the sociological reasons for its popularity.

Westernization vs Americanization

In the debate show I noticed that everyone stuck to the word "Westernization" even though a lot of what they were talking about was really Americanization or Modernization. These three words have become synonymous in our minds. But they do not mean the same thing.
The West itself, most of the states in Europe, for example, are actually a victim of "Westernization". From Scotland to Switzerland, a lot of homogeneity has developed over the past 50 years. These have been at the cost of local cultures and arts. The United States itself has become very homogenous in this time. This has been due to the cultural "hegemony" of the United States (I do not use the term hegemony in a negative way).
This is an important distinction - because when people broadly say Westernization it means a quest for new experiences or the celebration of a "better" culture, a culture of the Europeans. But the European native cultures themselves are under threat from "Westernization". And this mono-culture is actually changing too.
This is why debating about eating pizza or Dosa seem silly to me - the pizza as we eat it is not "Western" in any sense. The big companies that are pizza franchises are all American; and their preparation has little to do with the pizza prepared in Italian homes. (For one, they would never dream of putting masala on pizza)
There are bigger issues at stake than pizza.
The truth is the USA is a global hegemon in terms of money and power. Therefore there exists a good reason why it exercises cultural hegemony too.
The mono-culture in the USA itself, meanwhile is largely shaped by the corporate media there. Thus, you may as well celebrate "American-corporate-mediaization" instead of Westernization.

Westernization vs Modernization
Neither is Westernization synonymous with Modernization. In the debate show one person mentioned that her husband (who is a Christian) wonders why we should receive money all time with the right hand (as we do in India). She mentioned that she had no answer for this question.
If her point was that there are a lot of absurd social conventions in India, she is right. But that is the case in the West too. I lived in Philadelphia for a few years in an apartment complex that had four blocks. None of these blocks had a 13th floor! The floors reached 12 and then the next was 14. There was no 13th floor because 13 is an unlucky number.
Social conventions and rituals exist in all societies. The Americans have very absurd fashion rules such as not wearing certain colors in the winter.
My point is that it is easy - not really knowing anything about "Western" culture - to say that it is devoid of all the ills of ours.
One common confusion is about the Indian wedding. The Indian wedding involves 500 to 1000 invitees and a lot of rituals in some castes. In a forum debate someone said it was less meaningful as compared to a "Western" wedding.
But the Western wedding (the wedding rituals we see in Hollywood movies are not representative) has its own set of peculiarities. Once you have agreed to marriage as a ritual, almost every society has absurdities in marriages.
As human beings we are prone to meaningless rituals; it is hard to escape them. The NASA countdown to rocket launch is a ritual (the Russians do not do countdowns). The American Presidential inauguration is a ritual. Swearing in a political leader is a ritual.
There is very little specifically "better" about Western rituals.

Western Music
The SS Music Channel VJ Pooja, who was a guest in this debate show, started saying that Western music is better and has global reach. She mentioned that it influences Indian film music a lot.
I am always suspicious of people who claim about a better art or a better music based on regions or cultures. The amazing diversity you find in cultures in this world allows for many different dimensions of music, dance, painting, cinema, sculpture or literature. We cannot claim that one is better than the other based purely on a region to which an art belongs to.
The truth is that Western music has a big degree of penetration around the world because the West ruled most of the world (again, using the term West loosely).

To me, if Indian music borrows from the West it actually enriches Indian music. And vice versa. Music and other arts are not static - they get better when they borrow other influences. This is as true for Western music as it is for Indian music. Instead, it is weird to consider this "borrowing" to be a weak point of Indian music - it is a point in our favor, not against.
I have a great respect for all aspects of music including Western music - I don't think you can compare these music systems at all.
As an aside, the people who make such comparisons also make another mistake - they compare Indian CLASSICAL music with Western POPULAR music. This is a confusing comparison - classical music in any culture has lesser number of listeners (just as classical literature has lower number of readers). This is true in the West too - not everyone is grooving to Mozart over there.

The Biggest Issue
Having said all this, I thought the debate skipped the most important issues of Westernization.
The fact that our language is slowly decimated by schools which require students to speak only in English - that is a big concern. That is a conscious, deliberate attempt by the school system. I have written multiple times about this here.
The fact that all our advertisements in media show extremely fair people who move about in a Western styled landscape is a cause for concern. To me, it seems it makes us identify with white people, thereby subtly making us a client state.

These two combine to show a conscious attempt to push us into a forced Westernization program set by our elites.
That bothers me; Pizza eating does not.

1 comment:

Sridhar said...

I agree with most of it, except the negative tone on customs and rituals. Not understanding the reason behind a ritual gives you the freedom to not perform it, doesn't give you the freedom to ridicule who perform it. The maturity should come with age. I got it recently... :)

No society is free of them... unfortunately the "so-called" rational movements of Tamil Nadu made people reject them instead of questioning them. If you question, there is a hope for an answer, if you reject the doors are shut.

I remember during my college days, a Christian classmate passing comments about Tamil marriage customs (the topic was the story of Punithavathi aka Karaikkal Ammaiyar), without realizing that he is part of the custom. He was actively encouraged by the Tamil teacher. This is not a surprise if you know what Tamil teachers are made of.

The class ended just short of us exchanging physical blows at each other.