Cultivating Irreverence for Promoting Critical Thinking
Being a “global homeless” person has its own set of advantages! People who grow up and live and work in different places tend not to have a particular bias, defensiveness, or the odd belief in “exceptionalism” about their own country or culture. Of course, some in the mobile category are even more stick-in-the-mud attached to their “original” and grandiose sense of identity. But I bet even such individuals inwardly smile when someone else takes something about “their” home or habit for granted as grand or superior.
Though I was born in Nepal, I grew up in northeastern India (on the border of Myanmar), going to a Catholic school that touted everything British. The indigenous communities of the state absolutely despised having to be a part of India (they wanted to be a separate nation — probably even many different nations — if it was not for heavy presence of the Indian military in every town).
So, when I came “home” to Nepal, after high school, I was shocked by what I heard everyone saying. The country is the size of Tajikistan, but the primary word for describing it in every student essay (no matter what the topic, they started with a sentence about their great nation!), every political speech, every song it seemed to me, was “humongous”–vishaal. (Of course, it wouldn’t be surprising at all if Tajiks think the same about their country).
Back in India, people used to call their country “mahabharat” with reference to the original (legendary?) size they say it used to be, but here was a nation that was 22 times smaller than the other one, with less than two thirds of its land surface inhabitable, locked between its own frozen mountains in the north and a politically nosy big brother in the south …. where people seemed to believe that they lived in not just the “best” but also the “biggest” country in the world!
A second word that no student essay and no political discourse seemed to leave out was “beautiful” — and, well, I could see no beauty whatsoever whichever way I turned. The cities looked squalid, the countryside barren, and when I considered the poverty and illiteracy and everything, I failed to understand in what sense people used the second blessed word — other than as a metaphor! But perhaps nations are defined in metaphors and myths — and it probably makes sense to do so.
Another word which everyone used as if it was a synonym for the name of their country, peaceful, made no sense to me either. While the Maoist extremists were yet to start the (near) civil war, oppression and systemic violence against women, ethnic minorities, and the lower classes and castes seemed disturbing wherever I turned. Of course, it was totally uncool, even blasphemous to question these terms, but that didn’t make me stop wondering why people seemed to define/describe their country in imagined terms. (It was years later that I came to learn the idea/theory of nations as “imagined communities” (coined by Benedict Anderson).
When I heard all the above words “all the time,” I didn’t know what to think — because I was also mourning the death of the ideal image of my beloved homeland inside my mind, an image that I had created out of the materials of many beautiful songs, scholarly voices, and many stories that I had heard about a “massive, beautiful, and peaceful nation” over the years on Radio Nepal, from hundreds of miles away from the borders of Burma.
But the myths kept coming. When I was in college, I heard the phrase “American exceptionalism” when an English professor (who was from India) was teaching an essay about the US, and he paused and said: “You shouldn’t take this thing too seriously. We believe the same in India, and you guys do it here in Nepal as well.” Some of my peers were extremely angry to hear that. They had no clear reason why they were so upset, but they didn’t like the Indian professor at all.
My students here in the US read about globalization, the place of US in the world, etc, and I have never shared my personal story (of “Wait, what size did you say?”) with them. But I have often felt the urge to tell them that I know of a country that is 65 times smaller than this one (which also felt that many times less “exceptional” to me when I first experienced it as an adult)– and yet most of its poor inhabitants can’t help pretending to have the largest, beautifullest, and peacefullest one in the world!
I know that we shouldn’t challenge others about their grand sense of identity: myths work wonders (e.g., it can create and maintain a sense of bond, desire to serve, etc) and they don’t necessarily have negative consequences. But sometimes I wonder if I should promote a little bit of irreverence toward grand narratives and discourses, because I think that irreverence (in this type of discourse) is a critical component of critical thinking, especially when it comes to subjects like nationalism/exceptionalism.
And if we don’t know how to laugh at ourselves (as well as take ourselves seriously), others are more likely to. 🙂