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Political Philosophy

The Multivisions of Multiculturalism

Edward James
Bridgewater State College

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ABSTRACT: The questions suggested by the term "multiculturalism" range far and wide, embracing: questions of inclusion; questions of criteria; questions of self-identity; and questions of the meaning of multiculturalism. In this essay I provide a framework: (i) that allows us to begin a discussion that might answer such questions; (ii) that illuminates why it is that such a modest aim is the most we can hope for at this time; and (iii) that provides an understanding of what we can do in a multicultural world in order to illuminate what we should do. This framework will reject both the idea of toleration as found in Berlin’s conception of human choice and will speak of as maximal multiculturalism, an orientation that is found in John Milton’s idea of truth as variegated and that sees multiculturalism as a great good. These views are plagued by at least three paradoxes that are really inconsistencies. In their place I develop the idea of a mitigated multiculturalism based on fear rather than on any ideal or vision, and with this a distinction between positive and negative toleration. Negative toleration proves to parallel a classic Hobbesianism, which while an unwelcome result, paradoxically, provides further direction and reason for hope that mitigated multiculturalism can and must be surpassed.

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The questions suggested by the term "multiculturalism" range far and wide, embracing questions of inclusion: Who and what is to be taught?—questions of criteria: On what grounds, if any, can "we" make appraisals of "other cultures"?—questions of self-identity: When I say "we," who am I including in such august company?—questions of the meaning of multiculturalism: What is it? What is its purpose?

I aim to provide a framework (i) that allows us to begin a discussion that might answer such questions, (ii) that illuminates why it is that such a modest aim is the most we can hope for at this time, and (iii) that provides an understanding of what we can do in a multicultural world in order to illuminate what we should do. This framework will prove to parallel a classic Hobbesianism, a universally undesirable result that will, paradoxically, provide further direction and reason for hope.

1. One immediate response by many in the USA to such questions is an appeal to the ideal of tolerance—an ideal that Sir Isaiah Berlin, perhaps more than any thinker in our time, has defended.

Berlin's central argument for toleration is that belief in the one true view has repeatedly led to disaster: "One belief, more than any other, is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great historical ideals... This is the belief that somewhere, in the past or in the future, in divine revelation or the mind of the individual thinker, in the pronouncements of history or science, or in the simple heart of an uncorrupted good man, there is a final solution."(1) A second argument that Berlin offers for toleration is that we have no right to insist that all be educated in our way, unless we know that we are pure and good—precisely what we do not and cannot know. As Tolstoy argued, the history of education is a history of tyranny, where each new school "struck off one yoke only to put another in its place."(2) "But about one thing they were all agreed: that one must liberate the young from the blind despotism of the old; and each immediately substituted its own fanatical, enslaving dogma in its place" (48). Further, Tolstoy sees no way out of this tyranny. For "who, he reasonably asks, will educate the educators?" (50) For us to be educated, we need to recognize the pure among us as our teachers. But to recognize the pure among us is already to be pure. So to become pure and educated we need already to be pure and educated—an impossibility. "Yet he believed that a final solution to the problem of how to apply the principles of Jesus must exist" (50)—a belief that Berlin was not able to accept. In fact, to insist that all conform to such a faith is precisely what we must avoid, insofar as such a belief leads to none other than Dostoevski's Grand Inquisitor, the one who crucifies Christ in the name of Christ. So, Berlin, unlike Tolstoy, pessimistically concludes: "The world that we encounter in ordinary experience is one in which we are faced with choices between ends equally ultimate and claims equally absolute, the realization of some of which must inevitably involve the sacrifice of others."(3) This pessimism results in Berlin's third argument for toleration: it is precisely because of the lack of any universally held overarching view that we "place such immense value upon the freedom to choose" (168), for we are willing to let no one else decide for us how we are to choose among the competing views.

Berlin, thus, presents a muscular pluralism of tolerance. But the muscles Berlin flexes in the name of tolerance cannot avoid Tolstoy's hard critique, that Berlin's espousal of choice becomes just one other oppressive ideal among others. For starters, consider toleration's paradox of condescension. The ideal of toleration requires us only to "put up with" those who would deign to differ with us. But such an attitude allows us to ridicule and disdain those others. Berlin was willing to accept this result. Others are not.

2. To avoid what Kant warned of as "the arrogant title of tolerance,"(4) others argue that multiculturalism should go beyond toleration(5) and advocate, say, a respect for other views and cultures—or even a celebration of other views and cultures. These views I will speak of as maximal multiculturalism—that multiculturalism is a good and not a mere necessary evil.

Such a perspective is found in John Milton's "Areopagitica" (1644). Milton argued that to be good one had to be good knowingly, and aware of the amazing convolutions of human life. First, one had to be good knowingly: A "heretic in the truth," says Milton, includes one "who believes things only because his pastor says so, or the Assembly so determines, without knowing other reason." Second, to know one must know the amazing convolutions of human life. Truth itself is not to be simply had just because truth is not simple. As Osiris was cut up into a thousand pieces, so Truth has been "scattered... to the four winds." The truth is that Truth "may have more shapes than one" and thus "there of necessity will be much arguing... many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making." As a result, those who prevent others from speaking "are the troublers, they are the dividers of unity," who "permit not others to unite those dissevered pieces which are yet wanting to the body of Truth." For "Truth is strong, next to the Almighty," and will emerge victorious.

3. However, any ideal justifying multiculturalism carries the heavy baggage of three hard intertwined paradoxes.

First, there is the paradox of commitment. Are we to tolerate, respect or celebrate all cultures, all ways of life?—say , the intolerant, the disrespectful and the non-celebrators of other views? And if not, then are we not simply espousing our own views of what should and should not be accepted and thus adopting a non-multicultural stance?

Second, there is the paradox of justification. Whether and of what we should be tolerant, respectful, or celebratory are not self-evident and so must be justified. But any justification will be in terms of certain ideals. Consequently, will it not be the case that the ideal appealed to will be dogmatic insofar as it insists that its brand of multiculturalism be adopted?

Finally, there is the paradox of teaching. We in our wisdom aim to teach students, say, to tolerate, respect, or celebrate those who differ from us. But most cultures and sub-cultures do not accept these practices as an ideal. So are teachers to insist that their students conform to their ideal when their students have another ideal? Is such an insistence multicultural?

4. What implicitly follows from such paradoxes is that no matter what we say, we will do so from the perspective of the one true view. All of us, inescapably, as a matter both of logic and of daily living, have the one true view. For instance, to insist on our fallibilism is to betray how our fallibilism is the view in terms of which we evaluate all other views. While we may look at our fallibilism critically, we do so not by asking how to radically reconstruct it but by asking how to improve it—a question not foreign to any fundamentalism. Hence our fallibilism is practically speaking infallibilistic, the one true view, just because we cannot radically question it.

Thus, it turns out, we look into the mirror and behold: They are us. We, all of us, are fundamentalists.

5. So what next? I believe that we can return to my initial points—that it is a given that we live in a multicultural world, that we find ourselves addressing people of other cultures and vastly different perspectives, that we lack a consensus on how to address this world, and, then add: that the "we" I refer to here are those who grant these givens. Not to grant them is to be deservedly dismissed from the discussion. And an agreement on them is what I will speak of as minimal multiculturalism —what we can legitimately expect and thus demand from any other.

"But that says very little!" And indeed it does—although it took a while to see why we must say so little, why we cannot initially presume to say more. Minimal multiculturalism is the hard recognition of our small but disagreeable world. To expect more is to overlook that there is no world culture that we can appeal to in order to argue for some more embracive form of multiculturalism.

Hence, if we are to say more and go beyond minimal multiculturalism, we must assume a more specific context than "the contemporary world." So let us narrow the context by considering what it means to live in a society like that of the USA, as found in a public college.

6. For starters, as a public place in the USA, the college is composed of many many sorts of people—people who do not look alike, think alike, dress alike, eat alike.... More, as a public college, it is engaged in a type of inquiry, which itself sets up standards of evidence, standards which require the recognition that we do not always agree on what inquiry is about or how it is to be conducted. Paradoxically, we cannot expect us to be a we. Rather, we are an uneasy we. We are not the world: we do live in one society or nation state, a place with a heritage of rights and "way of doing business." But we rest uneasily in this, in that we do not agree, and never have agreed, on what "all of this" means.

This lack of agreement on what the we means paradoxically leads to an agreement that goes beyond minimal multiculturalism, what I will speak of as mitigated multiculturalism. The uneasy we in the USA can expect that (i) we cannot publicly assume a maximal multiculturalism; (ii) no view will be publicly regarded as sacred or closed to radical challenge, (iii) all views will be publicly challenged, and (iv) critics and defenders of the various views do no violence to each other—they in some way or another put up with or tolerate each other.

Why we can expect (i)-(iii) of mitigated multiculturalism to be a given follows from the observation of the vast variety of people and perspectives in the USA. But why we can expect the tolerance of (iv) takes a longer story.

7. Crucially, we cannot justify such tolerance by any specific appeal to some ideal—a vision of how human life should be. For all ideals are in question.

Nor can we justify tolerance in terms of a heritage like the Bill of Rights, emphasizing freedom of speech, religion, and inquiry. To do so is only to beg the question. For this heritage was sharply challenged when it was first instituted, both as to what it meant and covered and also as to whether it was a good idea at all, and it is sharply challenged today. And add to this story all of the other stories that inform the USA, and what results is both a reaffirmation of mitigated multiculturalism's (i)-(iii) and also a heightened requestioning of the tolerance of (iv).

8. The justification rests on the given that no group of the uneasy us can expect any other group to respect or welcome its Primary Truths or to remain silent about their Primary Truths. The uneasy we cannot expect a Bob Jones University or, following Pope John Paul II and the USA philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre,(6) a Roman Catholic university, to tolerate, let alone welcome, all views. But the uneasy we can expect that in the public arena we put up with each other in order to give each other a vent and thereby avoid universal war. Come what may, we, whoever we are, will make ourselves heard. If we are prevented from making ourselves heard, at least in the public arena, what will result is a kind of war, a willingness to do each other harm—which the uneasy we agrees must be avoided. Thus we all must be persuaded that at least this is available to each and every one of us, that we can act and speak out in public arenas—provided that our acting and speaking are not violent. Such toleration is the minimum that we can expect and the maximum that we can demand in a public arena in the USA.

9. Mitigated multiculturalism thus distinguishes two types of toleration—positive and negative. On the one hand, positive toleration, found in Berlin, is built on some ideal or vision—Berlin's centrality of individual choice. On the other hand, negative toleration is built on no such affirmation but on the fear of others if they are denied their say.

Negative toleration is hardly a positive ideal but is unwelcome in at least four ways. First, it is justified by fear of others and what bad things they will do to us if they are prevented from expressing themselves. Second, it has force only when the other has power and is willing to use it. It thus requires us all to be on our guard against those who would deny it to us and warns that we must rely on ourselves to protect our core ideals. Third, it represents a failure—either our failure to make the other see our One Truth, or, more likely to be said, the other's failure to accept our One Truth. And finally, it is not an end in itself, some ideal or vision to embrace, but a mere means to an end. It allows us to live, not together as one, but side by side yet apart, as we carry on war by other means.

10. Negative toleration avoids the four paradoxes that plagued positive toleration. It avoids them by not allowing them to arise, and it does this by not viewing itself as something good in itself.

It sidesteps the paradox of condescension by not deigning to tolerate the other out of any ideal but by being forced to tolerate the other out of fear—a kind of respect. It dodges the paradox of commitment by understanding toleration not as an ideal but as a means to one's safety. It avoids the paradox of justification by rejecting the presumption that toleration must be justified by ideals—ideals which it inflicts on others. Fear of the other is no ideal to be attained but is hard reality to be addressed. And finally, it finesses the paradox of teaching by claiming that negative toleration is no superior view to be taught but rather an inferior position to be endured.

11. Nonetheless, from these considerations follows mitigated multiculturalism's own paradox: it is what we can all agree on and what no one wants. No one wants it not only because it is multiply unwelcome, but also because of its resemblance to that stark Hobbesian understanding of human motivation and of government—where all of us seek to advance our own self-interest merely because it is our own self-interest. Hence, if we have the might we have the right, the reason of self-interest, to do whatever we will—whether cheating or brutalizing others—to advance our interests. Consequently, almost all of us take great pains to persuade others that we are not working out of self-interest alone, but rather have other reasons to restrain us.

But what these other reasons are, why we are not to run rampant over the interests of others when it is in our self-interest to do so, remains much in question. And because each competing reason stating why Hobbes is to be rejected carries profound social consequences, we need a Hobbesian grounding to society with respect to human expression to protect our view from those who would surpass Hobbes. Such a grounding satisfies no one.

12. But if we are not satisfied with this grounding but are committed to the idea that Hobbesian negative tolerance must be surpassed, then the uneasy we must engage in the hard discussion of how to surpass Hobbes. This results in turn in a more complete definition of mitigated multiculturalism—to (i)-(iv) add: (v) negative toleration is unwelcome to all and so we all seek ways of surpassing it—say, by imagining notions of power that go beyond Hobbesian brute power.

Such a multiculturalism, mitigated as it is, may allow us the intellectual framework to build the new world the uneasy we say we seek. But it will have to be built context by context, country by country. For I suspect that French Egalitarianism, German Volk and Blut, English nobility and commoner, Indian secularism and sects,... will all bear strikingly different slants than the stories of multiculturalism made in the USA.

Moreover, if and when the world gets smaller and it becomes clearer that we live in the world as we live in our country, then minimal multiculturalism might be reconceived as mitigated. But how to get us, all of us, to live in the world as we live in our country is currently beyond our reach. For while we all may agree that toleration out of fear is not enough, we do not agree that the world is our country. Perhaps as the world becomes increasingly polluted and the resources of the world increasingly depleted, so that the powerful of the world can no longer escape the hardships that most face on a day to day basis,.... But all of this of course is speculative.

In any case, ideally the public university and college uniquely stand as crucibles where such discussion may take place without doctrinaire restraint.

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(1) Isaiah Berlin, "Two Concepts of Liberty" in Four Essays on Liberty (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 167.

(2) Isaiah Berlin, "Tolstoy and Enlightenment," in Tolstoy: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed., R.E. Matlaw (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1967), p. 48. The essay Berlin quotes from is Tolstoy's "Who Should Teach Whom to Write: We the Peasant Children or the Peasant Children Us?" (1862).

(3) "Two Concepts of Liberty," p. 168.

(4) Immanuel Kant, "An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?" in Perpetual Peace and Other Essays, trans., Ted Humphrey (Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1983), p. 43.

(5) See, for instance, Robert Paul Wolff, Barrington Moore, Jr., Herbert Marcuse, A Critique of Pure Tolerance (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969).

(6) See especially Alasdair MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), and there, especially Chapter X.

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