When one's sense of belonging, to the country, group or even something as ‘harmless' as music, becomes irrational, the danger of chauvinism becomes very real…

A few months ago, I listened in (not eavesdropped, I assure you) on a conversation between two music aficionados. They were debating whether Carnatic music was better than Western classical music or vice-versa. Of course, each held on to their relative positions hotly and passionately and were getting quite nastily personal in their comments to each other, when they were joined by a third aficionado who declaimed that Hindustani classical music was much better than the other two. Had this remained an intellectual discussion, I would have been happy to continue listening, but the conversation, if you could call it that, soon degenerated into a slanging match, more so when the others present in the vicinity started taking sides with one buff or the other. Needless to say, they didn't reach any rational conclusion on the subject. How could they? What parameters or algorithms does one use to determine which system of music is better? And, why on earth should one even begin to make such a determination? Why should mine be better than yours? Or anybody else's?

Various flavours

Unfortunately, chauvinism, a phenomenon that's been around for centuries, though in a more sporadic form, has, in recent times, come to be worn as a badge of honour. Although the term ‘chauvinism' owes its origins to a Napoleonic veteran, Nicolas Chauvin, on account of his extreme patriotism and loyalty, the use of the term is no longer restricted to a nationalistic context. It has been extensively used to refer to male chauvinism — a manifestation of the unprepossessing social bastion of patriarchy. And in recent times to any self-proclaimed superiority by one group over the other. Thus, aside of gender chauvinists, you have language chauvinists, caste chauvinists, religious chauvinists, ethnic chauvinists and even music chauvinists.

It is, of course, perfectly understandable that people love, enjoy and are proud of what they believe belongs to them and perhaps, even defines who they are. Which is why patriotism is considered not merely a desirable human trait but an essential one for the very definition of nationhood. This understanding can be stretched a bit to include religion, caste, community and other sub-cultural groupings too, for, as elegantly described by the American psychologist Abraham Maslow, once basic needs are taken care of, all human beings have a need to experience a ‘sense of belonging' to a group. However, when one becomes irrationally identified with the group one belongs to, obviously the boundary between sense of belonging and chauvinism has been crossed and a new set of psychodynamics have taken over, for, chauvinism is defined as excessive or prejudiced loyalty or support for one's own cause; the two key words being excessive and prejudiced.

Dangerous possibilities

Although religious, ethnic and caste and language chauvinism have been around for a while, at no time like the present have they assumed the potential to polarise and divide peoples and nations. While it may appear that chauvinism is related to the feeling of superiority of one group over another, this is so only on the surface. Probably the principal reason for chauvinism is fear (I exclude male chauvinism from this discussion for this is a much more involved phenomenon, having its roots in complex patterns of social evolution). Members of a dominant group fear a threat to the supremacy of their position from those less privileged, for, they feel that the gap between them and members of the latter group is slowly closing on a variety of parameters. And they end up feeling that unless their positions are asserted aggressively, they are going to lose out.

Which is why mine has to be better than yours. Not because it is really better, but because if it isn't, then you might become my equal, and this in some way becomes unacceptable, since over the centuries it has been drummed into our genes that we're better because we're ‘different' from ‘them', and our ‘different' is better than ‘their' ‘different'. While this may have been appropriate in the days of our forefathers when the laws of civil society were only slowly evolving, all it does now is to promise the emergence of an uncivil society, the signs — intolerance, rigidity and armed conflict — of which are already well in evidence.

Denial of growth

However, what we often don't remember is that it is this very fear of being dominated that prevents us from growing as a race (the human race, I mean). For, if I spend a good part of my life trying to prove that mine is better than yours, then obviously my worldview becomes restricted and I run the risk of being sucked into the quicksand of irrationality that no one can pull me out of. Honestly, I'd much rather enjoy listening to whatever forms of music appeal to me than engage in mindless argument on which one is better. By the same token, I live in India because it's my home and I love it with its warts, not because it's better than every other country or because my culture is more ancient than yours. In the final analysis, if we stay stuck in seeking a sense of belonging, we end up compromising our intrinsic search for self-actualisation. And we wouldn't want that, would we? Or, would we?

E-mail the writer at vijay.nagaswami@gmail.com