Culture Matters

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How much is culture responsible for progress made by any given society? How much is culture responsible for the embrace or resistance to modernity? These are questions which keep returning because of their continued relevance. There have been so many books written on the subject, addressing and seeking the roots of so much disparity in development all over the world. The intriguing nature of the question has also assured many of these books are best-sellers. Jared M. Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel” and Professor David S. Landes’ “Wealth and Poverty of Nations” would belong to this category. But another one which promises to satiate further this universal thirst is “The Central Liberal Truth” by foreign aid worker, Lawrence E Harrison, which says culture does make a world of difference in attitudes to modernity and development. The thought if pursued, developed, and applied earnestly and consensually, can also pay dividends for Manipur. How much have our own varying cultures been a catalyst or inhibitor of modernity and development? What has been the role of culture and tradition in our grappling with this issue? It would indeed be an interesting academic study to make an assessment of the correlation between development and the willingness of a community to accept scientific reforms.

Another study by American economists Raymond Fisman and Edward Miguel and critiqued by an American journal, demonstrates the same interrelation between cultural grounding and development. The study takes into account records of illegal parking tickets earned by diplomatic vehicles from different countries outside the UN headquarters in New York. The figures seem hardly a coincidence. The two economists found out that diplomats from countries that rank high on the Transparency International corruption index pile up huge numbers of unpaid tickets, whereas diplomats from countries that rank low on the index get barely any at all. For instance, between 1997 and 2002, they found out, the UN Mission of Kuwait picked up 246 parking violations per diplomat. Diplomats from Egypt, Chad, Sudan, Mozambique, Pakistan, Ethiopia and Syria also committed huge numbers of violations. By contrast, not a single parking violation by a Swedish diplomat was recorded. Nor were there any by diplomats from Denmark, Japan, Israel, Norway or Canada. The reason for this as per their conclusion is, human beings are not merely products of economics, but are also shaped by cultural and moral norms. “If you are Swedish and you have a chance to pull up in front of a fire hydrant, you still don’t do it. You are Swedish. That’s who you are.” Getting at the crux of his argument, Brook quotes another politician thinker of the mid 20th Century, Walter Lippmann, who once said in a speech: “All cultures have value because they provide coherence, but some foster development while others retard it. Some cultures check corruption, while others permit it. Some cultures focus on the future, while others focus on the past. The question that is at the centre of politics today: Can we self-consciously change cultures so they encourage development and modernization?”

The question is profoundly relevant to our situation. How receptive has our own cultures been to a vision of a modernised future. Can we say the same thing that has been said of the Swedish diplomats who would not park in front of a fire hydrant even if no one was watching, in referring to our own elite? Do we see signs of any moral and social obligations that would stop someone from littering the streets with their kitchen garbage? Do our consciences come to play in checking personal urges for unfair and corrupt practices? Are there any unwritten norms that make people guilty at breaking traffic norms? There have also been debates about the infamous, lethargic work culture in official establishments, but has there ever been an inherent, cultural checking mechanism coming to play to end this? What relation do all these have with development or modernity? The evidences are overwhelming and they all show there is indeed a correlation between cultural attitudes and the march of modernity.

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