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Friday, June 01, 2012

Multiculturalism, Good and Bad

I recall Clifford Geertz (quoting someone else, I think), saying, "If you only know one culture, you don't know any." That is, you don't really see your own culture, as a whole, without an outside perspective from which to look at it. And that perspective can only be a second culture, since there are no "views from nowhere."

That effort to learn a second culture is the "good multiculturalism" of this post's title. It is very hard work. For one thing, you're going to have to become fluent in the language of that other culture. Without that, you're not even close. And to become fluent, you're going to have to absorb huge swaths of the rest of a culture.

That, of course, is way too much work for most Americans today. So what we get instead is multiculturalism that means, "Hey, I listen to Fela, know how to eat with chopsticks, and took three years of high-school Spanish!" Then this little cultural pu pu platter is used as a weapon to avoid having to behave properly even in one's own culture. "I belched loudly at the end of dinner? So what? The X of the Y rain forest do that all the time!" Avoiding the fact that the X do this because in their culture, that is the right way to end dinner, and not to belch is considered disgusting.

Once you see the truth of the above, you realize another funny thing: American education in the 19th-century was far, far more multicultural, in the sense of actually learning another culture, than is today's education. Yes, it may have been only the Greeks and Romans who were considered worthy of our study, but at least students then actually studied them to the point that they could read a serious book in Latin or Greek, and compose in the languages. Sure, it would have been great if a few more cultures were permitted on the curriculum, but at least most students had to seriously grapple with at least one other culture.

You've mastered two or more cultures? Great! Zero? Not so much.

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