Feeling Our Way

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What Multiculturalism Gets Wrong Part 1

Because multiculturalists are human, they sometimes do what they deplore.

Multiculturalism often confuses the rules of social conduct, which are socially constructed, with the laws of nature, which are not. It wants to transfer its discovery that there’s no one right cuisine or musical tradition or wedding custom to questions about reality, treating all points of view equally not just in the obvious cases of cosmology and evolution (yes the Hindu and creationist myths are lovely—but wrong), but also in the cases of astrology, ghosts, and UFOs. These are all empirical questions (answerable according to evidence)—but. It’s not always easy to ascertain the nature of reality, but that doesn’t change the fact that there’s only one reality. Multiculturalism often confuses the fact that people relate to reality subjectively with a new-age notion that there is more than one reality. To say there is more than one reality is to try to protect people from the experience of being incorrect by positing some other plane on which their ideas would, if that plane existed, have merit. But there is no other plane. Instead of protecting people from finding out that they are wrong about some things, we ought to be trying to remove the sting of being wrong. After all, being wrong, getting feedback, and self-correcting is the only way to become better at anything

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In this particular respect, multiculturalism is unscientific. Science is a human subculture that privileges evidence over feelings, posits a single reality, and draws its unparalleled strength for generating useful ideas about how the world works from its self-corrective functions. I have often said that the entire scientific attitude can be summarized in a single word: oops. This word conveys the desirable attitude towards one’s own mistakes—they are recognized; they are not devastating. Multiculturalism often treats people like fragile crystal when it coos at and accepts whatever drivel they spout, and some people rather shockingly seem to prefer being told they already know everything to getting useful feedback and learning how to get better at whatever they’re doing. So, yes, perhaps it’s because I’m a white guy that I think people need to stop being so intellectually dainty, but that doesn’t make me wrong. When people face a daunting learning curve, as they do in graduate school or starting a skilled career, they can either start trudging up the mountain or look for a shortcut. Multiculturalism all too often is that shortcut. It tells the person that the world is unfair when in fact it’s often just difficult.

Instead of examining and questioning power in groups, multiculturalism—because it is a human, all-too-human enterprise—tends to become a power structure of its own. All animals are equal, wrote Orwell, but some animals are more equal than others. He was mocking the way revolutionaries tend to become tyrants and bureaucrats once in power by twisting the catchphrases of the revolution to a new purpose. Professional multiculturalists are often going on about categories—even the American Psychological Association tells you that you have to put your clients in various categories, from disability to race, from ethnicity to nationality, so you can decide if you’re competent to treat them. Supposedly, you get competence by attending workshops that lump all the people in a category together, which, if only slightly reframed, would be blatant exercises in racism, homophobia, sexism, and xenophobia. Professional multiculturalists use their categorizations of people (especially white guys) to justify their own positions of power, just as others with power justify their power with their own categorizations.

Nelson Mandela was a startling, world-historical exception to this tendency to exploit acquired power by turning the tables on the privileged.

Michael Karson, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Denver.

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