Saturday, July 08, 2006

The Trouble With Multiculturalism (Redux)

I posted a thing on here a few weeks back about multiculturalism and why I don’t really buy it. Claire disagreed strongly with my post, calling it ‘garbage’ (we have very lively disagreements) and we discussed it for some time. Eventually, we decided that I really hadn’t made my thoughts very clear, although we still disagree about the subject. But, what I was arguing was not as harsh as I’d made it out to be.

My point was worded very poorly, but was essentially this: in the states, multiculturalism exists in opposition to an idea of ‘cultural assimilation’ that basically requires diverse and unique people to conform as closely as possible to ‘middle American’. If monoculturalism says that different cultures should assimilate, then multiculturalism says that they must preserve their cultures; even if that means that they don’t assimilate. However, it calls for them to ‘celebrate’ other cultures, while monoculturalism tends to see this as ‘ghettoizing’ themselves. Other criticisms of multiculturalism are more paranoid (‘It will lead to civil war!’), as are other criticisms of monoculturalism (‘Traditional cultures will be destroyed!’), and they aren’t really worth our time. But, my first point is that mono and multiculturalism exist in a dialectical relationship with two and only two poles.

Rufus’ First Maxim: When given two options, pick the third.

Let me make it clear that I prefer multiculturalism to monoculturalism. Monoculturalism tends to tie culture directly to nationality. So, if you are French, you will eat baguettes and drink wine. If you are American, you will speak English and aim at an upper middle-class existence. And so on and so forth. Culture becomes a sort of required protocol for living in a specific country, a sort of law of the road.

Of course, the problem with this is that culture is not tied to specific nations. This is a 19th century myth that grew out of the rise of nation-states and the collapse of empires. For the record, 'culture' includes things like language, art, religion, and other creations of man, and serves as a means for negotiating existence in the world- a sort of bridge between human beings and nature. Therefore, it can be influenced by the natural world, but it is in no way genetically tied to specific peoples.

Culture seems to be tied to isolated groups of people, but only because those people gave rise to it. So, a tribe that lives alone in the Amazon rainforest might have a unique culture, but this doesn’t mean that they alone can understand or appreciate that culture. In the Middle Ages, most cultures in the world were isolated, but this began to change in the 1400s or so with international trade and crusades. Empires tended to be multicultural in that they included diverse groups of people with a minimal requirement for membership. Maybe you had to pay taxes or speak a common language, but otherwise you were left alone. Strangely enough, even the Bismarckian Reich was basically multicultural.

Cultural nationalism was initially in opposition to the multiculturalism of empires. Various traditions were invented and ascribed to various peoples and became incredibly romanticized. So, if you’re Scottish, well by God you’ll wear a kilt! The idea of the nation in fact is simply a group of people who share a common plot of land and culture.

Of course, cultures are usually much more polyglot and hybrid than nationalists would like to admit. I previously used the example of national musical styles to argue that the idea that cultures are tied to nations is a bunch of nonsense. Not to rehash the point, but the idea that, if you’re French, then musette speaks to you, or that Canadians will get a tear in their eye when they hear Stompin’ Tom is ludicrous. Most national traditions are just sentimental kitsch really.

I think that the people who espouse multiculturalism know that cultures are not tied to nationality, but they still tie culture to ethnicity in a way that I find equally untrue. So, if you’re black, then you understand hip hop in a more profound way than anyone else and if you’re a Native American, you’ll get a tear in your eye when you hear a traditional song.

I find this to be just as implausible, and I suspect that most advocates of multiculturalism know that it’s implausible but accept the idea as an alternative to monoculturalism. But, I don’t see it as much of an alternative. In fact, I prefer the idea of cultures as gifts that groups of people freely exchange with other groups of people, no matter what their nationality or ethnicity. I think: “When you’re in America, you’d better speak English!” is arrogant and ignorant, but I don’t think that: “It’s a black thing- you wouldn’t understand!” is much better.

Original post here:
Multiculturalism is a strange thing; I really started hearing about it when I moved to Canada. People would constantly say to me: “You know what’s great about Canada? We’re a multicultural society!” And I would think to myself that this is like saying: “You know what’s great about Canada? We have gravity here!” (Eventually, someone explained to me that Canadians say this because they’re tired of the misconception that everyone in Canada is white.) But, you see the multicultural crowd everywhere: on billboards, on television ads, in magazines: it’s usually a pack of about five young people enjoying each other’s company, all of them representatives of different ethnic groups. It’s an advertising gimmick, a fake world where everyone is basically just that: a representative of their ethnic group, but they all respect each other in a sort of cultural détente. It’s a gentle sort of alienation.

Multiculturalism says that we are all, essentially, members of ethnic groups that should be respected for their own merits… but from a distance. Let us neither deride nor ape other cultures, but respect their cultural space from afar. It’s a sort of Platonic relationship between cultures that remains unconsummated because, after all, we have to respect our differences. We can all drink Coca-Cola together, but let’s respect those unbridgeable distances that exist between us.

And it’s all a bunch of claptrap, isn’t it? In this day and age, none of us are representatives of any ethnic group. And why should we have Platonic cultural relationships when the only thing that’s going to save us is cultural insemination, cultural orgies, and cultural perversion? That's the right metaphor- fucking. Multiculturalism says: "Respect other cultures for their inherent merits- but, don't fetishize them!" It sets up boundaries and calls them "respect" and "dignity", but they're just boundaries.And fucking is an appropriate metaphor because that's what's going to save us from the cultural stagnation of this new Qing Dynasty we're living in. Multiculturalism says that there's something inappropriate and politically incorrect about black men who want to fuck latinas or white women who want to fuck black men. Multiculturalism says that we should stay in our little boxes so that we don't "exploit" each other, or "disrespect" our differences. It says that, if you're a hispanic, or a black, or an Asian, or anything else, certain types of food, and music, and culture are your true heritage and that you should honor these things, and cherish them. And stick to them, it whispers in your ear.

So, the old "melting pot" nonsense was just monoculturalism- every culture should sort of blend into one culture that was really just European Lite. But, I can't see how multiculturalism, with its dignified isolationism is much better. Peter Lamborn Wilson wites: "Multiculturalism is the decor of the end of the Social, the metaphorical imagery of the complete atomization of the 'consumer'." I don't know if I agree with Wilson when he later calls it a form of control, but I agree with him when he calls it 'hegemonic particularism'. Multiculturalism is not challenging. It accepts isolation. It valorizes isolation.

So, what to do about the ugly side of cultural appropriation? Again, fucking is the best metaphor here because it's the free exchange of fluids and energy. Not theivery- not exploitation, but giving and recieving. We need to encourage all forms of cross-breeding, all forms of intercultural insemination. Not just hanging out and sharing a few Cokes. We need to drink freely of each other.

1 comment:

The Pagan Temple said...

My ideal would look something like a logic chart, with interconnecting circles, inside of one larger one that takes in all of them. I wish I had more computer savvy-actually I wish I had computer savvy, period-so I could illustrate what I mean precisely.

But in this ideal all these different cultures would intersect at some point or another, yet would also retain some degree of their own original cultural identitity.

Maybe a better illustration would be that one large circle would be at the center, surrounded by smaller circles that would surround but then overlap it.

Or, put another way, that center cirlce might represent the overriding central American culture, surrounded by a series of smaller cultural ethnic identities that intersect, becoming a unique part of it, while retaining on the outside a pure aspect of the original.

A different term might be adviseable as well, the usual terms have become much too loaded, especially "multi-culturalism".

Maybe "trans-cultural", for example.