What Came First, the Difference or the Similarity? Part 1

huffpostThe Huffington Post has a new article that opens with:

Hindus and Buddhists in Sri Lanka may have been divided through political strife over the years, but they have one important thing in common. Her name is Pattini to Sinhala Buddhists and Kannaki to Tamil Hindus, but she is one and the same goddess shared in religious practices by the two faiths.

And it closes with the following:

Most importantly, in her shared worship among Hindus and Buddhists Pattini-Kannaki is an ironic reminder of the parallel cultural traditions that may exist between groups divided along ethnic or political lines…

Apart from overlooking how shared symbols, myths, or rituals, let alone languages, geography, or economic systems, hardly constitute the necessary grounds for unity (e.g., despite the rhetoric of shared Abrahamic religions, the figure of Abraham appearing across a variety of groups today is hardly seen by many as relevant for settling current disputes — in fact, he’s not even shared, in minds of many, so much as appropriated from “us” by “them,” making commonality but one more site of the dispute!), the article does something else that’s interesting: it naturalizes a world religions, an ethnicity, and a nationalism discourse that surely post-dates the development and spread of these practices.

It does this by failing to entertain that the designation of difference (whether ethnic or religious) may have come long after certain practices first appeared in this region, making not the shared activity curious and worthy of a glossy photo spread but, instead, the enduring presumption of different identities itself is what ought to catch our eye. It is as if discovering some common ritual near the India-Pakistan border today was heralded as an opportunity to mend national differences, instead of seeing this very presumption of national or ethnic difference as the result of a border drawn about only seventy years ago, down the middle of otherwise intersecting groups who naturally shared large numbers of things in common, despite other differences also existing, of course — yet it was just some of those differences that caught the eye of people with the power to draw immovable lines on maps. And those lines have been so successful that our eyes apparently can’t look away from them now, for we all somehow know there’s a real place called Pakistan which is different from India. And in Sri Lanka we all know there’s a real group called Hindus who are different from Buddhists.

To become so focused on the effects of these enforced lines, making just the similarities stand out as odd or curious, is but one moment when identification — which is always ad hoc, historical, in need of reinvention and reassertion — is authorized.

While I’m not suggesting that boundaries are simply artificial and that some natural human affinity lurks beneath them, I am arguing — as many posts at the Edge have argued as well — that our goal, as scholars, ought to be to study the changeable conditions in which something gets to count as a difference or a similarity: for whom, in what situation, to what effect?

The borders themselves therefore ought to be our focus, and not just the two yards that result when the fence is all but invisible and thus natural. I leave it to others, or in moments when I am something other than a scholar, to decide whether any of these boundaries ought to be overcome or policed.

See part 2 here.

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