Sunday, June 10, 2012

Being the Same and Being Different: The Paradox of Sameness

In the second installment of the series that explores the concept of 'Synthetic Unity' of the West versus the 'Integral Unity' of Dharmic India that was introduced by Rajiv Malhtora in his book 'Being Different', we focus on the alluring idea of 'sameness' that everybody loves to talk about (e.g. Aman Ki Asha :). We noted in the introductory article that a homogeneous "same" Pakistan has collapsed whereas a "all different" India has thrived. Similarly, Europe's relatively short-lived multiculturalism experiment is on the brink of failure while cultural diversity thrived in ancient India and has survived so far across centuries.

This leads to the following paradox:

Why should 'being different' bring more cohesiveness than 'being the same' ?

On the surface, it is not unreasonable to expect that 'being different' that is so visible in India should naturally divide whereas the 'sameness' that is so visible in the west should unite. In fact, this was precisely the thought process that permeated and drove the U.S foreign policy toward the post-colonial subcontinent in the 1950s. In the book 'Being Different', Rajiv Malhotra notes that the then secretary of state John Dulles (as in Dulles airport, Washington D.C) backed a monotheistic Pakistan 'that was true to one master' over 'polytheistic' India that 'served many masters' and was thus deemed more likely to be unreliable and untrustworthy. However, when we dig deeper and get the root of the how humans react to multiculturalism, we notice that:

1. Every individual is different by birth and by circumstance. Given a pair of individuals who want to be "multicultural" in the western sense, when push comes to shove, the expectation is that the person deemed 'weaker' has to explicitly or implicitly admit inferiority and adopt the culture of the 'stronger' person and get digested. Both persons in the quest for sameness suffer from difference anxiety, the resolution of which ends in some form of violent conflict. This is a fundamental problem with expecting 'sameness'.

2. Difference anxiety caused by the need to enforce sameness in the west is a real issue. For example Brewer (1991) in a highly cited research article argues:

that the composition of an individual's social identity necessitates a trade-off between the need for assimilation and the need for differentiation. This is in contrast to previous models of social identity who assumed that individuals aim at maintaining some balanced level of similarity with other people on a uni dimensional similarity/dissimilarity scale.

The key implications of the theory lay in its dynamic aspects, as it is argued that individuals continuously take corrective actions to maintain an optimal compromise between the two needs. For instance, a person feeling too unique might achieve more assimilation by joining a group and making comparisons with in-group members (and finding similarities). Alternatively, a member of a large overly inclusive group might try achieve distinctiveness by making inter-group comparisons. Such actions are undertaken until the individual reaches an equilibrium, that is when his/her needs for assimilation and differentiation are equally activated. 

As pointed out by Brewer (1999) in later work, this has implications for the study of prejudice and inter-group processes as one can ask if "in-group preference and loyalty can exist without spawning out-group fear or hostility"
3. Here is another example of difference anxiety in the American context: Morrison et al (2009) define multiculturalism as "the belief that racial and ethnic differences should be acknowledged and appreciated" and notes that such an objective "has been met with both positive reactions (e.g., decreased prejudice) and negative reactions (e.g., perceptions of threat) from dominant group members".


4. Such a unity achieved by birth-based discrimination,  forcible or pressure-based digestion, submission, and fueled by difference anxiety rather than a mutually respectful debate is at best synthetic and tenuous and one that is constantly prone to fissure, while the goal of sameness remains elusive. In the Hindu epic Mahabharata, this inherent weakness of synthetic unity is demonstrated by the example of King Jarasandha, who was born in two halves at birth and spliced together, and grew to be among the strongest and the most ruthless kings in the world, yet was killed in single combat by Bhima (with the help of Krishna) by exploiting Jarasandha's synthetic unity.

5. To further explain the difference between Western synthetic unity and Dharmic Integral Unity, here is an interesting online article (thanks to @brazenpixy), where the author says:

"Separation causes uselessness, but much of Western civilization is based on separating the parts. One date is separate from another, history separate from math which is separate from biology. It's a world view we inherited from Newton and Descartes, so useful in many ways and disastrous in others. However, there has always been an alternative view of the universe as a single, totally interconnected system. You'll find that in Eastern traditions, American Transcendentalism, and at least some aspects of quantum physics."
6. In direct contrast, Dharmic thought systems are characterized by an integral unity that recognizes that infinite variations in the cosmos (specie, race, ethnicity, language, ..) are merely the manifestation of the same (and there is no "other"), and is thus able to accept and work with the multiplicity (Maya) in the universe without any stress or difference anxiety. India's multiculturalism has for milliennia been based on such Dharmic thought systems that share this fundamental concept, and it has worked pretty well. In other words, 'being different' is a more natural manifestation than 'being the same', and multiculturalism is achieved here by focusing on being equal while being different, which is best achieved via self-realization and mutual respect, rather than mere tolerance, external conversion, and digestion. Furthermore, as Rajiv Malhtora notes, being different is a powerful way of not being digested. Mahatma Gandhi's 'Hind Swaraj' also echoes this same idea, and he practiced 'being different' more than most in recent times.


7. The beautiful Sanskrit verse that best resolves this paradox of sameness and captures the essence of the Integral Unity of Dharmic India that spans the infinite multiplicity of the cosmos is given in the 'Being Different' book of Rajiv Malhotra (source used for Shloka and translation below is here):

Purnam-adah purnam-idam
purnaat purnam-udacyate.
purnasya purnam-aadaaya,
purnam-eva-avashishyate

That is infinite, this is infinite;
From that infinite this infinite comes.
From that infinite, this infinite removed or added;
Infinite remains infinite

1 comment:

  1. Being the same means agreeing on some commonality.Being different is to willfully differ from that commonality.
    Being the same is repetitive and boring. Therefore,'being different' brings more cohesiveness than 'being the same'

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