The Paradox of Multiculturalism: Part I

Joshua Daniel Phillips

The prefix “multi-” is usually applied to various demographic markers as a way to convey tolerance and inclusion on university campuses. In most instances, the prefix is unobjectionable. For example, universities should welcome a community that is multiracial, multiethnic, and, multi-gender. To not welcome a plurality of races, ethnicities, and genders solely for superficial differences would be bigoted at the most fundamental level (except for a few rare exceptions regarding gender-segregated schools, which are segregated for reasons other than bigotry).

More recently, the prefix “multi-” has been applied to the term “culture.” Multiculturalism is different from inclusion of multiple races, and the reason lies in the root-word “culture.” Unlike superficial designators such as race, ethnicity, and gender, culture is a shared system of beliefs, values, and customs. Culture, therefore, is not superficial, but has real implications for how we move through the world and interact with one another.

Universities should be exposing students to a plurality of cultural beliefs, values, and customs. However, oftentimes the goal of multiculturalism is to persuade students to uncritically tolerate, respect, and, in some cases, accept a plurality of cultural beliefs, often accompanied by disdain for Western and American culture. This creates a genuine paradox. Unfortunately, many universities ignore this paradox and label any critique of multiculturalism as xenophobic.

To be clear, I am not opposed to all arguments in favor of multiculturalism. However, multiculturalists should recognize the paradox of “accepting a plurality of cultural beliefs.” To illustrate the paradox of multiculturalism on university campuses, let’s first look at a few worldwide examples. For instance, there are contemporary cultures that practice polygamy (through force), engage in female genital mutilation, imprison LGBT people, allow honor killings, oppress ethnic minorities, reject democracy for religious tyranny, and deny the sovereignty of other nation-states. All of these cultural practices are rooted in cultural values and beliefs. And because the “kumbaya” rhetoric of multiculturalism asserts that “all cultural practices are valid,” it becomes difficult to debate the merits of objectionable cultural practice in an academic setting. Instead, students who question divergent cultural practices are advised to recognize and repudiate their sin of ethnocentrism.

There are many ways I want my students to resist ethnocentrism and experience different cultures while in college. For example, I want them to attend international events on campus; taste a variety of world foods; attend different religious ceremonies; learn customary dances from around the world; and, if possible, study abroad. For the most part, respecting the plurality of food, religion, and music is uncontroversial. Yet, what if a student learns about different cultural values and walks away truly believing that his cultural values are superior to another culture with regard to women’s rights, LGBT rights, democratic governance, minority protection, and national sovereignty? Should he have to accept the multiculturalist view that “all cultural values are valid?” 

The obvious answer is “No.” Why? Because some cultural values are in direct conflict with other cultural values. A coherent answer to this paradox continues to elude the proponents of uncritical multiculturalism. Multiculturalists would have us believe that cultural conflict is driven by two cultures who misunderstand each other and if only they would learn about one another they would get along. Yet, this is not always the case. Many cultural conflicts result from value systems competing with one another. For example, I understand the religious and social reasons as to why some patriarchal cultures do not allow women to walk alone in public, do not allow girls to go to school, and continue to demand dowry upon marriage. But I do not support such cultures because I disagree with cultural belief systems that view women and girls as property. Multiculturalists need to recognize the fundamental incompatibility of some belief systems and engage students in rigorous analysis and debate over these differences. 

I do not assume that multiculturalists support any of the abhorrent practices (honor killings, etc.) mentioned above. My only objective is to highlight the uncritical and, in some cases, hypocritical ways multiculturalists propagate the term “multicultural.” In one sentence, a multiculturalist will say that we must be tolerant of cultural differences. In the next sentence, he might say that we should end female genital mutilation. Yet, these two statements are incompatible. Should we allow 29 countries throughout Africa and the Middle East (as well as some communities in Eastern Europe and the United States) to continue this practice because it is an ancient cultural ritual? Or should we debate cultural values and try to persuade these countries that their cultural practices are abhorrent? We cannot do both.

Some might say that my examples are too extreme and that of course some cultural values should not be tolerated. However, therein lies the problem. Who decides what cultural values to tolerate and what cultural values are open to debate? No single person should have the authority to censor these types of debates; the debate should be open to anyone who wishes to engage. Even multiculturalists on university campuses have cultural values and beliefs that they find superior and wish to argue in favor of.

Historically, university campuses have been the ideal place for debating cultural beliefs, values and practices. By its very existence, scholarly inquiry promoted a culture of academic freedom, robust intellectual arguments, divergent opinions, and controversy. There are real conflicts between cultures about right practices, beliefs, and customs. Just saying the magic word “multicultural” won’t make these differences disappear. Instead, we should encourage students to learn all they can about different cultural values and then debate the merits of these values.    

Image: SodaHead

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