I Don’t Think God is a Multiculturalist
Multiculturalism is the recognition of different ethnic, gender, and religious groups but also refers to political decisions. We begin with the assumption that natural resources, status, power, cultural qualities, and individual abilities are not equally distributed in society. People organize themselves into groups on the basis of particular categories (gender, ethnicity, common practices) and these groups develop what we term cultural differences with respect to language, dress, values, behaviors, etc. Sometimes these differences are small and easy enough to accommodate and other times these differences are deep and in opposition to other groups. Politics is the management of these differences.
A common assumption – especially in the United States – is that political decision-making should be neutral with respect to race, class, or creed. This is a natural extension of liberal democracy. From this perspective multiculturalism is steeped in human rights and central to the development of democratic citizenship. But there are problems with this conceptualization of multiculturalism that renders it unnatural (that’s why God has problems with it) and contradictory. Other arguments promote some special treatment for groups in order to compensate for historical injustices.
First, Gadi Taub has pointed out how an entire discourse of progressivism has developed around multiculturalism that glorifies diversity, encourages contact with others as growth promoting, and perpetuates a belief that we all share basic liberal values. This is underscored by contemporary academic theory (postmodernism, gender studies, cultural studies, critical theories, postcolonial studies) that relegates the most important cultural differences to the outcomes of power struggles between a dominant group (e.g. European white males) and the minority group. The dominant group of course sets the conditions of the discourse and defines the identity of the “other” group. As a consequence, about any minority groups can be or has been defined as oppressed.
Multiculturalism assumes a uniformity of values and liberal identity among different groups such that all humans are assumed to be equal as are their cultures. There is also the assumption of cultural contact or articulation being expansive of democracy. But as Taub asks, what about cultures that oppress citizens, use force indiscriminately, enslave women, or promote female circumcision? These are not democratic or worthy of cultural sensitivity.
There’s also a contradiction in multiculturalism, which has not been satisfactorily resolved, between pressures toward uniformity and respect for the maintenance of differences. Do we want cultures to converge or encourage differences? The United States is relatively successful at avoiding cultural conflict and encouraging multiculturalism because of the overarching “American” identity and allegiance to values (freedom, democracy, individuality, voting rights etc.) rather than being organized only on the basis of skin color, religion, or nationalism.
Furthermore, the multicultural debate spends little time making the distinction between a genuinely diverse society and the prescriptions for dealing with diversity. Diversity and cultural differences are inevitable and even biologically advantageous. Even those seeking the most pressure toward equality, assimilation, and democratization don’t argue for the obliteration of cultural differences. Given, then, the inevitability of differences and a more nuanced understanding of multiculturalism that is not knee-jerk political correctness the necessary forms of communication between groups must reflect bonding and bridging discourse more than simple assimilation.
A multicultural sense of democratic citizenship is admirable when cultures share deep consensus on certain values. But things fall apart with greater cultural distinctiveness. The Muslim immigrant in the outskirts of Paris is not a partner of African-Americans; the sealed world of Orthodox Jews has little to do with immigrants from Syria; Turks in Germany are viewed with increasing antagonism by Germans.
We must work more on the distinction between people and values. The “values” of freedom, democracy, participation, and equal treatment under the law are crucial to the maintenance of peace and cohesion. But such values cannot be encouraged by accepting all aspects of culture as equally worthy.