November 12, 2012 0

The relations between cultural claims, power and universal human rights

By in Law, Politics, Society

The scholarship of Brown, Bromley and Athreye present a detailed and analytical account of the relations between cultural claims, power and universal human rights.  From a historical perspective, ever since the conception of geo-political organization through formation of nation-states, the notions of national identity have been at the forefront of politics.  The roles of cultural and political history in constituting this national identity have been much debated.  The rest of this essay will attempt to elicit the relationship between these concepts and their relevance in a world that is marching toward economic globalization.

To begin with, let us consider the controversy surrounding the design of the Australian flag.  This case is representative of the ideological and power struggles that is rampant everywhere else in the world.  The Australian flag evokes starkly different emotions from different sections of its populace.  For the indigenous community, it denotes a selective and exclusivist interpretation of Australian history, which completely neglects pre-colonial heritage.  For the majority of the European settlers, the blatant human rights violations perpetrated against innocent hordes of indigenous tribes do not evoke sympathy as much as colonial supremacy.  This dual viewpoints of history is typical in the post-colonial societies elsewhere, with a marked shift between the sentiments of the ruling elite and the subaltern masses.  As the authors point out,

 “These debates about the meaning of flags raise issues that point to the very foundations of international politics. States claim that they embody the identities of the peoples living within their territorial boundaries. These identities are a powerful force, even if they are sometimes contrived or imagined. The principle of state sovereignty is often upheld not just as a fundamental political and legal tool but also as the means of protecting the culture or cultures operating within the state’s boundaries”. (Brown, Bromley & Athreye, p.200)

Over the course of the last century, states have claimed legitimacy to their causes using the language of rights.  The hope lies therein for minorities and underprivileged within states to also employ the language of rights to claim their legitimate share of opportunity, prosperity and privilege.  While traditionally, notions of cultural identity held sway over other abstract categorizations, the world of neo-liberal economic globalization has given precedence to universal human rights and justice.  So, the twentieth century world is undergoing an interesting political and cultural evolution that breaks away from conventional notions of rights and justice.

One of the significant contributors to this changing understanding of culture and identity is the discovery of new theories on human cognition and behaviour.  In other words, the field of psychology has brought a new synthesis to what used to be disparate and exclusive cultural realms.  By pointing out to the universal pool of emotions, feelings and actions, psychology has dispelled many myths that were at the foundations of cultural hegemony.  For instance, conditions such as oedipal complex, anxiety, sexual envy could affect a member of British aristocracy as much as a member of the Romany tribe.  When such universalities were put forth in scholarly journals, the reactionary elements in society were up in arms against these theories; mostly because they tend to undermine their comforting set of illusions.  In this view, “attachment to a political unit, be it the nation, the state or the region, is a fundamental desire, almost akin to a biological imperative” (Robert Garson, p.203). Just as individuals are keen to form personal bonds and relationships in order to feel good about them, they also look to political affiliations.  But these political identities can take a dangerous turn, when “some identities are encouraged to exclude individuals from certain territories, to deprive them of their property or to isolate them from social networks” (Robert Garson, p.203).  In the realm of geo-political entities, citizens will identify with their nation if it provides them a feeling of personal security and comfort and if it is able to keep alive comforting illusions about the past and present.   According to this view,

“the state fulfils fundamental human needs but in turn depends on continuing loyalty to continue functioning. This requires a steady output of stimuli to confirm the experience of community. These vehicles of solidarity will include language, political organization and mundane reminders of the values that hold the community together. Those reminders will comprise anthems, banknotes and coins, flags, education, commemorations, monuments and so on, which become part of the conversation of politics. These artefacts form the material culture of the community and flag the special characteristics that distinguish it from others”. (Robert Garson, p.205).