Remembrance Day Reflection: How can we celebrate culture without entrenching separation?

“When old men fight, you people die.” It seems a simple truth, but when I read this in Anne Fortier’s 2010 novel Juliet, it reminded me of all of the ways we are affected by war, and all of the things people are asked to give up. During the war, young people give up life and lose loved ones. And yet, after the war it continues. Long after. Marguerite Duras portrays the emotional devastation in Hiroshima mon amour, and also in L’Amant, in which young people are forbidden to love the enemy. In the 1970s, who did not grow up with the quietly echoing phrase, “because of the war.”  If we add oppressive colonial regimes to the category of war, a war on culture a war on independence, then the discussion becomes even more far reaching. Because of the war, you must not fraternize with the enemy.

And because often culture and language have been threatened, the end of the war creates a cultural revival, a renewed identification with tribe and all of its regalia. And in response John Lennon lyrically urges us to imagine a world with no religion – nothing to kill or die for. But must we give up culture too, in order to live in peace as a human race? Or can we celebrate culture, and therefore difference, without entrenching separateness, sectarianism and segregation. I believe we must try, and I’ve wagered a lot in my persistence with this view.

When I was a double major of English and French with these two words sewn on my sleeve, a man in a bus stop jokingly asked, “What are you trying to become, a professional Canadian?” Yes. I don’t mind that at all. Navigating cultural borderlands can be a kind of calling. And I am not an idealist who has been insulated from the results of cultural conflict. As an exchange student in Quebec City, I was befriended by a family of five with one staunchly separatist son. As an ESL teacher, I lived in Korea during a time when the freedom of information for the period of the 1980 Kwangju massacre caused a dramatic increase in anti-American sentiment (ROK had been a US-backed military dictatorship at that time). I sat with a woman in rural India who told me she could not read because her father would not send her to an English colonial school. I have facilitated rooms full of young people coming together, and in many cases, embracing friendship: Koreans and Japanese, Saudis and Israelis. I believe we are coming together as a human family. And yet, I teach culture, I teach symbolism, I teach ritual. Perhaps, you might say, ‘you teach in a way that points to the symbolism of an early universal shamanic culture’. Yes, the more I study, the more I practice ritual, I feel the resonance of the deep seeds of universal culture. Though the question still remains – can we celebrate difference in harmony. A pro-feminist sociolinguistics professor once told me he did not want to focus on discrete difference in gender and communication, as difference was almost always interpreted hierarchically. The solution – deconstruct the binary sense of discrete difference. In other words, focus on the similarities, or on a spectrum. Focus on the similarities! Deconstruct difference! Yes – it’s so simple, and so post-modern. Except that postmodern anthropology teaches us through the lens of cultural relativity – difference is not wrong, it simply is. There are so many different trees in the forest. Difference just is. Will we ever be able to be with it, without trying to deny, distance or eradicate it.

Both of the fledgeling novels I’m working on at the moment concern cultural conflict, and young people trying to forge borderlands in which their friendship can exist. Today, yes, in this current time, 2014, when I hear of young people who are being urged or forced to give up relationships for sectarian reasons, ‘because of the war’, or for the tribe, every cell of my being rebels! The cultural revival the emerges in the post-war or postcolonial period must not become a perpetuation of war, the war on the young who (must not) love the other.