More On: Multiculturalism
Multiculturalism is not just a 'different kind of culture,' but rather a way of life.
"One people in isolation is not aware of having a 'culture' at all," T.S. Eliot wrote in his largely forgotten work Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. I resided in western New York until I was twelve years old. After that, my family spent a few years in South Carolina. Because everything was so different from what I had seen previously, I was immediately conscious of the aspects of Southern culture. But I didn't realize I had a culture of my own; I just thought Southerners were crazy (in terms of how they spoke, ate, and dressed). We returned to Rochester when I was 15, and for the first time, I realized that Western New York had a culture as well. Things that would have been entirely commonplace as a child now struck me as distinct (the way we talked, what we ate, and what we wore) and unique to a certain group of individuals in a specific location. This is the phenomenon that Eliot discusses: "culture" only becomes a source of worry after a cultural encounter.
Notes Towards a Definition of Culture was released shortly after World War II ended. Eliot believed that the modern Western society had become more "culture-conscious," and that this trend "nourishes Nazism, communism, and nationalism all at the same time." He regarded cultural awareness as a geopolitical threat. Unfortunately, he was opposed by the majority of Western elites.
In the years following WWII, Western thought pushed the broad premise that cultural diversity is an inherent good that society should conserve and preserve. Plurality has been a component of the American endeavor since its creation, but as the twentieth century advanced, a new ideology superseded the conventional notion of pluralism. The traditional concept of "toleration" (a word that meant that while cultural variation is permissible, it may be undesirable) was attacked. Tolerance of difference has been recast as a type of soft bigotry. Tolerance was no longer enough; differences had to be embraced and appreciated.
Pluralism, which had previously been a political principle, was thus recast as a moral principle. The extent to which a person's identity diverged from cultural standards was increasingly seen as crucial to an individual's value to liberal society. This mindset gave birth to the secular credo "our variety is our strength," which now resonates in every major institution of American life.
Political philosopher Allan Bloom recognized a "fundamental tension between liberal society and culture" in his book The Closing of the American Mind. The irony here is that the most politically "liberal" elements of our society are often regarded as the most "cultured" in the bourgeois sense. Because popular culture now imitates the tastes and fashions of the urban elite, public culture in the United States was greatly liberalized in the second part of the twentieth century. It is now obvious that "liberalization" affected not only the character of American culture, but also the general understanding of the term "culture." Unfortunately, this new understanding of culture has systematically harmed the preservation and transmission of American culture.
The operating concept of culture in the past was unity. Culture was defined as the sum of the commonalities discovered among a group of people in a certain place and time. In contrast, most Americans today regard "culture" as an individual rather than a group quality. We hear a lot about "my culture," but not so much about "our culture," implying that "my culture" differs from the majority in some way. Culture is today believed to be more important for its differences than for its similarities. In today's America, it's fashionable to declare these distinctions in public. It's how to be someone, and if there's one thing that Americans have in common, it's our attachment to the cult of individualism and self-fashioning rituals.
These advances have had the cumulative effect of turning the concept of culture inside out. Because we meet displays of individual uniqueness so frequently, we are hyper-aware of culture (our own and others'). It's become a way of life, a shared routine that passes for common culture but fails to fulfill its unifying function. It fails to build a "nation" because it fails to produce one people out of many people. This raises an important question: Can a society based on individual expressions of diversity survive?
If a rise in cultural consciousness was to blame for the twentieth-century disasters, the West had learnt the wrong lessons. As Eliot observed, cultural awareness grows as one's exposure to cultural differences grows, and increased cultural awareness has a negative impact on social cohesion. In other words, the liberal mindset, which reimagines "unity" as a multicultural coexistence, poses a challenge to national identity.
Postwar elites believed that there was simply not enough manifestation of diversity to support assimilation. People would learn to respond to other cultures in more affirming ways if residents were encouraged to focus their own identities on the elements that distinguish them from the majority, the theory held, guaranteeing that a catastrophe like the Holocaust would not be repeated. This viewpoint has been formalized and established as ideology by 1990. "Multiculturalism" was the term used.
Multiculturalism asserts that a society that values all individuals as intrinsically valuable is superior to one that does not. The more individual differences are asserted, the more "inclusive" and hence better the society becomes, according to this argument. This means that the responsibility for maintaining a common culture rests solely on citizens' willingness to prioritize multiculturalism above all else.
However, this points to a contradiction in multiculturalism, demonstrating that it cannot serve as the foundation of national culture. If cultural unity requires shared norms, beliefs, and values, then a society unified solely in its affirmation of difference (that is, endorsing modes of life that contradict the community's established values) is a civilization on the verge of losing its core nature. As a result, multiculturalism cannot simply be defined as "a distinct kind of culture." It has to be labeled "anti-culture."
Anti-culture isn't the same as counterculture. A tool for transforming culture is counterculture. The counterculture criticizes the mainstream culture, as it did during the 1960s uprisings, but it also cultivates its own culture, a template for the culture that activists hope would replace the status quo. On the other hand, multiculturalism is a tool for eliminating culture. Multiculturalism, unlike countercultural movements, does not seek to eradicate a specific culture. It is anti-culture because it rejects culture as a notion.
The question "How?" is equally as crucial as "Why?" Multiculturalists dispute the concept of culture because they recognize that every culture inevitably contains power, privilege, and exclusion. Individual distinctions are encouraged to integrate to the majority's rituals and routines by mainstream culture. It accomplishes this by providing informal social, political, and economic benefits to those who follow the mainstream culture's dictates.
For example, the fact that speaking English makes it simpler to find a job in America creates an incentive for non-English speakers to learn the language. Similar pressures exist in every civilization, and they elevate individuals who conform to the mainstream culture of that community. People who are unable or unwilling to adjust to cultural norms are denied certain benefits and discreetly stigmatized as being outside the norm, a phenomena known to multiculturalists as "othering." This combination of advantages, incentives, and punishments is what keeps a healthy culture alive, and it is this system that multiculturalism is designed to destroy.
But how can multiculturalism contradict culture? After all, American multiculturalists are continually valuing bits of other cultures, cultures that differ in some manner from our country's dominant culture. In traditional African costume, members of Congress take a knee. In one part of town, public signage is in English and Spanish, while in another, it is in English and Vietnamese. The entire year is dedicated to an endless, official celebration of numerous sub-cultures that depart from traditional American identity in some way. "Arab-American Heritage Month" was observed last month. The month of Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage has arrived. The great feast of Pride Month arrives in June. However, all of these celebrations of cultural variety decontextualize and caricature the cultures they claim to honor. "The animating element [of these cultures], their spirit, has vanished from them," Bloom observed over 40 years ago. "Today's ethnic festivals are merely superficial exhibitions of old country clothing, dances, and delicacies."
The sanctity of these ceremonies not only cheapens the meaning of the cultures being revered, but the fact that the celebration never stops merely raises society's cultural awareness. Eliot cautioned against making individuals aware of their own culture when they were previously unaware of it. "The whole notion of cultural variety in the United States... has contributed to the development and legitimization of group politics," Bloom acknowledged. Multiculturalism, on the other hand, tries to reduce the exotic to the mundane while claiming to promote "diversity." It is anti-culture because it distorts every culture with which it is concerned, albeit in varying degrees and ways.
Multiculturalism's devastation is not a result of chance. It is not an unintended consequence of otherwise admirable aims. Multiculturalism is all about devastation. It uses culture to promote "inclusion" and "social justice," a goal that can only be reached by abolishing the hierarchies, privileges, and coercive force that are inextricably linked to every culture.
It's ironic, though, that many multiculturalists support their ideology precisely because it protects culture, or at the very least other cultures. That is not the case. The goal of culture is to bring people together by reinforcing what they have in common. Instead, multiculturalism divides people based on their increasingly specific and unusual characteristics, which its proponents argue should be at the heart of human identity.
"If we contrast the current day usage of 'culture' with the original meaning, it is as if someone would say that the cultivation of a garden may consist of the garden being littered with empty tin cans and whiskey bottles and used papers of various descriptions thrown around the garden at random," said political philosopher Leo Strauss in a graduation address in 1959. As much as multiculturalists extol the virtue of "understanding," it is unsurprising that fetishizing individual differences can only result in less of it. Similarity, familiarity, and recognition are all important factors in understanding. Multiculturalism fosters principles that are diametrically opposed. Perhaps we're worshipping a false ideal if true community is the lamb that must be slain on the altar of inclusiveness.