Vinay Hiremath

Unshackling culture

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I recently found this quote by George Orwell, which I had previously seen in another context without proper attribution. Given his participation in the Spanish Civil War, this is perhaps less surprising:

The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.

– George Orwell

I would generally agree, and think that one of the most impressionable evils that can be inflicted on a population is denying their telling of their own story. I would even take it farther to include various cultural attributes, which are both intertwined within and often constitute the backbone of one’s history.

To be clear, I would endorse neither historical ignorance nor an indiginous history rife with inaccuracies and lacking in context. I do, however, think that a story told by a group that views itself as an external agent can never truly serve the people whose identities are most existentially grounded in the events. Most crucially, there is no reason to make the assumption that the external group favors a history that strengthens and unifies the people most affected. Consider the following quote from an editorial by Michael D. Higgins, president of Ireland 1:

At its core, imperialism involves the making of a number of claims that are invoked to justify its assumptions and practices – including its inherent violence. One of those claims is the assumption of superiority of culture and it is always present in the imperialising project.

– Michael D. Higgins

In practice, external rewritings of culture and history have been used not to write a rich and well-preserved origin story that serves to energize a group, but to imprison it amidst a web of ideas that purposefully center and idolize the authors. It serves as imperialism not through an explicit economic or military dependence, but through an underlying sense of inferiority that grows endemic in a population. Naturally, those imprisoned are expected to look to these oppressors to make sense of themselves, their past, and their vision for the future. Through such a lens intentionally crafted to lionize its designer, one can only glimpse one’s own alleged imperfections and impurities. This problem is twofold. As a toy example, consider a news article written by an author that, as with any author, is rooted in their own perspectives.

First, it is typically the case that the issue at hand is reported from the writer’s particular ethical or moral standpoints, as well as from specific cultural perspectives grounded in certain traditions and values. Analogously, it is often the case that the “faults” visible through the aforementioned lens are only failings with respect to the cultural and ethical norms of the oppressor, not in any absolute sense (if one exists) or from any indigenous perspective.

Second, this news article will naturally include some facts and exclude others. This might be out of negligence, malice, or simply luck. This imbues further biases in the coverage of an issue even if the facts reported have been appropriately contextualized. Analogously, consider the aforementioned cultural oppressor, highly incentivized to channel a group’s narrative in a particular direction. There are innumerable opportunities to do so through the selective recording of history. It may be done by influencing teaching materials in schools or imposing direct control over the media and published materials. However, it can also be done more indirectly, such as by compartmentalizing access to physical objects that can symbolize and reproduce this history. There are countless examples of policies along this vein, ranging from the systematic destruction of cultural artifacts to the seemingly innocuous extraction of these objects to distant museums with passage limited to few.

How might a society that has been encumbered by these arbitrary standards and selective access to its own history unshackle itself to rise anew? I think this is inherently a question that must be answered by each group for itself. A starting point might be rejecting the absolutism of specific ideas once seen as preordained. There is a definite danger of overcorrecting by rejecting ideas solely on the basis of their origin, but that is perhaps a necessary cost to cultivate a population with renewed dignity and self-respect. After all, on an individual level there is strong evidence that self-respect is closely tied to long-term happiness, although the exact relationship seems to vary across populations 2. I think Orwell was fundamentally right in that a people cannot freely prosper without control over their understanding of their own history, and my hope is that more societies are able to approach this ideal.


  1. Empire shaped Ireland’s past. A century after partition, it still shapes our present | Ireland | The Guardian 

  2. The association between self-esteem and happiness differs in relationally mobile vs. stable interpersonal contexts