Problems with multiculturalism

This title may sound as though this is intended as a contrary ruse (I assume the other assumption of vulgar racism is not attributed to me), but it is not. I am trying to come from a position that examines the structure of so-called exchange. I want to leave aside the notion of multiculturalism as a kind of liberal performative, one in which we disavow all racism, for an attempt to consider things on a somewhat more abstract footing. That is to say that the reasons for exchange are contentual, and I leave them bracketed outside the remit of this brief argument.

The basic features of this exchange or engagement are that we are coming  from one culture with which we are fairly familiar, and attempting to engage with another. The difficulty then, broadly sketched, is transitioning from one set of presuppositions, namely our entire cultural inheritance and apparatus which we use to function socially on a daily basis, to another. This entails a great deal, however. These presuppositions must be seen as no more than habits of thought, language, patterns of political and social interaction, and collective hangover of history. Basically, this means that we must come to confront our own ideology. If we want to approach another culture on a level beyond the merely aesthetic, then this requires of us a truly radical suspension. But note here I say “approach”, rather than understand. Understanding requires a double movement.

The “approach” is the first movement of this dance, where all the givens of our culture are relativized. We see our modes and means of living as accidental: effects of spontaneous orders, emergence, heuristic compromises, and then a generous dollop of conscious design via philosophy, religion, and ideology slapped on top. So, we come to approach culture X with this framework. But this does not allow us to understand culture X. We have been given a microscope, not a password. We can dissect or examine, but we cannot interact or experience it. So the second movement is to come to understand the ideology of culture X. With this we must come to understand the functional aspect of an ideology, and we must also expand our notion of ideology to allow for spontaneous order and heuristics as compromises that are arrived at over time. If we want to understand another culture, then we must engage with their ideology. But wait, more problems presents themselves!

Firstly, what I have proposed amounts to an ideological version of the suspension of disbelief, and according to some theorists of ideology, this is a structural impossibility. If, following Žižek, ideology is “what we don’t know that we know”, an unknown known, then what I have proposed above is that we make a conscious effort to forget…and this is little better than a contradiction in terms. By concentrating on the thing, we anchor it all the more in our memory. Secondly, there is the issue of epistemological access. Who or what are the sources of our knowledge of culture X? How are we coming to encounter it? Are we living in the context of that culture? Is it via books? Do we have a guide? The issue with all of these is our very position as being outside the culture. How do we know we are not just getting the guidebook or schoolbook versions of a culture? To achieve understanding (and this is where I tread on idealistic ground) we must live this culture, speak its language, experience its social structures.

As far as I can see, this shows that multiculturalism is a bullet-point in campaign literature, and a buzz-word with as little semantic weight as “sustainable”. It is an impossible ideal, and so it is of no use to us. If we return along the path we came, however, we see that the encounter with ideology is a part of the solution. If, by delineating your ideology you strip it of part of its charismatic force, then this presents philosophy as an alternative. By examining our own culture and discussing what elements of it we hold to be most useful and most representative of what we stand for, then this is our route to encountering other cultures.

Cosmopolitanism, best or at least most widely articulated by Kwame Anthony Appiah, is what I consider to be the articulating ideal of European culture, this is what we can build upon, ignoring the academics in pith-helmets and their imperalism-by-any-other-name which masquerades as multiculturalism, postcolonialisms, etc. (that is a whole other argument…) If we understand the conditions of our own cultural interactions, then this allows us to encounter other cultures on similar terms, rather than succumbing to the fallacies of impressionism, “feeling” a culture. This is the challenge of relativizing, knowing that it is not step A in a linear process whereby step B is nihilism and step C is picking off the menu of whatever-you’re-having-yourself. the process of relativizing involves coming to realize that while you now know that your culture is not a necessary and infallible given, you actually function nevertheless. Indeed, not only do you function, but you can thrive. Contrary to the linear picture, you can circle back to your origins, and choose what is worth holding on to, and what is worth jettisoning. This is the challenge of creating meaning for yourself, and with others.

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