The World Is Not a Zoo

This essay by Kenan Malik is so damn right it almost hurts. Choice bits:

Modern multiculturalism seeks self-consciously to yoke people to their identity for their own good, the good of that culture and the good of society. A clear example is the attempt by the Quebecois authorities to protect French culture. The Quebec government has passed laws which forbid French speakers and immigrants to send their children to English-language schools; compel businesses with more than fifty employees to be run in French; and ban English commercial signs. So, if your ancestors were French you, too, must by government fiat speak French whatever your personal wishes may be. Charles Taylor regards this as acceptable because the flourishing and survival of French culture is a good. ‘It is not just a matter of having the French language available for those who might choose it’, he argues. Quebec is ‘making sure that there is a community of people here in the future that will want to avail itself of the opportunity to use the French language.’ Its policies ‘actively seek to create members of the community… assuring that future generations continue to identify as French-speakers.’

An identity has become a bit like a private club. Once you join up, you have to abide by the rules. But unlike the Groucho or the Garrick it’s a private club you must join. Being black or gay, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah suggests, requires one to follow certain ‘life-scripts’ because ‘Demanding respect for people as blacks and gays can go along with notably rigid strictures as to how one is to be an African American or a person with same-sex desires.’ There will be ‘proper modes of being black and gay: there will be demands that are made; expectations to be met; battle lines to be drawn.’ It is at this point, Appiah suggests, that ‘someone who takes autonomy seriously may worry whether we have replaced one kind of tyranny with another.’ An identity is supposed to be an expression of an individual’s authentic self. But it can too often seem like the denial of individual agency in the name of cultural authenticity.

[…]

A century ago intellectuals worried about the degeneration of the race. Today we fear cultural decay. Is the notion of cultural decay any more coherent than that of racial degeneration? Cultures certainly change and develop. But what does it mean for a culture to decay? Or for an identity to be lost? Will Kymlicka draws a distinction between the ‘existence of a culture’ and ‘its “character” at any given moment’… So, in making the distinction between character and existence, Kymlicka seems to be suggesting that Jewish, Navajo or French culture is not defined by what Jewish, Navajo or French people are actually doing. For if Jewish culture is simply that which Jewish people do or French culture is simply that which French people do, then cultures could never decay or perish – they would always exist in the activities of people.

[…]

The logic of the preservationist argument is that every culture has a pristine form, its original state. It decays when it is not longer in that form. Like racial scientists with their idea of racial type, some modern multiculturalists appear to hold a belief in cultural type.

So the multicultural left and the racist right converge. If you get your head straight, you see what matters are certain values and institutions, and those are not trapped in particular essentialized cultures like flies in amber. If these values and institutions are really worthwhile, if they create conditions that are really appealing to human beings in a deep, more-than-accidental way, then it is possible to defend and preserve them as the cultures in which they originated inevitably recombine with others and evolve.

Advertisements