Why Multi-Culturalism is Misguided

First, it is not clear what is even meant by “culture.” Is culture monolithic? Does it have a essence? From where does it come from? What are its constituent parts? What unifies disparate phenomenon as part of a single culture? What about divisions at an even lower level–within the confines of a singular culture, such as geographic, linguistic, religious differences? What counts as belonging to a certain culture? I can go on and on, my point being that in general, the concept of “culture” is riddled with many metaphysical, ontological, and epistemic questions that have no obvious, self-evident answer.

If we can’t even get clear about a single culture, let’s say our own American culture (whatever that means), then how can we, as a policy, promote the understanding of other “cultures?” And what does it even mean to promote other cultures? Does it mean mere passive tolerance? Active acceptance? Respect? Compromise? And what does it mean to “understand” other cultures? How does one know when one has understood another culture?

And what does multi-culturalism mean exactly? Is it merely an ontological claim about the existence of other “cultures” which we perceive to be different from our own? And in what sense are these other “cultures” different? Are these differences significant enough to warrant that we devote resources to understand or even reconcile them? Again, there are riddles abound, but yet few, outside of academics, think about these things, but yet multi-culturalism has become a bona fide socio-political movement, showing no signs of going away anytime soon.

But I haven’t even gotten to the real reason why I think multi-culturalism is misguided. Thus far, I’ve only pointed out what I perceive to be some very difficult theoretical questions about the concept itself. I think if we were to promote multi-culturalism as a social policy, we ought to at least think more carefully and more rigorously about what it is that we promoting. And it is this serious thinking that I am not seeing.

Second, even assuming that all the metaphysical, ontological, and epistemic questions about culture are resolved (a highly problematic assumption, but one which I will grant for the sake of this part of my argument), there is still one glaring problem with multi-culturalism. And the problem is this: multi-culturalism does not treat individuals qua individuals, but individuals qua members of groups distinguished by their cultures.

This problem goes against the very ideal that is supposed to be promoted by multi-culturalism: genuine understanding of pluralistic, genuinely different individuals. But multi-culturalism assumes that in order to understand genuinely different individuals, one must do so through the framework of “culture,” which, whatever else it is, is a collective notion. And here lies the contradiction: how can one genuinely understand another person as a real, different individual through a collective framework?

Time for an example. In Scenario 1: Suppose I meet someone from China (assuming that I can be from any national/ethnic grouping other than China, and assuming that this is the first time I have ever met someone from China and have no previous knowledge about China at all), how am I to attempt to understand this Chinese person as a genuine, but different individual? Assuming that we can achieve a level of communication that is sufficient for basic communication, I can begin to understand this Chinese person by just talking to him, finding out his interests, his opinions, his personal quirks and eccentricities, and so on and so forth.

In Scenario 2: Suppose I live in a community that values multi-culturalism and actively promotes it as a matter of policy. Presumably, in this community, I will have had some knowledge of Chinese “culture,” (again, brushing aside the philosophical problems about the concept). Defined in an unsystematic, but plausible way, what that might entail is something like this: I know some general history of China in broad strokes; I know the basic characteristics of an average Chinese person; I am roughly familiar with some of its cuisines, music, literature, customs, so and so forth; I roughly know what are considered appropriate and inappropriate, what counts as praise and what counts as offense–in other words, a general knowledge of its norms. Of course, this list is not exhaustive, and it certainly isn’t a priori–these are merely things which I would argue that a basic understanding of another culture might plausibly entail.

In this scenario, I meet the same exact Chinese person. The basic question is the same: how am I to attempt to understand him as a genuinely different individual? But with this question there is now another: will having lived in a community that actively promotes multi-culturalism change how I answer the first question? My contention is that, yes, it in fact does, and in a way that treats the individual no longer as an individual, but as a member of a group defined by its culture.

What do I mean by this? When I meet this Chinese person, instead of interacting with him and then gauging and interpreting how he interacts with me, I will have already filtered my interpretation through a “cultural” lens. Whereas before, I am observing him without considering anything about his group membership (after all, how can I, since I know nothing about China?), I am now observing him and categorizing my observations of him under my pre-conceived notions about what Chinese culture is like.

I do not claim that my understanding of this Chinese person in these two scenarios will never converge, because it might very well be that what I observed of the Chinese person in Scenario 1 is in fact highly shaped by a culture that has shaped and influenced how he acts. But it must be emphasized that the two does not converge by necessity–for the very same reasons which are raised by the philosophical questions about culture which I’ve raised at the very beginning.

Therefore, multi-culturalism promotes viewing people of other ethnicities/nationalities in terms of their “culture,” not in terms of the people themselves. And this is a very false sense of understanding–just because one has been to a folk-like festival, or eaten at a few “authentic” ethnic restaurants, or seen “traditional” art, dance, music, literature, etc., or read a book about that culture–it does not mean that one has “understood” the culture under discussion. And then to use this false sense of comprehension to view another individual through such a murky lens is definitely not understanding the invidual as an INDIVIDUAL.

But I can hear the objection already: what if a policy promoting multi-culturalism created a real sense of understanding of other cultures? My response is two-fold. First, like I said earlier, it is extremely unclear what it means to “really” understand another culture. Second, what is the point? If one understands another culture that well, then why even use it as a filter? Why not just get to know the individual without pre-conceptions to begin with? If that individual does in fact act in a way that is highly influenced by his culture, then nothing will have been lost or gained? If he doesn’t conform to expectations, then knowing that particular culture well is useless in that particular interaction.

Of course, there is an argument of necessity, because learning about someone else with absolutely no pre-conceptions is extremely difficult, if not impossible. But this doesn’t change the fact that in order to TRULY get to know another person as a real, different individuals, one cannot go in with pre-conceptions, because the idea of pre-conceptions, as they apply to a genuinely different person, is a contradiction in terms.

If the idea behind multi-culturalism is that it will help one understand a different person better, then I don’t think it does that all. People are surely different, but surely they are different in different ways. But multi-culturalism makes the false assumption that differences between people are primarily categorized along cultural lines. This is surely not the case with people who are really different–people are different precisely because they resist categorization along any given lines–and to view and interpret their differences primarily along one dimension seem to squash the real, genuine differences between people.

This is what I ultimately mean when I say that multi-culturalism, despite its pluralistic premise, is actually a monistic, one-dimensional concept that fails to recognize genuine individual differences arrayed along multiple dimensions, none of which is always necessary or sufficient to really understand them.

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