I know very little about the history and culture of India, but I feel comfortable saying that they have been around for a long time and possess a very deep sense of cultural identity and tradition.
But in the 20th century, India started to embrace certain key components of western democracy, and introduced new political and cultural strands into their way of being. I think India bears watching. They can serve as a petri dish for an experiment. When democracy interacts with a tradition, who wins? Can a reasonable peace and balance exist between them? Or, must one destroy the other?*
For the sake of this post we will not assume that tradition is bad and democracy good, or vice-versa. Both can be good or bad depending.
I thought of this as I came across an article about hotels in India. As a traditional society, India has more “conservative” views on marriage and sexual morality. But democracy seeks to empower individual choices. Free-market capitalism looks for niches–ways to empower and monetize these choices. Unmarried couples in India apparently have a hard time getting “privacy.”
Enter StayUncle. The New Delhi-based startup has tied up with hotels where unmarried couples can rent rooms for a duration as short as 8-10 hours. The idea is to help them with affordable rooms, without feeling uncomfortable or unsafe.
“There is no law in India that prohibits (unmarried) couples from renting a room,” Sanchit Sethi, founder of the year-old startup, told Quartz in a phone interview. “As long as you have a government identity card, you should be given a room. We don’t live in the 1950s anymore. What we are trying to do is change the mindset of hoteliers.”
“Couples need a room. Not a judgment.”
As the article came from a western newspaper, naturally no assumption existed that perhaps India’s discouragement of unmarried couples having hotel rooms has any validity. They want something–an opportunity to live as they choose–and so naturally we should find some way to empower (and monetize) those choices. “We don’t live in the 1950’s anymore.”*
What we want now is all that matters.
I thought of Empire of Liberty, where author Gordon Wood points out that almost immediately after the Revolution many of our founders watched aghast as “the people” began eroding many traditions. One can argue that the Constitution represents a (mostly failed) attempt to put the brakes on the rapid pace of change.
I imagine that, given another couple generations of modern democratic practice in India, most of their traditions don’t stand a chance. There is something thrilling, horrifying, and inexorable about the march of democratic ideals through traditional societies. The Terminator reference from poor, doomed, Kyle Reese has its place here.
In the U.S. we have already legally embraced gay-marriage. Now we moved onto tackling other “traditional” ways of thinking in the form of trans-gender issues, as predicted by both opponents and proponents of gay marriage. Both democracy and tradition have their good and bad applications. But I have serious doubts that we can redefine ourselves, our experience, and our place in the world at will and continue to find meaning.
Perhaps the root of the problem comes from the Enlightenment, or the Scientific Revolution, or the printing press/Reformation, or platonic gnosticism, or somewhere else. Whatever the root, a fixation on purely abstract principles or ideas will lead to an abandonment of meaning and rationality in the end. In his A Philosophy of Inequality Nicholas Berdyaev makes this point quite well. Absolute equality as a pure idea makes sense, he admits, much like a parallel lines continuing to infinity. But such equality remains a fiction, a fantasy. When we try and apply it reality we get the disasters of Revolutionary France, Stalinist Russia, or Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
We see the link between inequality (not servile inequality, but meaningful, purposeful difference) and meaning right in Genesis 1. God creates an intelligible, good world, and does so through distinction and duality, i.e. night and day, sea and dry land, man and woman. Making sense of our world requires dividing it, in a certain sense. To see meaning, to see God, we must see distinctions in creation.
The U.S. crossed the bridge of normalizing sexual relationships outside of marriage decades ago. Again, now we have moved on to gender issues. We long ago stopped defining gender by certain expected patterns or code of behavior. Now we do not even wish to define it biologically. If we say now that gender can be defined purely based on one’s own personal, abstract feelings and thoughts, we will enter uncharted waters. We risk losing the ability to say that anything means anything at all.
With no map to guide us, we should prepare for getting lost.
*China is conducting a similar experiment. They attempt to maintain traditional Chinese values, technocratic top-down party political control, and a free market. On the one hand they have yet to embrace democracy politically, so we might assume a slower pace of change. But on the other, their economy is more modern and powerful than India’s, so this change might happen faster.
**The 1950’s reference gives this quote a distinctly American feel, as that era is considered the last gasp of traditional morality for U.S. I don’t know if the same could be said for India or not.
Many on the left decry the “cultural imperialism” of the west, and they have some good points to make. But have they considered that the non-traditional morality that those on the “academic left” tend to support is also a form of cultural imperialism?