How Saffron Should Saffron Be?

“Nationalism of one kind or another was the cause of most of the genocide of the twentieth century. Flags are bits of coloured cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people’s minds and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead.” – Arundhati Roy
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With “nationalism” rearing it’s ugly head again the world over, in the form of an almost singular, intolerant sense of nationalism, one of the excuses made by its proponents is that of “maintaining national culture”. We see instances of such nationalistic sentiment upheavals in the United States with the “Trump Tower of Intolerance”, up north in Finland, where a right wing party has declared a “war on the nightmare of multiculturalism”, not very long ago in France with the Charlie Hebdo uproar and the focus on the French “humour culture”, and closer home, what is happening in India with the union culture minister and his “roadmap to maintaining Indian culture and removing western influences”. While nationalistic pride can be an exhilarating thing, I am of the opinion that such exhilaration should be restricted to cricket matches (or football, depending on where you are from). Because, beyond that, it simply is dangerous territory. After all, being born into a country is simply a matter of circumstance – it is neither one’s choice nor has one worked hard for it. So really, why is pride with regards to our nationality an emotion that should exist inherently in us, unless it is propagated by those with a political agenda?

I was born in India, lived for a considerable number of years in Oman, and now travel frequently to Europe and the UAE – with various aspects of my career and personal life in these places. I love being Indian – for the exposure it has given me to different cultures and ways of being right from when I was born, for the optimistic outlook to life that it has given me, for the beautiful, brown color of my skin and my dark hair. I love being Indian, for jackfruit and mangoes and chicken 65. I love being Indian, because here in India, I see streets with a church, a mosque and a temple right next to each other – and they live in perfect harmony for the most part. I am proud of India for a lot of its feats (more in the past than recently). Am I proud to be Indian? I see no reason why I should take credit for that – it was beyond my control.

With the trend towards nationalistic divisiveness, national pride is, I’m afraid, an artificially inculcated sentiment – one that can be potentially very dangerous. After all, what exactly is the nation? Does India mean a country of Hindus? Does the United States have room only for those from Northern European descent? How blonde and blue eyed does one need to be? And how saffron should saffron be?

Let us take the example of India – one of the most diverse countries in the world. “Unity in diversity” has been the favourite adage of most Indians, instilled in each individual right from early school years. Famed for the tolerance practised by the Buddhist emperor Ashoka in the second century BC to the Mughal emperor Akbar in the fifteenth century, where the emperors are said to have had public debates on important issues with representatives from every belief, including agnostics and atheists, India has a history of tolerance, at least in a political context (the caste system notwithstanding). The epistemological pluralism that has existed in India over centuries, welcomed many religions and belief systems and is known to have embraced each one and encouraged them to enter a “relaxed conversation” with the other. No culture or religion that has entered India has been known to have remained dogmatic or exclusive for long. Until now.

With beef bans, a vow to remove western influences (including the conduct of women), changes in educational books, et al, it is imperative that ordinary citizens stop and think about the changes that are occurring around them. Where will the lines be drawn? Are the lines evident and acceptable, or are they going to be drawn in a way that splits individuals in half?

There is the overbearing need for a government to be extremely responsible and fair when it comes to running a country such a India. This is possible only if, as in the time of the great emperors, representatives from each belief system has a say in the running of the nation. Reciprocity in the positive sense is hence, possible only when every participant is heard and respected. Fair representation of every belief system should be a prerequisite for the governance of any diverse nation. In a country where minority rights and sentiments have to be considered, it is never as simple as “majority wins”.

Written by Divya Susan Varkey, Intercultural Communications Trainer and Practitioner

How Saffron Should Saffron Be?

The Arab’s Camel Paradox – A Case of Tolerance vs. Tolerability

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As social media is starting to tire of the Syrian refugee situation, and move on to more pleasant matters or other grim events, amongst of course, the never ending selfies and cuisine, Europe, and most notably, Germany, is left to deal with their new guests. Saudi Arabia has, very generously, offered to build 100 mosques for the benefit of the refugees. Life goes on in other parts of the world…

While there are debates about the motives behind Germany’s generosity, the fact is that they have taken in these refugees. Now what?

The fable of the Arab and his camel comes to mind when thinking back on what Germany has to deal with now. The Arab, who feels sorry for his camel out in the cold, consents to his request to put his nose in, then his head, his legs, till his whole body is in the tent and the master has to turn his pet out again in anger. The political implications of “the camel’s nose” and how much to tolerate has been widely debated and due to the sensitivity of the issue, often ends in stale mate. When the interests of several parties are at stake in the name of inclusion, richness in diversity, political correctness or otherwise, justice, safety and maintaining status quo, much needs to be considered and indeed, much is at stake.

In my previous blog, I suggested that there needs to be a plan to integrate the guests. Here is why:

While the Germans may have welcomed the refugees wholeheartedly (to cynics, with a hidden political agenda that has been orchestrated through the unassuming publics), the key to avoiding a potentially dangerous situation is advocating tolerance. However, when there is tolerance, how much is tolerable?

I define tolerance as the conscious, positive cognitive and emotive response to beliefs, actions and ways of living of those different from one, in an overt manner (the performers of tolerance need not necessarily covertly believe in the meaning transmitted through their conscious responses). Tolerability then, is defined as the extent to which that tolerance can last – the imaginary fine line that exists between what can be tolerated and what can not. Thus, if tolerance is an act, tolerability is the quality of an action or belief or way of living. While the Arab had tolerance for his camel’s requests, the camel’s repeated and expanding requests tested that tolerance because they crossed the level of tolerability (for the Arab). Here, the subjective nature of tolerability is extremely crucial and must be acknowledged for any debate on diversity to be objectively settled.

When a German community agrees to welcome new neighbours of a different religious belief, one can say that they have a tolerance for different beliefs. However, loud chantings of prayers at 5.00 a.m. every day are not tolerable. Matthias might say that the tolerability of the chantings are extremely low – nobody can expect that anyone will tolerate that. Nicole may however, counter that she is a deep sleeper and is unaffected by any noise, so the prayers are within tolerability limits. Jan might say that the chantings soothe him in the mornings. What then, is the best way to measure tolerability? Who determines that imaginary line? Is building a 100 mosques within tolerability limits? Even if it is, is it the camel trying to enter with his whole body?

Since the imaginary line is so turbid, and most often, violently sensitive, attempts must be made to make it clearer, at the outset. It is hence, of utmost importance to set and communicate expectations – of behaviour, of cooperation, of the future. Because once the needs become more than a sandwich, a bottle of water and a set of diapers for the infants, one better be prepared to meet those needs.

Written by Divya Susan Varkey, Intercultural Communications Trainer and Practitioner

The Arab’s Camel Paradox – A Case of Tolerance vs. Tolerability

The Syrian Exodus and the Expiration Date on Empathy

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The Syrian exodus, the worst since the Rwandan genocide twenty years ago, has caught the world’s attention to a greater degree than it would have otherwise, thanks to social media. Horrendous images of a three year old boy washed ashore, interviews with the father, emotional accounts of survival, compassionate acts of welcome, are all flashed through our social media screens amongst gourmet meals, selfies and petty issues of daily life. The personification of the refugees and the humanisation of their ordeal, has led to greater empathy and indeed, to more empathisers.

While Germany and Iceland are being praised for their empathy, and other European countries are somewhat reluctantly following suit, there is no doubt that the hue and cry about drowning refugees, fleeing victims of war and pleas for humanity will die down. The media and people at large will soon have something else to talk about and will not for very long focus on these individuals who braved their way out of a strife-stricken country. What happens then? Is there an expiration date to empathy?

Sadly, the answer might be yes, especially empathy towards the same group of people, once the fuss of “taking them in” dies down. Then, the very people they rescued in great shows of welcome become burdens, jobless people who sometimes resort to extreme measures to make ends meet. Unless the countries, in the same enthusiasm they show to welcome, have a concrete plan for the months and years to come. The key word here is integration.

In between the efforts to welcome and provide infrastructure, there needs to be a conscious attempt to, from the very beginning, integrate these people (not refugees, not immigrants, but people) into society. Integration does not mean merely giving them a home, teaching them the local language or providing aid – integration means involving the natives of the area. It is not just the guests who need to be supported through the process, the hosts need to be too. Including new people in your community can be nerve-wrecking, however open you want to be. It is a situation where you are forced to adjust, not because you are in a new place, but because your home is now home to people starkly different from you – with ideas, thoughts, belief systems that are completely different from yours. And let’s face it, once the novelty of the situation wears off, intolerance and contempt have high chances of setting in.

Integration, hence, is a three pronged approach.

1. Amongst the guests themselves – to make them feel welcome, provide them shelter and aid and most importantly, job opportunities so that they don’t feel marginalised and get confined to ghettos.

2. Amongst the residents of the area – Intercultural training programs need to be conducted so that the hosts better understand the culture of the guests, the strife they have been through, the kind of trauma that they might be facing, ways in which they can help without being patronising or preachy.

3. Orchestrating interaction – it is vital that hosts and guests interact as much as is possible right at the beginning, so as to avoid any divisiveness or exclusion that might arise. Organising events that allow for such interactions will go a long way in establishing the feeling of welcome and acceptance.

If the countries fail to integrate their new guests, while caught up in the frenzy of doing what is right at the time, this good deed may soon pave way to marginalisation, despair and regret.

– written by Divya Susan Varkey, Intercultural Communications Trainer and Practitioner

The Syrian Exodus and the Expiration Date on Empathy

Introducing CrossOver….

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CrossOver is a intercultural communications training and consultancy company based in Bangalore, India, started by certified intercultural communications practitioners of Itim International, Helsinki. We work with corporate teams, students and expatriates to remove prejudices and bridge cultural divides through quantifiable ways of measuring and understanding cultural differences. Our collaboration with international experts help us to address cultural issues faced in most parts of the globe and we firmly believe that understanding and sensitivity between cultures is the immediate need of the hour, world over.

CrossOver is Associate Partner of Itim International in Helsinki, Finland who are the global experts in Intercultural Management and Organisational Culture.

Introducing CrossOver….