Cultural Condescendence, Cultural Cringe
The Clash of Cultures

Janaka Yagirala

Clash and conflict has always been a part of humanity. At one time conflict between different tribes was primarily due to competition for resources; better hunting grounds, better pastures and better farmland. As humans began forming unique cultures and building civilizations, a new type of conflict emerged. It was the clash of culture.

The clash of culture was rooted in the belief that one culture is superior and others were inferior. This belief has an ancient history and in a quirky manner repeats itself throughout history. The classic Greeks called all other people around them barbarians. This included the Persians who had their own culture, civilization and most important of all, a strong empire, the Scythes, Libyans, Nubians, Celts and Germanic tribesmen.

Among those with the barbarian label was an ambitious ruler by the name of Philip of Macedonia. He was ridiculed because he could not speak Greek properly. Unfortunately for the Greeks, Philip of Macedonia was no person to be under-estimated, neither was his son Alexander the Great who avenged the humiliation his father faced by subduing all Greek city states under his rule. Later by the tender age of 32, he built the largest empire by land area until it was surpassed by the empire of Chengis Khan.

Throughout his empire, all cultures were Hellenized and Greek became the fashionable language from Bactria to Egypt. The culture of the Greeks was imposed on the “barbarians” through what Alexander called “Greek Education”. Such was the extent of Hellenization that in Israel, the Old Testament written in Hebrew had to be translated to Greek (the Septuagint) because the children of influential Jews spoke Greek instead of Hebrew.

This cycle continued throughout history. Whenever a people invaded another people, their way of life was imposed on the subdued (better known as Cultural Condescendence). One way of imposing culture on others was to make the subdued people feel inferior to the overlords in terms of culture. Australian social commentator and critic Arthur Angel Philips coined the term “Cultural Cringe” to describe such a collective inferiority complex which often leads to self hatred of being born to a particular ethnic group.

Cultural condescendence reached its most brutal phase with the notorious Inter Caetera, the division of the world by Pope Alexander VI between the Portuguese and Spanish in 1493 which triggered the colonial frenzy of the Europeans. This led to cultural genocide, from the Incas and Aztecs of Latin America to the Aborigines of Australia countless cultures were exterminated from the face of the earth. Even Europeans themselves were not immune to this, the Irish faced cultural genocide from the English.

Sri Lanka was no exception. Out of the three colonizers, the British were the ones who left behind the worst damage, a damage which warrants much more than just a few paragraphs to describe. Had it not been for great people like Keppitipola, Gongalegoda Bandara, Puran Appu, Ven. Kudapola Rahula Thero, Ven. Gunanada Thero, Ven. Anagarika Dhammapala, Kumaranathunga Munidasa and Ven. Sikkim Mahinda Thero, the Sinhalese people would have inevitably ended up as refugees on land reservations in their own motherland like the Australian Aborigines, Native Americans and Maoris.

The clash of cultures continues to this very day. Globalization is nothing more than this old conflict under a new name. It is really strange to see that in this “global village”, it is only the people of Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe who have to “change” or be “left out”. This is nothing more than a subtle and diplomatic way of saying “Give up your culture and start living like us”. On the other hand, the people of North America and Western Europe continue to live their usual lifestyle.

In this global village it is near impossible to find an American playing an Udekki, Getabera or Daula. It is equally difficult to find an American who routinely eats Kiribath. However, on the other hand it is possible to see the mushrooming of baseball clubs, bowling alleys, hamburger stalls, barbeques and toastmaster associations in Sri Lanka. Nothing more is needed to unmask the guise of this façade term for cultural condescendence.


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