Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Multicultural Mystique

Let me recommend H.E. Baber's The Multicultural Mystique: the liberal case against diversity. The book's core argument is as follows:
Multiculturalism restricts individual freedom. Because it renders characteristics that are ascribed and immutable salient and imposes scripts on individuals in virtue of them, it restricts the freedom of individuals to be “treated as individuals.”

No one is completely free to invent himself. There are countless characteristics we have that are ascribed and immutable, including sex, race and ancestry, height, handedness and sexual orientation. The aim of liberals, for whom individual freedom is of paramount importance, is to minimize the extent to which such unchosen characteristics affect the way in which people’s lives go — the way in which they are perceived and treated, the way in which they are supposed to behave, and the range of options open to them. Multiculturalism, because it promotes the salience of race and ancestry, and scripts ethnic identity, is therefore inconsistent with liberalism.

I must admit that I'm antecedently disposed to agree. But I still found it an eye-opening read, especially Baber's analysis of white privilege as non-salience:
Going native, at least temporarily, has always been an option for privileged white Americans, from anthropologists studying exotic cultures as participant-observers to journalists embedded with native families to report on their doings, and no one ever suggests that those who manage to go native permanently are inauthentic or self-hating. White privilege is the privilege of self-invention. Immigrants and members of ethnic minorities do not have that luxury. Even when they are not locked out of the mainstream by discrimination and economic disadvantage, multiculturalist notions of authenticity, role obligation and group loyalty dog them.

Baber acknowledges the tension between individual liberty and cultural preservation, but comes down firmly in favour of the former. If few informed young adults would wish to remain Amish, too bad for the culture; it's no excuse to stunt their education and deprive them of the choice. (N.B. Baber assumes that only individual preference satisfaction has real value. It would be interesting to consider whether "communitarian" alternatives are defensible. But I guess that would go beyond the book's scope as expounding "the liberal case against diversity.")

It's worth noting here that Baber's case rests on a particular conception of liberalism, according to which "individual freedom in the interests of desire-satisfaction is the supreme value." Alternative forms of liberalism might be grounded on the ideal of political neutrality between comprehensive moral doctrines (making the Amish dilemma rather more difficult!), though Baber appears to dismiss this alongside "namby-pamby relativis[m]". A bit more detail here would have been nice -- but again, a single book can't cover everything.

What this book does cover, it does extremely well. Throughout, Baber reminds us that "there is no guarantee of a pre-established harmony between individuals’ interests and aspirations and cultural expectations." It seems obvious, once she puts it like that, but the point is too often neglected in multiculturalist discourse. Whenever people make claims about "what the _____ community want", it's worth bearing in mind that there will inevitably be internal dissent. All we've really been told is what the cultural elite want. And if that involves oppressing sub-cultures and unheard individuals, we should surely think twice before "respecting" those preferences.

A final point worth highlighting: drawing on Richard Thompson Ford, Baber identifies a contradiction at the core of common appeals to 'group rights', i.e. when a person claims special exemption from the usual rules in virtue of her group identity (and not just individual liberty more generally):
On the one hand their supporters made out that their behavior was harmless: a matter of self-expression that had no significant consequences for anyone else. On the other hand supporters claimed that it was specially protected on cultural or religious grounds--in which case it was not a mere matter of self-expression that had no significant consequences for anyone else but had import for other [group members].

By granting a special exemption for Muslim schoolgirls to wear headscarves, we affirm that this is part of what it is to be Muslim. It is a slap in the face to other Muslim women who contest those norms, and who would not accept this as an accurate characterization of their (desired) culture. As Baber quotes Ford, to grant such group rights "would be an intervention in the long-standing debate among [group members] about empowerment strategies and norms of identity and identification... A right to group difference may be experienced as meddlesome at best and oppressive at worst even by some members of the group that the rights regime ostensibly benefits."

But enough for one blog post -- do read the whole thing. (And drop a comment with your thoughts!)

22 comments:

  1. I've not read the book. But your own description of it inspires some comments.

    One thing that worries me is the idea that a liberal state is defined by the goal of individual freedom in the service of desire-satisfaction.

    Clearly a liberal state cannot simply be a state that takes as it goal to maximize the aggregate of individual desire-satisfaction, since this would be incompatible with human rights; and a liberal state without human rights is quite an oddity.

    So even a liberal state should use some criterion to restrict or bound the principle of pursuing individual desire-satisfaction.

    Therefore, the state should decide, in some cases, which desires should be counted and which not (because they conflict with human rights, for example).

    In order to do this, it may be argued, it needs to presuppose a conception of the good and, in a sense, to impose it on everybody.

    This is where the other conception of liberalism, political neutrality, enters the scene. But as you notice, it may be more difficult to ground the argument against multiculturalims and group values starting from this premise.

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  2. Interesting take and book... I came here by way of blog search inviting you to share in our forum on privilege at DR&P...

    Peace!

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  3. The book looks quite interesting; I'll certainly add it to my already absurdly long list of things to read.

    Michele: I'm not sure why you think that a state that takes as its goal the maximization of individual desire satisfaction is incompatible with human rights. It seems to me that it is entirely possible to have a state that is committed to recognizing certain human rights precisely because it is committed to maximizing desire satisfaction. All that would have to be true of such a state is that it believes (sorry for the odd locution, but using it is the best way to keep this reasonably short) that the way to maximize desire satisfaction is to afford citizens certain inviolable rights. And this is at least not wholly implausible. On this view a policy of respecting rights is only justified because of utilitarian considerations, so such a state would not view rights as morally fundamental, but in practice this need not have any effect whatsoever.

    On what appears to be the central point of Baber's book, I am strongly inclined to agree. I have long been frustrated by certain aspects of multiculturalism, in particular the view that cultural practices are valuable and should be preserved for their own sake. This attitude suggests, as Baber alludes to, an endorsement of the subordination of the interests of individuals to the interests of the "group" or "culture", which is really nothing but an abstraction. And this certainly runs contrary to important liberal values.

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  4. For a liberal, or more precisely a deconstructionist (I am speaking for myself), multiculturalism presents an apparent paradox. We would like to have the experience of multiple cultures around us while at the same time not seeing anyone being a slave to any.

    Do 'critics' of multiculturalism really want to see Indian, Chinese, Thai, Mexican, ... restaturants eliminated? I don't see how they can escape that conclusion. ( I note as I cite this example, being of English descent, of never hearing someone ask me "Are there any good English restarants around?" :-) )

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  5. haha thats because cooking good food is all but forbidden in english culture ;)

    Actually things like chinese/thai restaurants tend to serve a anglosized version of thai/chinese cooking in NZ anyway.

    GNZ

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  6. "Do 'critics' of multiculturalism really want to see Indian, Chinese, Thai, Mexican, ... restaturants eliminated?"

    No. The point isn't to force everyone to be the same (how dull that would be!). It's just that we shouldn't be forcing anyone to be different, either.

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  7. Here is another aspect of the 'end' of multiculturalism (perhaps more for conservatives than liberals to ponder):

    If people should not be 'forced' into any particular cultural identity, then they cannot be forced into any any particular national identity either. If a cultural group defined racially or ethnically is 'arbirary', then certainly the mere happenstance of the geographical location where someone is born is too. So if I just so happen to have been born in Mexico, then I should not be forced into that identity, so I should be able to be free to go to the US and work without any legal restriction. Thus so-called 'immigration laws' would be pretty much moot.

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  8. (Of course, liberal assimilationists will support immigration too, for precisely that sort of reason. The question is what to do once the newcomers arrive: multiculturalists promote a kind of separatism, whereas critics think we are obliged to do all we can to help them and their children integrate into our society.)

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  9. Interesting. The problem is, of course, what constitutes "force" for culture. After all children are, in large measure, developed culturally by forces out of their control. It seems that the issue of children is the key problem.

    I think cultural freedom and individual freedom are always in conflict which is probably the Nietzschean deconstructionist in me coming out. But the group and the individual as entities are always in a tension that seems unavoidable.

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  10. multiculturalists promote a kind of separatism, whereas critics think we are obliged to do all we can to help them and their children integrate into our society

    It is the Nietzschean deconstructionist in me (no surprise there!) that rebels against both parts of this statement.

    But then to I go back to Rorty: (since the mind is just the brain anyway) Brains are the hardware, cultures are the software.

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  11. When I grew up I felt that culture was a offensive restriction on me (and resulted in a lot of stupid decisions) from a very young age. And I'm sure many people have it a lot worse than me.

    If you want to justify doing somthing a certain way I want a real answer not just "thats how we always do it"

    GNZ

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  12. It is an interesting argument, and one with which I have lived most of my life (permanent emigre, often in multicultural societies like India). Multiculturalism does restrict freedom by allowing smaller social units to dictate for their members their dress, cult, acceptable profession, or marriage options (and more). The alternative seems to be for the larger community (the state) to take that right away from the minorities and substitute it with its own rules for the right conduct. But is that more free?

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  13. push comes to shove I prefer the legitimacy and transparancy of the latter.

    But in reality as richard noted I dont think we want to force people to be the same, we just want to not get involved in encouraging a specific sort of diversity (eg one based on race).

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  14. Here something interesting. The school I went to (an Ivy League one) attempts to have diversity in its enrollment, including racial and geographical diversity (that is to say, it wants to have a population that is not restricted to just one US region, the Northeast). But if one's race is mere happenstance and where someone just happens to grow up is mere happenstance, then why is an effort to achieve one sort of diversity more controversial than another?

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  15. The title "The liberal case against diversity" is much too strong. One can be opposed to the excesses of multiculturalism ( patronising forced difference, cultural defences to brutal crimes, disregarding of women’s rights etc) without opposing it and diversity altogether; the debate is over polarized. I believe that liberals should, wherever possible, encourage diversity so long as it does not violate human rights.

    In evolution populations which are diverse tend to survive and grow more. I think it is likely that populations which have a melting pot of ideas and perspectives. I'm thinking specifically of neurodiversity here but the argument applies to all kinds of diversity.

    Note, I draw the line at governments giving positive support to religions and other ideologies ( as well as atheism) because I don't believe that governments should support falsehood and if it supports a selection of contradictory ideologies some of them must be false.

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  16. The headscarf argument is quite subtle and interesting, but I think it ultimately gets things wrong. Whatever our personal take on headscarves may be, we can agree that the hijab is a long standing religio-cultural tradition that constitutes a central part of the identity of many individuals. To prohibit this particular practice would be to single-handedly impugn the value and tradition it embodies. On the other hand, if we allow the wearing of head scarves, we risk offending some individuals who have renounced these traditions and practices. But allowing some Muslims to wear head scarves does not force all Muslims to wear head scarves, any more than allowing some women to abort unwanted pregnancies forces all women to abort unwanted pregnancies. Moreover, by making provision for some Muslims to engage in a practice we are not legislating that all Muslims should do so nor are we taking a position on what it means to be a Muslim.

    The issue may be framed as follows: Acknowledging that some A's have property p does not entail that all A's have p nor that p is an essential property of A. There is therefore no reason for the Muslims that have renounced scarf wearing to be offended simply because we make an allowance for some Muslims to wear scarves. We are are not thereby implying that scarf-wearing is an essential property to being Muslim.

    But then, the problem becomes, what basis do we have to for the special provision? After all, “being Muslim” is supposed to be the factor that prompted the special provision in the first place. The above argument therefore seems self-undermining. But what if we stipulate that there is a subset of A's, A*, for whom p is an essential property. Then the special provision is to be understood as directed not to A's but to A*s. In other words, there does seem to be something problematic about simply saying all Muslims should be allowed to wear head scarves. However, by recognising that there is a subset of Muslims for whom headscarves are an essential property, we may (without contradiction) hold that members of this subset may be allowed to wear scarves—for example, we might say “orthodox” Muslims may wear scarves. (I'm not sure “orthodox” would be the appropriate designation, but you get the point.)

    The problem is that with many real life examples, it is simply not possible to identify the relevant subset since they may not have any commonly agreed upon mode of designation. Therefore, given the nature of the case (read: faute de mieux), we may have to articulate our provision in terms of the group on the whole although the target of the provision is only a subset of the group. Now if it so happens that the members of the group to which the provision does not apply are offended by the generalisation, then so be it. But presumably it would be preferable to preserve a way of life and risk offending someone's feelings than to honour someone's feelings and impugn a way of life.

    P.S.: The above considerations of course fail to apply in cases where wearing the hijab is compulsory.

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  17. Avery - Or de facto compulsory, due to pressure from male relatives.

    Gawain - "The alternative seems to be for the larger community (the state) to take that right away from the minorities and substitute it with its own rules for the right conduct. But is that more free?"

    That surely depends on how liberal the state is. Certainly state-imposed sharia would be no good at all. But state-imposed liberal rights are an altogether different matter. (Really it's not an "imposition" on individuals at all. It's only an imposition on those who would seek to oppress other individuals. And I have no qualms whatsoever about taking away a community's "right" to oppression.)

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  18. "It is an interesting argument, and one with which I have lived most of my life (permanent emigre, often in multicultural societies like India). Multiculturalism does restrict freedom by allowing smaller social units to dictate for their members their dress, cult, acceptable profession, or marriage options (and more). The alternative seems to be for the larger community (the state) to take that right away from the minorities and substitute it with its own rules for the right conduct. But is that more free?"

    I am an Indian and India has a staggering amount of cultural diversity. But I am not aware of any force being applied by any smaller units "to dictate for their members their dress, cult, acceptable profession, or marriage options (and more)" Of course family and tribal pressure may be involved but it is finally up to the individuals to decide. In fact it is the cross cultural marriages that lead to creation of even more subcultures.

    And the alternative of "the larger community (the state) to take that right away from the minorities and substitute it with its own rules for the right conduct." is not present either. The indian government doesn't dictate anything to anyone either smaller units or to individuals period.

    Finally it was the multiculturalism of India that prevented India from being totally islamized even when Islam (A royal disease the spreads to the royalty of any country first before being forced on the citizens) had infected the entire royalty for a 1000 years.

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  19. I expect if you wore an indian dress the wrong way around or converted to islam or ate with chopsticks or somthing like that you would find the cultural pressures would come on.

    Maybe almost no one ever does that because the control is more absolute, ie a control of thoughts as well as actions.
    GNZ

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  20. Hi Richard,

    ..continued from previous discussion...

    What I think is at issue here is whether we’re using ‘identify’ in the strong sense or the week sense. For example, I wouldn’t say that I ‘identify’ as a woman in strongly political sense – I don’t choose to belong to women’s groups, for example, and I think there are other characteristics that play probably a more important role in constituting my identity (being a philosophy student, for example). But do I identify as a woman to the extent that my gender shapes how I interact with the world and the world interacts with me? Yes. The fact that I am a woman is unchosen, but it is not as if I can choose or not choose to identify with that group in the weak sense.

    Here’s what’s at issue: can we recognise that different groups have different characteristics, and that being a member of that group makes you more likely to have that particular characteristic, without imposing an identity upon someone? I think we can. We can recognise, for example, that women as a group tend to have a different way of interacting with, say, older male professors than men as a group, and attempt to accommodate that different way of interaction, without having expectations about how individual women might react. Here’s an example: Mäori men in particular are hugely overrepresented in the NZ prison population. Now, we can attempt to ignore those men’s unchosen identity as Mäori, or we can recognise that a particular ethnic group is likely to share certain characteristics and shape rehabilitation programmes around those characteristics (as has been done, with reasonable success).

    To some extent I think you need to choose one horn of the dilemma: trying to ignore identities and the difference that such identities make seems to me to risk this problem: what is assumed to be neutral in fact reflects the concerns and values of the dominant group. On the other hand, recognising different characteristics of different groups might reinforce the expectation that any individual from that group will have a certain characteristic. But I don’t think you can legitimately frame ignoring differences as providing a blank slate for people to make choices, without recognising that this may simply be reinforcing the dominant ideas about the kinds of choices we ought to make and the kinds of choices we ought to want to make.


    Gosh, you can tell that i'm suffering philosophy withdrawal! Roll on september!

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  21. That's a fair point. I agree that we should be wary of reinforcing cultural dominance through complacent assumptions of "neutrality". Identity politics has made some valuable contributions in this regard. But I hope we can keep this up without forcing individual expectations on anyone. As you note, those seem to be the two risks that we need to balance.

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  22. >or we can recognise that a particular ethnic group is likely to share certain characteristics and shape rehabilitation programmes around those characteristics

    is that not a very inefficient way to look at it? why dont you just look at the charachteristics the prison population has and then deal with them.
    Otherwise its a bit like going to philosophy professors - finding that they are mostly white - generalizing that white people respond to certain incentives and then applying those incentives as opposed to just applying the best incentives more generally.

    > (as has been done, with reasonable success).

    of course I support anything that is successful. however sucess stands on its own feet.

    > But I don’t think you can legitimately frame ignoring differences

    Like Richard I think one can manage that. If you CANT manage it then every one is equally "screwed". We might as well give up on teaching minority culture or discouraging it or encouraging majority culture.

    GNZ

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