Is American culture superior to multiculturalism?

Is multiculturalism a racism?

One of the widespread complaints about globalization is that the culture of the West is storming the earth with the forces of the market. Many worry that whether we're in New York, Rome, Beijing or Bombay, we'll end up buying the same jeans in the same mall, the same overpriced espresso in the same café and watching the same monotonous Hollywood blockbusters. The local cultures will disappear.

But the most important export item of the West is not Disney films or Starbucks or Tom Cruise, it is precisely this idea of ​​local culture. An idea that emerged in Europe in the late 18th century as a reaction against the Enlightenment now holds the whole world under its spell. Every island in the Pacific, every Indian tribe in the Amazon basin has its own culture, which should be defended against the ravages of Western cultural imperialism. You don't even have to be human to have a culture. We learn from primatologists that different groups of chimpanzees each have their own culture. No doubt a chimpanzee will soon complain that its traditions are being crushed by the steamroller of human cultural imperialism.

“We are all multiculturalists now,” remarked the American sociologist Nathan Glazer, who was a former critic of this pluralism. And we really are. The celebration of difference, the respect for pluralism, the commitment to identity politics - all of this is considered a hallmark of a progressive, anti-racist attitude and the foundation of a modern liberal democracy.

At the heart of almost all multiculturalist theories is the view that the cultural background of individuals determines their identity and helps explain who they are. If we want to treat individuals with respect and respect, then we must also treat the groups with respect and respect that endow them with their personal attitude towards life. In other words, we cannot treat individuals equally unless we treat groups equally. And since, in the words of American political scientist Iris Young, “groups cannot be socially equal unless their specific experience, culture and contributions to society are publicly affirmed and recognized”, society must protect and promote cultures, their prosperity ensure and of course their survival.

One manifestation of such equal treatment is the increasing tendency in some Western countries to give religious law - the Jewish halacha and Islamic Sharia, for example - precedence over secular law in civil and occasionally criminal matters. Another manifestation of this equality can be seen in Australia, where the courts are increasingly coming to terms with the fact that the indigenous peoples should be given rights rather than according to whitefella law - the right of the white man - to be judged according to their own manners and customs.

According to Colin McDonald, an Australian lawyer and common law expert, “Human rights are essentially a creation of the past hundred years. But these people have been practicing their rights for thousands of years. " Some multiculturalists go even further when they demand that the state ensure the survival of cultures not just for the present but for the long term. The philosopher Charles Taylor suggests that the governments of Canada and Québec take steps to guarantee the survival of the French language in Québec, “indefinitely for all future generations”.

The requirement that a cultural practice should be preserved because it has been around for a long time is a modern version of the naturalistic fallacy - the assumption that ought can be derived from being. For nineteenth-century Social Darwinists, morality (how we should behave) came from natural facts (what people are). This became a justification for capitalist exploitation, colonialist oppression, folk barbarism and even genocide. Today practically everyone recognizes the flawedness of this argument, but when we speak of culture instead of nature, many multiculturalists continue to insist that being determines what should be.

Part of the problem is the constant mistaken identity of the human being as a cultural being and the idea that human beings are carriers of a particular culture, which is constantly being carried out by multiculturalism. Undoubtedly, no one can live outside of a culture, and no one does. The fact that no one can live outside a culture does not mean, however, that they always have to live in that particular culture. To regard human beings as cultural beings means to regard them as social beings and consequently as transformative beings. It follows that human beings have the capacity to change, progress, and create universal moral and political systems through reason and dialogue.

To regard people as carriers of specific cultures, on the other hand, means to deny such an ability to change. It implies that every person is so shaped by a particular culture that a change or weakening of this culture would violate the dignity of this individual. The biological fact of Jewish or Pakistani ancestry, it is suggested, somehow allows these people a good life only if they are members of the Jewish or Pakistani culture. Such a statement would only make sense if Jews or Pakistanis were racially different - in other words, if cultural identity were actually about racial differences.

The relationship between cultural identity and racial differences becomes even clearer when we examine the argument that cultures need to be protected and preserved. The Canadian philosopher Will Kymlicka argues that if “the survival of a culture is not guaranteed and if it is threatened with degradation or degradation, we must intervene to protect it”, because cultures are vital for people. For Charles Taylor, “when it comes to identity”, nothing is more “legitimate” than “striving to never lose it”.

But what does "decay" mean when it comes to a culture? Or “loss” in the case of an identity? Kymlicka makes a distinction between the “existence of a culture” and “its‘ individuality ’at a given point in time”. The nature of the culture can change, but such changes are only acceptable if they do not threaten the very existence of a culture. But how can a culture exist if this existence is not embodied in its individual character? By “individuality” Kymlicka seems to understand the empirical reality of a culture: what people do, how they live their lives, the norms and rules and institutions that determine their existence. With his distinction between “individuality” and “existence”, Kymlicka seems to suggest that Jewish, Navajo or French culture is not defined by what Jews, Navajo Indians or French actually do. Because if Jewish culture is just what the Jews do, or French culture is what the French do, then cultures could never decay or perish - they would always exist in people's activities.

If a culture is not defined by what people in that culture do, what defines it? The answer can only be that it is defined by what its loved ones are supposed to do. And what cultural activists believe they should do is what their ancestors did. Culture is defined here by biological ancestry. And biological ancestry is a polite way of saying “race”. As the American English scholar Walter Benn put it: “So that a culture is lost. . . it must be separable from actual behavior, and in order for it to be separable from actual behavior it must be anchored in race. "

According to the argumentative logic of the culture protectors, every culture has an uncorrupted form, its original state. It expires when it is no longer in this state. This is reminiscent of the term “type”, which was at the center of race studies in the 19th century. Despite all the talk about changes in culture and its fluid identity, multiculturalism, no less than old-fashioned racism, inevitably makes people think of human groups in fixed terms. Both sides of the racism discussion speak their own dialect of difference. The right has adopted the language of diversity to propagate its message of racial exclusion. Liberals often use the dialect of exclusion to formulate a pluralistic idea of ​​culture.

"Every society, every nation is unique," said Enoch Powell, the vocal opponent of black immigration to post-war England. "It has its own past, its own history, its own memories, its own languages ​​or ways of speaking, its own - if I dare to use that word - its own culture." Therefore, he argues, immigrants from different cultures and traditions could never become fully English.

In France, the extreme right has cleverly exploited the idea of ​​cultural differences to propagate its anti-Muslim message. “It is a tragic illusion to want to achieve the coexistence of communities of different cultures in one and the same country,” argued the former Gaullist minister Michel Poniatowski. “I love North Africans,” explained Jean-Marie Le Pen, “but I love them in their country.” Through the language of diversity, racism has simply been transformed into another cultural identity.

As the right learned the grammar of diversity, so did the liberals learn the dialect of racial identity. Will Kymlicka is anything but a xenophobia, but his pluralism eventually leads him to adopt the language of exclusion. “It is only right and right,” says Kymlicka, “when the character of a culture changes as a result of the choices made by those belonging to that culture.” But, he continues, “to learn from the world beyond one's own limits” is quite different from “being inundated by it”. What is that supposed to mean? That one culture has the right to keep members of another culture away from itself? That a culture has the right to prevent members of that culture from speaking another language, singing foreign songs or reading foreign books?

Kymlicka's “flood” warning should make us sit up and take notice. The right has long tapped fears of a cultural flood to promote the idea that the nations of the West should pull the drawbridge in front of immigrants whose cultural difference makes them unsuitable as immigrants. It's an argument that Kymlicka undoubtedly detests. But once it becomes a principle of politics that cultures should not be inundated by outsiders, it becomes difficult to counter such anti-immigration arguments.

Historically, anti-racists rejected both racism and racization, that is, both the practice of discriminating against people on the basis of their race and the theory that an individual can be defined by the group to which they belong. Today's multiculturalists argue that one has to celebrate group identity in order to fight racism. The consequence of this has been the resurgence of racial theories and the imprisonment of people in their cultural identities. Racial theorists and multiculturalists, noted the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, have “opposing creeds but the same worldview”. They both fetishize the difference. They both try to limit the individuals to their group of origin. Both prevent “every possibility of natural and cultural commonality among peoples”. The rejection of this policy of difference has become just as important today as the rejection of racism.

Published 5 November 2008
Original in English
Translated by Siegfried Kohlhammer
First published by New Humanist 4/2008 (German version); Merkur 11/2008 (German version)

Contributed by Merkur © Kenan Malik / Merkur / Eurozine