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What Multiculturalism Gets Wrong Part 2

The path to a middle ground between apathy and guilt has to deal with multicultu

The path to a middle ground between apathy and guilt has to deal with multiculturalism’s tendency to categorize people and treat them according to the category they’re in.

Categorization sucks. Biologists now speculate that the reason it took so long for humans to come up with the theory of evolution is that we are either hardwired or programmed by our use of language to categorize objects. The insight that led to the theory of evolution (and then to systems theory and behaviorism) depended on looking at a flock of birds and, instead of seeing them as all the same or all nearly the same, seeing them as all different. Natural selection operates on these differences. Even people who accept the idea of evolution can have trouble with this concept—they imagine nature selecting one species and not another. Putting animals and plants in categories and treating them as if they are all the same inside the category hindered the development of biology by untold centuries. Let’s not allow the categorization of humans to have the same effect on psychology and political science.

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Because it is useful to learn about other cultures as a way to evaluate our own, and because all cultures have done so much harm by trumpeting their own virtues and their own definitions of normalcy, multiculturalism is reluctant to condemn any cultural attitude—except those of white guys. Cultural relativism is useful for evaluating the culpability of an individual—criminal behavior in a criminal neighborhood often tells us little about the person and a lot about the neighborhood—but it is stupid to honor a cultural practice just because a lot of people do it. Think of culture as “some other people.” This liberates you from qualms about criticizing another culture. I knew a Chinese woman who hated herself for having big feet (big feet, you could say, ran in her family). She said that in Chinese culture, big feet are ugly. Instead of saying her feet offended her culture, she needed to say only that her feet offended some other people. This quickly opens the way to finding yet another group of Chinese people who were not offended by her feet. If over a third of Utahans voted for Obama—if even a staunchly stereotyped group like Utahans can show that much diversity—I’m pretty sure you can find a lot of Chinese people who are not obsessed with small feet. Making girls feel bad about themselves because they have big feet is wrong. It’s easier to say that some other people are wrong than to say that a culture is wrong. But if you don’t know that clitorectomies and honor killings are wrong, then you are too lost even to use the words right and wrong. I realize that there are people all over the world who would say the same thing about me for not thinking that female sexuality is dangerous and vile. But you and I both know which of those perspectives is wrong. You don’t have to say, clitorectomy is wrong because …; you don’t have to appeal to a rule; you can just say that it’s wrong.

What multiculturalism also gets wrong is its general, but not complete, failure to appreciate American culture. In some academic classes, for example, students are instructed to write essays about their ethnic heritage, but they’re not allowed to choose American. American students can choose Italian, or Irish, or even English, but American is not counted as an ethnicity. I assume Canadian is also forbidden. I have two coffee cups in my office, one with a picture of Fenway Park, and one with the Bill of Rights. I like being an American—racism, warmongering, scientific stupidity, and strutting patriotism notwithstanding.

Enlightenment values have made America and its progeny the best places in the world to live by any reasonable standard of measurement (except weather). And it was white guys who championed Enlightenment values of scientific inquiry, critical thinking, free trade, civil liberty, separation of church and state, and above all the free exchange of ideas. (It was, of course, white guys who stood in their way, but so what?) It was white guys who founded a country on suspicion of power, the consent of the governed, intolerance of corruption, separation of church and state, the right to self-expression, and the right to complain about the status quo. This last is under-appreciated, in my opinion. The First Amendment guarantees the right to complain—to petition the government for a redress of grievances. Complaining about the party line by the marginalized is the essence of what multiculturalism should be about; complaints lead to change and inclusion, not just if they’re acted on, but even if they’re only voiced. Only those who had not been allowed to complain could have thought to include this as a basic right, but the health of every group, every individual, every society, depends on a feedback loop between the dissatisfied and the powerful.

Though undoubtedly racist and sexist and homophobic at first and in many ways still, the structure of divided government and the Bill of Rights was easily applied to women and blacks (and is in the process of being applied to gays) once they were recognized by the normals as fully human, a recognition sped up by the free marketplace of ideas—and by communication technology, itself a child of the free-thinking that produced science. Indeed, it is natural for us to treat people as inferiors if we don’t view them as full members of our circle, and the goal of multiculturalism should be to include all humans (even white guys) as full-fledged members of our one tribe. Women are better off in the democracies than anywhere else in the world or in history. There’s a strain of feminism that asks whether women should secede from the multicultural agenda, since all other cultures besides Western or Westernized democracies are so awful. Black people, though living in a country built on slavery and steeped in racism, are better off by any reasonable measure in America and Westernized democracies than in black Africa. This is because of their own industry, talent, and intelligence, but these traits needed a society built on Enlightenment values—a society built by white guys—to flourish.

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


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