THE recent case of a real estate agent saying that he doesn’t want to do business with an Indian or a Punjabi is an incident that we can use to reflect upon the realities of a multi-racial society.
If you are an Indian – and I am an Indian and we have a dispute – you and I will have the same frame of reference. You will argue, seek a solution, come to terms, escalate the situation as well as behave and gesture in a way that I can comprehend.
If other Indians get involved in our dispute, our dispute will still be conducted within the same frame of reference that you and I as well as everyone else can understand.
If you are a person from a different race, however, our relationship will likely not be able to handle a stress test as well as it could if we were of the same race. Our relationship will likely only remain positive for as long as things are going well.
If we are all winning and contended with making money and feeling great about ourselves, our relationship is healthy. But the minute things go south, the likelihood that our problem will remain unresolved or even grow bigger is much greater than the likelihood that it will be resolved or mitigated.
As a rule of thumb, people of higher virtue who uphold universally valued principles over their self-interest will be able to form a healthy relationship even if they come from different cultural, ideological and communal backgrounds.
If you feel it is more important to be generous, kind, considerate, restrained, proportionate, fair, understanding and thoughtful than it is to win, profit, be praised or otherwise secure your self-interest, then we are on the path to a meaningful relationship.
But if you and I are just regular people with just an average level of virtue – meaning that we are people who only uphold our principles to the extent that it does not conflict with our self-interest – matters like cultural, ideological and racial background become more important because in the absence of principles, it is this common framework of reference that will serve as the guideline to arbitrate our relationship.
Without this common framework, you can never underestimate how much even the smallest misunderstanding can accumulate and escalate into becoming a major problem.
This is so because without a common communal, cultural and ideological background to arbitrate our relationship, we will not know the limit of promoting our self-interest which could lead to a conflict of ego at the boundaries where our self-interest meets. Once the problem becomes a clash of ego, the problem might take a life of its own.
Without a cultural, ideological or communal background to make sense of the conflict, we might resort to such ignorant reasoning like stereotyping all the people who belong to the person we are having an ego conflict with to be a “troublemaking” or “good-for-nothing” group in order to make sense of the problem and calm down our ego.
Once such ignorant and stereotypical concepts are internalised and become prevalent, they might be accepted as societal norms which in turn will cause an even greater conflagration of problems to occur between two distinct groups of people who do not share a similar cultural, ideological or communal background.
The fact of the matter is that if we spend most of our time, effort and attention towards forwarding our self-interest or the self-interest of the people we identify with like our friends or family members, we have to accept that we are but an ordinary person with an ordinary level of virtue.
When we are an ordinary person with an ordinary level of virtue, we only have two options with regard to forming a healthy relationship with people who come from a different cultural, ideological and communal background.
In the first way, we must adopt a common ideological, cultural or communal background to arbitrate our relationship. It is only if we have this common framework that we will be able to form closer and more long-term relationships with each other without causing misunderstandings that might generate interminable clashes of ego.
For this to occur, we must be willing to sacrifice our cultural, ideological and communal distinctness in order to adopt a mutually agreed upon cultural, ideological and communal identity.
‘Unresolvable ego conflict’
If we cannot do that and we insist that we want to retain our distinct cultural, communal and ideological identities, then we must be prepared to create a greater distance between ourselves and other distinct identity groups.
We have to accept that while we can have a healthy relationship with other distinct identity groups over a short term and impersonal relationship, the relationship will likely become more difficult and problematic the more long term and personal it becomes.
You rarely see a problem in a relationship between two distinct identity groups in Malaysia, for example when the relationship merely entails such short term and impersonal activities like buying goods or procuring short term services via cash.
It is when we seek a longer term and personal relationship, however – like getting a house to rent or seeking employment in an organisation that is run by a group with an identity that is distinct from ours – that we will find cases of identity clashes that lead to unresolvable ego conflicts.
The recent cases of a real estate agent saying that he does not want to do business with Indians or Punjabis or the brouhaha or dress code or a minister eating pork in his office are all example of the interminable problems that will keep arising when the lack of a common frame of reference causes unresolvable ego conflicts.
Multi-culturalism is a high principle, high virtue concept. It is applicable among people who put principle above self-interest. When you put your principles above your self-interest, you are not just kind or generous or fair or truthful because you can gain something from it.
You will practise these principles for the sake of themselves even if it causes you a loss. But how many of us can claim that we are such a person?
If we merely believe that we are a person who put our principles above our self-interest, although in truth we are people whose adherence to principles does not exceed our self-interest when we practise the concept of multi-culturalism, we will likely generate more negative than positive experiences the longer and more intimate our interaction becomes.
Some problems can only be resolved before they arise. Once they arise, they cannot be resolved. When you have two distinct identity groups being too close and intimate with each other, the ego problems that will arise between them will be unresolvable.
To solve such an unresolvable problem, you just have to make sure that it does not happen in the first place.
In the case of two distinct identity groups, you can only prevent an unresolvable problem from arising between them by creating an adequate level of distance and separation between them.
Nehru Sathiamoorthy is a roving tutor who loves politics, philosophy and psychology.
The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.
Main pic credit: PNGWing