Sunday, March 08, 2009

You are what you're not

A great mark usually has six universal attributes. It must be distinctive, not necessarily unique. It’s practical and works in every colour. Must be graphic, can communicate purely in visual terms. Simple in form, has only one idea, one gimmick. Has one message, expresses no more than one attribute. And it must be appropriate; its content ought to be right.

If we can only reduce one’s identity to a brand, then all we need is a marketing expert to point out its attributes. It would be a lot easier to market ourselves as a marketing brand.

But defining one’s identity is not an easy task because we have to consider one’s culture, and culture means many different things to many people. There could be as many definitions of culture as there are cultures in the world. The tiny ant, for instance, has as many as twelve thousand known species. And it is just an ant.

In this present age, where technology processes information instantaneously and faster than a stimulus travelling to the human brain, the universe we live in has been shrunk to a compact disk providing us with almost about everything, on all the places on this earth and their inhabitants, their cultures and lifestyles. As we learn other people’s cultures, we vicariously feel a sense of belonging with others. In sharing our own culture and our norms and values with others, we find our differences which, according to social anthropologists, actually shape our identity. Thus, we define what we are by what we are not.

Try commingling with others, especially with people from different cultures and backgrounds. You will find yourself different, and this difference is what makes your identity. In a multitude of races, whether you stand out or not in the crowd, you are what you are because of what you are not.

This probably explains the feeling of being lost among young Filipinos who were born or raised here in Canada. Being assimilated in a foreign culture, speaking and behaving like the foreigner that they are now compared to their parents whose Filipino roots remained indelibly embedded, they seem to confuse their notion of identity to their heritage. When they find that the culture, traditions and values that make up their historical past are somewhat second-rate or even in conflict with the foreign culture they have learned to embrace as their own, then they start to balk, and begin to doubt their true identity. Nothing is entirely wrong with this attitude. Young people are entitled to know their past and be skeptical. It’s part of growing up, the process of maturation that eventually will help them define who they are.

However, this attitude can also breed the temptation among our young people to perpetually blame their heritage and their ancestors for messing up. Some may also start questioning why their parents moved to Canada only to belittle their education by working in lowly jobs as nannies, cleaners or factory workers, without fully understanding that it was a step-up for their parents whose future in the Philippines would have been much dire had they decided to stay put.

Culture, being integral to a group’s sense of identity, is something learned and shared. As defined by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), culture is “the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of a society or a social group and that it encompasses in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs.”

The lack of knowledge, appreciation and understanding of one’s cultural background and the culture of others is often the cause of conflict and hate between people. In this age of globalization, cultural imperialism threatens cultural diversity, i.e., that there is one dominant culture that overpowers others and is perceived as advanced and superior.

This is best exemplified by the belief of many, led by the United States, that Western culture dominates all other cultures in the world today. Consider the impact of Hollywood, McDonald’s, and Disneyland. Cultural imperialism has raised fears that it will eventually lead to culture homogenization. Threatened by cultural imperialism, some cultural groups use the defence of their culture and tradition to justify some practices that are inimical or invidious to the rights of others, such as imposing the wearing of burqas by Muslim women everywhere or withholding Muslim women the right to education by their former Taliban rulers.

Social anthropologists started exploring concepts of identity at the time when concerns with ethnicity and social movements became fashionable in the 1970s. This came about following the trend in sociological thought in which the individual is affected by and contributes to the overall social context. Using a largely socio-historical approach, identity came to refer to qualities of sameness relative to a person’s connection to others and to a particular group of people.

Two almost opposite tendencies arose from this approach. One tendency views the sense of self and belonging to a collective group as a fixed constant, defined by objective criteria such as common ancestry and common biological characteristics. For instance, we identify ourselves as Filipinos based on our ancestral lineage from our Malay roots.

The second view construct’s one’s identity from the choice of certain characteristics, a decision predominantly political in nature. It questions the idea that identity is a natural given, characterized by fixed and objective criteria.

While these two approaches have been largely criticized, they still have an influence on the ways we perceive identity today. Even then, exploring one’s identity is not an easy task because identity is a virtual entity and it is impossible to define it empirically.

Last February 26, the Filipino Students’ Association of Toronto (FSAT) held a dialogue with their elders to discuss concerns that young Filipinos in Canada lack a cultural identity and of their alienation from the mainstream Canadian youth.

A strong consensus has emerged from the exchange of ideas that there is no definite formula for being a Filipino, that there is no single way to be a Filipino. This result only confirms the multicultural character of Canadian society, that after we take into account the diversity of cultures in Canada, it is easier for us to define our identity as the sum total of all the influences of this diversity on our ways of thinking, our values, our political choices, and our lifestyles.

Although we have not yet achieved that perfect state of multiculturalism, the fact that young Filipinos are still somehow lost in understanding the influence of their cultural mooring to their lives is enough evidence of the need to embrace and appreciate their heritage, which is one of the objectives of Canada’s policy of promoting multiculturalism along with the preservation of the cultural heritage of its immigrant-citizens.

Increased global migration has placed diverse practices of different cultures almost next to one another. Countries like Canada, Great Britain and the United States, although with differing emphasis on integration of their immigrant populations, have recognized the importance of cultural heritage. Whether it is a mosaic society or a melting pot that is desired, a policy of multiculturalism helps in the integration of immigrants into the fabric of their new society.

But in the process of integration, the central issue remains as to how they are going to be perceived. This was a problem for the parents of Filipino children who came to Canada before they were born or when they were still toddlers hugging on to their parents as they boarded their planes, and the same problem now confronts our young people as they transition into their adult lives.

Are we going to categorize them according to their inherited traditions, their religion, their language, or the community in which they were born? Are we going to give that unchosen identity priority over their political affiliations, profession, gender, social involvements and many other connections?

Somewhere in the synergy of these categories is the emergent identity that our young people are looking for. Finding that identity becomes a bit emotional and disturbing to some of our young people when they discover that there are some attributes of our culture that are not even worthy of preservation, and there are some positive attributes but which are neglected because of their parents’ penchant for celebrating those which our young people want to discard.

For example, celebrations of our heritage in Toronto have been largely programmed around festivals involving beauty pageants such as Miss Manila or Mrs. Philippines, singing idols and dance contests, Pistahan sa Toronto, or Mabuhay Festival.

Instead of raising our image in the community, all these festivities only reinforce the Filipinos’ carefree and easygoing attitude, or their hospitality as a singular and exceptional trait. Didn’t we ever ask ourselves that this description of Filipinos as “welcoming, friendly and hospitable” might have been concocted for us by Western historians to keep us meek and docile and make our colonization much easier? Until today, this Filipino trait is always invoked when singling out Filipinos as the best service and care providers in the world.

We have heroes like Marcelo H. del Pilar, the “greatest journalist produced by the purely Filipino race,” according to his Spanish enemies, and Graciano Lopez Jaena, the first editor of La Solidaridad, who led, together with Jose Rizal, the propaganda movement against the Spanish colonizers.

No other colonized country in Asia produced as many intellectuals in the class of Rizal, del Pilar, Lopez Jaena, Mariano Ponce, Juan and Antonio Luna or Apolinario Mabini who could be the pride of any country in the world. Other Asian colonies did not produce such brilliant painters as Juan Luna, Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, Lorenzo Guerrero, Antonio Malantic and many others. Such colonies did not produce composers and musicians like Marcelo Adonay, Bibiano Morales, Hipolito Rivera, Ladislao Bonus and many others. Yet, we do not celebrate anyone of these individuals and their achievements, in the way Americans or Canadians remember their heroes, or their best writers and artists. In fact, most of us may have never heard of them.

No wonder our young people are confused.

There is, however, a very serious problem in misusing multiculturalism as a means for integration, especially at present when there is an increasing tendency to overlook the many identities any human being has and to try to categorize individuals according to a pre-eminent religious identity.

Consider how Islamist instigators of terror and violence against infidels may want Muslims to forget that they have any identity other than being Islamic. Or a Christian fundamentalist who sows fear for the coming of the anti-Christ as having no other identity except being a Roman Catholic or an evangelical Protestant. Or the orthodox Jew who sees himself or herself only in the image taught by the laws of Moses and nothing else. But this is another separate topic to discuss. Meantime, let us be reminded of the words of Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, when he wrote:

“The insistence, if only implicitly, on a choiceless singularity of human identity not only diminishes us all, it also makes the world much more flammable. The alternative to the divisiveness of one pre-eminent categorization is not any unreal claim that we are all much the same. Rather, the main hope of harmony in our troubled world lies in the plurality of our identities, which cut across each other and work against sharp divisions around one single hardened line of vehement division that allegedly cannot be resisted. Our shared humanity gets savagely challenged when our differences are narrowed into one devised system of uniquely powerful categorization.

“Perhaps the worst impairment comes from the neglect—and denial—of the roles of reasoning and choice, which follow from the recognition of our plural identities. The illusion of unique identity is much more divisive than the universe of plural and diverse classifications that characterize the world in which we actually live. The descriptive weakness of choiceless singularity has the effect of momentously impoverishing the power and reach of our social and political reasoning. The illusion of destiny exacts a remarkably heavy price.”

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