Yet again: why multiculturalism?

I thought I’d post a recent to-and-fro from rec.arts.books. (I still look at the discussion groups on USENET now and then, and occasionally post something). It’s the answer I always give to a question people ask repeatedly. I’m not sure whether that makes it a golden oldie or a snooze, but it’s my weblog and all I can do is say the sorts of things I say.

Anyway, some puzzled soul asked

why are so many liberal elites not bothered by multiculturalism? by multiculturalism, i don’t mean multi-racialism where people of many backgrounds melt into a unified cultural identity and set of values. i mean a condition where the concept of unified or mainstream culture is disdained in favor of a mosaic of many cultures where each of them are supposed to be equal to the other.

I responded

“Multiculturalism” basically means “formalization of all significant human relationships.” Someone would favor it who wants to get rid of inherited informal arrangements and authorities, which are based on the authority of particular cultures, in favor of something more explicit, formal, universal and knowable, and therefore (supposedly) rational and controllable.

The obvious candidates for the new improved arrangements and authorities are world markets and transnational bureaucracies. The supporters of multiculturalism therefore include those who accept the understandings of human nature and rationality that make a social order based on world markets and transnational bureaucracies seem like a good idea, and also those who benefit in some particular way from such institutions.

The former now include almost everyone who takes to heart what he was taught in school. The latter include almost anyone whose status and income depend on large formal institutions: those employed in the government business, including politicians and bureaucratic functionaries, those employed in the formalized knowledge industry, including journalists and academics, and also big and especially international business, big and especially international finance, big and international everything. Basically, everyone who counts for anything. That’s why people complain but nothing can be done about multiculturalism.

I’m curious, if anyone’s still reading, if there’s a better way to make the point. No matter how many times I repeat myself the world stubbornly refuses to wake up. I begin to bore even myself.

6 thoughts on “Yet again: why multiculturalism?”

  1. The problem may not be a
    The problem may not be a failure to “make the point.” I think you’ve done this very effectively and thoroughly in many posts, articles, and interviews.

    Think of how much your observation about the nature and implications of multiculturalism forces a reconsideration of commonly-held views of the world. For one thing, the multiculturalism that you speak of implies the existence of a conspiracy that has been at work for a very long time, has enjoyed the tacit or active support of great masses of people, has completely taken over nearly every significant institution, and now constitutes a reigning ideological hegemony. Intelligent people who hear your descriptively correct take on the logic and meaning of multiculturalism might be frightened away from it, because they can begin to see how much it insists upon a redrawing of their own historical views. And it would be hard for them to accept the idea of a liberal or muticulturalist conspiracy, since conspiracies are supposed to be centrally plotted. This conspiracy, though it enjoys centralized support, also has a decentralized and diffuse aspect that makes its participants reluctant to see that there’s any conspiracy at all.

    That’s just one possibility I can think of. The basic point I’m trying to make is that the sort of claims you make on this website must be hugely intimidating to modern-minded people. Not everyone will have the courage and moral strength to reject ideas they’ve used to order their own thought and action for a long time.

  2. I think people have trouble
    I think people have trouble mapping “multiculturalism” into “formalization of all significant human relationships.” For some people, that’s not an easy or intuitive connection to make. After all, if formal relationships are the goal, why not just abolish all cultures in favor of no culture or McCulture rather than actively celebrating alien cultures? I think you’ll say that with no single dominant culture, human connections must be formalized and authority non-traditional so it ends up having the intended effect.

    I think if people can understand (not just believe) the connection in the first sentence of your response, then the rest of your response is intuitive and obvious. But if they don’t understand the connection, they’ll forget why they belived you and end up asking again.

  3. Good comments from Evan and Bruce
    As to Evan’s point, I agree that if you break into a conversation and say “your idea of reason is all wrong” the point isn’t going to become part of the conversation for a while. So maybe the answer is to keep plugging away in a variety of settings and look for issues that dramatize the problem.

    As to Bruce’s point, liberalism has no theory of legitimate power, so it must work by indirection: government is help and protection, so when it exerts power it isn’t really exerting power, it’s just promoting warmth and fuzziness. In particular, when it orders the abolition of all cultural authorities it isn’t suppressing anything, it’s just making sure one man’s cultural authority doesn’t suppress another’s. The fact that the result is the abolition of every cultural authority is supposedly aside the point and anyway is not noticed. So maybe what’s needed is more emphasis on the “multiculturalism=no-culturalism” meme.

    Rem tene, verba sequentur.

  4. Reply, “Oh, but they are….”
    Why are so many liberal elites not bothered by multiculturalism —a condition where the concept of unified or mainstream culture is disdained in favor of a mosaic of many cultures where each of them are supposed to be equal to the other.”

    Oh, but they are bothered by it. Where do liberal elites send their children to school? How do they raise their children?

    “In this country, the people who run things —who populate major law firms and corporate boards— understand all of this at some level. They pay lip service to multiculturalism and diversity and nonjudgmentalness, but they don’t raise their children that way… Any suburban community might be thought of as a place where people who hold certain (mostly implicit) beliefs go to live among others who think the same way.” Neal Stephenson, In the Beginning… Was the Command Line, at 57.

    As Stephenson writes, and I agree with him here, nobody really believes all cultures are equal. But many do believe in the American cease-fire agreement on the issue. And part of the cease-fire agreement is that, as a general rule, you don’t talk about it; you can act on it and send your kids to Sunday school, but you don’t prostetylize and you certainly don’t argue or pick fights. So, it only looks like the liberal elites aren’t bothered by multiculturalism.

    But, truly, they are. They’re just not going to lead a public charge to re-form or re-unite a more perfect mainstream culture overall. It costs too much. And for what? Why be a martyr? It reminds me of a passage from a Terry Pratchett novel: something to the effect of, the 19 police officers ran down the hallway after the violet criminal as only a bunch of officers can do, which is to say at less then full speed. After all, each thought, why should I be the first to catch up to him and get hit with his first few good punches?

    To their credit, however, and to the benefit of their children, they will lead a sort of private charge; taking care that their charges, their children, don’t fall for it but get raised in a culture, in a tradition —that provides those children with, as Stephenson writes, “a basic set of tools… to think about and understand the world.” —CC

  5. Liberal Elites and Liberal Citizens
    One thing that is probably not too convincing about this presentation is that it concentrates on bureaucracies and those who actively support them. Your liberal neighbor has no great love for bureaucracy and does not picture himself as defending them or desiring their expansion, even if that is the indirect result of some of his policy positions.

    I think the jargon here is too bureaucratic and bloodless and technocratic. For your average liberal fellow citizen, it is very simple. With the basic Rousseauian vision of human nature, the environment is to blame for all problems. The dominant culture is therefore responsible for the current environment, not the “oppressed” and non-dominant cultures. Everything wrong with the world is therefore to be blamed and whites, the West, males, Christendom, etc. Everything else needs to be supported in order to combat the oppressive hegemony.

    With this worldview in mind, all of the conservative whining about double standards and hypocrisy on the left is seen to be silly. Double standards are to be celebrated if they support the underdog against the dominant culture. You know you are a compassionate liberal person if you always support the underdog. That is the essence of liberalism, although it comes in liberal and hard leftist varieties.

    • There’s something to what you say
      The presentation ignores the way the world appears to ordinary liberals (the environment is to blame, those who disagree are ignorant, unintelligent, self-centered or whatever, etc.). It deals instead with why that way of looking at things seems sensible and well-informed and gets the support of all social authorities. I say that the explanation for the latter is the modern understanding of rationality and human life and the interests of the institutions and classes that draw their position and justification from that understanding.

      So it’s obvious that my explanation isn’t going to mean much to the average liberal. Still, the question is how to make a pitch to people who aren’t average liberals, who are somewhat more thoughtful and think there’s evidently something wrong with liberalism.

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.


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