Dialogue: Is Multiculturalism Really For Everyone?


On March 22, 2015 Jeremy Sheeler published an article, ‘Conservatives’ Are The True Multiculturalists. Inviting me to read and offer critique informally, we then decided to engage in a dialogue about multiculturalism as a whole. If you would like to contribute to this dialogue, submit your article, thoughts, or questions to dialogue@thoughtcatalog.com.

Date of Initial Dialogue: April 6, 2015.

Update I, April 22: Commentary from Jason Koh.

The dialogue went as follows:

Kovie: Jeremy, I read your piece on multiculturalism last week. It was an interesting viewpoint, to say the least. I disagreed with it in parts – on an academic level, as well as coming from the perspective of certain political assumptions and definition of terms. So I want to start right at the very beginning. In front of a general audience, whose political leanings and perspectives you are unaware of, how do you simply define multiculturalism? 

Jeremy: Hi Kovie. Thanks so much for inviting me to this dialogue about such an important and timely topic. I think the best way I would define “multiculturalism” – in relation to the point I was trying to make in my piece and my general socio-political goals – is with the very broad definition I used in my piece: “Simply, the recognition that the world consists of many unique cultures, and the accompanying belief that there is value in this diversity” – that there is an inherent value in diversity.

Kovie: I agree wholeheartedly that there is a value to diversity, and that multiculturalism necessitates a recognition of plurality of culture. I would add however that as a school of thought and a philosophical principle, multiculturalism also is included as a response to historical power being in the hands of particular bodies – notably white, Western, heterosexual, men. And this response is involved in dismantling historical power in different spaces and institutions – from economics to narrative of self. But I do not agree with the notion that doing so creates a space in which multiculturalism negates the culture of those who have been historically in power. Practically speaking in terms of power dynamics, currently, that is not even possible.

So how then are conservatives who represent to some extent a preservation of this historical power considered the “true” multiculturalists?

Jeremy: Multiculturalism as a “movement” is unequivocally spearheaded and perpetuated by Liberals – or more accurately Progressives. However, there is a deep contradiction between the political goals that these people claim to have and how their policies actually function. As I stated in my piece, Liberalism is premised upon universals – things that are true for all human beings, regardless of time, place, history, race, ethnicity, etc; or like in the language of the Declaration of Independence, “All [humans] are created equal.” These principles, are trans-cultural, meaning they are not dependent on the accidents or vagaries of individual cultures, but true for humans, as such. What I mean when I say that “conservatives” are the true multiculturalists is that without certain individuals being willing to spurn universal values in favor of the particular ones based on the accidents of history, everyone will eventually believe and do the same thing: ie Liberalism. I mean “conservatives” as a category of worldview, not American Conservatives specifically.

Kovie: While accepting even in my own academic experiences that multiculturalism is more identifiable with the political left or “progressive,” I still disagree that it is exclusive to that political leaning because while we are not here to talk about my politics – I am admittedly someone who is not left or right, obviously taking into consideration that I’m not even American at all. And I don’t think I am exceptional. I do however, tend to believe as Orwell so aptly acclaimed, that “all issues are political issues”.

However, I think that there is a big problem in trying to essentialize people into one political ideology or perspective or belief. Most people, I think, are more complex than that, even when the political systems fail to allow them to participate in a way that represents their complex views. That aside, I also dissent from the belief that history is an accident; it cannot be if we create it every day in the way we tell stories about power and the past. And I would argue fundamentally that multiculturalism is ultimately a social conversation that is taking place about how to deal with diversity in different spaces without being ahisotrical; a conversation that we all participate in, even unintentionally, whether we accept particular political ideologies or not.

Do you see how there might be a divisiveness in claiming that any one group authentically preaches multiculturalism or authentically practices it? 

Jeremy: I absolutely agree that people’s actual worldviews do not fit nice and neatly into categories, a fact that is the main impetus for my writing. I think the media artificially divides us – but so has academia, the source of the ideas that the general culture now uses to discuss these issues. My piece was more about the theory, than the individuals who hold them, though. People hold all sorts of contradictory beliefs at the same time – out of the necessity that the real world never actually conforms to the theories. But all I was trying to say was that, without “conservatives” – i.e. those who conserve the particular beliefs of their ancestors and relatives – then there will be no diversity. Progressivism/Liberalism, though, is all about being an individual, about deciding things for yourself based on what you believe is the most authentic path for you, about autonomy.

It actively encourages people to break away from identity politics, so how can it also be the bulwark that preserves it? 

Kovie: I will admit that my knowledge of political theory is not as current as it should be, considering it was my secondary subject of interest in college. But despite that shortcoming, it is my understanding that the conversation about autonomy and the role it plays of the individual, from Plato to Locke to Hobbes, has never been a certain one. And that is always my point in these sorts of ideological stances – is that we are always changing how we talk about these things as much as we change what we talk about when we talk about individual contracts to community. Identity politics, to those who are in bodies of historical power, may appear to contradict one’s autonomy. But for those who are from communities that have been in positions of disadvantage, at the expense of those in historical power, their autonomy as individuals, like their community, use(d) identity politics as a way to counter their disadvantaged positions in the global space for their community, as well as for their individual interests. This is to say, the two are not mutually exclusive. I do, however, want to ask:

Given that theory is different from practice, outside of multiculturalism and identity politics, how does one practice diversity and equality outside of multiculturalism in the nation-state and globe as we know it?

Jeremy: Putting the disputes of theory aside, the problem I see with the paradigm of multiculturalism as practiced today is that it has made it impossible for people to create an identity. For white people (white Liberals), “we” hold that being an individual, having a mind of one’s own is the best way to be, whereas we think that “minorities” should be part of a community. This is incredibly problematic for everyone involved, though. A) This notion of radical individuality/autonomy that we are supposed to aspire to, I would say, is “unnatural” – i.e. debilitating to our self and community; but B) it enchains minorities to identities/histories that they may not want to be associated with – i.e. when an African-American is accused of “acting white”. “Acting white” simply means being autonomous, being liberated from identity politics. 

As far as practicing diversity outside of multiculturalism, I think all one can do is recognize the limitedness of our perspective and be open to the Truth wherever it may come from. The problem, though, is multiculturalism as proposed today denies us the right to make judgments about truth and falsity, which ultimately just makes us indifferent to everything.

Kovie: I strongly reject the perspective that identity cannot be created in the current multiculturalism perspectives. Like all philosophical causes or movements, there are multiple ways to “do” multiculturalism. For all individuals, identity is not created in a vacuum, and for many individuals, especially those with histories that are not embedded in global power, identity construction occurring in multiculturalism has been more empowering than the alternative – which is identity construction according to historically prejudiced spaces. Even the example you give, “acting white” in the case of an African American or any black person, is based on constitutions of what “Whiteness” represents and doesn’t, and what “Blackness” represents and doesn’t, especially in American society. Thus even that statement is riddled in a history and context of prejudice.

I also find it difficult to accept that any philosophy denies the individual the practice to make their own autonomous judgments on worldview. If we need a big example, we might consider how feminism is hotly debated, especially in its third-wave by self-proclaimed feminists, and how it attempts to be individualized.

Indifference seems like the road we take far too often when the ideas become too complex., and these ideas are complex. But I would rather deal with that difficulty than the alternative of entirely doing away with a philosophical ideology that aims to be inclusive. 

Jeremy: “Acting white”: can mean two different things, basically because of the push and pull of Western history and politics since the Enlightenment. There is the white “bourgeois” – for lack of better term – that has either merely gone along with or actively participated in the oppression you spoke of earlier; but then there is also Liberals/Progressives where “acting white” means being autonomous. The ones I see most loudly proclaiming the value of multiculturalism, though, are the latter group. But this means autonomy for them, conformity for the others. While, I understand the historical necessity of solidarity in group identity, until we figure out how to reconcile the incompatibility of solidarity and autonomy, then I feel like the whole thing is nothing more than a dog and pony show and everyone knows it. That’s pretty much the entire premise of the television show Community: the incoherence and hypocrisy of the way it has been instituted and the way it papers over these tensions. 

This was what I was trying to get at with my other recent piece, Why White People Appropriate Black Culture. We are no longer having a real conversation about these issues because the words have lost all connection to reality. All we do is talk now.

Kovie: In the first place, I think the reconciliation between solidarity and autonomy is funny enough, culturally-dependent on time and space. I have lived in societies that are more communal than individual, and vice-versa; the conversation of the compatibility between solidarity and autonomy is a human one that ought to change as what we know about the world, and who is in the world, changes.

With regard to conversations about reality and how we talk about cultural sharing, cultural exchange, and cultural appropriation, what I observe is on the one hand, a struggle to define the terms. And then on the other hand, a struggle for power between groups, and particularly historically disadvantaged groups wanting to correct what they see as wrongs of history, versus historically advantaged groups, wanting to maintain power for what I often deem as less complication for their individual and communal interests. Language and reality have always, I think, rested on each other. But I don’t think that there is a connection lost but rather a proliferation of voices in dialogue which makes the conversation more difficult. Again, that to me, is not a bad thing. But one that now more than ever, the conversation needs to be approached with prudence by individuals and communities alike.

I am wrestling in particular with cultural appropriation versus exchange and participation, and I will probably write something about this soon. But as a way to end this dialogue, I want to specifically know the following:

Is it possible in American society, and given your viewpoint of multiculturalism and culture, for white people who have historically been in power here to participate in Black culture, without appropriating, whitewashing, essentializing it, etc.?

Jeremy: That’s exactly the problem, as I see it: it is not possible using those terms of critique. White people are in an impossible place today. We want to atone, but there is no way to do so. If we try to be post-racial, we are ignoring its complexity; if we we try to respect it, we are essentializing or stereotyping; if we try to emulate it out of true admiration, we are appropriating it. These “Cultural Marxist” critiques have made resolution impossible.

The only way I see us being able to get beyond this is to have a truly honest conversation about what it means to be a human being, to talk openly and honestly about the human condition, and to learn better ways of dealing with it. That to me is what culture is: a collection of wisdom about the best way to navigate the minefield of existence. “multiculturalism,” though, ossifies us into “dead” identities – ones that no longer match the world we are living in or approaching. I believe we need to all come together as Americans, and forge a new identity that learns from the “best that has been thought and said in the world.” This is an uncomfortable conversation, but I believe the only way we can ever reconcile the contradictions that we have created we reconsider all these recent incoherent theories.   

Kovie: You know, I do think and even empathize with the difficulty of navigating culture in general. In the context of a white person doing so in black American culture in an intentional manner, it isn’t easy. What I think often goes unrecognized is that black Americans, like all people of color in this country have had to navigate and negotiate their identities and participation in (white) American culture since the inception of this country, and are still doing so today.

I think that multiculturalism is useful when its interpretations are utilized in a sense that firstly does appreciate the reality that you and I do live in different worlds, metaphorically speaking of course. We do see things differently. Our histories and our past and how we negotiate everything from identity to culture does not inherently match simply because we are both living, breathing, human beings. Coming together as a nation, as you suggest, will mean coming together with Americans who have a different history and experience and perception of not only the United States, but of the world than you do, and many whose identities have to be negotiated with histories that are separate from your America.

Moreover, I think it would be intellectual narcissism to not see multiculturalism as something that is bigger than the American imagination of the world. Those narratives and experiences are important to the overall conversation as well. These conversations are uncomfortable for everyone, but recognize that power and past play their roles. And I think it creates further problems when those in power police who and what is constituted in identity conversations within a culture. In the end, I think, context always matters. And the conversation must continue. 

Thank you for being willing to have the conversation Jeremy – we need more of these.

Jeremy: Actually, I think the main problem today is that we no longer are able to separate theory and context, though. Before we judge the accuracy of a statement, we must know all the relevant demographic information of the speaker – before we even begin thinking about whether what they say is true. Very likely, everything I’ve said today will be written off simply because I am a cis-gender, straight, white male. This type of atmosphere is completely anathema to not only academic and intellectual honesty, but to simply being honest with yourself about who you are.

I’m not saying that context should not be considered, but rather that it must be secondary to any pursuit of a viable means of moving forward together. The context adds too much passion and indignation into the mix for us to be honest with each other.

Thanks again, Kovie, for inviting me to have this dialogue today. I sincerely hope that it spurs many more of the kind, and that one day we can all find a way to come together and fix our broken country.

Jason Koh

While I agree with certain portions of Jeremy’s argument with regards to the contradictions that occur between the goals of multiculturalism and the ideological framework of traditional Liberalism; I feel as if Jeremy’s critique is limited to one aspect of a larger problem concerning how we interact with the “other” (people of difference.). He certainly does well to point out the problems of Liberalism in its attempts to unite various conflicting cultures under sterilized images palatable to western Enlightenment thought.

But the view that multiculturalism finds its greatest affinity with Conservatism due to Conservatism’s prejudicial aspects that attempt to preserve individual cultures through cultural antagonisms is what I find theoretically problematic. In the very same vein that Liberalism categorizes minority cultures to fit within its own ideological framework (as Jeremy talked about with regards to labeling minorities under identity politics,) Conservatism frames other cultures under its own categorizations that fit within the narratives favorable to the traditions, myths and etc of the dominant culture within the cultural hegemony.

Whereas the goals of the two ideologies are different, they function along the same lines of conceptually removing the question of the “other.” This is in the sense that one attempts to sterilize difference by assimilating and categorizing the pluralistic elements of culture under a unifying ideology and the other outright rejects or ignores the “other” in accordance to the ideological frameworks set by the dominant culture. As such, I feel as if to say that multiculturalism finds the greatest affinity towards Conservatism due the reactionary prejudices that aggressively acts to preserve certain cultural identities makes for a limited argument in my view.

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