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Tuesday, October 1, 1996

What Is Multiculturalism?

Multiculturalism Is the Esoteric Form of Virulent Ethnic Politics

Dr. Mack is a professor of philosophy at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Occasionally one thinks that, perhaps because it has become so tedious, multiculturalism has begun to pass from the scene. Unfortunately, such thoughts seem entirely too optimistic in light of the great extent to which multiculturalist slogans have become culturally and institutionally ensconced, the great emotional and financial stake that multiculturalists have in perpetuating their visions, and the degree to which, usually under false pretenses, multiculturalists are able to initiate new believers into their sect. So it probably is still of some value to offer a dissection and critique of the ideology of multiculturalism—a dissection and critique that focuses on the rotten core rather than the surface that is polished for marketing purposes.

Behind the mask of a benign celebration of diversity lies a deeply corrosive rejection of all general norms, rules, or truths. This rejection of general norms, both those dealing with knowledge and those dealing with morals, derives from multiculturalism’s insistence that there are many essentially closed systems of perception, feeling, thought, and evaluation—each associated with some racially, ethnically, or sexually defined group. Thus, multiculturalism quite explicitly and appropriately sees itself as rejecting the Enlightenment belief in standards of reason, evidence, and objectivity, and principles of justice and freedom that apply to all human beings.

Cultural Relativism

Multiculturalism is, in effect, a dressed up and politicized version of cultural relativism—the doctrine that every group has its own distinct but equally sound patterns of perception, thought, and choice. According to cultural relativism, no one can validly object to beliefs and actions of any group which reflect that group’s own indigenous worldview. While cultural relativists have always claimed to be friends of tolerance—indeed the only true friends of tolerance—this doctrine actually implies that no one can object to any group’s intolerance, if intolerance is that group’s thing. Neither the cultural relativist nor the multiculturalist can object to Mayan infant sacrifice, or Spanish Inquisitional torture, or Nazi genocide because each of these practices is validated by the perspective within which it arises. To criticize indigenous intolerance or any culturally authentic practice no matter how brutal or exploitative, one must apply general, trans-cultural norms which both cultural relativism and its multicultural descendent denounce as imperialist. But multiculturalism’s moral relativism precludes any such appeal and, hence, it precludes any affirmative case for tolerance.

In addition to its moral relativism, multiculturalism also proclaims (as the one great Objective Truth) that all truth, objectivity, and evidence are also relative. Each culture has its own truth, objectivity, and standards of reason and evidence. Thus, whatever beliefs any culture emits, they are validated by the fact of their emission. This, of course, precludes any rational dialogue among individuals. Each individual is merely a representative of a certain biologically defined perspective with its own idiosyncratic, but self-validating, biases. Hence, each individual must agree with members of his or her own group and be unable to make rational contact with members of other groups.

By chanting his mantra of relativism, the multiculturalist can evade honest confrontation with all intellectual challenges. Consider the argument that multiculturalism cannot support tolerance since grotesquely intolerant social orders can be as true to their distinctive ways of perceiving, cognizing, and feeling, as any other social order. According to the multiculturalist mantra, this argument itself is merely an expression of one particular perspective, the Eurocentric—hence, linear and logocentric mode of perception and thought. Thus, this challenge, like all attempts at rational disputation, can be rejected by anyone who doesn’t feel that way about it.


In contrast to the multiculturalist, the genuine advocate of tolerance believes that, despite the profound differences among individuals, there are some fundamental general norms—including standards of rational discourse and norms that extend freedom and the protection of justice to all persons in virtue of their common humanity. Only such general norms provide a principled basis for rejecting the suppression of disliked opinion, speech, religious conviction, economic decisions, and so on. It is precisely to the extent that we articulate and comply with such rules that each of us, strange as we are to others and strange as many others are to us, are able to live at peace, indeed, in fruitful mutual advantage with one another.

Multiculturalism modifies cultural relativism in two important ways. First, it ignores cultures as ordinarily understood and focuses instead on biologically defined groups within our society who may be recruited into political alliances based on heightening their sense of alienation and victimization. Thus, as the perceived political opportunities dictate, the multiculturalist focuses on the supposed existence of sui generis Afrocentric, Female, Hispanic, Homosexual, and/or Native American modes of thought and feeling.

Multiculturalism is fundamentally anti-individualistic because it expects each individual to conform in his or her perceptions, thoughts, and assessments to those pronounced to be the authentic perceptions, thoughts, and assessments of that individual’s group. All genuine blacks must share the Black perspective. All genuine women must share the enshrined Female perspective. All homosexuals must share the Homosexual perspective—and so on. Your thoughts are either the collectively constituted thoughts of your racial, ethnic, or sexual group or they are thoughts insidiously imposed upon you by the dominant White Male perspective. Group-think is the mark of authenticity. Multicultural diversity both radically cleaves humanity into disparate biological collectivities and radically homogenizes people within these collectivities. For the multiculturalist, diversity is merely superficial.

Multiculturalism’s second modification of cultural relativism consists in its expulsion of one supposed worldview—what multiculturalism misidentifies as the White Male perspective—from the Eden of equally sound worldviews. All group perspectives are equal, but one is less equal than others. The supposed reasoning on behalf of this expulsion is that the so-called White Male worldview is uniquely guilty of commitment to common objective norms of thought and action. Hence, it is said, this rogue perspective uniquely stands in judgment of other worldviews, subjecting them to its wickedly colonialist epistemic and moral standards. Thus, this perspective—as befits its White, Male, heterosexual roots—is uniquely totalizing, aggressive, and victimizing.

In reality, of course, what is being condemned by multiculturalism is not some idiosyncratic White male, heterosexual perspective, but rather the human enterprise of seeking, articulating, and employing general norms that help us to distinguish between the true and the false, the plausible and the implausible, the good and the evil, the permissible and the impermissible.

The irony is that multiculturalism wants to hew to its own judgments about the special defects of Western thought and the special injustice and oppressiveness of the liberal Western social and economic order while insisting that it cannot be expected to justify (or even identify) the philosophical or empirical premises of its own judgments. The excuse for this irresponsibility is the ritualistic claim that to accept these demands for justification is to succumb to the Eurocentric hegemony. Yet, at the same time, we are supposed to accept the truth of the multiculturalists’ historical and cultural analyses and the verity of their all-embracing evaluations.

Multiculturalism presents us, then, with the spectacle of sweeping, confident, and impassioned moral, historical, economic, sociological, and aesthetic judgments and a simultaneous and often self-righteous refusal to take any intellectual responsibility for any of those judgments.

Was Hitler Evil?

In a campus debate a couple of years ago with an earnest multiculturalist, I strove to help her see that she could not both accept multiculturalism’s relativism and continue confidently to proclaim the profound evils of various regimes. In desperation, I appealed to the instance of Hitler and Nazism. Given this relativism, I asked her, can you even assert that Hitler was evil? Well, she said after a moment of thought, I’m not valorizing him.

The primary purpose of multiculturalist educational proposals is to instill in students and (increasingly) in employees and the population at large the demonology that the apparently benign, tolerant, liberal order is actually the most profoundly oppressive order ever to have existed. People are to be initiated into the delights of victimhood. They are to learn how to perceive themselves as victims (or victimizers)—not of superficial wrongs like murder, mayhem, and robbery—but of ever so subtle, exquisitely cunning, psycholinguistic domination. It is psycholinguistic domination, i.e., the construction of seductively hegemonic themes and discourses, that make the derivative evils of racial or sexual exploitation possible (indeed, inevitable). To recognize oneself as such a victim is to attain multiculturalist enlightenment and, not inconveniently, an all-purpose ticket for the increasingly lucrative multiculturalist gravy train.

Students especially are to be taught that arguments, doctrines, works of art, or policy are never to be evaluated on their own merits. For there is no such thing as the objective merit or demerit of an argument, doctrine, work of art, or policy. Rather, these and all the other products of the human mind are to be revealed as mere valorizations of power. They are to be deconstructed to disclose their inner character as instruments of repression—or, presumably in the case of the privileged construction known as multiculturalism, as an instrument of heroic resistance.

But is resistance objectively different from repression? Is resistance objectively better than repression? These sly questions might tempt the unwary multiculturalist back into the clutches of Enlightenment discourse. But the well-versed multiculturalist can recognize the serpent with her alluring offer of knowledge and can, as his greatest act of resistance, doggedly close his mind.

Throughout the academy and eventually society at large, the multiculturalist demands that the classification of people by race, ethnicity, sex and/or sexual orientation be emphasized at every possible opportunity. Individuals are not to be seen or judged as individuals but as tokens of this or that tribe or caste. Since no one from one tribe (with the exception of white males) can be judged by members of any other tribe, each racial, ethnic, or sexual group must be assigned its own homeland, its own reservation within the university and within the worlds of commerce (cf., set-asides) and government (cf., Lani Guinier).

Between the homelands comprising this new form of apartheid there can be, if multiculturalism is correct, no rational discourse, no rational evaluation, and perhaps not even mutual understanding. Given the premises of multiculturalism, there cannot even be any rational accommodation among the worldviews that are now supposed to be strategically united in their struggle against the White Eurocentric devil.

Multiculturalism is the esoteric form of virulent ethnic politics. Remove what the multiculturalists describe as Male Eurocentric dominance and what, in reality, is the residue of liberal tolerance and belief in the efficacy of rational investigation and debate, and multiculturalism will proceed to do for the liberal university and for liberal society what ethnic politics has done for Yugoslavia.

  • Eric Mack (Ph.D., University of Rochester) is a Professor of Philosophy and the author of John Locke (London: Continuum Press, 2009). Professor Mack’s primary philosophical interests are in the foundation of moral rights, property rights and distributive justice, and the legitimate scope of coercive institutions. He has related interests in doctrines of negative responsibility, just war theory, anti-positivist conceptions of law, retributivism, philosophical anarchism, and the history of libertarian thought. He has received grants from NEH, the Earhart Foundation, the Center for Social Philosophy and Policy, and the Bradley Foundation.

    His website can be viewed here