What Is Multiculturalism?
October 1996 | Eric Mack
Occasionally one thinks that, perhaps because it has become so tedious, multiculturalism
has begun to pass from the scene. Unfortunately, such thoughts seem entirely too
optimistic in light of the great extent to which multiculturalist slogans have
become culturally and institutionally ensconced, the great emotional and financial
stake that multiculturalists have in perpetuating their visions, and the degree
to which, usually under false pretenses, multiculturalists are able to initiate
new believers into their sect. So it probably is still of some value to offer
a dissection and critique of the ideology of multiculturalism—a dissection
and critique that focuses on the rotten core rather than the surface that is polished
for marketing purposes.
Behind the mask of a benign celebration of diversity lies a deeply corrosive
rejection of all general norms, rules, or truths. This rejection of general
norms, both those dealing with knowledge and those dealing with morals, derives
from multiculturalism’s insistence that there are many essentially closed systems
of perception, feeling, thought, and evaluation—each associated with some
racially, ethnically, or sexually defined group. Thus, multiculturalism quite
explicitly and appropriately sees itself as rejecting the Enlightenment belief
in standards of reason, evidence, and objectivity, and principles of justice
and freedom that apply to all human beings.
Multiculturalism is, in effect, a dressed up and politicized version of cultural
relativism—the doctrine that every group has its own distinct but equally
sound patterns of perception, thought, and choice. According to cultural relativism,
no one can validly object to beliefs and actions of any group which reflect
that group’s own indigenous worldview. While cultural relativists have always
claimed to be friends of tolerance—indeed the only true friends of tolerance—this
doctrine actually implies that no one can object to any group’s intolerance,
if intolerance is that group’s thing. Neither the cultural relativist nor the
multiculturalist can object to Mayan infant sacrifice, or Spanish Inquisitional
torture, or Nazi genocide because each of these practices is validated by the
perspective within which it arises. To criticize indigenous intolerance or any
culturally authentic practice no matter how brutal or exploitative, one must
apply general, trans-cultural norms which both cultural relativism and its multicultural
descendent denounce as imperialist. But multiculturalism’s moral relativism
precludes any such appeal and, hence, it precludes any affirmative case for
In addition to its moral relativism, multiculturalism also proclaims (as the
one great Objective Truth) that all truth, objectivity, and evidence are also
relative. Each culture has its own truth, objectivity, and standards of reason
and evidence. Thus, whatever beliefs any culture emits, they are validated by
the fact of their emission. This, of course, precludes any rational dialogue
among individuals. Each individual is merely a representative of a certain biologically
defined perspective with its own idiosyncratic, but self-validating, biases.
Hence, each individual must agree with members of his or her own group and be
unable to make rational contact with members of other groups.
By chanting his mantra of relativism, the multiculturalist can evade honest
confrontation with all intellectual challenges. Consider the argument that multiculturalism
cannot support tolerance since grotesquely intolerant social orders can be as
true to their distinctive ways of perceiving, cognizing, and feeling, as any
other social order. According to the multiculturalist mantra, this argument
itself is merely an expression of one particular perspective, the Eurocentric—hence,
linear and logocentric mode of perception and thought. Thus, this challenge,
like all attempts at rational disputation, can be rejected by anyone who doesn’t
feel that way about it.
In contrast to the multiculturalist, the genuine advocate of tolerance believes
that, despite the profound differences among individuals, there are some fundamental
general norms—including standards of rational discourse and norms that
extend freedom and the protection of justice to all persons in virtue of their
common humanity. Only such general norms provide a principled basis for rejecting
the suppression of disliked opinion, speech, religious conviction, economic
decisions, and so on. It is precisely to the extent that we articulate and comply
with such rules that each of us, strange as we are to others and strange as
many others are to us, are able to live at peace, indeed, in fruitful mutual
advantage with one another.
Multiculturalism modifies cultural relativism in two important ways. First,
it ignores cultures as ordinarily understood and focuses instead on biologically
defined groups within our society who may be recruited into political alliances
based on heightening their sense of alienation and victimization. Thus, as the
perceived political opportunities dictate, the multiculturalist focuses on the
supposed existence of sui generis Afrocentric, Female, Hispanic, Homosexual,
and/or Native American modes of thought and feeling.
Multiculturalism is fundamentally anti-individualistic because it expects each
individual to conform in his or her perceptions, thoughts, and assessments to
those pronounced to be the authentic perceptions, thoughts, and assessments
of that individual’s group. All genuine blacks must share the Black perspective.
All genuine women must share the enshrined Female perspective. All homosexuals
must share the Homosexual perspective—and so on. Your thoughts are either
the collectively constituted thoughts of your racial, ethnic, or sexual group
or they are thoughts insidiously imposed upon you by the dominant White Male
perspective. Group-think is the mark of authenticity. Multicultural diversity
both radically cleaves humanity into disparate biological collectivities and
radically homogenizes people within these collectivities. For the multiculturalist,
diversity is merely superficial.
Multiculturalism’s second modification of cultural relativism consists in its
expulsion of one supposed worldview—what multiculturalism misidentifies
as the White Male perspective—from the Eden of equally sound worldviews.
All group perspectives are equal, but one is less equal than others. The supposed
reasoning on behalf of this expulsion is that the so-called White Male worldview
is uniquely guilty of commitment to common objective norms of thought and action.
Hence, it is said, this rogue perspective uniquely stands in judgment of other
worldviews, subjecting them to its wickedly colonialist epistemic and moral
standards. Thus, this perspective—as befits its White, Male, heterosexual
roots—is uniquely totalizing, aggressive, and victimizing.
In reality, of course, what is being condemned by multiculturalism is not some
idiosyncratic White male, heterosexual perspective, but rather the human enterprise
of seeking, articulating, and employing general norms that help us to distinguish
between the true and the false, the plausible and the implausible, the good
and the evil, the permissible and the impermissible.
The irony is that multiculturalism wants to hew to its own judgments about
the special defects of Western thought and the special injustice and oppressiveness
of the liberal Western social and economic order while insisting that it cannot
be expected to justify (or even identify) the philosophical or empirical premises
of its own judgments. The excuse for this irresponsibility is the ritualistic
claim that to accept these demands for justification is to succumb to the Eurocentric
hegemony. Yet, at the same time, we are supposed to accept the truth of the
multiculturalists’ historical and cultural analyses and the verity of their
Multiculturalism presents us, then, with the spectacle of sweeping, confident,
and impassioned moral, historical, economic, sociological, and aesthetic judgments
and a simultaneous and often self-righteous refusal to take any intellectual
responsibility for any of those judgments.
Was Hitler Evil?
In a campus debate a couple of years ago with an earnest multiculturalist,
I strove to help her see that she could not both accept multiculturalism’s relativism
and continue confidently to proclaim the profound evils of various regimes.
In desperation, I appealed to the instance of Hitler and Nazism. Given this
relativism, I asked her, can you even assert that Hitler was evil? Well, she
said after a moment of thought, I’m not valorizing him.
The primary purpose of multiculturalist educational proposals is to instill
in students and (increasingly) in employees and the population at large the
demonology that the apparently benign, tolerant, liberal order is actually the
most profoundly oppressive order ever to have existed. People are to be initiated
into the delights of victimhood. They are to learn how to perceive themselves
as victims (or victimizers)—not of superficial wrongs like murder, mayhem,
and robbery—but of ever so subtle, exquisitely cunning, psycholinguistic
domination. It is psycholinguistic domination, i.e., the construction of seductively
hegemonic themes and discourses, that make the derivative evils of racial or
sexual exploitation possible (indeed, inevitable). To recognize oneself as such
a victim is to attain multiculturalist enlightenment and, not inconveniently,
an all-purpose ticket for the increasingly lucrative multiculturalist gravy
Students especially are to be taught that arguments, doctrines, works of art,
or policy are never to be evaluated on their own merits. For there is no such
thing as the objective merit or demerit of an argument, doctrine, work of art,
or policy. Rather, these and all the other products of the human mind are to
be revealed as mere valorizations of power. They are to be deconstructed to
disclose their inner character as instruments of repression—or, presumably
in the case of the privileged construction known as multiculturalism, as an
instrument of heroic resistance.
But is resistance objectively different from repression? Is resistance objectively
better than repression? These sly questions might tempt the unwary multiculturalist
back into the clutches of Enlightenment discourse. But the well-versed multiculturalist
can recognize the serpent with her alluring offer of knowledge and can, as his
greatest act of resistance, doggedly close his mind.
Throughout the academy and eventually society at large, the multiculturalist
demands that the classification of people by race, ethnicity, sex and/or sexual
orientation be emphasized at every possible opportunity. Individuals are not
to be seen or judged as individuals but as tokens of this or that tribe or caste.
Since no one from one tribe (with the exception of white males) can be judged
by members of any other tribe, each racial, ethnic, or sexual group must be
assigned its own homeland, its own reservation within the university and within
the worlds of commerce (cf., set-asides) and government (cf., Lani Guinier).
Between the homelands comprising this new form of apartheid there can be, if
multiculturalism is correct, no rational discourse, no rational evaluation,
and perhaps not even mutual understanding. Given the premises of multiculturalism,
there cannot even be any rational accommodation among the worldviews that are
now supposed to be strategically united in their struggle against the White
Multiculturalism is the esoteric form of virulent ethnic politics. Remove what
the multiculturalists describe as Male Eurocentric dominance and what, in reality,
is the residue of liberal tolerance and belief in the efficacy of rational investigation
and debate, and multiculturalism will proceed to do for the liberal university
and for liberal society what ethnic politics has done for Yugoslavia.