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Multiculturalism and the False Lure of Cultural Relativism

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 7, 2009
Cultural pluralism is fine, writes Tristan Ewins, but it does not expunge the need for moral judgment.

In Australia, multiculturalism has risen to the point where it is now perceived as a symbol of our maturation as a diverse, cosmopolitan liberal society. Having broken decisively with that Eurocentric orientation which derived identity from the old ties of Empire, and with old reactionary notions of ‘racial purity’, Australia has emerged as one of the most culturally pluralist communities on the planet.

Countless Diaspora communities now call Australia home: African, Jewish, Kurdish, Greek, Serbian, Croatian, Turkish – Australia is a veritable patchwork of ethnic identities. As many commentators have suggested, the benefits of this process have been innumerable, emerging as a complex process of cross cultural fertilization that, at times, has worked to develop cross cultural understanding, sensitivity and rich cultural diversity.

And yet the multicultural phenomenon, which has been interpreted by many as comprising a policy of ‘cultural relativism’ and ‘anything goes’, could never have emerged were it not for the liberal political foundations upon which it was built.

In the form of liberalism, the world’s ‘liberal democracies’ are (theoretically) enmeshed in a universalistic rights discourse which provides the foundations upon which their implicit social contracts are based.

These liberal foundations, largely individualist in their orientation, seek to secure for the individual such rights as freedom of expression, assembly and speech. They seek the Kantian ideal of individual autonomy and dignity, and move to consolidate these rights in law.

It is within this framework that a multiplicity of collective struggles for recognition and emancipation have also been able to take place, whether we refer here to the women’s liberation movement, the queer movement, or the strivings of Australia’s many-varied ethnic communities.

As individuals, after all, we are all also bound or influenced by collective forms of organisation, interest and identity. There are, of course, difficulties with the liberal approach, not least of which is its traditional emphasis on the sanctity of property (the result of liberalism’s birth in the era of bourgeois revolutions), its neglect of social rights, and its assumption that all conflicts and struggles can effectively be mediated away by the State.

Then there is the glaring inconsistency of ostensible ‘liberal democracies’ pursuing Imperialist policies, and sponsoring terroristic and repressive regimes overseas. Left critics of classical liberalism might, therefore, prefer to posit ‘liberal socialism’ as a potential alternative, enshrining civil liberties, while also allowing rights of social well-being and justice, founding itself upon global human solidarity, and not seeking to negate (via state mediation), the dynamic of class struggle.

Nevertheless, when compared to the world’s authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, the benefits of liberal society, in which struggles for emancipation and recognition have been able to take place, are self-evident, even despite the frequent violation by the State of the liberal foundations upon which its legitimacy is based.

The problem with ‘cultural relativist’ and ‘moral relativist’ interpretations of multiculturalism, then, is that in its avowed philosophy of ‘anything goes’, the policy and practice of liberal multiculturalism stands in danger of being cut off at its roots by its own extreme interpretation.

Deprived of consensual universal foundations: of mutual communication, understanding, and social and individual rights, the liberal, or else liberal socialist, project stands to collapse.

Daring to start, once more, from universalistic foundations, it is possible to suggest that the cornerstone of any truly liberated society ought rather be the elimination of relations of domination, oppression, and senseless bigotry, thus best allowing for the blooming of individual autonomy, security and dignity. Certain collective ‘identities’, however, by their very nature, attempt to validate relations of oppression, hatred and dominance.

Chauvinist nationalism has consistently been found to be complicit with centuries of colonialism, neo-colonialism, imperialism and even genocide. Chauvinist nationalism amongst Australia’s diaspora communities ought not, therefore, be considered a valid expression of ‘identity’ and ‘difference’, but ought be identified for its real nature: the role it plays in festering senseless hatred, and in blinding us to our shared humanity.

It is worth asking, therefore, whether the Australian nation is best built without recourse to traditional nationalism. The weight of History seems to suggest an affirmative response, despite the enduring and tempting impulse for collective identity.

At best perhaps a ‘self-critical’ nationalism – one which embodies the ideal of pluralism, compassion and justice without hypocrisy – and exploding past chauvinist myths -might be reconcilable with our better nature.

Similarly, we should be wary of those who, for the sake of ‘identity’ and ‘difference’ remain uncritical of race-inspired movements for identity, even as others struggle valiantly to deconstruct and criticise the concept of race. If race exists – regardless, one is not essentially superior to the other.To take the critique further, we may also consider those collective identities that incorporate within themselves relations of oppression, degradation or unusual cruelty.

In the current environment of hysteria which has reached new heights in the post September 11 world one needs to keep in mind that the practice of female circumcision amongst Muslims is not prevalent in Australia, and is overwhelmingly the domain of the fundamentalist fringe. Nevertheless, this pertinent example of cruel and unusual cultural practices demonstrates clearly the potential for perceived individual and group rights, to clash in an irreconcilable fashion.

Today’s Left, in place of a universalistic orientation, has instead established an arbitrary hierarchy of identity based struggles for recognition, informed by a fashionable favouring of ‘difference’ as an end in itself.

For the feminist movement, for instance, assumptions underlying the liberation struggle are critical:

Because the struggle for women’s liberation is usually thus viewed as being of a higher order than the pluralist ideal, many would no doubt choose to make an exception to the usual blind celebration of ‘difference’ in some instances.

Regardless of pluralist assumption, most women are utterly horrified at the barbarity of female genital mutilation.

And yet – having set this precedent – we are confronted with the question of whether, even in an avowedly pluralist order, we can afford to accept, for the sake of collective cultural autonomy, ANY, let alone ALL, relations or acts of oppression, exploitation, degradation or unusual cruelty.

The question of traditional tribal punishments such as spearing raise similar issues and contradictions, although the indigenous case for cultural autonomy is, no doubt, the strongest case of all, given the imposition of European civilization through conquest. (hence the urgent need for a negotiated Treaty to provide closure to this festering injustice)

The dilemma here, though, is that incarceration in White man’s prisons is also felt by many to be an indignity, and a cruel form of punishment in of itself.

And yet, in a rarely considered observation, members of various cultural groups find themselves enmeshed in the workings of power that predominate throughout said collectives: workings that can well inhibit individual autonomy, dignity and freedom, on pain of social exclusion, or worse.

The rights of cultural groups to collective autonomy and self-determination thus need also to be considered alongside the rights of individuals. Progressives, for instance, do not generally support the death penalty in the United States as a practice that should be spared the scrutiny of our moral judgment on account of its comprising an instance of the American peoples’ ‘cultural self determination’.

The context of conquest and colonialism in the instance of the suppression of indigenous culture demands greater sensitivity – especially to the question of self-determination. And yet – even here – the need for sensitive moral judgment is not expunged. The problem of coming to judgments about ‘other’ cultures is complicated also by a variety of other factors.

To begin with, there are inevitable difficulties in determining clearly delineated boundaries where cultures ‘begin’ and ‘end’. As various philosophers and other commentators have been prone to ask: “Who are we?” and “Who are ‘they?’”.

The truth – that we live in a complex world of interpenetrating cultural influences and identities – where more than ever we are all ‘interconnected’ – makes any moral and cultural relativist objection to cross-cultural judgment appear all the more untenable.

‘Cultures’ are not, after all, monolithic wholes, but are complex, socially constructed ‘texts’ which are ‘read’ and interpreted by individuals in various ways. Thus responsibility of the individual for moral judgment and existential choice cannot so easily be exorcised by appeal to cultural and moral relativism.

The dilemmas and challenges thus facing the multicultural project are great. There can be no doubt as to the benefits of a diverse and pluralist social order. Nevertheless, any cohesive society must be founded on the basis of communication, understanding, and a shared and consistent regime of individual and social rights.

Multicultural pluralism, therefore, cannot survive without placing limits upon itself, encouraging critical and sensitive moral judgment, and preserving its roots in liberal or liberal socialist universalism. Group autonomy and self-determination, thus, are important principles in of themselves, but for radicals they ought always be contextualized within the broader projects of human emancipation, and the struggle for human dignity.

Tristan Ewins


Tristan Ewins is an experienced freelance writer, BA Social Sciences (1st class Hons) graduate, qualified teacher, and Australian Labor Party activist,  He is also a “self-confessed ‘liberal socialist’”

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