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Culture Wars and Claims of Multiculturalism


Sachidananda Mohanty

Professor and Head
Department of English
University of Hyderabad
Hyderabad 500 046, A.P., India.


Languages, both inherited and adoptive, clearly go beyond the mandate of civic and economic convenience. Considered a soft option, they constitute the core of the contemporary debate of culture, and demand attention to crucial questions: of citizenship and sovereignty, migration and displacement, revenge and reconciliation. While we cannot have a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, we can certainly learn from a common pool of wisdom, East and West.

Diversity concerns must inevitably take into account a set of factors related to polity, economy, culture, pedagogy, and demography. Recent scholarship at the international level has questioned the dominant paradigms.  For instance, in The Politics of Culture on the Shadow of the Capital, critic Lisa Lowe brilliantly unmasks the contradictions between the emergence of the American economy in search of cheap labor and the role of the political state that ensured “the disenfranchisement of existing labor forces to prevent accumulation, by groups of Chinese, Japanese, Filipino and South Asians.”

Secular states, especially in the West, strategically deploy languages for the avowed goals of multiculturalism. And yet the outcome of this effort often defeats the cherished hope of social engineers.

What then are the claims of contemporary multiculturalism?  How do they address the question of adoptive languages?

The study of adoptive languages in the context of a multicultural classroom could be promoted by a variety of pedagogic strategies which include Gerald Graff’s “Staging a Conflict” model.  Students could be encouraged, under this scheme, to consciously debate the merits of monolingualism and multilingualism, the paradox of the monolingual State and the reality of the multilingual citizenry. 

How do we articulate and recognize the importance of multilingualism in the era of cultural globalization?  Such articulation and recognition speak increasingly in favor of what the critic Benjamin Berber describes as the Mc World international global culture and tragically leads to the extinction of languages.

One way we can find an answer is to redefine the meaning of self-determination and base this concept on deeper foundations. In many parts of the world, a faith-based approach aligned to traditional religions, has been discredited.  And yet we may not have tapped the full potential of a futuristic spirituality.  What could be the contours of such a spirituality vis a vis the question of self-determination?  I turn here to the Indian mystic-philosopher Sri Aurobindo’s idea of self determination.

Self-determination impacts today occur in the arena of language, ethnicity, identity politics, and multiculturalism, in citizenship rights and the rights of the minorities. It is a problematic concept in the politics of representations that asks: who decides? And for whom?

How do we relate self-determination with language and ethnicity? From the spiritual point of view, as Sri Aurobindo explains, a culture of dialogue is possible only if we recognize the ‘other’ not as a clone and a polar opposite of ourselves, the bane of the Enlightenment model. We can make this new approach viable in the long run by shifting our terms of reference from the political to the moral and from the psychological to the spiritual.  We can then move from a politics of despair to one of responsibility and mutuality.

This spiritual view of language is corroborated by contemporary political readings, such as the one offered by New Historicists like Stephen Greenblatt. In Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World, Greenblatt shows that Columbus makes the new land uninhibited, terrae, nullius by emptying out the category of the ‘other’. The ‘other’ is denied the ability to speak; he exists as an empty sign, a cipher. There is no one in the New World to challenge Columbus’s proclamation, because the natives are denied speech, and because only linguistic competence, the ability to understand and speak, would enable one to fill in the sign. Thus, as Greenblatt argues, we have the legal ritual through the experiences of Marvelous to gain a mystical understanding and appropriative power of naming.  The claim of possession is grounded in the power of wonder. Greenblatt’s analysis provides an effective epitaph to the project of colonization of language and culture.

Languages are more than a means of communication and civic convenience.  They typify our life experiences and shape our troubled past and fragile futures. It is time we made them part of the solution we desperately seek. It is only then that the multiculturalism of the future, based on multilingualism, can truly promote a dialogue among civilizations.



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