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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

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Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

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Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Trouble With Diversity: What is “Culture” in Multiculturalism?

Posted by John Emerson, Guest Author, on 10/04/06 at 07:28 PM

[John Emerson—frequent commenter, worthy foil—collects his scholarship at Idiocentrism.]

I haven’t been able to get Michaels’ book yet (it’s on the truck!), but I’ve read scattered writings of his on the internet. Some of the below may seem self-evident or simple-minded, but I think that the some of the basic issues are hidden at a deep level too obvious for most people to bother with. Under other circumstances I could write something about what’s good in multiculturalism, because I’m not a sworn enemy in every respect.  But by and large I think that there’s a misunderstanding of the meaning of the word “culture” in multiculturalism, and I think that the problem arises from a folk confusion between two different ways of defining “culture”.

The social-science meaning of “culture” is something like “All human traits and social structures which are learned and not strictly innate”. In general non-innate traits are assumed to be variable from one society to the next, giving us multiple cultures. But the traditional meaning of culture was “high culture”—the various things that make someone into a finer sort of person. Good manners, a taste for classical music, and so on.

Multi-culturalism seems to use the first definition, but it’s contaminated by second definition. The multiculturalist message is applies anthropological relativism to traditional high culture, and argues that while the old high culture regime was wrongly elitist and Eurocentric, in fact all cultures (foreign, primitive, minority, or lower-class) are equally valid. The problem is that “high culture” (as Veblen shows) was defined by optional choices in luxury consumption, and when the non-elite non-western cultures were upgraded, they were also upgraded as consumption choices. So culture was defined in terms of cuisine, and fabrics and dress, and music and dance, and poetry, and myth, and so on. We become multicultural by consuming non-western or non-white luxury products. And in fact, multiculturalism often does seem to be a kind of consumerism and noblesse oblige rooted especially strongly among the children of the elite, as they travel from Yucatan to Bali to Dali to Nepal, spectating the exotic customs of colorful peoples living hard lives which they themselves would be unable to endure for even a week.

This is all a manifestation of the characteristic division of American (or capitalist) life into work (production) and play (consumption). Work is necessary and real, and play (culture) is optional and not real. (This is the fact-value distinction again, and in fact many “realists” understand ethics to be an optional, expensive “frill”.) This is fake multi-culturalism. Hindu culture, for example, isn’t just a lot of nice stuff you can buy. It’s arranged marriage, purdah, the caste system, untouchability , food taboos, the rajahs (before the British arrived), and so on. Nobody really wants to adopt the serious structural aspects of Hindu culture. On serious structural issues, we all want to continue to be Americans. Immigrants themselves usually want to live as Americans with regard to serious things like property rights an law, and if they don’t, very serious problems can arise (e.g. honor killing).

The viability of multi-culturalism thus depends on its not being very real—to the extent that multi-culturalism is seriously promoted as an ideal, terrible misunderstandings are likely. The most immediate examples are in the family system. The traditional Muslim, Hindu, or Chinese family cannot be brought to America, because American children are outside parental control after age 18. The emancipation of adult children one of the defining principles of American freedom, though it isn’t often thought of that way (mostly because it’s so well-established). But parental rights over adult children (especially daughters) is essential to many traditional cultures, notably Islam. That aspect of Islam is incompatable with American life, but most Muslims believe that it is central to Islam.

Multiculturalism seems to be found mostly in education, the arts world, the non-profit world, in government offices, and in a some of the large corporations. In public education it can be a good thing if it leads to better methods of teaching students of atypical ethnic backgrounds, or if it leads to reduced bullying and greater acceptance of minorities. On the other hand, if it leads to factionalization it’s bad. Elsewhere, in the worst case it leads to dog-and-pony-show sensitivity training, token hires from minority groups, multicultural knicknacks and decor, and grievance-collecting.

I think that one of Michaels’ main points is that you do nothing for the average Latino if you bring a few Spanish-surnamed individuals up into the middle class. I’ve known a dozen people with Spanish surnames whose families had been assimilated for three generations or more. They effectively had no Spanish culture at all, and no connection with any Latino community. By and large, the most important actual political issues for a Latino (or members of any other minority group) are the political issues relative to their class. Thirty years of wage stagnation and decline, especially in the worse-paid jobs, together with the increasing loss of benefits and job security, is probably the most important single political issue affecting American Latinos.

The culmination of multiculturalism comes when a now-middle-class Spanish-surnamed individual starts buying Latino-themed products off the internet in order to enhance his or her Latino-ness. At that point, multiculturalism has triumphed.

[John’s previous work on education and class can be found here.]


John, having taught the multiculturalism debates this past summer, I can say that you’re oversimplifying and generalizing to such a degree as to distort the situation.

Multiculturalism meant many things to many different groups.  For some it meant “teaching relevent reading material in languge arts classes.” For others it meant “shifting from a narrative of world history in which history moves from ancient Persia to industrial Britain, to a less linear, more decentered, and inclusive idea of world history.” For some it had to do with self-esteem, for others with Truth.  Afro-centrism, for example, was an attempt to use mythic narratives to give meaning and structure to black American urban experience (and why not, if Mormons can do it and Puritans could do it and Jews could do it?).  On the other hand, multiculturalism for many historians and literature scholars meant a more objective sense of what “American literature” or “American history” could mean. 

Other scholars used multiculturalism as a catch-all term for “debunking Western hegemony.”

In any case, WBM is right that changing a syllabus isn’t going to change someone’s standard of living.  But not to change a syllabus is often to teach falsehood and distortion.  Multiculturalism is bad politics but excellent scholarship.

By on 10/04/06 at 10:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, I’ve spent 30 years studying Chinese and even Mongol, and I’m a big advocate of Eurasian and global history, but that’s not what I’m ralking about here.

As I say, I’m telling the bad side. I don’t think that the things I’m talking about are imaginary.

By John Emerson on 10/04/06 at 10:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, I think you’re right to distinguish between the cultural imports we want (basically, aesthetic objects) and those we don’t (purdah, or female circumcision, for example). However, I’m not sure how I feel about the distinction between luxury products and “serious things.”

It’s true that Westerners have an annoying practice of adding cultural notches to their belts by engaging in cultural tourism, and making exotic purchases. It’s also true that we, as a culture, tend to be much more “tolerant” when nothing is at stake.

That said, the separation of church and state has not prevented the continuance of religious belief in this country, and I think a similar divide between culture and state is possible for some of these customs. For example, as long as the husband and wife agree, an arranged marriage is completely legal in the United States. So are food taboos of all sorts, and a variety of property arrangements.

In fact, the only parts of other cultures we can’t import are those which are involuntary; nobody, in the United States, has the right to treat me as an “untouchable.”

Obviously, this insistence on voluntarism is itself a cultural product of liberalism; but here I’m willing to endorse tolerance as the lesser of two evils. At least I can read the Bhagavad-Gita, and consider its merits. The Gita was a major influence on Thoreau and Emerson, no matter how much we think of them as quintessentially American and almost maddeningly serious. Both men deplored the already emergent bourgeois love of traveling.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/04/06 at 11:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m just trying to distinguish between the things we can be multicultural about and the ones we can’t. In some sense, the ones we can’t be multicultural about are the more serious ones; if they were less serious, we could be laxer about them.

The work/production/serious/obligatory vs. play/consumption/luxury/optional distinction is one I see embodied and enacted in American life, regardless of whether I agree with that way of dividing up the world.

A consequence is that a lot of people who are consumption / spectation multiculturalist are, regarding the “serious” things, very ordinary hard-nosed Americans.

By John Emerson on 10/04/06 at 11:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, I wasn’t trying to sound all “I know more than you.”

In any case, I’m not sure I buy your division of the terrain into serious vs. play, gov’t vs. consumption.

We all might agree with the American Creed.  But multiculturalism can still affect the deepest existential levels of our lives.  We can believe in certain basic liberal policies while finding meaning for our lives in ideas from other cultures.  I’ll trade in all Western poetry for Chinese poetry, for example, in terms of giving depth to my existence.  It’s not about consumption and play.  There’s more to life than the government and work.  There’s also love.

By on 10/04/06 at 11:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

At that level I more or less agree. I’m really talking about fairly narrowly-defined (but pervasive) kind of consumption / spectation multiculturalism, together with certain kinds of formal attempts by government or large organizations to institutionalize multiculturalism.

My “serious” zone includes property relationships as well as law and government. It’s the non-negotiable part in several ways, not least because multiculturalists themselves, in America, usually act like other Americans in amtters belonging in this zone.

To me this zone isn’t serious because I necessarily admire it or think it’s good, but because I’ve been forced to understand that it’s structurally there and hard to escape from. 

And I think that a lot of multiculturalism tries to finesse this stuff in a sort of escapist way. No matter how much a multiculturalist admires or respects or identifies with (for example) Li Po, when it comes down to business he’ll live like an American.  Li Po’s life isn’t available to us, and it’s not certain that we would want it if it were.

By John Emerson on 10/05/06 at 12:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"I’ll trade in all Western poetry for Chinese poetry, for example, in terms of giving depth to my existence.”

That’s perhaps poor phraseology if you mean to contest John’s view of multiculturalism as viewing culture as the realm of optional choices.  Because, to continue the division that John mentioned, you don’t *need* depth in your existence.  You need food, water, shelter, freedom from violence, etc., and without those things, I don’t think that you’d really be concerned with insufficient depth.  I would guess that Americans who choose Chinese poetry and Americans who choose Western poetry (or anything else) for depth would still implicitly agree on the desirability of a middle-class existence.  Which is pretty much what John wrote.

I’d say that the good part of multiculturalism is an attempt to seperate the parts of other cultures that our society won’t tolerate from those that we will.  The example of paternal rights over adult children is a good one.  When people raised in other cultures move to America, we implicitly tell them that they have to give up that part of their culture.  However, we don’t ask them to give up their food taboos, because that doesn’t contradict our ideals of individuality.  Before multiculturalism, there used to be a shorthand by which the food taboo stood for the disrespect you were supposed to feel for the “un-American” structure of the other culture.  Afterwards, it’s much more possible to view the public operation of the food taboo with equanimity, to still forbid the parental control of the adult child, and to mysteriously seperate the two so that the actual person attempting both is not sanctioned.

By on 10/05/06 at 08:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Don’t know quite where this fits in ...

Daniels on Carey: What good is the hi-lo distinction anyway? Discrimination without a difference?

Cultral Studies on IP: The money question is whether multiculturalism is to be reduced to luxury branding.

By nnyhav on 10/05/06 at 08:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

But John and Rich, while the entirety of some “foreign” culture might not be available to us, that doesn’t stop many activists from trying to make the US more like another culture.

Even if that other culture is, say, Scandanavian or Canadian (in terms of health care, nationalized social services, less privatized industry).

Or we might be attracted to shifting to “Native American” systems of communal property.  For example, there’s a huge movement afoot in real estate.  Non-profits are buying property, holding it in common, and selling the *house* on that property for a drastically reduced price.  That is to say, buyers in this system will own the house, but the property will be held in common.  This is allowing people to live in areas they’d otherwise be priced out of.  The founders of this system were influenced by—perhaps mythic—ideas of Native American land use.

The environmental movement is another politically motivated domain deeply influenced by the ideas of other cultures. 

So not everyone doing multiculturalism is happy to consume while leaving the System as-is.  Many of us would like to adjust the System as well.

By on 10/05/06 at 01:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I was focussing on a few particular aspects of multiculturalism which I think is misguided. I am not anti-multiculturalist in a blanket sense.

I’m feeling a little uneasy about not having read Michaels’ book—hopefully it will show up in the mail today. I’m probably not on board regarding language loss, for example, though I don’t know exactly what he has said.

Part of what I’ve been stressing is the nned to distinguish between aspects of culture which are optional, like tastes, and those which require a decision—primarily in law, political forms, and property. I think that this line is frequently blurred.

To me changing non-optional aspects of our culture and making it more similiar to a another culture is social change, not multiculturalism. And by and large, it’s best expressed rather universalistically, as “providing medical care” rather than “becoming more Scandinavian”. I am in favor of social change, as is Michaels, I think.

Of course, for me living in Minnesota, if the US became more Canadian or more Scandinavian it would just make me feel more at home in the rest of the US.

By John Emerson on 10/05/06 at 02:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Michaels is stalking that sort of distinction, John, in his penultimate chapter, on religion.

By Bill Benzon on 10/05/06 at 02:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, I see what you’re getting at.  And of course, we might better articulate real political change in univerrsal terms—in part because American culture responds better to universals than to statements about other people’s culture.  You won’t convince Americans to fund universal multi-year pre-schools by telling them they should be more like the French.

But attention to other cultures is one way of putting these options on the table.  Right now, I’m reading Donaldo Macedo’s *Literacies of Power: What Americans Are Not Allowed to Know*, which is a left-wing reply to the Western-Civ-style educational reforms proposed by people like Diane Ravitch, Allan Bloom, and Don Hirsch.  I don’t always agree with Macedo, especially in his Chomsky-fan-club moments.  But Macedo makes an excellent point about multiculturalism: if we expand *what* culture we teach in history, literature, philosophy, and so on, we also expand students’ ideas of what options are available. 

This means we might not say, “Let’s adopt X’s culture,” but we might say, “What can we *use* from the way other people have lived.” This is why “multiculturalism” often also meant including more women’s history, labor history, domestic history, and so on in the curriculum.  “Multiculturalism” became a catch-all term for all the stories and ideas “americans are not allowed to know.”

So, few American parents would have a hard time agreeing to allow their kids to study Plato and Aristotle, Virgil and Catullus.  In fact, there’s a strong movement in that direction (the return to classical education).  But many parents would balk at teaching students Marx and other socialist philosophers.

WBM is useful here.  Hirsch and others might say, “Well, the socialist tradition is not part of the mainstream American culture the knowledge of which is necessary to achieve ‘cultural literacy.’” WBM might reply, “It’s not about the culture; it’s about the ideology.  When you teach ‘American culture,’ you’re teaching an ideology, you’re indoctrinating students, etc.”

This is why I have a hard time with WBM’s claim that attention to multiculturalism deflects attention from class issues.  The intellectual tools students need to understand class issues are ultimately going to come from the study of other cultures’ histories, literatures, philosophies, and so on.

By on 10/05/06 at 02:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Part of what I’m saying is at a fairly high level of theoretical abstraction. It’s not grounded on loyalty to American culture, but more on the understanding that in certain areas choice is necessary and pluralism must be fairly limited.

Historically there have been some pretty major compromises made with regarded to Amish, for example, but I don’t think that they should be thought of as a precedent. They were very early settlers here, and they combine a very different lifestyle with a lot of traits like frugality, non-violence, chastity, and hard work which make them easy for Americans to tolerate.

By John Emerson on 10/05/06 at 02:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The Amish do not, for example, mutilate the genitals of young girls.

By Bill Benzon on 10/05/06 at 02:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually, there supposedly is dirt on the Amish, if you look for it. If anyone were motivated to attack them, it could be done.

Dirt on Amish

By John Emerson on 10/05/06 at 02:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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