As life-transforming events go, the arrival of poppadoms at the table hardly counts as the most dramatic. But it gave Saskia the kind of mental jolt that would profoundly alter the way she thought.
The problem was that the waiter who delivered the poppadoms was not of Indian descent, but was a white Anglo-Saxon. This bothered Saskia because, for her, one of the pleasures of going out for a curry was the feeling that you were tasting a foreign culture. Had the waiter served her a steak and kidney pie it would have been no more incongruous than his skin colour.
The more she thought about it, however, the less sense it made. Saskia thought of herself as a multiculturalist. That is to say, she positively enjoyed the variety of cultures an ethnically diverse society sustains. But her enjoyment depended upon other people remaining ethnically distinct. She could enjoy a life flitting between many different cultures only if others remained firmly rooted in one. For her to be a multiculturalist, others needed to be monoculturalists. Where did that leave her ideal of a multicultural society?
Baggini, J., The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten, 2005, p. 199.
Since this is one of the relatively few unsourced thought experiments in Baggini's book, it stands to reason that this is therefore one of his personal ideas. As such, and considering my disdain for it, I feel I ought to let Baggini have his full say before I tackle this. Here, then, is the entirety of his commentary to this thought experiment. (You'd better buckle up—it's a short but frustrating ride!)
Saskia is right to feel uncomfortable. There is a problem at the heart of liberal multiculturalism. It advocates respect for other cultures, but what it values above all is the ability to transcend one culture and value many. This places a major constraint on the extent of its respect. The ideal person is the multiculturalist who can visit a mosque, read Hindu scriptures, and practise Buddhist meditation. Those who remain within one tradition do not embody these ideals, and so, despite the talk of "respect", they can be seen only as inferior to the open-minded multiculturalist.
There is something of the zoo mentality in this. The multiculturalist wants to go around admiring different ways of living, but can do this only if various forms of life are kept more or less intact. Different subcultures in society are thus like cages, and if too many people move in or out of them, they become less interesting for the multiculturalist to point and smile at. If everyone were as culturally promiscuous as they were, there would be less genuine diversity to revel in. And so the multiculturalists must remain an elite, parasitic on internally homogeneous monocultures.
It may be argued that it is possible to be both a multiculturalist and committed to one particular culture. The paradigm here is of the devout Muslim or Christian who nonetheless has a profound respect for other religions and belief systems and is always prepared to learn from them.
However, tolerance and respect for other cultures are not the same as valuing all cultures more or less equally. For the multiculturalist, the best point of view is the one which sees merit in all. But one cannot be a committed Christian, Muslim, Jew, or even atheist and sincerely believe this. There may be a tolerance, or even respect, for other cultures, but if a Christian really believed that Islam is as valuable as Christianity, why would they be a Christian?
This is the multiculturalist's dillemma. You can have a society of many cultures which respect each other. Call that multiculturalism if you want. But if you want to champion a multiculturalism which values diversity itself and sees all cultures as of equal merit, then you either have to accept that those who live within just one culture have an inferior form of life — which seems to go against the idea of respect for all cultures — or you have to argue for erosion of divisions between distinct cultures, so that people value more and more in the cultures of others — which will lead to a decrease in the kind of diversity you claim to value.
In our concrete example, for Saskia to continue to enjoy a diversity of cultures, she must hope that others do not embrace multiculturalism as fully as she has.
My first reaction is to scream about this, but I've come to think that Baggini is punching at a straw man of extreme multiculturalism, which I don't agree with either. Let's get a few definitions out of the way first, and then I can tear into this with some precision. First, what exactly do we mean when we use the word "culture"?
Culture is an incredibly broad and abstract concept, so it's no surprise that it has many definitions. According to anthropologist E.B. Tylor, it is: "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society." That's an all-encompassing list, but what is culture for? Terror Management Theory says culture is "a series of activities and worldviews that provide humans with the basis for perceiving themselves as 'persons of worth within the world of meaning'—raising themselves above the merely physical aspects of existence, in order to deny the animal insignificance and death that Homo Sapiens became aware of when they acquired a larger brain." That again may be true—that humans try to deny their animal insignificance—but an evolutionary philosophy would rather accept that lack of supernatural purpose or meaning and find another reason to study culture. I therefore like the theoretical perspective of cultural materialism, which holds that "human symbolic culture arises from the material conditions of human life, as humans create the conditions for physical survival, and that the basis of culture is found in evolved biological dispositions." That sounds properly grounded in the natural world, and based on evolutionary facts, but there's still one other definition of culture I like because it is simple, precise, scalable, and something you can diagnose in order to change. It comes from the business management field of organisational psychology where Edgar Schein has described the elements of culture in his book Organizational Culture and Leadership: His definitions can be captured in this summary:
What is culture ? A pattern of shared basic assumptions learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration. There are three levels of culture: artifacts (visible), espoused beliefs and values (may appear through surveys), and basic underlying assumptions (unconscious taken for granted beliefs and values: these are not visible). The last being the more important since human minds need cognitive stability and any challenge of a basic assumption will release anxiety and defensiveness.
That last clause is especially powerful to me. Challenges to basic assumptions release anxiety and defensiveness. How many times have you witnessed that in your own life? Isn't that why most people stay away from reading philosophy? (Even philosophers.) Isn't that what's causing the breakdown in political discourse in society at both the professional level of government as well the personal level of Facebook? And isn't that what is essentially driving the backlash against multiculturalism in this week's thought experiment?
Now that our basic underlying assumptions about the definition of "culture" have been stated (see what I did there?), let's quickly do the same for "multiculturalism." Multicultural ideologies and policies vary widely too, ranging from "the advocacy of equal respect to the various cultures in a society, to a policy of promoting the maintenance of cultural diversity, to policies in which people of various ethnic and religious groups are addressed by the authorities as defined by the group to which they belong. Multiculturalism that promotes maintaining the distinctiveness of multiple cultures is often contrasted to other settlement policies such as social integration, cultural assimilation, and racial segregation." Got it? Baggini never gets into these alternatives, but his strong criticism of multiculturalism implies he must be for one of them. Before I just defend multiculturalism, however, there's one more underlying assumption that will be helpful to the discussion—my definition of "knowledge."
As I stated a few weeks ago on this blog, knowledge cannot be justified true belief. This has been the widely held definition of knowledge since Plato, but eternal truths simply cannot exist in a changing universe where any future discoveries may cause knowledge to change. Therefore, knowledge can only ever be: justified, beliefs, that are surviving. What's the best way to find knowledge that survives? By following the example of evolution where blind variation, natural selection, and retention produce organisms that adapt to their environments and survive. In a parallel fashion, multiple cultures and the scientific method provide the means for purposeful variation, rational selection, and a retention of the ideas that aid the survival of all cultures of life.
Now, let's finally take a look at some of the particular mistakes that I think Baggini makes in his discussion of this thought experiment. I'll reprint his commentary in a numbered list and try not to scream too much as I tackle them one by one.
1) There is a problem at the heart of liberal multiculturalism. It advocates respect for other cultures, but what it values above all is the ability to transcend one culture and value many.
Wrong! What my multiculturalism values "above all" is the survival of life. Diversity is not valued for diversity's sake; it is only a proximate goal for an ultimate cause. Also, the implications of Baggini's point would seem to be that he thinks one culture ought to be valued over and above crossing to others. But this is exactly the kind of tribalism that has caused much of humanity's self-inflicted misery!
2) Those who remain within one tradition do not embody these ideals, and so, despite the talk of "respect", they can be seen only as inferior to the open-minded multiculturalist.
Firstly, it's practically impossible for anyone to remain completely within one tradition these days. There are vanishingly small numbers of uncontacted peoples in the world now compared to 500 years ago. After the industrial revolution, powered travel has meant that most cultures on Earth will eventually influence one another directly. And due to human contamination of the entire ecosystem, all cultures are now influenced indirectly by others. With the advent of the information revolution, computers and mobile devices connected to the Internet have also created the possibility for a nearly instantaneously globalised world.
Secondly, even if monoculturalists practically remain within one tradition and insist that their knowledge is the only truth, then yes, their culture is inferior. That doesn't mean there is nothing to be gained from the rest of that culture, but its insistence on being closed is something we can judge as bad, for it ultimately leads to stagnation and extinction. In the philosopher Kwame Appiah's book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, Appiah noted that the concept of tolerance can only make sense if there is something it is intolerant of. No one is "tolerant" of breathing or the shining sun. Those just are facts of life. For cosmopolitan multiculturalists, we are intolerant of intolerance. That is something we cannot "respect."
3) The multiculturalist wants to go around admiring different ways of living, but can do this only if various forms of life are kept more or less intact.
The weasel words "more or less" allow some wiggle room here, but no culture (or any living thing for that matter) can ever stay static in a changing environment without going extinct. Despite this recognition of the fundamental need for change, there is still plenty of room for "different ways of living" that we multiculturalists can admire.
4) If everyone were as culturally promiscuous as [multiculturalists] were, there would be less genuine diversity to revel in. And so the multiculturalist must remain an elite, parasitic on internally homogenous monocultures.
Augh! Them's fightin' words. First of all, we've established that homogenous monocultures are not technically possible, and they barely even occur on a practical level when looked at over a generous length of time. No cultures are fully medieval anymore, for example. They have all grown and modernised in some technological and / or moral sense that has been influenced by the rest of the world.
Secondly, multiculturalists do not demand or expect everyone to be "culturally promiscuous" (whatever that means). One of the elements of diversity we value in all life is also the diversity of what I'll call explorers vs. nesters. If every member of a species nested and stayed put no matter what, it would quickly be wiped out by any change in the environment. On the other hand, if every member of a species explored no matter what, no cooperative societies or mutualistic ecosystems would have ever developed. All species need individuals who explore and nest. (And remember, every living thing in any species that has sex, which is damn near everything we can see, produces individuals that are absolutely unique in one way or another.) So while some "culturally promiscuous" people will bring back ideas to the more "culturally chaste" members of a culture, both types can and must learn from one another. What multiculturalists "revel in" isn't just "genuine diversity," it's breadth as well as depth. Both are required. Neither are parasitic.
5) For the multiculturalist, the best point of view is the one which sees merit in all. But one cannot be a committed Christian, Muslim, Jew, or even atheist and sincerely believe this. There may be a tolerance, or even respect, for other cultures, but if a Christian really believed that Islam is as valuable as Christianity, why would they be a Christian?
This is wrong because of my definition of knowledge, where we lack the ability to find eternal truths. In the face of uncertainty, one must see the merit in different attempts at finding solutions. To carry on with the religious example that Baggini started, we don't know what happens after we die, so sure, people can believe what they want about that. Some beliefs will motivate better living than others, and none should be used to force others to change their behaviour since there is no evidence for the belief, but the exact "value" of one religious viewpoint compared to another is one that cannot currently be known. Without knowing the "truth," we may think that religious or non-religious worldviews all have some range of value, let's arbitrarily call it 200-500, but we won't know the exact score in that range for any one worldview until we die. And maybe not even then. Given that scenario, it would be perfectly acceptable for a multiculturalist Christian to say Islam and Christianity are both equally valuable, with a range of 200-500, while still hoping (having faith) that Christianity will come out on the high end of the spectrum when/if the final answer is revealed. Until then, we live and let live. No serious multiculturalist though, would say that this applies to differing cultural points of view about the roundness or flatness of the Earth. Those are views with known values: let's call it 0.000001% likelihood of being flat, and 99.99999% likelihood of being round. The only uncertainty there is in the case of radical skepticism where an evil demon is revealed in the future who shows us he's been screwing with us all along. In other words, where there is strong evidence, the multiculturalism I am describing expects different cultures to adopt the same underlying assumption about that evidence. Where there is less or no evidence, others ought to carry on searching.
6) If you want to champion a multiculturalism which values diversity itself and sees all cultures as of equal merit, then you either have to accept that those who live within just one culture have an inferior form of life—which seems to go against the idea of respect for all cultures—or you have to argue for erosion of divisions between distinct cultures, so that people value more and more in the cultures of others—which will lead to a decrease in the kind of diversity you claim to value.
Finally, I think it is becoming clear that Baggini is aiming his argument at radical relativists. The point I made earlier about ranges of values for religious views applies to cultures too (e.g. we may not know if the French or German culture is worth 400 or 450, but we can think both of them are worth 200-500), but still, only radical relativists would accept Baggini's premise that multiculturalism sees 100% of "all cultures as of equal merit." That's not the multiculturalism or diversity that I espouse. Especially since I have an objective definition of good that arises from nature. Rather than hammer home my point any longer though, let's let Kwame Appiah have the last word to show that I'm not the only one who disagrees with Baggini. Here are two more relevant passages from Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers:
One characteristic of European cosmopolitanism, especially since the Enlightenment, has been a receptiveness to art and literature from other places, and a wider interest in lives elsewhere. This is a reflection of...the second strand of cosmopolitanism: the recognition that human beings are different and that we can learn from each other’s differences. A cosmopolitan openness to the world is perfectly consistent with picking and choosing among the options you find in your search.
[However,] if relativism about ethics and morality were true, then at the end of many discussions we would each have to end up saying, “From where I stand, I am right. From where you stand, you are right.” And there would be nothing further to say. From our different perspectives, we would be living effectively in different worlds. And without a shared world, what is there to discuss? People often recommend relativism because they think it will lead to tolerance. But if we cannot learn from one another what it is right to think and feel and do, then conversation between us will be pointless. Relativism of that sort isn’t a way to encourage conversation; it’s just a reason to fall silent.
And with that, I'll fall silent and wait for the conversation to continue from the other side.