The problem of normative multiculturalism
May 7, 2010 4 Comments
Although much used and discussed, the term “muliticulturalism” is not generally well defined. The term can be, and has been, used in several ways, mainly divided into descriptive multiculturalism – referring to cultural diversity, and normative multiculturalism – referring to a response to this cultural diversity that recognizes the unique and distinct needs of particular cultural groups. The former is thus descriptional and neutral, whereas the latter implies both approval of cultural diversity and a focus on the rights of groups, not of the individual.
It is the latter definition – that implies a timeless sanctity and impenetrableness of so-called unique, distinct and unchanging cultures – which I find problematic, not the fact that societies can and should be inhabited by people from a multitude of places and cultures around the world and that these people can and should find a way of living together and learning from each other. This is an important point and an important distinction, especially as people who oppose normative multiculturalism are some times mistakenly branded racists by its proponents.
The term “multiculturalism” is a relatively new term, although multicultural societies have existed for many centuries. The term was first used in the sixties and early seventies where Canada and Australia starting using the term to describe their official government policy, as well as by the Black Consciousness movement in the USA in the late sixties. By the turn of the millennium, however, many Western states had adopted multiculturalism as an official policy.
The rise of multiculturalism in the West revealed a relativist turn away from universalism and towards the particularism of partial and contextual truths. This came about in part because of the guilty conscience for the Euro-centric universalism of many of the former colonial powers after decolonisation, and in part because of the “defeat” of left-wing ideas after the collapse of Soviet communism– relativism and multiculturalism apparently being the last resort of overwhelmed and defeated left-wing academics and a proportion of the left-wing middle class. Multiculturalism is not a single, fixed idea, however. One can talk of several varieties such as a liberal multiculturalism, which only sees its toleration extending to cultures that are themselves tolerant, and a pluralist multiculturalism, that is in fact more akin to a plural monoculturalism.
The main problem with the monoculturalist, normative brand of multiculturalism is that its proponents often end up having to defend chauvinistic, homophobic bigots who argue that they have the right to promote more or less any reactionary idea, as long as it can be claimed to be part of their culture. But oppressing women or gays is as wrong in Kabul or Karachi as it is in Copenhagen or Colchester, and as Iranian feminist, Azar Nafisi points out, “I very much resent it in the West when people – maybe with good intentions or from a progressive point of view – keep telling me, ‘It’s their culture’ … It’s like saying, the culture of Massachusetts is burning witches”.
Normative multiculturalism legitimizes patriarchal and homophobic traditional beliefs that disadvantage women and gays, endorses an inward-looking separation of groups that seek to protect their own cultural purity, and focuses on differences between people and cultures in stead of similarities. But cultures are not static and nor are they pure or uncontaminated. On the contrary, cultures intermingle with each other, learn from each other, and thereby remain progressive, vibrant and dynamic.
Normative multiculturalists claim that we should treat all cultures as being equal, since no value is better than another. But isn’t a world-centric view better than an egocentric? Isn’t an inclusive and progressive stance better than a racist? Isn’t any definition of the boundaries of culture(s) impossible, as all cultures are porous and absorbent? And isn’t multiculturalism as inherently self-defeating as any form of extreme relativism, because it is seen as superior even though its whole idea is based upon a value system where nothing is supposed to be superior?
What we might hope for is that the perhaps well meant, if misguided, attempts of multiculturalists of striving to transcend the Euro-centric universalism of colonialism (and post- and neo-colonialism for that matter) might lead to the gradual disappearance of the need for strong, inward looking cultural and national ties, and thus to a genuine global consciousness or cosmopolitanism. But for this to happen, we need to stop focusing on what separates us and start focusing on the many things that unite us.