Polyculturalism and Norway: Getting Culture Right

Polyculturalism and Norway: Getting Culture Right – Published on Michael McGehee’s Blog, (on ZSpace /Z Writers Blogs), by Michael McGehee, July 27, 2011.

… The relevance of Prashad’s book is his criticism of multi-culturalism (as well as color blind racism) and advocacy of polyculturalism. Prashad’s argument—and I agree with him—is that multi-culturalism is divisive. Multi-culturalism leads us to believe that there are these clear, distinct cultures that are different from one another, and that we should respect these differences. In fact we should celebrate these differences.

But there are problems. 

For one, we are more alike than we are different, which means we have more common ground to explore than differences . . . in which to attack each other from. Maybe I am wrong but it seems that we haven’t really done well at celebrating our differences. More than anything, we hype our differences to escalate it and drive unnecessary tensions (sometimes to serve ulterior motives).

And the idea that cultures exist in clear boundaries is just not accurate. Furthermore, cultures are not static. They are fluid. They are constantly in the making, and are holistically related to other cultures (as well as other facets of social life like politics, kinship, ecology and economics). Even as individuals our identities are the product of many cultures, often supposedley conflicting ones. As a white man in a white supremacist society I am of course a part of “white culture” but my tastes in music, food, language, art and more also links me to “black” and “hispanic” and “Asian” cultures.

Is it any wonder that when we base our cultural identities off of our perceived, and sometimes real, differences from others, and then call for tolerance, that some groups (usually the dominant ones) feel threatened and lash out? It can’t just be me who notices that we often define ourselves by what, or who, we are against; that we create groups in which to identify with and that the confines of these groups are, at best, unclear, and at worse, counter-productive since, again, we are one species with various cultures that are inter-related and alike in more ways than not. Perhaps it would be better to view what we currently call “culture” as a “subculture”—that is, variations of the common, wider culture we all share (and what these commonalities are, I think, should be a focal point if we are to improve social relations). This kind of approach is called “polyculturalism,” and was surprisingly advocated (though not directly referred to) with a Jerusalem Post paraphrased Amartya Sen as saying, “Without a shared cultural foundation, no meaningful communication among diverse groups is possible.” [Note on JP: I just want to point out that, yes, I get that Israel is hardly a model of polyculturalism, and the writer's comment about the peace initative in Oslo being "misguided" suffers from some serious revisionist errors.] … //

… Last, if we want to keep count of which “cultures” have a large amount of skeletons in their closet, Christians like Breivik should be very cautious. A “historical” look at the deaths caused by Christianity would make Islam and Communism look pale in comparison. In the America’s alone and just limited to the deaths of the indigenous people we are talking about 100 million lives taken. A look at the wars, inquisitions, slavery and pogrom’s of Christianity over the world would no doubt leave quite an ugly mark. The problem here, and what Breivik fails to understand, is that what are often called cultural conflicts are more than that. Many times they have more to do with economics (i.e. fighting over land and resources) than cultural differences.

Thanks to the War on Terror (which should really be called the War of Terror) there is a vicious cycle where pious Muslims attribute the political and economic hardships they endure (because of the US capitalist empire) as a division between them and non-Muslims (i.e. the War on Islam), and likewise, non-Muslisms see a similar division where Muslims are trying to takeover and undermine their Western (Christian) societies. When in fact the real problem is imperialism and capitalism, not the mythical clash of civilizations!

And while there is something to say about the skeletons in the closets of various cultures the real issue as I see it is how to go about resolving them. The multi-culturalism approach is flawed. However, just because it is flawed doesn’t mean we should seek assimilation under a mass culture of nationalism, like right-wing fanatics. Clearly whatever flaw we can attribute to a culture we can likely find it in almost all others, highlighting the absurdity of a proponent of one religion (or “race”) accusing another of being violent and hateful. I find it hard to believe that various cultures can constructively and productively influence each other in order to transcend their shortcomings by relying on violence, oppression, or walling themselves off and creating, or exasperating, differences. Instead, recognizing the inter-connections of our cultural heritages—how, we, not only as individuals, but, as cultures are related—and how our cultures are fluid and ever-changing, influencing and being influenced by one another, we should be building a foundation of common ground that centers around how “the fact that we have multiple, overlapping identities and belong to multiple communities, [in] a world more interconnected in so many ways.” (Justin Podur). (full long text).

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