Monday, June 23, 2008

The best of both worlds

Is the aim of my life to be autonomous? Is this what makes me free? If so, there must be no significant aspect of my life which I cannot choose for myself.

This is a problem when it comes to ethnicity. Ethnicity appears to be inherited as a tradition rather than being self-determined. Therefore, if I want to be autonomous I have to either "liberate" myself from the "prison" of ethnicity; or else I have to think of ethnicity as being something that I myself might construct - as something individual and subjective, a "personal narrative".

But is ethnicity really experienced by individuals as something negative, as an impediment to freedom? And is it really experienced as a self-constructed narrative, rather than as a real, objective tradition?

If the answer to both questions is yes, then how do we explain the case of Nirpal Dhaliwal. He is a man of Indian descent raised in Great Britain. He stayed away from India for many years due to its economic backwardness. But now that it is more economically advanced, he believes he can enjoy there both the modern lifestyle trappings as well as the sense of ethnic attachment:

So many Indians like me, born and raised in the West, are returning, wanting to reconnect with their motherland as much as seek their fortunes ...

It is now a society where we can be as modern and cosmopolitan as we want while immersing ourselves in its ancient culture.

India wields an irresistible ancestral pull - and is now the place where we can most truly be ourselves.

If autonomy theory were right, then Dhaliwal would experience India's ancient culture and ancestral pull as an oppression. He would feel burdened. Instead, Dhaliwal feels most true to himself when connected to his ethnic homeland.

Then there is the case of Melbourne artist Michael Peck. In a recent newspaper article, Peck explained the inspiration for his paintings:

Peck said he wanted his work to convey the experience of refugees and migrants trying to fit into a new culture.

"The figures in my paintings are there, but they always seem out of place ..."

Peck began exploring the idea after a difficult year in London. While there he taught art to underprivileged migrant children and found many were "lost" because they lacked a connection to their cultural roots ...

"Most of my work focuses on the idea of cultural displacement or dislocation, the concept of identity and how our identity is formed ..." (Diamond Valley Leader, June 18, 2008)

Again, if autonomy theory were right, then refugees ought not to feel lost at all, but unburdened. They should either experience a liberation from their cultural roots, or else control the process in terms of their personal narrative.

Instead, we are told that the refugees feel disconnected, lost and out of place.

Shouldn't then the aim be to enable people, as far as possible, to continue to enjoy a connection to their own ethnic tradition?

This requires a rethink of autonomy theory. It doesn't work to make autonomy an overriding principle in life; this doesn't bring either freedom or authenticity, but rather loss and displacement. A better option would be to think of autonomy as one good in life, to be balanced intelligently with other goods.


  1. Maybe it is just because they are looking for some traditions of any kind.

    As our "multicultural" societies have dismissed our own values, it's no wonder that immigrants will look to their homeland for some culture and tradition.

  2. Everyone desires a sense of belonging. The traditions and institutions, whether historically or ethnically rooted, utopian or both (as in far-right ideology), provide a sense of this to many. However, I think we should not overlook the difficulties of seeking to maintain such a thing as an "ethnic identity," given that the conscious effort to do so renders it a choice as much as any other lifestyle an individual might choose. It is only once such identities become questionable and to some extent optional that they begin to be defended by conservatives; but once history has moved on and enlightenment has arrived, predjudice (in the Burkean sense) requires a rational defence and, obtaining it, ceases to be what is defended.

    "Traditionalism" then becomes only another "ism" among many, and equally the product of a rational enquiry into first principles. You admit as much when you acknowledge it is one good to be intelligently balanced with others." Where do these other principles get their justification? If not from tradition, then where but from an ahistorical, transcendent conception of the good; something along the lines of Kant's categorical imperative, the "rights of man" or "the greatest good for the greatest number."

    The other, related difficulty with defending traditional forms of belonging is that they become antiquarian, and thereby, again, cease to be the vital entities defended. French patriotism, for example, changed irrevocably following the Revolution, and no reactionary today wants to return to absolutism; the paradox is that,in accordance with their principles, they would have had to oppose the same democratic, libertarian and egalitarian principles they now seek to defend (against Muslims, the left, etc.)were they to be transported back to 1789 or before.