What Is Multiculturalism Striving For?
Louis Menand claims that "two notions inform
the current enthusiasm for the recognition of Americas cultural
diversity. The first is that for 200 years or so the idea of unum dominated
official versions of the national story, and it is now time to
emphasize the plures." The second is that the United States "is becoming
increasingly diversified ethnically and culturally, so that where there was once a
common culture (although it depended, perhaps, on a good deal of exclusion and
suppression), there is now a mass of subcultures."
Menand argues that while the first notion is
true and, indeed, "unexceptionable" (and I agree), the second notion is actually false. In other
words, while the stories of women and non-white people must be told, for obvious
reasons of both fairness and good scholarship, the culture is nevertheless not
becoming more diverse. While it is often claimed that the United
States is "becoming more racially and culturally diversified, more like a mosaic
and less like a can of mixed paint", actually the demographic data point to a
quite different conclusion.
"A much smaller percentage of the
population is foreign-born than was the case sixty or seventy years ago; the rate
of interracial marriage has increased dramatically; the Census Bureau projects that
the country will maintain its present racial proportions (about 80 percent of
Americans identify themselves as "white") well into the next century;
93 percent of the Americans who say they are religious are Christians (and 90
percent of Americans say they are religious)."
Menand bases his claim that America (and the developed world
generally) is becoming less rather than more culturally diverse on
observations about advanced capitalism as well as demographic data. According to
Menand, echoing a line of thought familiar to Marxists, capitalism tends to bring
cultures together, and to make everyone culturally similar, not different
but (and heres the rub) without thereby making society more just or
improving peoples lives.
I think this last point is much underrated, and has important implications for
multicultural education. Menand argues that people who advocate multiculturalism
often do not give sufficient emphasis to issues of social class and distribution of
wealth. His view is that the most important issues are economic issues of
class, not culture. So-called "mainstream" American culture reflects the
relative affluence and power of white, straight, men of property, while female and
minority cultures mirror the relative poverty and powerlessness of
these "other" Americans. The truth is, I think, that America is becoming more
divided in terms of economic class, and the class differences seem intractable and
growing. But class isnt the same thing as culture. So advocating cultural
diversity isnt going to halt the class war; it is a red herring.
"The real change in the United States in the past twenty years has been
economic: the gap in income between the top and bottom fifths of the population
(measured by wealth) now resembles a canyon. This financial difference fragments
a society like the United States, with its worship of the privileges of private
ownership, far more effectively than any cultural difference. Since members of
racial minorities are more likely to be in the lowest quantile economically, the result
has been a great deal of demographic distortion: the populations of many large
cities, for example, are now non-white in hugely disproportionate numbers.
"It seems to me to be pure obfuscation to try to explain this economic
ghettoizing in the language of "diversity". It is the consequence of
many years of bad public policy, and has nothing to do with
whether or not non-Europeans are acculturated to "linear thinking" or respect for the
Menand continues: "Insofar as "multiculturalism" means
genuine diversity — insofar as it refers to functionally autonomous subcultures
within a dominant culture, or to conflicting tastes and values specifically associated
with ethnicity, gender, and sexual preference — the United States is
becoming not more multicultural but less."
I shall argue here, then, that issues of economics are as important, if not more
important, than attitudes of racism or sexism, to a deep understanding of the
import of multiculturalism; and that too often, these economic factors are
overlooked or underestimated. I hope now to clarify the economic factors that
seem relevant to me, and give voice to some of my consequent concerns about
multicultural education in general, where the current debates seem to be situated,
and where I think they ought to be situated. I agree with Menand that consumer
culture tends to make people culturally alike, and at the same time maintain unjust
class divisions, i.e., consumer culture leaves the real problems intact. Nobody
escapes the incessant influence of consumer culture. And so I wonder, what
exactly will be accomplished by emphasizing
cultural differences — "multicultural education" as it is
often construed — in the absence of any
deep analysis of the "natural history" of culture itself?
Marx says that culture is the "superstructure" of society; it is a
manifestation of a substructure that is essentially economic. Those who own the
means of production control the culture. Commerce determines customs, art,
religion, morality, philosophy. (I think this is an oversimplification — as I shall
argue below, I think culture also reflects "human nature" — but it
is undeniable that economic realities have an enormous effect on culture.) Marxists
say that "mainstream" American culture today is the one defined by
capitalism to advance its interests. Thus we find "mainstream" morality
centered on the family (because the family is the main unit of consumption of big-
ticket, high-profit items), organized religion (which urges alienated workers to be
passive and resigned to their fate), and nationalism (because war is extremely
profitable). According to Marxists, the commercial media (radio, TV, newspapers,
films) are instrumental in maintaining these values, since the media are financed by
Capitalism is basically a system in which some people win and others lose; the
hope is that a free market will improve goods and services enough overall that no
one is hurt very much by losing. The culture of women (if there is such a thing) is,
on the feminist analysis, a culture of persons artificially and unfairly constrained and
limited by their biological role. If women had been permitted full participation in
cultural and economic life, they would have no reason to complain. As it is, they
do. (I am not saying that capitalism is the only oppressor of women, because
women were and are oppressed in non-capitalist societies, too; but capitalism, in
its alliance with religion, is what were dealing with nowadays.) The history
of African-Americans has been a history of heinous oppression and exploitation,
fueled by economic motives, particularly the desire for cheap labor, unscrupulously
attained. African-American culture is marked indelibly by that history. The many
cultures of Hispanic Americans and Native Americans share a similar theme of unfair
constraint and limitation. The cultures we emphasize in multiculturalism are the
cultures of historically oppressed peoples. Everyone on both sides of the
multicultural education issue seems to agree about this fact.
Thus, the "mainstream" culture does not serve the economic
interests of many people; indeed, it has historically been extremely unjust to large
groups, especially non-whites and women. People who maintain the importance of
cultural diversity are, it seems to me, motivated by laudable impulses toward social
justice. They argue that people of the mainstream culture must understand and
accept those on the outside, because lack of understanding and acceptance
fosters irrational and unfair prejudices, such as racism and sexism, and these
prejudices do harm to those outside the mainstream. The harm is multi-pronged
economic, social, and psychological. In addition, the mainstream culture, in
maintaining irrational prejudice, deprives itself of many excellent benefits that it
might derive from more intimate interaction with non-mainstream cultures. So far,
so good; there is no question about any of this. Proponents of multicultural
education thus propose that non-mainstream cultures be valued and, whenever
possible and desirable, their traditions preserved.
But if social justice is the goal, then lets not lose sight of it. Economic
justice is fundamental to the attainment of social justice. Multiculturalists
acknowledge that capitalism has historically profited from racism and sexism; they
are aware of imperialism and how it encouraged racist and sexist attitudes and
practices for the sake of continued profit. But their analysis stops there; they do
not include an account of contemporary capitalist consumer culture and its
effect on the struggle. If the Marxists are right, racism and sexism are simply
ideologies grounded in economic realities; as such, they can flourish or diminish
through the operation of economic forces.
Times have changed, and so has capitalism. Nowadays, most corporate
executives oppose racism and sexism, at least in public pronouncements. They talk
in moral terms, defending equality and universal human rights. And while some of
this morality talk may be sincere, there is little reason to suppose capitalists
profit motive has changed. The world has gotten smaller, everyone knows about
the ideals of equality and human rights, and no corporation will make the fatal
public relations mistake of espousing racism or sexism. Besides, the executives are
telling the truth, in a way. Capitalism itself (and the consumer culture it has
created) isnt inherently racist or sexist. If racism and sexism will
make profit, then theyre fine; if not, theyre bad. If women make
better managers than men (and thus help make the corporation more profitable),
then capitalists will promote women to management. If creating an image of racial
and cultural homogeneity makes more profit, then corporations will sponsor
Father Knows Best; but if more profit can be made by emphasizing racial and
cultural diversity, they sponsor In Living Color.
But it is seldom appreciated that capitalism tends to exploit cultural differences
for profit, and by doing so, tends to dilute, neutralize, and negate non-mainstream
cultures. Capitalist consumer culture cares about profit; it cares about creating and
maintaining markets for "new" products, so that people will feel
dissatisfied with their current stuff, throw it out, and buy new stuff. Capitalism
doesnt care about race or ethnicity or gender or sexual preference; in fact,
it exploits both the attractive and unattractive aspects of underclass or minority
culture for novelty in the marketplace. It feeds on minority and underclass culture,
glamorizing it, ingesting its exotic flavors, dissolving all its potentially threatening
aspects. As a matter of standard practice, it co-opts and usurps the exotic,
marginal, and even threatening aspects of minority culture in order to make profit;
the exotic becomes the "new", i.e., new products, new fashions, new
teen idols. "Nothing takes the edge off a challenge to the established order
than making it the premise of a situation comedy."
Even more significant is that capitalism can do all this while enlisting the
voluntary cooperation of the very cultures being exploited. Inasmuch as capitalism
influences style and corrupts desire, minority culture, desiring what capitalism has
to offer, often offers itself up to be consumed. These observations are nothing new
to sociologists or Marxists; Marxists call the process "cultural
imperialism". Herbert Marcuses One-Dimensional Man is the
classic recent expression of this line of analysis.
What is new is the unprecedented influence of professional image-makers on
popular culture. Contemporary consumer culture features the systematic
construction of images of all kinds; "advertising" or
"commercials" are only a small part of the package. Practically all of
mainstream television is advertising in one form or another: what the characters
wear, eat, and drive, as well as how their houses are furnished, are all carefully
chosen, and certainly send as many messages as what the characters say. The
fashion and cosmetics industries iconize images of beauty, which change regularly
in response to market forces (as they lose their power to arouse), and which serve
to encourage the contemplation of more exotic objects of desire, encouraging the
intermarriage that further dilutes racial diversity. It seemed that every young man
in America was in love with Asian women after Shogun. Think of the images
that flood magazines and television and political advertisements nowadays. It
seems clear, to me, that great care is taken to include representatives of diverse
races and ethnic groups, i.e., capitalist consumer culture wants to sell to everyone.
Members of minority cultures, and disaffected youth of the mainstream culture,
can buy rap CDs, manufactured by the pop music establishment, that urge them to
kill white policemen. Capitalism has found the ideal way to "neutralize"
the legitimate rage of these youth. Ice T now speaks for them (they do not need
to speak for themselves). They can dress like him, thus supporting the fashion
establishment. They can drink his brand of beer, and wear his brand of athletic
shoes. They can wear Malcolm X caps. They voluntarily spend their money in ways
guaranteed to make profit for someone else, thus impoverishing themselves and
reinforcing the gap between the economic classes. Capitalism, meanwhile,
doesnt have to worry that Ice T will say anything really radical (like "
Lets get rid of consumer culture"), because Ice T is becoming rich
within the system. Madonna plays at being a "sexually liberated
woman"; she co-opts the language of the womens movement and gay
liberation to make money for herself and for Time-Warner (the giant
communications conglomerate to whom she is under contract for movies, CDs, and
books). At the same time she reinforces the traditional fantasy of woman as sex
object, thus making it more difficult in the long run for women, especially older
women, to be heard. Benetton ads show homosexual AIDS victims dying in the arms
of their parents. The scandalous music of 25 years ago (the Doors "
Light My Fire", the Beatles "Revolution") now sells cars. Malcolm X
becomes a Hollywood icon. Coca-Cola co-opts the religious language of universal
brotherhood and sisterhood (people of all ages, colors, and costumes holding hands,
walking forward through the meadow into the future together sharing Cokes) while
making huge profits from the sale of sugared water that rots the teeth of children
in countries where there is no dental care. And no one is forcing them to buy Coke.
As minority cultures of all kinds are mainstreamed, the majority culture itself
changes, which in turn fertilizes changes in minority tastes and buying habits.
Marketing strategies are narrowed to maximize profits, which often means
maintaining and perpetuating economic class differences, now chosen more
or less voluntarily by the economically already-oppressed, who willingly fork over
their hard-earned money for Nikes and Coke and Madonna CDs. No really radical
statements are ever widely heard or, if heard, understood; and we can hardly
expect to hear any enlightenment from the mainstream media. Who are the
sponsors after all? "The more the marginal, the exotic, and the new become
central to the culture, the more everything begins to send the same
messages." Even de Tocqueville noticed this. Given capitalisms
tendency to overwhelm indigenous cultures, the more I emphasize my difference,
the more my difference is liable to be either marginalized or co-opted for profit. And
the more my difference is exploited for profit the more fashionable it
becomes to be "different" the more culturally alike we all
become. Class distinctions, however, are maintained.
Capitalism has a stake in the maintenance of minority cultures difference
as long as minority cultures can (safely, unthreateningly) furnish the exotic and
new for sale, and as long as minorities furnish markets. This is how advanced
capitalism works. But as minority cultures are assimilated, the majority culture
becomes more and more like a can of mixed paint and less like a mosaic.
Capitalism does not care whether or not consumers are uniform, as long as they are
docile since as long as they are docile, they will eventually become more
and more uniform.
Thus, I am skeptical of the claim that West Valley students need classes in
multiculturalism in order to combat attitudes of racism and sexism which are
thought to perpetuate injustice. I want to be very clear about this: racism and
sexism do help perpetuate injustice, and we should certainly strive to eradicate
these attitudes wherever they exist. But they are perhaps merely symptoms of
forces so large and all-pervasive that they become invisible, like air. Our students
are, as we all know, TV children; and that exposure to TV images has both good
and bad sides. One of the good elements is that TV and other media, as well as the
K-12 classrooms themselves, have been much more diverse since the 1970s than
previously. As a result, my students do not appear to harbor any serious
racism or sexism.
I may be completely wrong; my students, after all, wouldnt be likely to
express racist or sexist views in front of me, since I am critical of such attitudes in
class. On the other hand, I encourage my students to express controversial views,
if only for the sake of argument. I have observed that my students are bored by
racism and sexism as ethical issues; they are far more interested in talking about
the environment. They consider racism and sexism to be utterly uncontroversial
the "old-fashioned" ethical issues of their parents
generation. They are "beyond all that". And they have reason to feel
that way: my students are already racially and ethnically diverse, and many have
been in similarly diverse classrooms their whole lives. They already work (and fall in
love) with people of other races and cultures.
On the whole, my students seem to be placidly cheerful children who try very
hard to be fair and above all avoid saying anything negative about anybody (to a
fault, I think). Very occasionally I hear an earnest well-intentioned comment like
"My best friend in sixth grade was (white or black or Vietnamese or Hispanic)
but it seemed like we couldnt be friends anymore in high school".
My students do complain about high school cliques, but the complaints seem to
have more to do the nature of cliques themselves than with any racial or ethnic
nature of cliques. (Cliques seem a generic high-school problem.) A few students
(whites and Asians particularly) also complain bitterly about affirmative action
programs, which they perceive as working against them. But the complaints do not
seem motivated by racism as much as by simple self-interest. These students are
not stupid: like most people, they can see that affirmative action programs are
fraught with ethical and practical dilemmas. So the students are always
careful to preface their criticisms with caveats like, "Sure, everybody
deserves an equal chance".
My students sexism seems to be more ingrained than racism not
surprising since TV sponsors rely on exploitative images of women to attract
viewers and sell products; MTV is particularly repellent. But I think TV culture has
done a good job teaching our students that racism, at least, is a bad thing.
The bad side of TV culture is that our students tend not to think critically
about any of the images they absorb (worthy or unworthy), and particularly do not
think critically about issues of class, or about values. Their world-views do not
seem formed or coherent enough to harbor strong opinions of any kind, let alone
attitudes of racism. Indeed, they do not appear to have "world-views"
at all; ideas and attitudes do not appear to "stick". Although if you ask
them, they will say that TV is "all lies", they nevertheless tend to
accept unreflectively the TV picture of the world, in which mostly young, bland,
physically attractive people with no serious commitments to religion, politics, or the
life of the mind are all reasonably well-off. The primary goal of most of my students
is to make enough money to buy the things those TV people all have, effortlessly,
in the TV fantasy world. My students seem too busy to be seriously racist
or sexist (or indeed to think much about anything at all). Their first loyalty is to the
Furthermore, even if our students were both racist and viciously sexist,
and a satisfactory multicultural curriculum were implemented, and that curriculum
were completely successful in eradicating their racism and sexism, I am not sure
that as long as consumerism rules, anybody would necessarily be any better off
economically, socially, or psychologically. I also doubt that getting rid of racism and
sexism would necessarily help create respect for indigenous cultures, or help them
be preserved. As long as capitalism continues to operate as it does, cultural
differences will disappear while unjust class differences remain. So like Menand, I
am skeptical that economic justice (which I consider the absolutely fundamental
pre-requisite for the attainment of social and psychological liberation) will be won
simply by focusing on cultural diversity.
In summary, I have been describing racism and sexism as both the particular
causes and long-term effects of economic forces, which are themselves morally
indifferent. Powerful men of every race have feared, exploited, and belittled the
less powerful the most cursory analysis of world history reveals that
exploitation was not invented, and was not solely perpetrated, by white men. And I
think the less powerful are always feared not because they are of a different race
or sex, but precisely because they are less powerful. Now that capitalism rules the
world, and the former underclasses have buying power, the overt exploitation and
belittling ceases. Most people at least pay lip service to ideals of equality and
human rights. But the influence of persuasive images is stronger than it ever was.
I explain these matters in order to make clear my own perspective on the issue
of cultural diversity in academia. It is vital to recognize the plures. But
social justice and improved quality of life for all will not necessarily be achieved (or
even helped) merely by emphasizing changes in personal attitudes, or by noting the
exotic features of non-mainstream cultures. We must also ask how these
attitudes and features came to be for example, how racism and sexism
serve to perpetuate the current economic status quo, or how the images
put forth by corporate advertising, with their double messages (poverty is a shame,
buy our product and stay poor), can be unmasked.
Perhaps proponents of multicultural education take for granted that the
appropriate economic analysis will accompany instruction in multiculturalism;
multiculturalists tend to be politically left of center, after all. Multiculturalism could
be a powerful instrument in the indictment of consumer culture. But too often, I
think, the case for multiculturalism is presented trivially, in the paranoid,
oversimplified language of inflammatory accusation or reverse stereotyping (e.g.,
Elijah Mohammeds "white devils" or Leonard Jeffries
"people of ice") or the off-putting, often baffling rhetoric of
victimization. Too often multiculturalism is defended with ethically and logically
suspicious arguments like relativism and deconstructionism (more on these
presently). Too often, inconvenient arguments and conclusions e.g., that
there may be a biological basis for xenophobia and sexism are ignored,
countered with simplistic name-calling (the sociobiologists must be
"racist" or "sexist"), or uncritically embraced. More on this
I have given a critique, based on economics, of some presentations of
multiculturalism. But I would like to make it clear that I am not advocating any
particular alternative political or economic arrangement. Like many of my
generation, I gave up on communism a long time ago. I am not saying that the
basic ideas of capitalism are all bad; on the contrary, I do not know what economic
system might be better (and Ive thought about this a lot). If some people,
by working harder or more thoughtfully, deserve to win, there is nothing inherently
unjust about a market economy or social stratification indeed, as both
blacks and whites have argued, it is just to reward desert, and if desert if not
rewarded, society is unjust. Besides, capitalism and contemporary
consumer culture can and sometimes do work to improve the general well-being of
everyone. And not just in obvious material ways, e.g., by rewarding people who
genuinely do good (inventors of life-saving products, for example). Less obvious
benefits but even more important long-term benefits include the generation and
promulgation of worthwhile ideal images of freedom and human rights, with the
implicit invitation to think critically about ones own culture. For I do not
think any culture, no matter how ancient or venerated, necessarily deserves to be cherished and preserved if it is clearly unjust or cruel to any persons;
slavery, foot-binding, clitoridectomy, genocide, etc. have been enthusiastically
sanctioned in many cultures, both Western and non-Western; but in my view they
can never be ethically sanctioned, and the more people are exposed to the ideals
of freedom and universal human rights, the better. To sum up, a market economy,
at minimum, gives at least some persons the freedom to achieve all they can. It
gives to all but the most disadvantaged citizens the ability to vote with their
pocketbooks for corporations that are socially and ecologically responsible. And it
provides worthwhile ideals of freedom and human rights that invite people to think
critically about more repressive systems. For that reason, the more ardent
defenders of capitalism argue that capitalism itself fights the good fight against
racism and sexism: although capitalism inevitably produces winners and losers, at
least the winners are chosen fairly, on the basis of their diligence, cleverness, etc.,
and not because of race or sex.
Well, that is the ideal, of course. But as a matter of fact, in practice, capitalism
is essentially conservative: the rich, once they are rich, tend to be immune from
the forces of the market. They stay rich; it is well-known that "the rich get
richer". So, fair-minded people argue, we must make a "more level
playing field". And I am simply arguing here that the more level playing field
isnt necessarily going to be created as long as people (men, women, white,
non-white) keep mindlessly shopping. In fact, shopping keeps the field stratified.
I would like to mention an argument that, if successful, qualifies my conclusion
somewhat. I sometimes hear that racism and sexism are far more important factors
than a purely economic analysis (such as I have given) would indicate; even if we
could fix the world economically, we would still find ourselves struggling with racism
and sexism, because unfortunately those nasty traits are simply built in to human
nature. So you can argue and fight all you want for equality and universal human
rights and social justice, but racism and sexism will always be with us, because
they are have a genetic basis.
For example, ethologists such as Konrad Lorenz argue that aggression and
conflict are natural, especially among young males, who fight to impress females; in
the process, evolution weeds out weaker males (thereby improving the gene pool)
and ensures that couples, and later families, have sufficient living space. E. O.
Wilson, in Sociobiology, points out that social animals who live in clans (like
humans) are naturally xenophobic, preferring to consort with animals who bear a
family resemblance to themselves, since they are more likely to find safety among
their own kin. His theory of kin selection says that individual animals are far more
likely to be altruistic on behalf of their kin than on behalf of unrelated animals. Kin
selection makes perfect sense from an evolutionary point of view. If the overriding
evolutionary goal is to get ones genes passed on to the next generation,
one might achieve that goal by simply having offspring oneself; but one might also
achieve it by ensuring the safety of kin, who share ones genes. So humans
(of all races) will naturally feel safer among people who look like themselves, and
will feel somewhat less secure among strangers. Hence there is nothing surprising
about racism; as long as the races do not intermarry (blurring and blending the
distinctive racial characteristics in the offspring), some xenophobia (of which racism
is an example) is perfectly natural.
Furthermore, since evolution, for the sake of efficiency in some habitats,
fosters division of labor in the rearing of offspring, and since females almost
invariably are the primary care-givers, evolution equips females with a set of built-
in interests and satisfactions quite different from those of males. Females are
typically weaker than males, and by nature less interested in social power and
position. Hence, the argument goes, human societies would probably run a lot
better if we adhered to natures division of labor. Women should find
satisfactions primarily in child-rearing, both for societys sake and for their
own sakes, since they will never be truly happy in any other role. And
Wilsons views give empirical support to the "natural law" style of
moral argument, which is still defended vigorously by the Catholic Church and is
enjoying a new popularity in theories of jurisprudence (Clarence Thomas is a famous
recent adherent). According to Wilson, human behavior is heavily influenced by
instincts which express the natural law or "human nature"
whether we like it or not.
Biological-determinist arguments cannot be dismissed as easily as you might
think. In the 1960s and 1970s, the ideas of Lorenz and Wilson were considered
merely speculative. Although the ideas were very controversial in academia, the
controversy was mostly "academic" and theoretical (philosophers
participated in the discussion!). However plausible and elegant the theories might
have appeared, technology did not yet exist to test them empirically. However,
biotechnology exploded in the 1980s, and Wilsons views on kin selection
have apparently been widely confirmed. They certainly appear to throw cold water
on liberal ideals of human perfectibility. I will not attempt to refute these ideas
here. The usual dismissal takes the line that "Humans are different from
animals, and you cant make a generalization about humans on the basis of
animal studies." But this response is less and less convincing to me, as I learn
more about developments in sociobiology, genetics, psycho-pharmacology, and
There is a difficult philosophical question beneath the controversy about
biological determination of behavior, namely, is there such a thing as "human
nature" in the first place? Right-wing thinkers tend to see human nature as
relatively fixed and dangerous; while the left has tended to view people as plastic,
capable of being molded by society and environment, and morally perfectible.
Humans are clearly not entirely plastic (at least at this point in the development of
technology), so if there is such a thing as human nature, to what extent does
human nature influence human behavior? What can we really expect from people?
Where do we draw the line between determinism and personal responsibility? West
Valleys Philosophy 6 (Philosophy of the Person) treats these questions very
seriously. The so-called "nature-nurture" problem in psychology is a
modern formulation of the old philosophical question. I bring up the background
philosophical and psychological question to illustrate that serious thinkers have
given (and continue to give) strong arguments for some degree of biological
determination of behavior. The opponent of racism and sexism cannot simply dismiss
the arguments with ad hominem rhetoric.
I bring up these arguments to indicate the complexity of the issues we face:
there are economic forces, which I have been emphasizing, but there may also be
other, even more basic forces, and multiculturalists must demonstrate that they
have thought seriously about these biological arguments. I think that
multiculturalists must participate in the discussion and analysis of the biological
arguments, and the deep philosophical questions they raise.
I think that multiculturalists are often justifiably wary of biological arguments
because Nazis and other white racists have used them to justify racism. So some
multiculturalists simply reject the arguments out of hand, refusing even to consider
them. They offer no counter-argument, only name-calling. I think it would be better
to acknowledge the arguments themselves without resorting to name-calling; for
what do the biological arguments really show after all? Not that the goal of equality
and universal human rights is impossible, but that the task is perhaps even more
daunting than anyone had imagined.
On the other hand, some separatist feminists and multiculturalists seem to
embrace the biological arguments. The separatists would like us to believe that the
sexes or the races can never get along; that there is a "natural"
warfare between the sexes and/or the races, so that the best solution is simply to
stay away from one another. I hear undertones of this sort of biological determinism
in the often-heard claim that all white people are racist (and all men are sexist)
no matter what they say or do. Spokespersons for minorities or feminists often
say this in liberal media like National Public Radios call-in program Talk of
the Nation or our local equivalent Forum. I find this claim tiresome and
absurd. Let me explain why.
I will first describe the typical radio exchange. The spokesperson claims that all
whites are racist (or all men are sexist). A caller brings forward counterexamples
instances of white or male persons who evidence no racism or sexism, who
in fact demonstrate exemplary, heroic adherence to principles of universal
brother(sister)hood. The caller says, "Look at Mother Teresa, look at Wes
Cummins, look at the white civil-rights workers murdered in the 60s, look at John
Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and all those white Union men who died in the Civil War.
Surely these counterexamples prove that not all white people are
racist." But the spokespersons invariably discount every supposed
counterexample. They reply, "Of course Wes (or Lincoln or whoever) is racist;
he cant help it, hes a white man. Maybe hes better than
most, but he is racist in his heart of hearts, perhaps even subconsciously. Perhaps
he doesnt even know it."
There is a logical problem here. The spokespersons accept no
counterexamples to the claim that all whites are racist. Any apparent
counterexamples are automatically judged bogus, so the claim that all whites are
racist becomes completely irrefutable. Philosophers always think twice (or three or
four times) about claims that cannot be supported or refuted by any evidence
whatsoever; they always ask whether anything substantive is really being asserted
at all. Lets not forget that no overt, empirical, intersubjective evidence
whatsoever exists to support that claim that Wes is racist; all the overt
empirical, intersubjectively verifiable evidence in fact points to the conclusion that
he is not. Surely it is far more rational to assume Wes is not
racist than that he is!
The defender of the "all white people are racist" line might now
reply that a person does not have to exhibit racist behavior in order to be racist,
i.e., a person might be racist even if s/he never behaves in a racist manner.
For example, a white man might "feel uncomfortable" with non-whites
(and vice-versa), even if his behavior is scrupulously fair. But surely any definition
of "racism" that relies on speculation about subjective events is
suspicious. Surely racism proper is a matter of behavior and thought, not feeling.
And surely "feeling uncomfortable" is not the same thing as racism.
Mere diffidence is not racism; perhaps I am simply shy. If I feel
uncomfortable in a room full of non-white strangers, it doesnt follow that
Id feel any more comfortable in a room full of white strangers. If I feel
offended, I might simply be a victim of "equal opportunity" rudeness
(some people are rude to everyone). "Feeling uncomfortable", "
feeling offended", "feeling hurt" are not necessarily indications
that a racial incident is occurring.
More importantly, if the definition of racism allows for a person to be racist
even in the absence of any racist behavior, then there is no way to distinguish
racist white people from non-racist ones. That is exactly the point, the separatist
might reply triumphantly: all white people are racist, even if they never
show it thats why there are no counterexamples. But the circularity
of the definition should now be obvious. Why do you say all whites are racist?
Because there are no counterexamples. And why are there no counterexamples?
Because all whites are racist.
I think, then, that we ought to treat biological determinist arguments with some
caution, since there are problems both with rejecting them outright and with
embracing them uncritically.
Finally, as a moral philosopher, I
would like to talk about values. Obviously capitalism, the biological arguments I
have mentioned, and superficial "Christian values" are connected in
interesting ways. All three world-views capitalism, Darwinism and its
children (ethology, sociobiology), and superficial Christianity have
historically been employed to reinforce each other, and to collectively mount an
attack on naive egalitarianism. For example, a certain amount of aggression is
supposed to help you succeed in capitalism, and what do you know, according to
ethology, its natural too. According to ethology and sociobiology, male
primates are "naturally" more aggressive than females, and thats
why according to naive Christianity, men should be the breadwinners. Men
are "by nature" morally tougher and more emotionally stable than
women, so only men should be priests. "Family values" are best, and
what do you know, its also natural for a woman to want to take care of
children, and its natural for people to prefer their own families over any
other people. Evolutions imperative is to produce as many offspring as
possible, and what do you know, Catholics agree that birth control is "
unnatural". Wars are "natural", of course, and can also be "
holy". Territoriality (imperialism) is natural, profit-making,
"civilizing", and soul-saving.
The bottom line in all these views is that there are winners and losers. Some
people lose in capitalism, some individuals and species lose in evolution, and some
people go to hell. Not everybody can win. Even if people start at the same gate
(which is doubtful), they simply do not end up "equal" at the finish line.
Here is where I want to say something in defense of my cherished liberal ideals
of "equal humanity", equal opportunity, and human perfectability given
the right social conditions. I reject facile generalizations about human hierarchy:
surely it is false that men are by nature superior to women, or that white people
are by nature superior to non-whites or vice-versa.
But I cannot help thinking that intelligence is better than stupidity, beauty
better than ugliness, able-bodiedness better than disability, strength better than
weakness, virtue better than wickedness. And I cant help but think people
who exemplify excellences, especially moral excellences, "better" than
people who dont. Clearly, such an attitude a "natural"
attitude, I would say is a denial of equality. Such an attitude is not "
fair"; many people cannot help being ugly or ill, people are not responsible for
their genes. Some people are luckier than others, in wealth or beauty or love or
temperament. I even think there is such a thing as moral luck. Some people
seem to experience fewer moral challenges, fewer temptations than others. People
who have faced poverty, emotional deprivation, or abuse are often morally unlucky,
because they are especially vulnerable to temptations to dishonesty, self-
deception, and self-pity. Kant, Aristotle, and Sartre all argue this point at length.
Fair or not, all this seems true. Life is unfair. Beautiful people are
worshipped, in all societies. Stronger, more cunning people win races and
societys prizes. So here is where I find myself stuck, and tending more and
more to political incorrectness. For I find myself thinking that there is something to
the notion of human hierarchy, too. The hierarchy isnt based on race or
sex; it seems based mostly on the luck of the evolutionary draw. The fact that
some people are almost bound to lose is, I think, part of what people mean by
intractable imperfectable "human nature".
Let me explain my position by a historical analogy. The main insight of Martin
Luther was his claim that humans are sinful by nature and simply cannot ever
become good enough to deserve heaven by their own efforts; they must trust
entirely in Gods grace. Thus the fundamental difference between Catholicism
and Protestantism is the degree of importance given to "works" (good
actions in the world). Catholics never stopped valuing works and continued to
stress the importance of successful character-formation the life of
virtue achieved by ones efforts of will, or, in a word, sainthood. Catholics do
not view saints as people especially helped by God; the idea of sainthood is much
more democratic anyone can become a saint by striving hard enough. I
think this is why Catholics tend to support more liberal solutions to social problems;
Catholics are fundamentally more optimistic than Protestants about what humans
can achieve through efforts of the will. In contrast, Protestantism of Luther
s type is fundamentally skeptical about what humans can achieve without grace.
Protestants dont have saints. Hence for Protestants of the Lutheran
tradition, works and success in character-formation assume a secondary role to
"faith" or "grace" (what I would call "luck").
In a way, what I am saying here is that I have become more
"Protestant" in my skepticism about what humans can achieve through
efforts of the will. (This is not to say I have converted to Lutheranism, just that I
agree with Luthers observations about "human nature".) The
notion of fixed, corruptible human nature unfair and unequal, just as the
Hindus say makes me skeptical about my old utopian ideals. I simply no
longer believe in the possibility of universal sainthood.
I find myself acknowledging more and more that life is unfair. We do
seem to be born unequal. We dont start from the same blocks, and we
dont all wear the same fetters.
Now, what follows from this? For me, not the Hindu or Platonic line
about knowing ones place and performing the duties of ones station
in life. I dont think we can know someone elses place. Free will
conditioned to be sure, but still something is the wild card.
Peoples excellences often take me by surprise, and they are unrelated to
race, sex, or social class. You simply cant tell what a person might achieve,
so you ought to give everyone a chance. So, I conclude we ought to try to
level the material, economic playing field; after all, its the one we have most
control over. We ought to fight for social justice. Maybe someday we can level the
genetic playing field as well.
Yet suppose wed done that. Would the game now be a tie? I don
t think so, not necessarily. Genes are only the beginning, equal opportunity is only
the beginning. People might still choose not to flourish. I am more and more of the
view that in spite of material inequalities or inequalities of self-esteem (a much
over-rated virtue, in my opinion), humans are equal in a large moral sense,
over the span of a life. I think mature people are responsible for how they have
played their hand morally and spiritually. I say this because of the common
observation that after some point in life (and I dont think we need to know
exactly when), most people cant convincingly blame anyone else for their
failure to thrive as human beings. Acknowledging that humans mostly contend with
more or less fixed tendencies to "sin" means that as long as
theres freedom, the moral playing field is going to be pretty level.
Human nature being what it is, the race isnt going to be a tie we
arent going to end up equal in virtue or happiness.
This is not to deny very real oppression and injustice. I am certainly not saying
that oppressed people should necessarily take the route of resignation, passivity,
and forgiveness. I am saying, however, that that route makes some sense for some
people; and the older one becomes, the more sense it makes. Economic justice is
vital; we can never lose sight of it. But, unfortunately, it is neither necessary nor
sufficient for what I consider true human liberation; and if I have learned anything
on this sabbatical, it is that older civilizations, such as those of the Third World and
even Europe, are far more skeptical than Americans about the importance of
possessions or social position or legal rights for making a person happy or free or
good. All the great world religions, including Christianity, are about coming to terms
with limits. They are about realizing that the world is not what you might like, that
life is often unfair, that the evil prosper and the good suffer, that striving is often in
vain, that you die, etc. Hindu women, for example, commonly insist that they are
free in spite of their obviously inferior and unequal status; they do not understand
womens liberation. It is taken for granted in Hinduism that some people will
always be exploited and on the bottom of the social heap. Hinduism, Confucianism,
and Platonism see the ideal society as radically unequal ones social
or economic role has little if any relation to personal happiness or the worth of
The insight of old civilizations is that human existence is always conditioned; no
one escapes biology or some form of indoctrination. Freud (a deep thinker in spite
of the many ways in which we might disagree with him) adds that no one escapes
humiliation: the price of civilization is damaged self-esteem. Humiliation is the
inevitable result of the trauma of learning we are not the center of the universe.
We may never fully recover from this; but if we do, it is by giving up our infantile
desire to have everything we want and identifying ourselves with some set of moral
rules or principles choosing those rules as our rules. (Freud calls this the
development of a super-ego.) Freud notes our ambivalence here. He observes that
some people deal with the humiliation by making it their primary source of psycho-
sexual pleasure. The existence of masochists (people who delight in enslavement)
of both sexes, masochists of all races and social classes, people who apparently
have no desire to be "equal", is another disquieting reality for liberals.
At best, Freud says, we make an uneasy and failed compromise with our infantile
selves; hence, the inevitable "discontent" of civilized people.
I agree with Freud that civilized peoples self-esteem is inevitably
curtailed if not by parents or school, then by love, work, or simply aging.
We escape and become free, as Freud and Kant say, by choosing to do the right
thing without considering the consequences for our little selves by setting
status and self-interest aside, to the extent that this is possible, given "
human nature". If society were just, personal liberation wouldnt be so
much a matter of moral and material luck. But even if society were just, not
everyone would choose to be free.
I do not want to say these are my settled views on the question of human
nature, but this is where I currently sit. These views lead me inevitably to ponder
the moral challenges of contemporary American society. As I have indicated, I do
not think those challenges are really racism or sexism. And I think much is lost when
public discourse becomes polarized along racial or sexual lines, as the debate over
multiculturalism reveals it to be. We cannot endlessly emphasize our membership in
victimized groups. We cannot endlessly obsess about how as children we
didnt get what richer, better-loved, better-treated white boys got. That
was last week, last year, five or ten or thirty or fifty years ago. Thats the
past. Multiculturalism and feminism today wont get me a quinceañ
era. Affirmative action in 1993 wont get me into medical school in 1967.
Consumer culture offers the consolation of money and possessions. Yet like
Marcuse, I am profoundly suspicious of it, and oppressed people should be
particularly wary. It can perpetuate unjust social stratification and in the paradise
of "stuff", people do not necessarily seem better or happier. Quite the
contrary. In consumer culture, you can express yourself intelligibly only through
your consumption, through your purchases; your identity is tied up in the products
you buy; your very self is merely another "package" on display. (No
wonder students resist the self-promotion required to obtain a "real"
job; it is nothing but "grooming for the camera", which they
understand.) Not excellence, but the appearance of excellence counts. Not
honesty and diligence, but the show. (Its always show time.) The goal of
life is to become an image, a shadow self to be seen a certain way,
but never to see. But that goal is perverse: a life of passivity, consuming
prepackaged images and being consumed by them. Only the image-makers profit;
but more importantly, we lose sight of our active, whole-hearted, authentic, best
It is my job as a philosopher to try to think things through. Thus I cannot help
bringing up philosophical matters that seem to me obviously essential but usually
overlooked in the multiculturalism debate. I suppose that at bottom, I do not even
think most peoples problems are "essentially" economic; they are
spiritual, moral, philosophical (surprise!). And they are not new or particularly
modern (though I think they are characteristically Western because of the Western
tradition of individuality). The lure of "stuff" makes most
Americans (rich and poor) voluntarily surrender their cultural and spiritual identities
in favor of passive consumerism at least for a time.
Thus, like Menand, I am skeptical about the usual rather superficial arguments
given for multiculturalism. I think these arguments obscure the real underlying
issues of economic power, social justice, quality of life, and spiritual and ethical
priorities. Achieving the goals of multicultural education wont necessarily
eliminate economic class divisions; it may actually help perpetuate them by simply
creating more diverse persuasive images (as it is realized, e.g., that images of
African-Americans can sell athletic shoes, that images of Asian-Americans can sell
milk, that non-white fashion models can sell clothes and cosmetics and novel
hairstyles, etc.). But personal liberation is more than "self-expression"
through consuming; the wants I can satisfy at the mall arent necessarily my
best selfs desires. A citizen is more than a consumer. A good person is more
than a good shopper. Although people (both rich and poor) might feel better in the
short run by making purchases (which are most often merely symbolic), they are no
closer to genuine personal liberation.
I begin to understand myself and my life by understanding my culture or
my race or my sexs history and position; multicultural education is essential.
But much of what passes for education demands only passivity from students. The
struggle to finally become my best self is active, difficult, and potentially
lonely, as Richard Rodriguez argues eloquently in Hunger of Memory. That
struggle might well alienate me from my family, my community, my race, my sex, my
culture itself; many authentic lives are scandalous. Seeking ones truest and
best self, immune to "consuming images", requires great courage,
because from the perspective of consumer culture, it is a downright subversive