Secluded Boxes

Amartya Sen on multiculturalism. Right at the beginning – in the second paragraph – he asks the questions that seem so obviously necessary to ask, but that seem completely ignored in the way that people generally talk (or prate, or babble, or rave) about multiculturalism. As Sen remarks, ‘There is no way of escaping these rather foundational questions if multiculturalism is to be fairly assessed.’ Just so, which is why it so seldom is fairly assessed, why it is instead simply assumed to be a good even without precise specification of what it means.

One of the central issues concerns how human beings are seen. Should they be categorized in terms of inherited traditions, particularly the inherited religion, of the community in which they happen to have been born, taking that unchosen identity to have automatic priority over other affiliations involving politics, profession, class, gender, language, literature, social involvements, and many other connections? Or should they be understood as persons with many affiliations and associations, whose relative priorities they must themselves choose (taking the responsibility that comes with reasoned choice)?

See – that is so basic, and so important, and yet it is so widely ignored or obscured, with the result that people (certain people, and not others) are incessantly pressured to put their unchosen identity first and put the chosen ones way, way behind the first. And this is taken to be, assumed to be, kind and caring and progressive, when in most ways, frankly, it is the opposite.

Why isn’t this more widely appreciated? I always wonder. I can see why multicultural identity politics seem at first blush like a good way to resist racism, but I have trouble seeing why the terrible coercion and confinement of them don’t become apparent with a little further thought. You wouldn’t think it would need much further thought. We know it of ourselves, I think – that we don’t want to be permanently stuck doing whatever it is that our ancestors had always done, that we don’t want to be obsessed with our religious backgrounds, that we do want to be able to choose and decide for ourselves what interests us most, what is salient to us, what keeps us energized and motivated. If we do know that of ourselves, why do we not know it of other people?

I will argue that the real issue is not whether “multiculturalism has gone too far”…but what particular form multiculturalism should take. Is multiculturalism nothing other than tolerance of the diversity of cultures? Does it make a difference who chooses the cultural practices – whether they are imposed on young children in the name of “the culture of the community” or whether they are freely chosen by persons with adequate opportunity to learn and to reason about alternatives?

Yes. It makes a huge difference. Huge. We know that for ourselves, don’t we? Practices that are imposed are imposed, and we want the freedom to reject them if we think good. If we want that freedom for ourselves, are we really sure we have good reasons for not wanting it for other people? Can we articulate them? What – immigrants, because they are subject to racism and hostility, shouldn’t be free to reject cultural practices that were imposed on them in childhood? That seems like a harsh remedy, and also one that’s not likely to work all that well.

The vocal defense of multiculturalism that we frequently hear these days is very often nothing more than a plea for plural monoculturalism. If a young girl in a conservative immigrant family wants to go out on a date with an English boy, that would certainly be a multicultural initiative. In contrast, the attempt by her guardians to stop her from doing this (a common enough occurrence) is hardly a multicultural move, since it seeks to keep the cultures separate. And yet it is the parents’ prohibition, which contributes to plural monoculturalism, that seems to garner the loudest and most vocal defense from alleged multiculturalists, on the ground of the importance of honoring traditional cultures – as if the cultural freedom of the young woman were of no relevance whatever, and as if the distinct cultures must somehow remain in secluded boxes.

Exactly. Those secluded boxes. We don’t want to live in secluded boxes ourselves, do we – so we should think long and hard, and then think some more, before shoving other people into them.

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