What’s the nation’s general direction? It’s as good a question as any to ask on our Independence Day. Does copying befit a nation? It befits a troop of monkeys, not humans. Of course life itself is a certain degree of copying. As children we imitate parents, uncles, elders. Then we model ourselves after role models, so called.
Without at least this amount of borrowing from others’ experiences, we don’t exist. It’s existential, learning from people how you’d do things as you get on in life. But woe unto those who have based their lives on copying.
Woe unto those who don’t have a single original idea because they have ceded control of everything to others, making themselves little more than cyphers. They have ceded the running of their lives to the outside world. Sometimes it seems, entire nations do this. Simply put, they do nothing but ape the rest.
Aping is a recipe for disaster. Colonial powers forced the colonised to ape. Most times, this was through brute force.
When the agricultural economies of colonies were destroyed, the colonisers introduced cash crops. What alternative did the young people have other than to become pukka sahib planters imitating the white periya dorais of the West?
Eventually the colonised lost any sense of agency over their own lives. They lived to ape, and aped to live.
In Africa, for their efforts they were also appended with pejoratives that evoked ape. That’s of course naked racism.
Some argue that successful economies of today have largely aped industrialised Western economies which were successful before them. The South Asian Tiger economies are now being aped by other emerging economies and its all a full circle of aping.
However, the South Asian economies refined their act to such an extent that the Western industrialised economies now ape their products and processes.
Copying and plain imitation is unfortunately not restricted to the production plant. Cultural borrowing has reached proportions where some domestic cultures of certain countries are virtually obliterated. If they live at all, these cultures are shadows of their former existences.
It has happened to such an extent that some countries have disowned their former cultural incarnations. They culturally inhabit the skins of their colonisers.
None of these nations has been able to come into their own as functional cultures and social ecosystems. They are still in other words, post-colonially speaking, groping in the dark.
They have disowned indigenous ways of life to such an extent that they feel poor for having at some time been in that state. This way, they have repudiated rich cultural histories and vast treasure troves of knowledge.
We have done that too. Where had our 3,000 something rice varieties? We said goodbye to those gene pools long years back, because we were aping or at least co-opting Green Revolutions that promised to double, triple and quadruple yields.
But yet, entire populations ape. Their systems of education are designed in such a way as to make a fetish of aping. The best students are those that ape best.
How do we jettison this mindset of copying and modeling after some other system’s so called success?
Most of the cultural elite in nations cannot think about it because they have been sold the story of globalisation. People now think of themselves as global citizens and are extremely proud of it, but they are left wondering why they always feel as if they are such small fish in massive ponds.
Most of all, we cannot ape our way out of an economic slump. Our success would never be assured because some country is supposed to have done it this way or that, and we are retracing their footsteps.
Playing to a nation’s strengths is not aping. The Japanese played to their strengths of discipline and almost a stoic work ethic.
The Chinese knew they were the richest on the planet for several millennia before the West started thriving in the last two centuries or so with industrialisation and colonialism.
Some would say by contrast the Singaporeans aped. They made English their lingua franca for everyday social interaction.
But then they began to build their own systems. It’s not in the trappings that there is aping. It’s in the approach.
Singapore used English as a vehicle of communications, but evolved a killer business ethic which they perfected with extremely limited resources.
They shut down cultural infiltration in terms of dependency on so-called Western norms for governance. They recognised they don’t have the natural resources to afford the luxury for that kind of chaos.
For that they have faced brickbats. The Chinese have faced brickbats. But they have also not aped when it came to facing brickbats. They didn’t hire PR firms. They began to be comfortable in their own skins so to speak, and accelerated their journey forward to a point at which jarring criticisms became irrelevant.
Is originality that difficult? It shouldn’t be. It’s just that our culture has made such a big deal out of it. We can import software, but why do we import our thought leaders?
That’s pathetic. We are also critical of our own thought leaders if they don’t have the trappings of what’s supposed to be our culture.
But thought leaders can speak any language. As long as they have an urge to think original thoughts that’s what’s important.
The thoughts may by themselves or may not be productive. In fact the more disruptive there are the better because the idea is to disrupt existing systems.
Foreign trainers that come here always ask the maverick stand-out person in the batch they are training, a puzzled question.
Why is it that only you are different? They have asked this writer that question a dozen times. There is satisfaction is dashing their expectations that everyone is a robot.
But, it’s their inner-anxiety that makes them ask that question or questions of that sort. They feel they may be dealing with someone that’s not blindly accepting, someone that perchance, may on the long run even be better than them.
But as a nation we have lost our way in that department, at least. We have sacrificed originality at the door of globalism or globalist conformism.
Globalism is a system of rules, and only a few learn to disrupt. Those who disrupt will reap the rewards, while the others are destined to wither and die on the vine as it were.
Original though leaders are often appropriated and their creative efforts stifled by the noise of appropriation. Appropriation is different from copying because there is dishonesty involved.
But eastern spiritualists for instance are undaunted. They’d say there is a little bit of god in every original creation.
What’s original will endure. Conceptualists are also dreamers. They will be undaunted because to an extent they are not of this world.
They will be reviled for this. Our culture has a surfeit of such general disdain and dismissiveness.
As a nation we wouldn’t come into our own especially after our colonial misadventures, if we don’t embrace our own creative — and disruptive — impulses.
But we are far from being there. We got it all mixed up because we think aping is the path when it is anything but the path.
Some starting point will be to forget the trappings, to forget the straight-jacket of history, and go with the flow of future possibility. We will create our own brand and brand new culture from here on, which doesn’t mean we repudiate the past. We just recognise the possibilities of the future are infinite. It’s exciting and that energy by itself would be enough to make us the arbiters of our own futures.
Either we be creative, or we perish. That’s the closest we can get to in terms of a certainty.
We may be too emasculated in spirit to get there unless we make it a habit. We make it a habit to create something new because that’s who we are.
We live to see our own change and transformation, and that’s ours. That’s true independence.