These were the words of British Prime Minister David Cameron, in Feb. 2011, speaking on the failures of the British state’s support of “multiculturalism.” Recently, Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Angela Merkel of Germany uttered similar public confessions, all speeches delivered after decades of support for the inclusive policy. What is “multiculturalism,” and what’s wrong with it?
Multiculturalism is more than a mere tolerance of cultural differences; it is a positive and proactive accommodation of differences, accomplished through Will Kymlicka’s “group-differentiated rights.” It’s the application of exemptions and exceptions for certain groups from the normal social and legal expectations of society, such as allowing certain religious groups to be exempt from the no-hats rule in drivers license photos.
What’s so harmful about that? Doesn’t this promote tolerance and a pluralistic society and the beautiful mosaic of human diversity?
The short answer is simply ‘no.’ The long answer would take a full volume, like “The Closing of the American Mind,” to fully answer, so I’ll stick with the short.
As with all flawed theories, the fundamental issues are worth pointing out first. Multiculturalism arose as an idea in the wake of a generation characterized by ethnic and racial strife, both at home and abroad, and the philosophy grew from within the political movement doing most of the ideological combat, those whom we would today call “liberals.” Against discrimination in spirit, multiculturalism is, at its essence, the proposition that we should treat people differently based on their racial or ethnic background.
Notice a problem?
A deeper issue lies in the movement’s proclivity towards what is known as moral relativism, the idea that moral truths are subjective and that no one is really in a position to praise some action as “good,” or to decry another action as “bad,” in any kind of binding fashion. Sam Harris gave an example of just such a mindset in his TED talk, describing how many modern intellectuals couldn’t bring themselves to say there was anything objectively wrong with throwing battery acid in the faces of women suspected of less-than-perfect chastity.
“Who are we to pretend that we know so little about human well-being that we have to be non-judgmental about a practice like this?”
It’s a distinction of Western academia in recent years to be unable to distinguish, in the words of Winston Churchill, the firefighter from the fire. Such is the case with such outspoken dissidents as Noam Chomsky, who to this day proudly claims that 9/11 was not the result of radical religious extremism, but rather defends the actions of Al-Qaeda as justified acts of retribution against American terrorism in the Middle East in prior years.
For decades now, American and British journalists, philosophers and social critics have warned of the dangers of multiculturalism, and the threat it poses not merely to the national identity, but to the very soul of the nations’ people. Such is the case in much of Europe, where anti-semitism is back on the rise, where different cultural groups are treated differently and where hate speech laws are becoming increasingly broad in scope and rigorous in application. If an 18-year old white girl vanished for a week to have her genitals sawed off, for example, there would be a national outcry and harsh justice rained down on the perpetrators of such a heinous crime. Not so if said 18-year-old girl happened instead to be Pakistani. The tragedy isn’t that this is happening—it’s that the intelligent, educated citizens have been robbed of the ability to see the evil lurking in their midst, and worse, have been convinced that those who notice these problems are themselves the evil ones. Usually, this manifests in accusations of racism or intolerance.
The harbingers of such a mindset have been in place in the American intellectual culture for a while now, and the natural outcome is slowly beginning to come to fruition, albeit slightly behind Western Europe. A brow-beating attitude towards “tolerance” and “diversity” is one such sign. We should support diversity, given the value of different perspectives and experiences to our shared future, but we should be extremely wary and suspicious of the newfound obsession with diversity that is creeping into universities and colleges more forcefully, both at Bellevue College and elsewhere around the country. The difference in mindset is subtle but important, not merely for ourselves, but for the future of our nation.