Poison in the Gift? Awards that Silence | Lisa Irene Knight

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This is an essay about Bangladeshis at home and in exile. It is written with Norwegians and Bangladeshis in mind, although the points are relevant more broadly.

Awards that collect dust

A friend shared an article with a video about Kangalini Sufia, a performer of Baul songs in Bangladesh whom I had known during my earlier research. I was struck by how much is similar in her life, despite the passing of nearly two decades since I last saw her. Yes, she looked frailer, and her pile of medications had grown. Her residence looked mostly the same, though I knew it wasn’t because she had to move every few months or year since she was unable to pay the rent. But she had the same forceful voice, the same commitment to music, the same udashi nature, and the same belief that society was structurally unfair to her and others marginalized.

This was the same woman who, when I sat in her room, defended her decision to travel with her group of musicians to perform at a distant city, despite the fact that their travel expenses cost more than their payment. If someone asked her to perform, how could she refuse? It’s cynical to say that she was a poor businesswoman. She gave because she her performances connected her and her tradition to people. Singing was her passion, and she sang because she believed it mattered.  She sang to uplift people, and she sang for the uplift of people.

This was the same woman who rushed around preparing cha and biscuits as I talked with a TV producer who had also stopped by that one afternoon. Even though he was there to arrange a program for Kangalini, he confidently proclaimed that she was not a “real” Baul because she had become a commercial artist instead of “sleeping under a tree.” How little he understood! Kangalini hardly had enough to make ends meet. Seven others depended on her for their and their family’s livelihood.  So, her awards, her performances on television, radio, and YouTube indicate that she is not genuine?  She was not only determined and defiant; she was resilient despite being repeatedly knocked down (Knight 2011.)

But another image struck me as I listened to the short Daily Star news report about Kangalini. All the awards she has been given do not pay for her medical treatment. She and her family cannot eat the medals and certificates. What purpose do they serve? Who actually benefits from those awards? Did these symbols of accomplishments improve their daily life? 

They decorate her shelves and collect dust. This is the topic of this article.

Thousands of miles away, over a cup of coffee, a Norwegian anthropologist observed that Norwegians love giving awards. Indeed, the Nobel prizes are among the world’s most prestigious and coveted awards!  But his comment was a reflection about Norwegian society in general. I thought about exiled Bangladeshis and other exiled free speech activists living in Nordic countries who have received awards for their humanist commitments, efforts, and risks to promote freedom of speech.  And I again asked: What purpose do these awards serve? Who actually benefits? Aside from decorations on the wall and an extra line in one’s resume, they do not provide food or job opportunities. In a society that prides itself as having an egalitarian ethos, it is not even clear the awards bestow respect in everyday society. Norwegians give awards, but they are simultaneously notorious for downplaying their own successes and status, so it is very unlikely anyone will gain support (or jobs) if they pin their awards to their lapels! 

So, what is the purpose of awards?  What is gained – or perhaps even lost – by the prestation of an award? 

I turned to Marcel Mauss to think. In Mauss’s The Gift (1990 [1924]), he made several thought-provoking arguments about gift-giving and exchange. He noted a variety of obligations within systems of gift-giving: the obligation to give gifts (by giving, one demonstrates generosity and thereby as deserving of respect); the obligation to receive a gift (by receiving the gift, one shows respect to the giver, and concomitantly proves one’s own generosity); and the obligation to return the gift (thus demonstrating that one’s honor is at least equivalent to that of the original giver). 

Gift-giving is therefore part of a system of morality classified by various degrees of reciprocity. The more distant the relationship, the sooner the gift is reciprocated (such as in market exchange, where we pay for goods and services with cash). If the gift takes a long time to be reciprocated, it may indicate trust and long-term relationships – so long as the wait is not too long. Mauss also emphasizes the competitive and strategic aspect of gift-giving: by giving more than someone else, one lays claim to greater respect than the other. In many ways, this explains the giving of awards as well, as the award-giver demonstrates her own honor through generosity, and the receiver of the award publicly acknowledges the respectful status of the giver. 

But bestowing awards is also different from giving gifts. The reciprocity implied in most gift-giving does not apply because awards generally acknowledge that someone has already given to society. In that sense, the award is the gift returned to the individual or group. Unless one rejects the award, it is impossible to return it in kind.

Political and social power of gifts

Gifts and awards are not merely tokens changing hands; they are laden with economic, political, and social power.

To explore this further, I return to South Asia, where Kangalini received many awards. In the hierarchical context of the Subcontinent, several systems operate that allow for the transfer of goods from one to another without expectation of any material returns to the original giver. These are variously seen as gifts or charity, but not awards. Within the caste system, goods are transferred from the high castes to the lowest through dan– offerings of food or other needs, which confer upon the giver merit and heightened social status. It is precisely because the lower castes/classes cannot return the gift that the higher castes retain their economic and political power. The lower castes receive not only dan but also the sins and merits of the giver. Zakat, in Muslim communities, functions in a similar way because the obligatory donations reveal wealth and the ability to give, in contrast to the need to receive. Raheja, in her excellent ethnography of exchange in a north Indian village (1988), distinguishes between two systems of prestation, one of which involves reciprocity and mutuality.  The other system is dan,  which involves the giving away of not only food and other items, but also inauspiciousness. When low status is enforced through charity or dan,  reciprocity is impossible, and the prestation is a “poisonous gift.” The gift is powerful. Not being able to return the gift stigmatizes the receiver, reinforcing her or his marginality, while uplifting the giver. [i]

Similarly, a prize cannot be reciprocated – because it ceases to be a prize if it is reciprocated. However, Kangalini’s prizes are toxic in their own way: they imply success, but their social effects increase her marginalization. This is particularly the case because she, and others like her (Patua scroll painters and performers, Bauls, fakirs, etc.) are simultaneously critiqued for their success by being condemned for “selling out” and for not being “genuine” representatives of their craft or group, as was the case with the Dhaka TV producer mentioned earlier. Within the South Asian context, she is, in this way, silenced. Because the South Asian hierarchy is reinforced by the existence of low castes, renouncers, and other marginalized groups, her role as a “genuine” representative of her Baul community (popularly imagined as poor itinerant mystical musicians) is negated by the awards she receives. So, while the award does not carry inauspiciousness like the dandescribed by Raheja, they are not necessarily a boon. She cannot eat her medals or consume them for her kidney and heart problems. 

There are some differences in how an award (a gift) rearranges the fabric of society in an ideally egalitarian society compared to a hierarchical society, but I argue the differences are not significant when we consider the effects of global inequities and the marginal status of refugees, migrants, and asylees. 

Within an ideologically egalitarian context, the award is the returned gift, which acknowledges what the receiver has already given to society, be it an Olympic win, peace accord, scientific discovery, significant work, etc. The receiver has already sacrificed something of themselves, and this is acknowledged in the award. The award, additionally, often carries with it an obligation to continue that work.

When awards marginalize

But what does it mean to give an award to someone who is marginal in society? Whose societal role and belonging are not at all secure? Seen through this lens, the award acts like poison, misinforming a public that one has succeeded, arrived at a pinnacle or landmark in one’s career. This is poison in as much as it alters people’s perceptions of the receiver, miscommunicating one’s actual status and circumstances.  Here the award given to an asylee for bravery, for instance, has a similar effect as the awards received by Kangalini.  They do not raise one’s status but instead have the potential to open one up to critique by both Norwegians and Bangladeshis.

Translating between different cultural contexts (or seen from Bangladesh), the award hides more than it reveals. It hides one’s true marginality. Within the larger hierarchical and racialized global context, award-giving ignores the global inequities that silence, dismiss, misunderstand, or condemn the marginalized receiver as Other. Seen from within Norway, the award silences the receiver by implying that a suitable contribution toward wellbeing has been make. Further, by allowing the giver to feel good about giving, the giver is relieved from any further obligations. Because there is no possibility of reciprocation, it is also a dead-end relationship. The receiver cannot return the gift by bestowing an award or something of similar status to the giver.

Finally, given the precarious status of asylee and refugee, it is not clear under what category within the welfare state the award will fall. Is it a contribution toward a specific project? In which case that must be clearly documented.  Is it a salary? In which case it is subject to taxation. Is it free money? In which case income from the welfare state is subject to be adjusted. In the latter case especially, adjusting social services impedes self-improvement and success.  Adjusting down welfare income each time a donation, gift, or income is earned guarantees that the individual and family will have almost no chance for successful integration into society. They will remain preoccupied with paying for basic necessities – food, electrical bills, medicine – rather than developing a pathway to self-sufficiency that will eventually lead to independent sources of income, ultimately freeing them from the social services provided by the welfare state. It is also psychologically demoralizing to be presented an award or gift toward project and career development that is then claimed by the state for basic necessities.

This leads me to one more comparison. I used to be bewildered when Kangalini Sufia insisted that Sheikh Hasina give her some personal property and a stipend. From my pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps American ethos, she appeared to be asking for a handout, and I was not sympathetic. A few years later in India, I realized how wrong I was. Kangalini and others like her were contributing to society, enhancing the quality of our lives, and exposing us to a tradition and ideology we loved, longed for, and could not imagine life without. They did not choose their marginal or exiled status in society, but we benefit immensely from their commitment, wisdom, creativity, and passion. That realization has completely changed my views on our responsibility as social human beings, something I have written about elsewhere (Knight 2016).

However, while Kanaglini believed she deserved state support for her lifelong commitment to a valued national tradition, Norway’s welfare state provides social services that assure wellbeing to citizens. However, not only does the state regulate the gift and its meaning, the state also regulates identity and everyday life. In doing so, it severely diminishes the formation of an acting migrant – of an individual’s ability to be a participating human being in this new context.

Much of my discussion so far has reflected on what an award does for marginalized members of society in Bangladesh and in Norway. I do not at all suggest that the award has no value, but I want to point out that there are ways in which it is poisonous and misleads. I think it is important to consider how awards relieve Norwegians and Bangladeshis from further obligations – whether in the form of friendship, gestures of openness and belonging, or open doors for equality, dignity, and employment opportunities.  

I suspect this is true also of government granting of asylum and refugee status to individuals, especially if that status does not come with well-considered and clear pathway – based on empathetic and critical understanding of the challenges and realistic views of opportunities – to developing individuals into productive members. Refugee status – a gift of sorts – can never be repaid if the social structure and the larger civil society are not prepared to offer sincere support, encouragement, and some open doors. How will that help anyone? 

The exiled Bangladeshis I know – like most who suddenly find themselves in exile from their homes, jobs, and salaries – do not want a handout. They want an independent source of income they earn through their own labor and expertise. They don’t want gifts they cannot repay. In fact, they want to be generous members of society, where their gifts are also received by others. But a consequence of sudden and unexpected exile is that the pathway is not easy. 

There is irony in giving an award. On the one hand, one acknowledges the receiver’s worth, honoring them with a stamp of social approval. On the other hand, awards also silence because they communicate that one has arrived – when in fact one may be still striving. Granting refugee status with no pathway to becoming acting members of society also silences. It evaporates the potential of otherwise creative and resilient humans. Finally, by presenting awards and giving refugee status, we think we are done, and we relinquish our responsibilities.  That is poisonous to our shared humanity. 

References

Bornstein, Erica. 2009. “The Impulse of Philanthropy.” Cultural Anthropology. 24 (4): 622-651.

Knight, Lisa I. 2014 [2011]. Contradictory Lives: Baul Women in India and Bangladesh. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Knight, Lisa. I. 2016. “‘I will not keep her book in my home!’ Representing Religious Meaning among Bauls.” ASIANetwork Exchange: A Journal for Asian Studies in the Liberal Arts. 23(1): 30-46.

Laidlaw, James 2000. “A Free Gift Makes No Friends.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 6(4):617-634. 

Mauss, Marcel. 1990 [1924]. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. W. D. Hall, trans. London: Routledge.

Parry, Jonathan. 1986. “The Gift, the Indian Gift and the ‘Indian Gift'”. Man. 21(3): 453–473. 

Raheja, Gloria Goodwin. I988. The Poison in the Gift: Ritual, Prestation, and the Dominant Caste in a North Indian Village, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Venkatesan, Soumhya. 2011. “The social life of a “free” gift.” American Ethnologist, 38(1): 47-57.

[i]It is in contrast to this that Laidlaw describes what he considers the “pure gift” among Jains who give to renouncers without expectation of friendship or anything in return. “The fact that the free gift does not create obligations or personal connections is precisely where its social importance lies” (Laidlaw 2000:618).  Similarly, for some Buddhists and Hindus, the most meritorious gifts are those that are anonymous, where the giver’s personal status is, presumably, not publicly altered by the gift.

Lisa Irene Knight is Professor of Religion, Asian Studies, and Anthropology and Chair of the Department of Asian Studies at Furman University in South Carolina.

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