Sunday, January 3, 2016

236. The problem of multiculturalism

This is a revised version of an earlier text.

Finkielkraut[i] argued, and I sympathize with this, that a state should be based not on cultural affinity but on the law, consent, and plebiscite, able to combine multiple cultures.

That would plead for tolerance of different cultures in a society. But that has brought mutual indifference, which has led to isolation of cultural or ethnic minorities in ghetto’s.

Also, one cannot so easily separate laws from culture. Laws are laden with culture and corresponding ideology. Liberalism, for example.

Furthermore, like it or not, present nationalist populism demonstrates how people are emotionally, viscerally attached to cultural affinity, raising doubts whether a state or community (such as the EU) is viable without it. 

The central question then is how much overlap there is between different cultures, as a basis for living together.

Let us assume culture is made up of a constellation of features, both more fundamental, deeply rooted, foundational (faith, ideology) and more derived (dress, food, art). I define ideology as ideas and ideals concerning the human being and its relation to society. There are underlying philosophical views, often implicit, tacit, concerning the true, the good, and the beautiful. I will untangle the features of culture in more detail in the following item in this blog.

Then there are three positions with respect to multiculturalism:
1.      Universalism: some fundamental features are absolute, applying always and everywhere. They are the basis for universal human rights, for example. That was the dream of the Enlightenment. Here, multiculturalism is no great problem.

2.      Particularism: the features are systemic, connected, forming a distinct ‘collective spirit’ (‘Volksgeist, going back to Herder, 1774), rooted in history and location. Individual identity is moulded by the collective spirit, adopted tacitly, taken for granted, not easily amenable to criticism and inter-cultural debate. Here, multiculturalism cannot exist.

3.      Postmodern eclecticism: any features from any cultures can be mixed at will. This started with a mix of styles in architecture and art and spread to mixes of cultural features such as dress, food, music, dance, slang … Here again multiculturalism is no problem.     

I go along with none of these.

The problem with universalism is that every culture proclaims some of its own features to be the universal ones, and that what the salient features are may change.

The problem with particularism is that it locks people up in their culture, without ability to wrest oneself free, thus denying individual identity and responsibility. And it leads to a re-emergence of nationalism.

While particularism exaggerates the coherence of cultural features, the problem with postmodernism is that it neglects them. Surface features of style are rooted in deeper features of faith, ethics, etc. Culture contains narratives, and one cannot simply take out one element without loss of meaning. The whole depends on the parts but the parts also depend on the whole. Postmodernism breeds superficiality, mixing styles of consumption without touching upon deeper sources of sensemaking (religion, ideology, etc,). Yet in discourse between them, cultural narratives can change, or so I propose.   

There is diversity within culture: not every individual shares all the features equally. There can be no individual identity without contrast. On the other hand, different cultures have more or less overlap, sharing features, also more basic ones, and overlapping narratives. That yields some bridgehead for connections.    
Slavoj Zizek[ii] noted that if cultures are distinct, one views other cultures from the perspective of one’s own, adopted tacitly, taken for granted, not seen to be prejudiced. Tolerance then is condescending, and can become repressive.

The perversity of this is that there is a hidden bias, hiding implicit claims of superiority. Under the guise of allowing for cultural difference, minorities are in fact discriminated. Explicit intolerance is more honest, in not hiding such claims.

In order to succeed, then, multiculturalism must become reflexive, aware of the difference from which it relates to a multicultural world.

Zizek’s conclusion, and I agree, is that one should own up that politics is antagonistic. That is democracy. It requires a choice of position, not an equalisation of positions. One should shed the political correctness of pretended equality and frankly and openly engage in defending and promoting one’s own, partisan position, not pretending to be loftily lifted beyond it.

From being reflexive, aware of the parochiality of one’s view of differences, one should open up to debate between such views. One should stick to one’s views tenaciously, while facing those of others, remaining open to opposition, as a basis for changing one’s views.  

There lies the value of freedom of expression: being frank in expressing one’s views, while allowing for the possibility that they are wrong, or biased, or even blind, and for that reason welcoming opposition. Contesting the value or validity of other cultures, while allowing for them to contest one’s own. As Erasmus said: fire is kindled by striking flintstones together. 

Admittedly, there is a problem of ‘incommensurability’, the difficulty of comparing perspectives. But one should not give in to this problem too easily. Cultures share features, more or less, even though with different senses attached. There is always potential for some mutual understanding, using the force of metaphor, imaginative switches of perspective. Literature and art can help. And even if this fails, one should manage to grant the possibility that the other is right. And come to some pact of non-aggression.  

But again, here still re-appears the joker in the pack. I am saying this from the perspective of my culture, struggling to maintain an ethic of open debate, an afterglow of the Enlightenment, even against all odds. So, is there anyone out here who wants to contest this? And then, is it too much to ask for arguments?

[i] Alain Finkielkraut, La defaite de la pensée, Gallimard, 1987.
[ii] Slavoj Zizek, Multiculturalism. Or, the cultural logic of multinational capitalism’, New Left Review, September-October 1997.