Our cultural lives and rights are all connected and complex. To paraphrase the Haitian poet Jacques Stephen Aléxis, we are all the children of “an infinity of cultures.” Cultures are hybrid and “involved in one another”, in the words of Palestinian scholar Edward Said.
If we are to realise human rights and cultural rights in the 21st century, we need to understand and urgently respond to those realities, giving greater recognition to human rights-respecting cultural mixing, and increased acknowledgment to mixed and multiple cultural identities. This is the core message of the final report of the UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Karima Bennoune, to be delivered to the UN General Assembly this month. This study was informed by global consultations, including a virtual expert meeting co-sponsored by the Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development (CREID).
Politics and cultural “purity”
Political discourse sometimes seeks to render the realities of cultural mixing and hybridity invisible. For example, in 2020, the Japanese Deputy Prime Minister stated that Japan only had one ethnic group and language. In the United States, a prominent adviser to former president Donald Trump suggested that the country only had one national culture. We are faced with rising claims about monolithic cultures and cultural “purity” around the world, from a range of actors across the political spectrum, including nationalists and fundamentalists, and rising threats in many contexts, whether of the destruction of the cultural diversity of Afghanistan or the rejection of mixing by the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and many others. Hence, it is vital to preserve histories of cultural mixing in the past and ensure its possibilities in the present and future. This is essential for realising the cultural rights of everyone without discrimination, including women and members of marginalised groups.
Dancing across cultures
In April 2021, Indian medical students Naveen K. Razak and Janaki Omkumar, a man and a woman from different religious backgrounds, made a video of themselves dancing together to the song “Rasputin” by Euro-Caribbean pop group Boney M, which went viral. For daring to dance across cultures, the two young people received an outpouring of support, as well as tirades and hate speech on social media, even accusing them of “dance jihad”. One post suggested there was “something fishy” about them dancing, referencing a woman who had joined Da’esh. In response, a student organisation announced a dance competition entitled “something is fishy”. In our times, those who value the importance of rights-respecting cultural openness and mixing will have to defend it actively and creatively like this. The reply from Naveen and Janaki to the criticism was: “We will still dance together.” This must be our collective reply.
Rebuilding cultural connections post-Covid-19
The only way to guarantee the cultural rights of everyone without discrimination is to defend open and multiple understandings of culture and of intercultural relations, spaces and heritage that fully respect cultural rights and other universal human rights for all. Going forward from the pandemic, it is essential to rebuild cultural connections and renew and enhance cultural sharing and mobility, including by addressing pre-pandemic obstacles to them.
Cultures cannot flourish if they are closed to other cultures, and yet we must also confront the difficult reality that in both past and present, cultures do not mix on a footing of equality and some have faced forced assimilation that necessitated protection of their cultures. Hence, the Special Rapporteur argues for a human rights approach to these questions grounded in universal rights and equality, in the interrelated commitments to universality and cultural diversity.
It’s not just about singing Kumbaya
Of course, the spirit of equality must be at the forefront of the framework. Who is making choices and the context of their decision-making is integral to the idea of cultural borrowing.
A central challenge for this mixed and diverse human family, endowed with universal rights and equality, is to find ways for our cultural borrowing and creative fusions to promote those human rights and our co-existence.
Key recommendations to promote cultural rights for all include:
- Inclusion of marginalised, indigenous, and local languages in the media, education and more
- Grassroots consultation and participation in decision-making about culture
- Ratification and implementation of the 2005 UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, and reporting on cultural mixing under the convention
- Assessment of the impact of inequalities and human rights abuses on cultural life and cultural knowledge, and working to avoid reproducing inequality in cultural spaces
- Countering hate speech targeting those engaging in syncretic cultural practice or those with pronounced mixed identities
- Respecting the value of hybrid artistic and cultural forms and ensuring their adequate representation in cultural spaces
- Supporting intercultural education and grassroots initiatives, especially involving young people, that promote understanding of rights-respecting cultural mixing and mixed cultural identities
- Encouraging the media to play a positive role in promoting respect for and understanding of rights-respecting cultural mixing and mixed cultural identities.
Event – The Children of An Infinity of Cultures: A human rights approach to cultural mixing
Join Karima Bennoune, UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights for an upcoming seminar – The Children of An Infinity of Cultures: A human rights approach to cultural mixing – on October 26, 05:00 PM (UK). All welcome.