Sunday, August 05, 2012

Cultural Anthropologist Terence Turner on Multiculturalism

Cornell University

The cultural anthropologist Terence Turner published an article in 1993 from a leftist point of view that explicitly criticized what he called "difference multiculturalism," which sounds almost exactly like what I've called "radical multiculturalism." He favored "critical multiculturalism," of course, which has some aspects in common with what I've termed "moderate multiculturalism" (albeit, again, from a left perspective on his part). The article, "Anthropology and Multiculturalism: What Is Anthropology That Multiculturalists Should Be Mindful of It?" (Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 8, No. 4. (Nov., 1993), pp. 411-429), deserves to be read in its entirety, for it is a balanced article, but I will focus on his critique of "difference multiculturalism."

Turner acknowledges that the conservatives are largely right -- though with some "distortions" -- about the problems of "difference multiculturalism":
In sharp contrast to critical multiculturalism is the multiculturalism of the cultural nationalists and fetishists of difference, for whom culture reduces to a tag for ethnic identity and a license for political and intellectual separatism. This is the stereotype of multiculturalism that has been touted by neoconservative critics of "political correctness" in academia, who apart from their other distortions have described multiculturalism as if it were a homogeneous set of ideas and attitudes. There is no denying, however, that some participants in the multiculturalist debates have adopted positions approximating this stereotype of difference multiculturalism. (414)
The mere fact that Turner finds necessary a critique of "difference multiculturalism" indicates that this sort of multiculturalist is by no means rare, despite his reference to merely "some" proponents of multiculturalism (and thus raising skepticism about the term "stereotype"). Turner sees risks, threats, dangers in this leftist understanding of multiculturalism, namely, its devolution into crude identity politics:
The term multiculturalism [when it signifies "difference multiculturalism"] has come to be used primarily in connection with demands on behalf of black and other minority groups for separate and equal representation in college curriculums and extra-academic cultural programs and events. It has also assumed more general connotations as an ideological stance towards participation by such minorities in national "cultures" and societies, and the changing nature of national and transnational cultures themselves. As a code word for minority demands for separate recognition in academic and other cultural institutions, multiculturalism tends to become a form of identity politics, in which the concept of culture becomes merged with that of ethnic identity. From an anthropological standpoint, this move, at least in its more simplistic ideological forms, is fraught with dangers both theoretical and practical. It risks essentializing the idea of culture as the property of an ethnic group or race; it risks reifying cultures as separate entities by overemphasizing their boundedness and mutual distinctness; it risks overemphasizing the internal homogeneity of cultures in terms that potentially legitimize repressive demands for communal conformity; and by treating cultures as badges of group identity, it tends to fetishize them in ways that put them beyond the reach of critical analysis -- and thus of anthropology. (411-412)
Turner notes that multiculturalism's "cultural relativism" derives from cultural anthropology, a point that I have also previously made:
Certain aspects of the concept of culture originally developed by anthropologists (such as the distinction of culture and race) are unquestionably relevant to multiculturalist positions, but for the most part these have by now been assimilated into the common sense of Anglo-American culture in the form of vulgar cultural relativism, according to which all cultural traditions are regarded in principle as equally valuable. Apart from making ideological use of this broadly "anthropological" notion of cultural relativism as an ideological weapon against Eurocentrism, however, multiculturalism remains essentially unconcerned with culture in any of its usual anthropological senses. (413)
As we see, he considers this cultural relativism a 'vulgarization,' but he nevertheless acknowledges its derivation from anthropology, and he cites the leftist multiculturalist Todd Gitlin on its flawed consequences for the left:
The academic left has degenerated into a loose aggregation of margins -- often cannibalistic, romancing the varieties of otherness, speaking in tongues. In this new interest-group pluralism, the shopping center of identity politics makes a fetish of the virtues of the minority, which, in the end, is not only intellectually stultifying but also politically suicidal. It creates a kind of parochialism in which one is justified in having every interest in difference and no interest in commonality. One's identification with an interest group comes to be the first and final word that opens and terminates one's intellectual curiosity. As soon as I declare I am a Jew, a black, a Hispanic, a woman, a gay, I have no more need to define my point of view. (188-189; Todd Gitlin, "On the Virtues of a Loose Canon," Beyond PC: Toward a Politics of Understanding, Patricia Aufderheide, ed, 185-190. St. Paul, MN: Greywolf Press)
With identity politics and cultural relativism, the central flaws of "difference multiculturalism" becomes salient, namely, "moral relativism" and "ethnic essentialism," on which Turner quotes fellow anthropologist Richard J. Perry:
They [i.e., the "difference multiculturalists] commonly confuse cultural relativism with moral relativism . . . [and] tend to view non-Western cultures as stable, tradition-bound, timeless entities, [which] shifts us dangerously back toward viewing the others as beings who are profoundly and inherently different from ourselves . . . . The sense of the "timeless heritage" of traditional peoples, albeit respectful, is just a short step from ethnic essentialism . . . . At its worst, this romanticism tends to blur the distinction between culture and race -- a distinction that we anthropologists thought we had established several generations ago. (419; Richard J. Perry, "Why Do Multiculturalists Ignore Anthropologists?" Chronicle of Higher Education, March 1992, 4, 52)
Through these quotes from an article by Turner, a scholar on the left who cites other scholars on the left (e.g., Gitlin, Aufderheide, and Perry), we see that my views on much of what goes for multiculturalism were correct, despite my interlocutor's accusations over at the Marmot's Hole (MH) that I was a racist engaged in distorting multiculturalism.

For my summary of that MH debate, go here. For my other Gypsy Scholar posts in support of my views on what I call "radical multiculturalism," go here and here.

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