Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Authenticity of Multiculturism

To a large extent, it really is just a matter of authenticity. When I come across any organization promoting itself as a cultural organization, I find myself asking if the organization is authentically promoting the organization, or if they are driven by other motives.

The Cultural Celebration Center in West Valley City comes off as slightly more authentic than the Salt Lake Muslim Festival. Neither organization is perfect. Neither is the personification of evil. Authenticity is really a matter of degree.

There are ideas that do seem to pollute the waters. It is politically correct to point out the ill effects of commerce. Entrepreneurs run around the world trying to find goods from each culture that they can sell. The plus side is that these goods help provide funds and interest in preserving culture. The downside is that the efforts have a tendency to devolve in a plasticized characterization of the culture, and seems to lack the full depth that one would hope to achieve. I really love the Overstock WorldStock program. However, the business model that mixes handcrafted and overstocked goods provides a really bizarre experience.

It is politically incorrect to point out that the left also has a history of making a mush of culture.

The ideology of Marxism gave several generations of activists an illusion that the peoples of the world would united in a global revolution against the bourgeoisie. I've come across a large number of Ward Churchill style characters that multiculturalism was part of the great social revolution.

Whenever you make your study of different cultures subservient to an ideology, you end up losing the things that you stand to gain from the other cultures.

I love the fact that the Mormons send their kids abroad, but I get irritated when I find returned missionaries who really don't seem to have learned anything about the country that they visited. In my view, going on a Mission to help others is great. I am irked when returned missionaries seem to have failed to see or appreciate the culture they visited. I hate wasted opportunities.

The Globe Trekker series is a little bit closer to my heart. This site advocates getting down and dirty in the process or trekking, although after watching a few dozen episodes, I can't help but feel that the hosts of the show are so full of themselves that they tend to miss the point.

It is, after all, impossible to divorce ourselves from our point of view. Although we pretend otherwise, there is no way to see the world but through one's own eyes. We will always put filters on what we see.

I think the best approach to life is to always challenge oneself. We can't eliminate the filters on our vision, but we can recognize that we will always have a distorted vision.

That means that when you approach a topic, you should go through a process of self examination to discover any preconceived notions that affect your perception. This self examination ("know thyself") is the critical component of the classical liberal thought process.

Whenever I approach a "multicultural" exhibit, my mind immediately flashes into a mode where I question what filters exist at the exhibition. Understanding the filters gives me a better understanding of what I am seeing. This classical liberal style often comes off as hypercritical; I think the process leads to greater understanding.

Democracy Lover said of my post: "I hope you learn that the right-wing bugaboo of multiculturalism is not the cause of all the world's ills."

I found this statement extremely disheartening because, to understand a different culture, one must challenge any ideologies such as "multiculturalism" that might distort the understanding of the different culture.

The modern ideology of multiculturism came from a left wing notion that activists should work to unite cultures of the world against the bourgeoisie. It is a distorting filter in the same vein that commercialism is a filter.

The progressive and classical liberal world is like fire and water. The progressive world generally has a cause they wish to progress above all else, while the classical thought process has learned that to understand the world, one has to challenge any filters placed between the observer and the world.


Scott Hinrichs said...

Great post. I have lived in some diverse cultures. Yes, your filters are always there, but they change through experience. They don't remain static. But it does pay well to be aware of and critical of one's personal filters.

I have found that people are generally interested in my experiences outside of my own culture. But they want the plastic version. Few care to actually understand the important facets of the experiences.

Charles D said...


I think you missed my point. There are two types of multi-culturalism in my view.

The first is simply nothing more than saying that we can learn things from all cultures and we should not reject a culture out of hand without listening to its people, observing its effects, and thinking about what it offers. America in particular is a society formed from many different ethnic and religious groups each of whom brought interesting ideas, values and foods(!) with them. We should celebrate that fact about our country. This also encompasses the idea of trying to understand why a group of people might take a position far different from your own - that attempt to understand (Ward Churchill's major sin) doesn't mean you agree with them or even agree that their position has merit - it means that you care enough about your fellow humans to try to understand what they're about.

There is, however, a second form of multiculturalism that is prevalent in some academic circles in the US and has gained dominance in some European elites. This form says that all cultures are equal and we must respect everything about them regardless. There are serious problems with this. As Americans we hold that some things are more important than ethnicity or religious identity - basic human rights. When we permit a group to infringe on the rights of others, even its own members, we diminish all our rights.

I'm not talking here about whether Muslim girls should wear head scarves to school, but whether Muslim families have the right to deny their girls higher education, or force them to marry at an early age, or beat them if they engage in pre-marital sex. Head gear is unimportant - human rights are pre-eminent. A multiculturalism that ignores human rights or allows ethnic groups to re-define human rights according to their traditions is very misguided.

I don't see the latter form of multiculturalism as being prevalent in the US, and I doubt it will become so. In fact, we seem to be in more danger of having certain religious groups impose their beliefs on others - I guess that would be monoculturalism.

I agree that in approaching topics one has to examine the filters used to perceive them. You seem to have had a very bad experience with Marxist ideas that taints your views of all progressive ideas. I had a similar experience with fundamentalist Christianity and find it difficult to be open-minded about that subject. I think we both have to try harder.

y-intercept said...

That was a great reply DL. I realize that your first post really was about a typo that I had made. I think that there is good and bad to every system. What we really need are people who can recognize this, as they are generally best at getting people on the right path.

The good multiculturalism you mentioned is very close to what I would call the classical liberal view. The second approach is what I would call the modern liberal view.

The good approach to different cultures is largely about personal discovery. The second seems to exist as a path to power.

You may notice that the modern liberal view leads almost immediately to a large number of intractable paradoxes.

I am a bit hesitant to slap the "ism" suffix on the first definition. This first system really comes out of an approach to learning, and not a manifestation of a belief about cultures.

The "ism" suffix generally means that someone is trying to either make a science out of an idea or is using the idea as a path to power.

It is a little bit after that people slap an "ism" on multicultural that things start going bad. This second type of multiculturalism is bad in itself, it also seems to create a reactionary "anti-multiculturalism" which can be even more destructive (as your experience with fundamentalists entails).

The truth is that we do need theories of multiculturalism. This is especially true since technology has made it increasingly difficult to isolate a cultural.

Since it is really easy for an ideology to go haywire, we need to constantly be challenging multiculturism.

Even more difficult. We need to find ways to challenge multiculturalism without falling into xenophobia. It is a really tough task.

BTW, In my book, Ward Churchill's main sin was that he misrepresented himself to gain influence.