Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Month: June, 2017

Beyond Babel

You are someone, one person, tidily package in a body and a brain. I who am speaking to you am uniquely someone. Is that not obvious? you may say.

We like to believe that man is one. To  begin with, most importantly after all, there is… me! I am indisputably one and indivisible, not two or three or several people. Then there is the nation or society I belong to, which stands for something, and is united, and has a name: “Canada”, “China”, “Japan”, or whatever it may be. Then there is the species to which we belong, homo sapiens, and we’re all the same under the skin.

Yet a little examination will convince us that this is not so, at any level : personal, social, cultural. Or it is so much beside the point as to be almost meaningless.

Personally, I am a complex organism with a complex brain, made up of constantly competing elements – thoughts, habits, emotions, needs, stimuli, many of which I am unaware of more often than not.

Socially, we are a society or a nation, but very soon we discover that we are really on the shifting sands of heterogeneity. There are different social classes, different ethnic groups, different religious faiths, there may be different languages. We’re not just all in this together.

When it comes to homo sapiens, obviously we are one, but we are so fantastically differentiated, unlike any other species, that it hardly matters. We have no single way of looking at things. Just as there is no one language of humanity, there is also no one culture. And think of all that culture and language involve: perceptions of the world, norms and values, basic assumptions, ways of doing things. Now that at last we have begun to know the world and not just our own country, as in past ages, we know that the world is too complex and vast for anyone to be in charge, or to take charge.

We yearn for unity. Think of the myth of Babel. Faced with the bewildering multiplicity around us and within ourselves, we dream that once there was unity, everybody speaking the same language, building the same tower to heaven. But it was never so. As long as man has been on the earth, he has been many. There is no lost secret, no “original language” or “original culture” or untouched core of humanity.

At the root of our humanity is not an illusory homogeneity, but an irremediable multiplicity. It will go better for us all in the future if we accept this and make it the very core of our course of action, not an inconvenient problem on the periphery (“communication barriers”).

In the world – not unity, but untidy compromise. In society, in the workplace – not homogeneity, but endless negotiation. Within myself – a babble of voices – and which is mine?

The voyage of tomorrow is a voyage across these shifting sands.

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Multiple solitudes

Many years ago, Hugh McLennan wrote a novel with the title “Two Solitudes”. It was about the English minority and the French majority in Montreal: they inhabited the same city, but lived in two different worlds. The phrase caught on, and it came to mean French and English Canada generally. It was a reality too. Indeed, the thing that amazed me as an immigrant in the 1970s was that the two language areas were still like two different countries, even though they had a federal political system in common. Read the newspaper or listen to radio or TV news in the two Canadas, and you seemed to be in two different countries. It is still the case, though there is now a more dutiful attempt by media on both sides of the language divide to report the major doings and preoccupations of the other.

In recent years it has become the fashion among the more progressive sections of English-Canadian society to deny the existence of English Canada at all, in the name of multiculturalism. The assumption here is that English Canada is no longer WASP but a cheerful mixture of the more familiar and the more exotic; the English language just happens to be the obligatory means of communication.

Yet this purported disappearance of English Canada does not solve the problem of the solitudes. What multiculturalism means is in fact “multiple solitudes”. Ethnic groups maintain their languages and cultures as best they can, though it gets very difficult after the first generation. The English-Canadian (or assimilated) majority remains largely unaware of the ethnic groups, and all communication is in English, and bilateral – that is, ethnic groups deal with the majority on the majority’s terms. There is really no encounter between ethnic cultures and languages and the majority, or even between ethnic cultures themselves.

Take a place like Vancouver, which is basically my home town in Canada. There are so many different ethnic groups, from every nation under heaven. But they live a shadowy existence. There are sure to be a few ethnic restaurants around, but the group does not have a tangible public profile, except in their ethnic press, which no-one else reads but them. As a new immigrant I often wondered why Vancouver, with such ethnic diversity, is not cosmopolitan in the European sense. That is because, despite the diversity of the people, the public space remains homogeneously English-Canadian.

Meanwhile Vancouver does not stand still. The successive waves of Chinese immigration, no longer just through Hong Kong, could tip the balance. The Chinese group, long established and ever new, could become such a leading culture that they would eclipse the English-Canadian majority culture. Then Vancouver would perhaps still not be cosmopolitan in the European sense, but a Chinese extra-territorial “concession”, like the European concessions in Imperial China.

Meanwhile, the Canadian solitudes continue. I am beginning to think that solitude is the country’s defining feature, and that “studiously ignoring the other fellow” is the prime Canadian virtue.