Monday 30 March 2020

Making the Case for Multiculturalism

Posted by Keith Tidman

Multiculturalism and ‘identity politics’ have both overlapping and discrete characteristics. Identity politics, for example, widens out to race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, national origin, language, religion, disability, and so forth. Humanity’s mosaic. It’s where, in a shift toward pluralism, barriers dissolve — where sidelined minority groups become increasingly mainstreamed, self-determination acquires steam, and both individual and group rights equally pertain to the ideal.

This situation is historically marked by differences between those people who, on one hand, emphasise individual rights, goods, intrinsic value, liberties, and well-being, where each person’s independence stands highest and apart from cultural belonging. And, on the other hand, the communitarians, who emphasise a group perspective. Communitarians regard the individual as ‘irreducibly social’, to borrow Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s shorthand.

The group perspective subordinately depends on society. This group perspective needs affirmation, addressing status inequality, with remedies concentrated in political change, redistributive economics, valuing cultural self-worth, and other factors. Communitarians assign primacy to collective rights, socialising goods, intrinsic value, liberties, and well-being. In other words, civic virtue — with individuals freely opting in and opting out of the group. Communitarians and individualists offer opposed views of how our identities are formed. 

But the presumed distinctions between the individual and community may go too far. Rather, reality arguably comprises a coexistent folding together of both liberal individualism and communitarianism in terms of multiculturalism and identity. To this point, people are capable of learning from each other’s ideas, customs, and social behaviour, moving toward an increasingly hybrid, cosmopolitan philosophy based on a new communal lexicon, fostering human advancement.

The English writer (and enthusiastic contributor to Pi’s sister publication, The Philosopher) G. K. Chesterton always emphasised the integrity of this learning process, cautioning:

‘We have never even begun to understand a people until we have found something that we do not understand. So long as we find the character easy to read, we are reading into it our own character’.

Other thinkers point out that cultures have rarely been easily cordoned off or culturally pristine. They contend that groups have always been influenced by others through diverse means, both malign and benign: invasion, colonialism, slavery, commerce, migration, flow of ideas, ideologies, religions, popular culture, and other factors. The cross-pollination has often been reciprocal — affecting the cultural flashpoints, social norms, and future trajectories of both groups.

Globalisation only continues to hasten this process. As the New Zealand philosopher of law Jeremy Waldron puts it, commenting on the phenomenom of cultural overlap:

‘We live in a world formed by technology and trade; by economic, religious, and political imperialism and their offspring; by mass migration and the dispersion of cultural influences’.

How groups reckon with these historical influences, as groups become more pluralistic, deserves attention, so that change can happen more by design than chance.

After all, it’s a high bar to surmount the historic balkanisation of minority cultures and to push back against the negativism of those who trumpet (far too prematurely) multiculturalism’s failure. The political reality is that societies continue to reveal dynamically moving parts. Real-world multiculturalism is, all the time, coalescing into new shapes and continuing to enrich societies.

Multiculturalism in political philosophy involves acknowledging and understanding the fact of diverse cultural moorings in society and the challenges they pose in terms of status, equality, and power — along with remedies. Yet, in this context, the question recurs time and again: has the case really been made for multiculturalism?

The American philosopher John Searle, in the context of education, questions the importance of ‘Western rationalistic tradition’ — where what we know is ‘a mind-independent reality . . . subject to constraints of rationality and logic’. Adding: ‘You do not understand your own tradition if you do not see it in relation to others’.

Charles Taylor, however, sees multiculturalism differently, as an offshoot of liberal political theory, unhampered by heavily forward-leaning ideology. This aligns with postmodernist thinking, distrusting rationalism as to truth and reality. The merits of scepticism, criticism, subjectivism, contextualism, and relativism are endorsed, along with the distinctiveness of individuals and minority groups within society.

Advocates of multiculturalism warn against attempts to shoehorn minority groups into the prevailing culture, or worse. Where today we see rampant nationalism in many corners of the world — suppressing, tyrannizing, and even attempting to stamp out minority communities — eighty years ago Mahatma Gandhi warned of such attempts:

‘No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive’.


Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you, Keith. I believe that cultural diversity represents social health, for various reasons. Here are some:

• We see such diversity in great societies.
• To experience it is a joy and a mystery beyond all theory or philosophy.
• Cultural diversity proves that we have been able to advance beyond parochial values, to embrace a common humanity.
• It proves that we have learnt to appreciate others without 'regard for persons'.
• It serves as evidence that we are implementing inclusive policies.
• There is great enrichment in mixing with people who have a different cultural heritage, experience, and outlook.
• Cultural diversity enables us to see the good which exists across peoples, borders, and continents.
• It creates friendships and partnerships which enrich and strengthen our humanity.
• It opens up unusual and special opportunities to serve one another, and
• It delivers proof that one can collaborate and co-operate for good, beyond varied cultural backgrounds.

Keith said...

Nicely put, Thomas. Multiculturalism is enriching, including along the dimensions you list. To my mind, cultural diversity is the natural state of humanity. It’s where we’ll arrive, with time. Not as some utopian fantasy, but in some concretely realisable way. Even the trajectory of globalisation, should it continue to prevail longer term, doesn’t have to translate to cultural homogenisation. The dispiriting other side is joined by contrarians who’ve tarred cultural diversity as an incurable font of social discord. Who suppose that the ‘them-versus-us’ mindset — however one chooses to define ‘them’ and ‘us’ — is a contrivance hardwired into humanity. I disagree. I don't believe it’s Pollyannaish to have a vision of communities that embrace the multiplicative complementarity of diversity. That doesn’t fear ‘the other’. That doesn’t feel rage toward ‘the other’. That doesn’t see, through zero-sum thinking, the threat of one’s own loss in ‘the other’. That doesn’t swell with an urge to dehumanise ‘the other’. That doesn’t thirst to quash ‘the other’. To my mind, longer term that’s steely realism, not idealism.

Martin Cohen said...

Can I take up the earlier part of this post? Where Keith says "Communitarians regard the individual as ‘irreducibly social’ and that the "group perspective subordinately depends on society". The reason is that at the time the post is published, we see individuals being herded into lockdowns, and see many new apsects of social life. We saw in the Uk, health service staff being both 'applauded' from windows - and (less reported!) being shunned and discriminated gainst - as possible carriers of 'the virus'. IN the US we saw the unfortunate passengerson a cruise ship refused permission to offload -. Amazing to see president Trump overruling the governor of Georgia (I think) on that on precisely the grounds that there is a shared social responsibility and bond. Yet the Governor replied "many of the passengers are not from my state!" Thus we see the way people fracture at the slightest pressure into tribes, and after that into fearful, antagonistic individuals.

Keith said...

I tend to believe, Martin, that the instinct toward clannishness is learned, and not etched in genes. If so, it can therefore be denied avenues to being learned — or else it can be unlearned. For some — not all — people the impulse peaks when fear peaks. Survivalism — although, encouragingly, many people do laudably rise above this primal, me-ism reflex.

The word “hero” has been appropriated and, to my mind, inappropriately lavished by the media for all sorts of behaviours over the years. Feel-good moments sell. That said, the front-line doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel struggling mightily with the inpouring of covid patients at understaffed, underequipped hospitals have indeed exemplified heroism! Their humanitarianism, courage, and resilience against great odds, under the tug of massive stress, and at great personal risk is extraordinary. Tribalism is the farthest thing from their minds.

I feel that one further thing that has proven unhelpful, and that has darkened the tribalism you refer to, Martin, is politicians’ resort to the metaphor of war to describe their nations’ challenge to confront covid-19. Yes, the ‘war’ is ostensibly declared against a nonliving entity, the coronavirus. But there's another side to the metaphor. That is, fantasies of war exacerbate the ‘us-versus-them’ mentality mentioned in the essay. By that I mean wars not uncommonly lead to dehumanisation, which invites a turn toward clannishness. If national leaders were to resist the urge to appear Churchillian, perhaps the medical challenge could/would be framed in less-militaristic, and more-research, metaphors.

Tessa den Uyl said...

Wishing for a healthy multiculturalism when mono cultures do not manage to live peacefully together is a weak wish. The European Union is not able to accept the diversity of each country, imagine a whole world! It would be a step for the whole of humanity but is that possible within the political systems we live? I agree with Martin that eventually antagonistic thinking prevails, whether on small or large scale, unfortunately.

Keith said...

You might be right, Tessa, that any variant of multiculturalism is a ‘weak wish’. But if so, our species is one of nature’s failed experiments! Doomed, forever: To wars. To genocides. To chasmic racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic divisions. To hopelessness. Personally, I have faith that our species has the occasion for a better future than such dystopia — though, yes, humankind is singularly charged to get it right. A humanistic responsibility for the welfare of future generations. Otherwise, what’s it all about?

Martin Cohen said...

… and I agree with Tess on this point: "Wishing for a healthy multiculturalism when mono cultures do not manage to live peacefully together is a weak wish." Liberal government and values are dying everywhere, we see (as Keith says) instead talk of governments waging 'wars', whether on viruses, or climate change or the environment generally. Always though the state is empowered and the freedoms of the "little people", the real people reduced. Perhaps there is a hidden subtext to the 'multiculturalism' the states offer us? Perhaps it is a false one, a political trick designed to destroy cutural traditions in order to allow complete state control. Certainly the tyranny accepted under the current 'lockdowns' respects no cultures. Here in France, Christains and Muslims and Jews are forbidden tto go to their various places of worship, even if they go in their family group - or alone! Even to silently enter and think in the church is "strictly forbidden". Marriage and funderal traditons are outlawed with no respect for people's deeply held beliefs and feelings. Where's the respect for cultures really?

Post a Comment