Monday, 4 July 2011

The meaning of modernity

Mom was here recently and we were having one of our long winding, jumping from here to there, no end in sight discussions and the topic came around to one of the things that almost always crop up - the tradition vs. modernity dichotomy and what it really means to be modern. Is modernity only about blindly abandoning your tradition/culture? All around me I see  two extreme patterns. One is an endorsement of everything western and the abandon of everything Indian. The other is a fanatical endorsement of everything Indian and ancient and a denouncement of everything western as decadent and morally bankrupt. What I see very little of is questioning. What I see very little of is true progressiveness and a critical thinking.

To my mind, the blind adoption of an alien culture is a sign of capitulation to hegemony and not a sign of modernity or progressiveness. Modernity, the way I see it, is the ability to evaluate what values are important irrespective of their origin; to be able to use all the access to information and exposure to different cultures that we have to our advantage and find a balance that guides our choices and our behaviour through life.

At the same time, unquestioning obedience to one's own culture, at a time when life and society are completely different from the circumstances in which the culture and its practices originated, does lead to a situation where one's values are often impractical to follow or implement.

What is important, then, is to understand the larger purpose that a culture and a value system serves in preserving a civilization. Value systems are an ordering influence, a compass to align individual behaviours to be non-conflicting. They encompass broad values that determine the direction that a society or civilization takes, its attitudes towards production, distribution and consumption, its notions of right and wrong, of justice. It comes not with the legal sanction of the station but the moral sanction of the people who chose to follow it.

In that larger abstract framework, modernity lies not in the blind adoption of a system based on its origins but in the ability to recognize values that are universal, that benefit humanity beyond national borders and that provide support and direction in times of tension, dilemmas and choice.

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