The Problem of Naive Multiculturalism

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Multiculturalism is a problem, we’re told. Recognizing other cultures as being as valid as our own keeps bad, oppressive ideas alive and empowered. Endorsing multiculturalism is what leads to feminists in Muslim countries being branded “native informants” instead of interested parties in their own societies.

It also situates Ms. Eltahawy’s work within a growing trend of “native informants” whose personal testimonies of oppression under Islam have generated significant support for military aggression against Muslim-majority countries in recent years.

If we believe in multiculturalism, we’re told, Mona Eltahawy’s protests against harassment, assault, and exclusion aren’t real because they can be used to serve American goals. They aren’t valid because her statements on the her interests and the interests of other women like her don’t reflect the positions of every woman enmeshed in Egyptian Islamism.

Embracing multiculturalism is what leads feminists and LGBT activists to support Islamist men in shutting down a talk by an ex-Muslim woman speaking about the costs of Islamism borne by women.

Goldsmiths Feminist Society stands in solidarity with Goldsmiths Islamic Society. We support them in condemning the actions of the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society and agree that hosting known islamophobes at our university creates a climate of hatred.

If we embrace multiculturalism, we’re told, we must always side with the people in power in any society. We can’t question their motives, their means, or their effects on others. We must respect them as they are, or we are simply foisting our own views on another culture.

So we’re told. Of course, we’re told a lot of things. It’s good to take a step back every once in a while and question whether they’re true. In this case, they aren’t.

There is a real problem here. These events happened, and they’re wrong, but the problem isn’t multiculturalism. Multiculturalism is simply the framework that we use to shift our perspectives away from our own nativism when viewing another culture. It tells us that other cultures are deserving of being viewed from more than an outsider’s perspective, deserving of being judged with full understanding on their own terms. It says that other cultures are not curiosities or oddities, but as real as our own culture.

That should be a truism. If we’re going to study something, we should work to remove our own biases for full understanding.

“But what about those effects we just saw? What about the bad decisions people make trying to get away from their own biases?” Yes, those are excellent questions. What about them?

Street scene of mostly men in suits with lots of ethnic diversity and a handful of women.
“Evacuation in Pimlico” by Martin, CC BY 2.0
Multicultural is not the same as diverse or representative.

If anything, the problem we run into is that we invest too little in multiculturalism, not too much. We look at another culture, focus on the few distinctive characteristics that carry across the distance between us, decide those are cool and valid, and call ourselves done.

Would we settle for anyone from another culture doing that to us? Would we be comfortable with people looking over here to the U.S. and saying, “Trump, evangelical creationism, and police shooting black people. Right. That’s the U.S. That’s valid and worthy of protection”?

There are some people who would say that, of course, but even if you’re one of them (thus, probably not reading this anyway), you know there are plenty of people who wouldn’t. You know how many people would fight against that idea with everything they have and are. You know how many people would demand to have their resistance against any of those things seen and considered valid in turn.

That’s because we know–when we’re looking at our own–that culture is not a monolith. We know that a culture of any size contains subcultures, groups of people who come together to carve out places where different rules can hold sway because the rules of the dominant culture aren’t made for them. In a patriarchal culture, there are women’s subcultures. In a heteronormative, cisnormative culture, there are queer subcultures. In a white supremacist culture, there are subcultures of various ethnicities.

There are immigrant subcultures. There are urban and rural subcultures, where those apply. There are religious subcultures. There are generational subcultures. There are sometimes sports subcultures and fannish subcultures and subcultures built up around celebrities and subcultures tied to institutions. When a group of people of a certain size comes together to say, “We do things differently here”, and can make that stick, we’re looking at a subculture.

There is no singular culture. There are dominant cultures, cultures with and in power, and subcultures. Here, there, everywhere. A multiculturalism that doesn’t recognize that is, at best, a naive multiculturalism.

Those cultures are often in tension as well. It’s possible to carve out a subculture. It’s possible to hold space for it to exist in the middle of the dominant culture. But it isn’t easy. It gets harder when the dominant culture is hostile to the subculture or relies on the oppression of people within that subculture to maintain power.

Under those situations, subcultures may become countercultures. They actively work to subvert, infiltrate, or supplant the dominant culture. The fact that countercultures oppose the dominant culture doesn’t make them something apart from the culture as a whole. Countercultures are forces that change cultures from within.

Again, countercultures are something that we recognize in our own culture. The Christian evangelical takeover of parts of the local and federal governments over the last several decades is an example of culture changing from within due to pressure from a counterculture. So was the “sexual revolution”. So was the push for LGBT acceptance and rights.

None of those are examples of attacks on U.S. culture from the outside, though the last two were claimed to be, with communism the outside influence then, in the place colonialism holds in today’s discourse. The changes, and the forces that made the changes, were internal to U.S. culture. This too, like the existence of subcultures, happens everywhere. If we move beyond a naive understanding of multiculturalism, we find countercultures and their attendant political and cultural changes in any culture we examine. Recognizing them is part of recognizing that other cultures are not diminished echoes of ours. Recognizing countercultures is part of multiculturalism.

We can stand up for countercultures in a multicultural framework as well. We can demand that they be allowed to survive. We can demand that they not have their voices suppressed. We can simultaneously recognize that we aren’t the people who call the shots on which countercultures hold sway over people who are not us and recognize that those countercultures are a valid part of the broader culture in which they exist. We can see the tensions between groups in power and groups without power or with less power, because we can see all those things when we examine our own cultures–and we would expect nothing less of other cultures.

We can also choose which countercultures we reach out to and interact with. When we stop viewing other cultures as more monolithic than ours, we allow ourselves to recognize that our own concerns and struggles have their counterparts everywhere. These parallel countercultures aren’t clones, of course, but that makes interaction even more valuable. When we stop being quite so self-conscious about imposing our own ideas on someone else’s culture, we can remember to look for people within that culture from whom we can learn, whose perspectives can influence our thinking.

Because this, too, is an important part of multiculturalism, this understanding that we have things to learn from other cultures. And we should expect to find those lessons in many of the same places we learn about our own culture: in the margins, in the conflicts and the tensions, in the questions about whose voices speak for whom. If we find these things important in our culture, we should expect that other people will find them important in their own.

Multiculturalism means understanding that other cultures are no more simple than our own. It means understanding that their people are no less divided, that they have no less diverse needs. Even when we (rightly) question the effects of colonialism and globalization, multiculturalism tells us that dissent,

We should expect to see people questioning religious privilege in other cultures, as well as people supporting and defending it. We see that here. Why should anything be simpler elsewhere? We should expect to see women protesting patriarchy and women defending patriarchy. Neither is less real when they both happen here. Why should only one of these be considered real anywhere else? And why should our opinions about who is correct change if we understand that both perspectives truly exist and are born of self-interest?

The tensions between competing perspectives and interests shift over time, as one side waxes and wanes, gains and loses power. A simple definition of a culture, a definition that reduces each culture to merely those people and interests in power at any given time, would be absurdly inconstant. Moreover, it wouldn’t be how we would want our own culture understood.

Do we want to be defined by Donald Trump, or do we want to be understood in the context of the historical changes that have allowed him to surface for a moment and which we hope will bury him again quickly? Do we want extrajudicial killings of one ethnic group to define us, or do we want that seen as part of a long struggle for justice? If we want understanding of our historical context and our future possibilities to inform people who look at our culture, why would we not grant the same to any culture we claim to want to understand?

This is what multiculturalism actually means. This is what it looks like to grant another culture the study and understanding we want for our own. And in this full, developed multiculturalism, we don’t see the problems attributed to multiculturalism here.

We see conflicts. We see competition for power and for our attention, because our attention can be another kind of power. We see multitudes of people with their own stories to tell and demands to make and influence to bring to bear. We see a lot of things, none of them simple.

That’s what we expect from multiculturalism. It isn’t this “might makes right”, “every voice must speak for all” nonsense that’s used to try to discredit the basic idea of multiculturalism. The kind of multiculturalism that produces that nonsense does exist, but it’s a weak, naive multiculturalism.

The solution to the problem isn’t to retreat from multiculturalism but to dedicate ourselves to getting it right. The solution is to demand for other cultures the kind of care we would demand for our own.

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The Problem of Naive Multiculturalism
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One thought on “The Problem of Naive Multiculturalism

  1. 1

    “Even when we (rightly) question the effects of colonialism and globalization, multiculturalism tells us that dissent, ”

    I think you accidentally the rest of that sentence

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