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Difficulties of Multiculturalism

Sunday Night Journal — April 3, 2011

As sometimes happens, I’ve chosen a topic and launched into it only to find, when it’s too late to turn back, that I can’t hope to do justice to it in the time available. I’ve tried to hit what I consider the main points, but I’m very conscious that there is much more to be said.

I’ve been thinking about some remarks on multiculturalism from Fr. Samir’s book on Islam. This is a lengthy quote, but a worthwhile one, I think.

There is the very human desire that aspires to the new, to the novel and fresh, which is indicative of a thirst for knowledge of reality in all of its multiplicity. Unfortunately this can easily degenerate into cheap exoticism, into the admiration of everything that is different and new. This tendency is growing increasingly pronounced in the West.

There also exists a relativistic attitude that derives from the crisis of the ideological and religious uncertainties characterizing the contemporary age and leading to a tendency to blame whatever is "traditional."

Finally, there is a guilt complex (which I prefer to call "mea-culpism") that is very widespread in the West regarding the colonial experiences of the Third World nations. This complex goes so far as to justify the acceptance of any cultural "import" in the name of relativism or simply because "in their country this is the way they behave." Promoters of this position claim that extra-European cultures, which were subjugated in the past, must not be discriminated against today. Neither should Europeans oppose those people who want to transplant their cultures to the West today...

...these premises penalize the Christian host the name of multiculturalism Muslims and those students of other faiths are also prevented from knowing fundamental elements of Western history and civilization...These forms of self-censorship are harmful and nourish conflicts instead of controlling them and indicate very real identity problems in those who promote them. [My emphasis.]

It is that last observation that I want to pursue. I think multiculturalism begins with a generous impulse—as Fr. Samir says, there is the impulse to learn. And it’s accompanied by the impulse to appreciate, to seek out and acknowledge what is good in cultures other than one’s own. Often there is an explicit intention to disarm hostility, which is obviously a good thing, because there is nothing that comes more naturally and powerfully to mankind than suspicion of those outside one’s own community, whether the community is a nation or a tribe or the fans of a sports team. Just a few days ago, a man wearing the insignia of the San Francisco Giants was beaten almost to death by a couple of fans of the Los Angeles Dodgers, apparently for no other reason than that he was at a Dodgers game in, so to speak, an enemy uniform. I have never heard of anything quite that bad between Alabama and Auburn fans, though I would not be greatly surprised to hear of one, and I’m sure less destructive fights happen frequently. I have read that what we treat as the names of tribal societies often mean simply “the people.” The problem is not confined to primitive, uneducated, or stupid people—we certainly have a vast amount of merely tribal hostility between liberals and conservatives in this country, to say nothing of ethnic and racial divisions, and intellectuals seem every bit as capable of hating as anyone else.

We like to think that fear and hatred of “the Other” (as academics like to say) is an aberration, a pathology generally characteristic of some group we don’t like (thereby manifesting the same pathology ourselves). That Western civilization is uniquely or especially wicked in this respect is an idea that has been actively promoted from within the society itself for many years now. It did not begin in the 1960s, but, like a number of other bad ideas, it flowered then. As a reaction to blind chauvinism, it was healthy, but it often became, and remains, a perverse bigotry against one’s own culture, in which the other is always right, and one’s own heritage mainly a series of atrocities to be condemned, the act of condemnation serving to lessen the hereditary guilt of the one issuing it. Sometimes this begins as part of the youthful awakening to the fact that the world is full of bad things and that one’s family and culture have their share in the blame. Maturity ought to lead to a more balanced perspective, but manifestly it doesn’t always. As a young left-winger I was generally inclined to credit other cultures with all sorts of virtues in which my own was deficient, and I remember how astonished I was to hear a Japanese student express the crudest sort of bigotry toward Koreans. Such incidents were useful in teaching me that racism, and group hostilities in general, were not particularly American vices, but human ones.

There’s nothing wrong with holding one’s own culture to a higher standard. But when alienation from the culture becomes a sense of almost total separation, the result can be a cultural masochism which takes a positive pleasure in thinking the worst of one’s own, and even, to all appearances, a cultural death wish: a belief that the culture does not deserve to survive.

I particularly recall, in the aftermath of 9/11, a number of commentators reaching back almost a thousand years, to the Crusaders’ sack of Muslim Jerusalem, by way of demonstrating that Muslim hostility to the West is eminently justified. They seemed to revel in reciting the gruesome details, even including what were no doubt exaggerations of the time, such as accounts of horses up their knees or even to their necks in blood.

Well, all right. There is nothing wrong, and much right, with acknowledging the crimes of the past, though in that context it only seemed likely to further inflame the jihadists and assist them in justifying their own sense of righteousness and grievance. But not once did I hear any of these commentators mention the Muslim sack of Constantinople, or any of the many, many acts of violence by which Islam seized control of the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain. This does indeed seem to deserve to be called cultural masochism; it amounts not only to saying “we deserve it” but to taking some kind of pleasure in announcing the fact. To acknowledge the failings of one’s own culture and religion is noble; to apologize for its existence is not (unless you really consider it thoroughly evil, in which case why do you remain a part of it?).

This unhealthy streak is paradoxical, in that it combines a dislike of one’s own culture with a sense, usually unacknowledged, of personal superiority to all cultures. In that second respect it seems a last decadent stage of the Enlightenment’s flight from abstract and absolute principle. What begins as a sort of humility, a refusal to assert one’s superior grasp of the truth or of value, becomes an unwillingness to make any judgment of pure truth or value at all. One sometimes hears, in reference to some ugly practice among a non-white non-European people, that “it’s their culture.” Yes, it is their culture, but why should we pretend not to find it repulsive? Is it because we don’t believe we have the right to find anything repulsive? But this broad pseudo-tolerance, stops, as politics was once said to do, at the water’s edge, when those who can’t bring themselves to judge another culture often consider Republicans to be hardly human at all.

And in the end the multiculturalist does, after all, believe that he is right, and that the world should operate according to his ideas, with secular liberalism determining what is permissible and what is not. He smuggles this belief in silently, perhaps unconsciously, in unexamined axioms. “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” He sets up a sort of museum or exposition, in which one may browse the colorful dress, the music, the food, of a number of cultures. But it is the multiculturalist who provides the hall, and makes the rules, for the exhibitors.

What happens when one of these refuses to accept his position as one among many, and asserts his right to rule the others, or to have removed those of whom he disapproves, or at least not to be forced to coexist with them as equals? The multiculturalist must either surrender or face an internal crisis: the necessity of declaring absolute principles and justifying them, not only in their specifics but in their absoluteness.

The outcome of that decision depends on whether the masochistic tendency or the stubborn and instinctive human belief in abstract truth and right prevails. If the former wins, it may be the last gasp of the Enlightenment project. But the latter requires a serious consideration of the absolute, a dangerous course for the officially non-dogmatic—dangerous internally, because, in a once-Christian society, it might lead to an unwelcome reconsideration of the roots, dangerous externally because it could lead to the establishment as dogma of some secular ideology, under which Christianity is not likely to fare well. Either way, a stance of principled unprincipledness is unlikely to endure.


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We like to think that fear and hatred of “the Other” (as academics like to say) is an aberration

My reading of that sentence:

We like to think that fear and hatred of “the Other” (as nitwits like to say) is an aberration.

One thing I've noticed is that the people who like to criticise the "othering" of others are pretty good at "othering" the people who "other."

"Multiculturalism is a real headache, imo. If refugees come here (and they should be able to) then it's reasonable to expect that out of gratitude, they would do their best to fit in. When they don't (b/c of the stupid dogma of "multiculturalism" there is justified antagonism of the natives towards the newcomers. REfugees tend to be poor and therefore in need of Christian charity, but this is actually hampered somewhat (especially in a pretty socialist set-up like Australia) by the resentment which multi-culturalism creates.

E.g. I heard of a refugee family who refused to take second-hand goods from charity (e.g. waching machines). Now I can't verify that, but if it's true then that kind of thing makes me mad. I mean, we had a second-hand fridge for most of our married life, to say nothing of the kids bunks etc.

Sorry for lack of a closing " and ). Hope that didn't give you a headache!

"...the people who like to criticise the "othering" of others..."

Heh. Well put.

Our immigration mess is...well, a mess, and not fair to anyone.

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