All Commentary
Friday, March 1, 1996

Fallacies of Uncritical Multiculturalism

Different Cultures May Exhibit Various Degrees of Evil

Dr. Machan teaches Philosophy at Auburn University, Alabama.

Some of the trends in our country are new only if you have very little knowledge of human history. Such is the case with the current multiculturalism craze on our college and university campuses.

The idea is that no culture is better than any other, so it is only fair for us to pay heed to them all. As a consequence, there is now much agitation around the country for dropping the emphasis on the Great Books, since these were written mostly by Europeans. Instead, various campuses are requiring that their students encounter writings from all cultures. Well, not really all, since cultures are almost as numerous as people, at least over time. Also, who knows all the cultures that exist now—or even what exactly defines a unified culture. (Should we include the Cosa Nostra? How about the Nazis?)

Now multiculturalism may seem innocent enough, mainly because we tend to think of cultural differences largely in terms of food, dress, music, dance, and customs. And this kind of multiculturalism has always been part of American society. In 1798 a young man, J. M. Holley, wrote to his brother that “the diversity of dress, manners, & customs is greater in America, than in any other country in the world, the reason of which, is very obvious. It is considered as a country where people enjoy liberty and independence; of course, persons from almost every nation in the world, come here as to an assylum from oppression; Each brings with him prejudices in favor of the habits of his own countrymen. . . .” (Quoted in “Endpaper,” New York Times, November 5, 1995, p. 46.)

While diversity is pervasive in a free society, when it comes to such differences as religious practices, political regimes, forms of jurisprudence, types of marriages, and so forth, one cannot be so uncritical of multiculturalism. In some countries criminals are punished so severely that it is simply intolerable for any society that recognizes individual rights and prizes human decency. Women in certain places are so subservient to men that even to suggest some changes meets with violent rebuffs. Such treatment cannot be dismissed as merely a cultural difference—it does violence to anyone’s essential humanity, whether so recognized or not. In many cultures throughout the world children are beaten and tortured in the name of discipline, a practice that would be child abuse in our society. Again, this cultural difference is far from benign.

Interestingly, just at a time when so many people are concerned about other people’s sensibilities—so that how we talk about various people is virtually mandated—we also insist that all sorts of different cultures be honored for their various ways of thinking and talking. Yet, if we really honored the way some cultures talk about others, we would have to tolerate contradictory practices. We would at once allow insults to fly, but demand that everyone speak with equal respect about everyone else. The simple fact is that in some cultures it is perfectly acceptable to insult members of other cultures. I know for a fact that in many European and Asian cultures people openly and unhesitatingly debase and deride members of other cultures simply for being different.

Consider, also, how many people in the academic world urge us to honor Native Americans or Indians. Yet, do they realize that there were many different groups of aboriginal people on this continent, not all of them deserving of admiration? Not all Native Americans were equally peaceful and gentle, quite the contrary.

Even African-Americans could not sensibly defend all the practices of their ancestors, some of whom actually spurred on the black slave trade.

The demand for fairness to all cultures is predicated on a misunderstanding, namely, that cultures consist mainly of benign characteristics, nothing mean and nasty. Once we admit that different cultures may exhibit various degrees of evil, not simply benign dissimilarities, it immediately becomes perfectly justified to ask which, on the whole, exhibit the best characteristics. This is not an easy thing to deal with, since what is “best” is itself often unthinkingly determined from within a culture. Few people take the time and trouble to consider more stable and universal standards than those they have picked up in their own cultures.

Yet, the very points multiculturalists are stressing, namely, practicing fairness and paying careful attention, are not embraced everywhere. In certain parts of India people do not give a hoot about fairness and tolerance but proceed to kill anyone who defies local custom. Tolerance of diversity is rare even in Western Europe, outside of the major cosmopolitan cities.

One reason why in most of our universities we have stressed the tradition of the Great Books, focusing, for example, on the works of Greek, European, and British philosophers, is that these thinkers have grappled hard with just the issues that even multiculturalists find irresistible. What is truth? What is justice? What is art? What is knowledge? What is nature? What is God? What is liberty, equality, or order? What is law? What are rights?

Many other cultures, however, have tended to focus their concerns much more narrowly. And the result has been that they remained a tad parochial. In such cultures any suggestion of multiculturalism would meet with ridicule—not even a gesture of consideration would be forthcoming.

So, while it is informative and even courteous to open one’s mind to what other people across the world are thinking and doing, it is by no means a forgone conclusion that all these are of equal merit. The very fact that multiculturalism has made its inroads in our culture suggests that ours is indeed something of a special culture, even if its problems are evident as well.

Multiculturalists tend to intimidate us with their suggestion that we are being unfair. Yet, in what other culture would they be able to make such a suggestion, to be carefully listened to, and peacefully debated?

  • Tibor R. Machan is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University and formerly held the R. C. Hoiles Chair of Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics at Chapman University.