The Problem With Multi-Culturalism

One of many abominations we can blame on Jimmy Carter is the United States’ blessedly half-hearted embrace of multi-culturalism, which Jimmy and his acolytes believed was enlightenment from Europe when in fact it was a disease. This was linked to the ethical value of tolerance, which was in turn used to bludgeon into submission anyone who committed the politically incorrect crime of criticizing conduct that was antithetical to American values engaged in by citizens from other nations.

Civilization needs standards, and culture is the setting of standards, ethical and otherwise. Multi-culturalism is a compact oxymoron that makes society’s standards schizophrenic, impeding efficiency, fairness, and consensus about right and wrong. “Tolerance” requires acceptance of the intolerable, or in its most common permutation here, tolerating the intolerable practices that progressives would like to see established here, while somehow reasoning that other practices that progressives don’t admire shouldn’t qualify for “tolerance.” The traveling companion of this cynical tolerance is political correctness, properly put in its place by French philosopher-historian Jacques Berzun, who said “Political correctness does not legislate tolerance; it only organizes hatred.”

Now the leaders of  Great Britain, France and Germany have suddenly figured out that multi-culturalism is destructive, based on the ethical confusion and fractured societies it has created in their nations. Why it took them so long, I have no idea. Back in the 1980’s, I was in charge of a long-term study of the Hispanic American business community, seeking strategies for the U.S. business community to assist its development. One of the big fights on the study committee was over the concept of “mainstreaming,” helping Hispanic businesses develop practices that would lead to success. The representatives of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce insisted that American business had to learn to be tolerant of cultural norms in South America and Mexico, not seek to change them. Among these norms: casual or non-existent time perspective. In many Hispanic cultures, the idea of set times for meetings doesn’t exist. The members of the Hispanic Chamber demonstrated this repeatedly by their own conduct, sometimes making the other members of my committee wait for hours. They would then arrive without apology. This was “their way.”

Well, “their way” wouldn’t work in American business, and our final report said so. A system cannot flourish with one set of rules for one group, and another set for everyone else. Persistent tardiness was not going to be tolerated, and multi-culturalism, in this area, was impossible.

When philosopher Denis Dutton died a few moths ago, I tried to find a good way to mark his passing here and couldn’t. Now I have one. In an article from 2002, Dutton mused on the topic of multi-culturalism, and began with this anecdote:

“When General George Napier was governor of Sind province in India in the 1840s, he vigorously enforced the ban on suttee, the practice of throwing a Hindu widow on to the funeral pyre of her husband. A delegation of Brahmins came to him to explain that he must not prohibit the practice at the funeral of a particular maharaja, as it was an important cultural custom.

“If it is your custom to burn a widow alive, please go on,” Napier responded.

“We have a custom in our country that whoever burns a person alive shall be hanged. While you prepare the funeral pyre, my carpenters will be making the gallows to hang all of you. Let us all act according to our customs” The Brahmins thought better of it, and the widow lived.”

America benefits from many aspects of the other cultures that enter our melting pot–a term that my friends from the Hispanic Chamber objected to and wanted changed to “stew.” I have no problem with the stew analogy, as long as it is understood that the American culture is the cook, and has the right, and indeed the duty, to reject ingredients that it has good reason to believe will poison the stew or make it taste bad.

17 thoughts on “The Problem With Multi-Culturalism

  1. Not quite precisely right, but in the right direction. Multi-culturalism, taken to mean “all practices of all cultures are valid” is hogwash. Multi-culturalism taken as I’ve always understood it: “not everything that is different is bad” makes a whole lot of sense. It should be an open introduction to unfamiliar practices, an attempt to break away from xenophobia and parochialism.

    Like many other good ideas, the interpretations and implementations didn’t always match the slightly complex nuance. Instead of finding the best of various cultures, and trying to break down doorways, multiculturalism has been used to set up walls between historical cultural groups, and for those groups to defend unethical and unuseful practices.

    • But your definition of multi-culturalism makes the term a misnomer, and misnomers are dangerous. Who needs the word to reach the conclusion that “not everything that is different is bad,” especially in the US? To the extent that human being always reflexively assume that what is different is bad (the “Ick factor,’ really), US culture usually flowed in the direction that the different but better would survive and the different but wrong would not. I’ve had to teach Jimmy’s version of “diversity,” which is that different is per se good—and that’s crap.

      • US culture usually flowed in the direction that the different but better would survive and the different but wrong would not

        That was the assumption, but did it occur? On what timeline? While we’ve heard the ideal of America, the reality is often different. Historically, the US population has rebelled against new cultures, not because they are bad, but because they are different. Multiculturalism was the idea that different is not necessarily bad, not that it was necessarily good.

        Did influential people say things like “Look at what you can learn from your neighbor,” “treat their beliefs with respect,” and “we all can teach each other something?” Yes. Does any of that go against anything I have said? No.

        You are looking at the twisting and calling it the reality. I don’t say conservativism requires one to lie about history. It clearly doesn’t, but people practicing what they call conservatism have warped the term so much that, by your logic, it would be accurate.

        • I don’t believe that “we all can teach each other something.” Sometimes we can. sometimes we can’t. I think there has always been wariness and fear of new elements introduced into society, and that isn’t entirely unhealthy. A presumption that something new might not work is completely rational. I think, more often than not, the cultural elements from other cultures that had value have eventually been embraced by the larger culture. You don’t?

          I just disagree that what you call “the twisting” wasn’t fully intended by the Carter era advocates. Was encouraging immigrants not to master English a “twisting” or reality? Jimmy though having to have multi-lingual signs and recordings everywhere was “right.” In fact, it is counter-productive, a trap, and a pain in the ass.

          • I don’t believe we can all teach each other something either, but it was an important construct in getting people to listen to anyone. Otherwise, certain groups would be immediately excluded without any merit.

            I think there has always been wariness and fear of new elements introduced into society, and that isn’t entirely unhealthy. A presumption that something new might not work is completely rational.

            Statement 2 doesn’t follow from statement 1 unless you’re equivocating. Wariness and fear of the unknown has a definite benefit. The issue is that the clues that tip off the wariness and fear were developed over millenia and are no longer representative of danger in the modern world.

            I think, more often than not, the cultural elements from other cultures that had value have eventually been embraced by the larger culture. You don’t?

            I agree with you. Eventually, we embrace more good than we reject. If that isn’t damning with faint praise, I don’t know what is. You seem to be arguing that we wouldn’t want to improve upon that process at all.

            I just disagree that what you call “the twisting” wasn’t fully intended by the Carter era advocates. Was encouraging immigrants not to master English a “twisting” or reality? Jimmy though having to have multi-lingual signs and recordings everywhere was “right.” In fact, it is counter-productive, a trap, and a pain in the ass.

            I’m going to fully retract my statements on origins for multiculturalism. All my sources were second and third hand. A little actual research, and I’m in agreement that original multiculturalism was a pretty horrible idea and the negative consequences are also horrible.

            Now, I do believe that whatever term actually describes what I was attributing to multiculturalism is a better idea that the protectionism you are advocating.

            • I wouldn’t disagree with that last statement. and let me clarify—I don’t think cultures should be protected from outside influences at all. Cultures have to evolve, and neither a presumption of inherent worth or a presumption of inferiority is healthy or productive. But the good ideas have to be able to prevail over the bad, not left in a limbo of equivilency in the name of “multi-culturalism.”

  2. Not quite precisely right. The Napier you are referring to is George Napier’s brother Charles James Napier. Of course, when Napier conquered Sindh, he was the newcomer, imposing his customs on the inhabitants. For good or ill, Indian culture was not the cook, deciding which new customs would prevail over the old.

    • Thanks for the clarification. Of course, I know nothing about either Napier, but it doesn’t change the story, and Denis is beyond correcting.
      I recognize that the English-India relationship is not the ideal example for the topic of a country maintaining its own standards, but on the issue of whether all cultural standards are ethically valid, it serves the point.

      And I’m pretty sure those widows were glad the the British had the upper hand in this particular ethical matter.

      • I agree, the widows probably were happier that the British had the upper hand. My point was (or rather, is, now that I’ve had some time to think about what I was trying to say) that just because a newcomer tells you that your culture is wrong and that their culture has a better way of doing things doesn’t mean that they are always wrong. Based on your above comments, we seem to agree.

  3. As the son of Taiwanese immigrants (hey, we need at least one of us here who can’t be accused of Euro-centric racism), I agree fully; abiding by the most essential pragmatic and ethical US customs and learning to speak English in school and other public arenas hasn’t kept my aunt from being a Buddhist, me from decorating my dorm room door with red couplets for Chinese New Year, or the second-generation members of the diaspora from learning how to speak Mandarin and Taiwanese if they so choose to.

  4. The fundamental problem with multiculturalism is that is a lie. It assumes all cultures are of equal merit when the reality all around the world shows they clearly aren’t. Just like treating every people as equal beyond basic human rights regardless of their beliefs, intellectual abilites etc.

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