The Fightin’ Multiculturalist

March 16th, 2006 — Wordman

The world “multiculturalism” means different things to different people. Critics of multiculturalism, like the Ayn Rand Institute, tend to define it like so:

In brief, multiculturalism is the view that all cultures, from that of a spirits-worshiping tribe to that of an advanced industrial civilization, are equal in value.

They then proceed to refute, often logically and convincingly, that such a view is foolish, saying things like:

Multiculturalism seeks to obliterate the value of a free, industrialized civilization (which today exists in the West and elsewhere), by declaring that such a civilization is no better than primitive tribalism. … The ideas and values that animate a particular culture can and should be judged objectively. A culture that values freedom, progress, reason and science, for instance, is good; one that values oppression, stagnation, mysticism, and ignorance is not.

This critique seems to the one voiced most often in recent popular (as opposed to academic) debate, particularly in discussions about the Islamic world.

The problem with this argument is that its initial definition of what multiculturalism means is completely wrong. Granted, one of the largest difficulties with multiculturalism is that it is not well defined, a point made evident by the entry on it in the Wikipedia, where at least four different definitions are mentioned. Even so, it seems that the only credible groups who use the definition above are the ones who oppose it. The impact and meaning of multiculturalism has been debated significantly in academic circles for quite some time. Though I was trained at one of the primary institutions that could be accused of “pushing a multiculturalist agenda”, I’m not an academic, so I confess ignorance of much of this debate. My interest here is more in the popular use of the term and, in particular, how a multicultural society can consistently deal with one that is not.

In saying that people like the Ayn Rand Institute have the definition of multiculturalism “completely wrong” it is incumbent on me to provide a correct one. Sadly, the best definition I can provide is by way of an example of multicultural behavior: fans of the National Football League.

Your average NFL fan (or any other fan of a professional domestic sport team) favors one team above others. When attending the temple of their team, they will dress in appropriate religious regalia, usually a set mix of colors, maybe with a large number on the front, or representations of dairy products on their head. Some will be disgusted and/or amused at the zealotry of those of their number who get tattoos of team iconography or paint their body bright orange or wear big foam hands. Many even do this watching on television at home. Most will talk about their team with anyone who will listen. Every one of these fans, however, knows somebody that roots for another team, maybe even someone even more impassioned about their own team than they themselves are about theirs.

Ayn Rand, no doubt, would be thrilled to know that each particular team “can be judged objectively” and it is usually (though not always) possible to empirically determine which team is “better”. No fan anywhere would ever claim that all teams in the league “are equal in value”. Clearly his own team is worth far more to him than the others are, even though it may simultaneously be worth far less in terms of monetary value, turnover ratio or victory percentage.

While a fan of a losing team may have to endure barbs of fans of other teams (or even his own fellow fans), it’s rare that his choice of team puts him in any real danger. By the same token, a fan on the championship team, while he might not understand why someone would root for any other team and may, in fact, consider anyone that does so inferior or even express hatred for them, he never seriously opposes, or even questions, the right of those other fans to root for whoever they like. It’s not like a large group of them get together and scream through loudspeakers “all others must renounce their own loyalty and support our team, or face righteous wrath,” then send out the “Shining Row 12 of Section J” to hack up non-believers with machetes. (Well, at least not outside of Oakland.)

There are exceptions, of course, but when American sports fans hear of planned soccer riots, fans grouping together to fight fans of other teams, fans murdering their own goalie after a loss, governments torturing their athletes for losing or even when players leave the field to deck some smart ass, the vast majority of them wonder “what the hell is wrong with these people?”. Sure, American fans react badly to victory and turn over police cars with the best of them, but this almost never involves clashes with opposing fans. While they think their own team superior, they don’t assume that this means that fans of other teams should have less of a right to root for whoever they want. In short, they have a “multicultural” view when it comes to team loyalty.

You might define multiculturalism as “the tolerance to allow others to believe stupid things”. Or maybe it’s as simple as “live and let live”.

However, practicing multiculturalism has a lot in common with laws surrounding free speech. In principle, it’s fine to say “people are free to say what they want”. In practice, there are sticky implementation problems. How do you deal with someone yelling “fire” in a crowded room? How do you deal with someone who invokes their free speech rights to broadcast the secrets of people, corporations or governments or make false accusations against them? Is it permissible for someone to claim their right to free speech is more important than someone else’s? Suppose someone openly encourages others to kill someone?

Similarly, encoding a principle like “people are free to believe in what they want and live the way they want to” has implementation problems of its own. Suppose a prisoner believes he must be provided steak as part of his religion. What about a culture that allows its children to die from preventable ailments? How about a religion that considers its practitioners justified—in fact expected—to kill members of other cultures?

The guiding principle in rationalizing these kinds of difficulties tends to be “your right to swing your fist ends at my face”. In other words, I consider myself a multiculturalist, but I also have no problem at all with killing someone who is trying to kill me because he is not.