The Fightin’ Multiculturalist

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.

One thought to “The Fightin’ Multiculturalist”

  1. 1/ Assimilation entails relinquishing one’s cultural identity and moving into the larger society (and in so far resembles the adjustment form of adaptation). Integration [also termed multiculturalisrn], implies the retention of the cultural identity of the group, as well as the movement to become an integral part of the wider society (that is, some adjustment). – John Berry

    2/ The alternative to multiculturalism is Integration. – Joanna Fomina

    3/ Integration has outlived its usefulness; a multicultural society ought to be the goal. – Sarah W. Oelberg

    4/ “Assimilation, American Style” implies that immigrants are free to retain or discard as much or as little of their homeland cultures as they wish without compromising their assimilation. Assimilation does NOT mean that immigrants must give up their ethnic culture; to think so is to confuse assimilation with acculturation.
    The three most crucial institutions of assimilation – the English language, liberal democratic capitalism, and the Protestant work ethic – is absolutely necessary to the success of any new immigrant group. – Peter Salins

    5/ America is desegregating. What television has done is to give white Americans the sensation of having meaningful, repeated contact with blacks without actually having it. We call this phenomenon virtual integration. – Leonard Steinhorn and Barbara Diggs-Brown

    6/ Upholding integration must mean a clean break with multiculturalism. It would mean teaching British culture and values in schools; it would mean refusing to alter this country’s fundamental laws and traditions to accommodate special pleading by minorities. – Melanie Phillips

    7/ Integration includes goals such as leveling barriers to association, creating equal opportunity and the development of a culture that draws on diverse traditions, rather than merely bringing a racial minority into the majority culture. – Wikipedia

    8/ a) Pluralistic multiculturalism views each culture or subculture in a society as contributing unique and valuable cultural aspects to the whole culture. b)Particularist multiculturalism is more concerned with preserving the distinctions between cultures.- Diane Ravitch

    9/ Multiculturalism means different things to different people. If I had to identify a common ground that unites all self-proclaimed multiculturalists, it would come down to two points. First, all cultures are equal in value and have an equal right to flourish free from external constraints; and second, the greater good of humanity – defined in terms of peace, love and understanding – is best served by people living within or directly experiencing as many different cultures. The irony or contradiction within this ideal of diversity lies in the historical reality that all of the traditional cultures celebrated in the multiculturalist literature were able to flourish and develop their unique beauty precisely because of a degree of isolation now judged to be the incubator of intolerance. – Christopher Shannon

    10/ The term multicultural means the general things to do with cultural diversity such as cuisine, dress, and media, that might add to a quality and diversity of life. Such a diverse society [for which Rob Imre prefers the term Integralist multiculturalism], means that there is an acceptance of things multicultural and a great skepticism and even rejection of multiculturalism.
    The term multiculturalism than, is an ideological position that advocates a particular set of policies that actively promotes this diversity and support the preservation and development of migrant/ethnic groups and cultures. – C.W. Watson

    11/ Multiculturalism is a slippery ideology, in that there is a myriad of variations to the concept. This wealth of definitions is actually a great advantage to the supporters of multiculturalism, as it is easy for them to deflect any attacks upon their viewpoint, by saying “Oh no, that’s not the kind of multiculturalism that I’m talking about”; they can swap, merge, and confuse definitions, and therefore dodge valid arguments by avoiding “being pinned down” to one definition.- Cameron McKenzie

    12/There is a difference between Soft Multiculturalism – the idea that minorities should not face discrimination and that the customs of different people should be tolerated, and which he describes as a ‘benign force’ – and Hard Multiculturalism, which insists no culture is better than another, and which believes society should not only tolerate difference but promote it. – Patrick West

    CONCLUSION: Multiculturalism is a term that has never had a stable meaning. It has been both attacked and stalwartly defended by critics at all points on the political spectrum.

    PS Most of these sentences are paraphrased.

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