on 'Being culturally sensitive'. Sorry, no thank you.

I always get a bit worried whenever people start imposing restrictions on expression for fear that it might be ‘offensive’. For instance, Seelan Palay's post, 'Lee Kuan Yew's remarks deeply offensive to Malays', or, Not My SDP's, 'John Tan's remarks deeply offensive to Muslims', are cases in point.

Let me put it this way. Familiarity tends to breed contempt of critique. In other words, my being familiar with a particular scheme of thought and thoughtlessness, and being taught to appreciate it as ‘culture’, and then being told that I ought to take ‘cultural pride’ in it, renders whatever paradigm from which I make limited sense of reality immune to critique lest it offends the familiarity-induced sensibilities of others like myself. This, i view as nothing short of cultural arrogance. Do people actually think that the culture we inherit, and which is borne of times we all agree were, in various respects, less than laudable, can actually be sacrosanct? If we were to be objective about it, we’d find that offending people’s sensitivities can oftentimes be paraphrased with offending people’s biases and prejudices.

The logic is simple enough, or at least to myself - the practice of a culture tends to replicate the conditions that produced them, or, the replication of conditions that produced cultures of the past can give birth to similar cultures. That, if anything, is a warning to be wary of 'cultural pride' and be more than amenable to critical cultural introspection.

All of us products, or more accurately, consequences, of various historical experiences handed down to our conscious minds, and thrust up the backsides of our subconscious minds through the medium of ‘culture’. It endows us with varying perspectives that work well and fine within isolated circumstances. However, when we come together, some of these perspectives are made more by fusion with others, whilst others are an impediment to said fusion. Of course, in the face of critique, we can irrationally seek refuge in ‘thou shalt be sensitive to my sensitivities because it is protected by the term, ‘culture’’.

However, I am well aware that there were times when ‘culture’ denied women the right to vote, or the Afro-americans from aspiring to be anything more than a carpenter or cotton-picker, and which even led to some Indians to engage in a spot of bride-burning here and there. And people were imprisoned for being ‘culturally-insensitive’ and taking issue with the order of the day, or the characters it produced or thrived on amongst the advantaged and disadvantaged. So let’s not couch our respective familiarities in ‘cultural sensitivity’ shall we, and let’s be reflexively inclined to ask if a particular statement is true. In our efforts to dissect and discover the truth, we cannot but learn more about ourselves and each other, and which is a most prudential approach if we have as an ambition to be more a product of the insights of the past, than its oversights.

If some people tend to get out their incendiary cocktails to carry the discussion further, then let’s pay their efforts the compliment of effective policing. But the last thing we should be doing is to police our thoughts on the perspectival consequences of various historical experiences, whether it is termed ‘culture’ or ‘a set of historically induced biases, prejudices, insights and oversights’. I’d rather be of the lineage of the best of cultures as opposed to making the best of a culture because my ancestor did so lest it makes victims of others.

And singaporean activists ought to be appreciate how 'cultural sensitivity' allowed the party in power to promote one culture over all others whilst rendering it immune to critique via the need to be 'culturally sensitive'. Activists must also be aware that 'cultural sensitivity' can also be a medium via which the belief systems of a people borne of the manipulations of the governments of the past are protected by the selfsame people who've been taught to take familiarity-induced cultural pride in it. At such a time, the people will then be able to serve as the Great Wall betwixt the government and critiques and activists will begin to wonder why it takes so damn long for change.

Let's be intelligent and objective about it all. But let's not confuse 'feeling insulted' or 'being offended' as an indicator that what is said is untrue.




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