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Living on the fringes in contemporary times: a guide on how to be a marginal

Ramin Jahanbegloo | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:41 IST

Marginality is the outcome of urbanisation and industrialisation of modern societies. It is usually referred to as a transitional personality that is isolated and unprotected and is searching in vain for an opportunity to take root in a dominant discourse or culture.

However, being culturally marginalised describes the experience of a person who has been moulded by exposure to two or more cultural traditions. Such a person does not tend to fit perfectly into any one of the cultures to which they have been exposed, but may fit comfortably on the edge, in the margins of each by keeping his/her critical distance from both.

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This intercultural in-betweenness suggests a form of constructive marginality that is able to move easily and powerfully between different cultural traditions, acting appropriately and feeling at home in each.

A new world

Intercultural marginals tend to put their multi-cultural experiences to good use. In today's world, the relationship between the centre and the margin has changed. We are witnessing a double shift of focus.

First, the centre has been fragmented so that it is no longer possible to conform to one absolute subjectivist ontology as it was the case in modern philosophy. Secondly, we can witness new creations emerging from the sidelines towards the centre.

Dialogical citizenship

Marginality as a broken perception of the world replaces the linear and monolithic discourse of reality with a dialogical vision of civilisation. Dialogical understanding as the true matrix of hermeneutical encounter always generates a logic of on-going differentiation and negotiation that seeks to authorise a new approach to the phenomenon of civilisation as a process of human self-consciousness.

There can be no phenomenological process of civilisation making without a strong sense of caring for and sharing with other human beings as citizens of human history. However, the claim that dialogical citizenship rests on the authority of tradition in general denies the possibility of critical self-reflection and its ability to break with the dogmatic elements in every tradition of thought, which works against any effort of dialogue.

The importance of empathy

As such, what can make this state of interconnectedness authentic and practical is neither the work of rationality nor our use of language, but an empathetic perception of togetherness. In other words, empathy is necessarily a matter of sharing life with others. It is the recognition of the fact that in the context of human life certain others are similar to us as humans, though different from us as members of another tradition of thought.

To be empathetic is to recognise that even members of another tradition of thought are humans

We can see from this that living in a tradition of thought is accompanied automatically with a sense of shared values with other members of the same community, but it has also to do with what we might call a universal impulse - in the sense that its orientation toward its own life experience is based on the understanding of other communities as different experiences of the same shared life.

This idea of shared life binds members of different communities together in various ways, though this bind is not the result of a recognition that other communities and cultures are or must be like each other.

Cultural connotations

As such, a sense of solidarity is created not only because of the consciousness of similarities, but also because of the dissimilarities and differences that exist between human cultures. In fact, dissimilarities potentially bring every culture to an awareness of solidarity with other cultures.

As Clifford Geertz affirmed, "There is no such thing as human nature independent of culture."

In other words, human beings are culture-creating beings. The work of culture is to create, reproduce and alter individuals by transforming them into culturally fabricated human beings. Therefore, it goes without saying that human beings produce cultures and are produced by cultures.

This is why cultures are more than cultures; they give meaning to us as members of the human race

However, humans are also able to radically rethink cherished ideas about humankind as the bearer of dignity. This is why cultures are more than cultures; they are what give meaning to humans as members of the human race.

Humans are created by cultures in the image of their societies. But they are a remarkable paradox. Though they are made for their own cultures, they can have the capacity to reach out to other cultures.

The measure of humanity

Human beings can bring humanness out of the inhumane, as they can bring beauty out of ugliness and peace out of war. So culture is a powerful human tool for survival, but it is also a fragile phenomenon because it is constantly changing and easily degraded and destroyed.

However, our humanity is measured not only by our belonging to our own culture but also by our attitude to other cultures. Culture, is not as Matthew Arnold discussed simply "the best that has been thought and said in the world". Culture is what gives the humans the critical capacity to exit their marginality.

The relevant question, therefore, does not concern why we are marginal, but what do we do with our marginality. As such, marginality is rich and large and many-sided. The question then is whether we are at the point in history when we should lose our faith in marginality or we must work to prepare conditions which form the basis of how an inter-marginal dialogue works to forge new norms of solidarity in a plural world.

Edited by Aleesha Matharu

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First published: 10 December 2016, 5:30 IST