Sunday, March 09, 2008

Multiculturalism Questioned?

Art or Vandalism?
London Guerrilla Artist Banksy
East London in November 2007
(Image from Science)

My online friend Malcolm Pollack has a recent blog post that touches upon multiculturalism and expresses a healthy degree of skepticism about it, arguing that multiculturalism's emphasis upon tolerance has dulled our ability to criticize intolerance:
The problem, for our liberal Western societies, has been compounded in recent years by a peculiar, multiculturalist mindset of radical "tolerance" that extends so far beyond reasonable bounds as to mandate tolerance even of cultures that are themselves radically intolerant.
I agree with Malcolm if we're talking about what I refer to as radical multiculturalism, a model of society founded upon an understanding of radical cultural relativism borrowed from cultural anthropology, where cultural relativism has its proper role in theory and research, and applied toward reconstructing modern society along postmodern lines, which I find problematic.

In my more naive days back in the early 1990s, I used the expression "multicultural society" rather unreflectively, generally speaking favorably about it, in much the same breath as I would express my support for human rights, but in even my casual reading about multiculturalism, I began to sense that its most vocal proponents were using the term in a way that differed rather radically from my own use, and I eventually came to Malcolm's position through formulating a critique similar to his.

In doing so, I realized that what I meant by "multicultural society" was really more a defense of a multiethnic society enriched by cultural diversity but that shared a common culture grounded upon assumptions and expressed through practices developed within Western civilization, for example, the rule of law, human rights, a market system, political equality, democratic rule, those sorts of things.

I call my position "moderate multiculturalism," and I reserve the right to criticize cultural assumptions and practices that violate human rights or undermine democracy, for example.

Like Malcolm, I find radical multiculturalism contradictory, for it would extend tolerance toward all other cultures regardless of the consequences, as though every other culture shared multiculturalism's understanding of 'tolerance' even though we all know that such is not the case.

Some research published by Benedikt Herrmann, Christian Thöni, and Simon Gächter in the current issue of Science magazine demonstrates the nonviability of radical multiculturalism. I haven't read the original article, but a friend sent me a news report from EurekAlert that summarizes the research findings:
Professor Simon Gaechter and Dr Benedikt Herrmann at The University of Nottingham and Dr Christian Thoni at the University of St Gallen, Switzerland, studied the behaviour of people in 16 cities around the world, from Boston and Bonn to Riyadh, Minsk, Nottingham, Seoul and others. Volunteers played a 'public goods' game in which they were given tokens and told they could either keep them all for themselves, or put it into a common 'pot' that would yield extra interest that would be shared out equally among all players.

If all volunteers pooled their money then all would come out with more at the end of the game. But if individuals chose to keep the money for themselves -- and not contribute anything -- they could keep all of it and also benefit from the generosity of others, by sharing in the pooled interest.

Levels of co-operation were remarkably similar across all 16 nations. However, behaviour changed dramatically when everyone's contributions were revealed -- and players were given the ability to 'punish' other players. Players could punish each other by taking tokens away from each other, although this option cost the punisher a token as well. As previous studies have shown, players were willing to part with a token of their own in order to punish low investors or freeloaders.

But the Science study also uncovered a new phenomenon. In subsequent rounds of the game, the freeloaders took revenge and hit back at their higher-paying counterparts in what is described as 'anti-social punishment'. Or at least, they did in some cities -- most notably in more traditional societies based on authoritarian and parochial social institutions such as Muscat in Oman, Athens, Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, Samara in Russia, Minsk in Belarus, Istanbul, Seoul and Dnipropetrovsk in Ukraine. Players in these cities showed the highest levels of 'anti-social punishment'.

The ultimate effect of this is to decrease co-operation between individuals, bringing down contributions and earnings to very low levels.

In other cities -- most notably Boston in the US, Melbourne, Nottingham, St Gallen and Zurich in Switzerland, Chengdu in China, Bonn and Copenhagen -- this occurred much less often and only freeloaders tended to get punished. These eight cities saw the least 'antisocial punishment' meted out, and earnings in the game increased over time.
The outliers in this study are Athens among the antisocial cities and Chengdu among the cities committed to social cooperation, but generally speaking, the study suggests that social cooperation, which increases wealth in a society, is a significant characteristic of Western civilization. As the study shows, cultures that permit, or possibly even encourage, revenge simply do not work as well as cultures that discourage revenge.

The extreme tolerance of radical multiculturalism, however, would accept a society in which communities that practice vengeance are allowed to exist alongside communities that nurture social cooperation.

As for Banksy's aesthetic endeavors, from what I see above, they're hardly high art, and they certainly deface propery, both public and private, unless permission be given, which I assume is not the case since he's a 'guerrilla' artist, in which case, his products can be both art and vandalism. He may be relatively harmless, but a society need not tolerate his activities, especially if these are clearly against the law.

The law applies to everyone, regardless of what radical multiculturalism would imply, and this is a point to remember as we watch developments across the West . . . especially in Europe these days.

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At 9:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beginning in about the mid-nineties I found myself concurring (whereas when first read was more a uhmm) with "Cultural Literacy" by E.D. Hirsch. His most basic premise being that all members needed a common starting or reference point. Admittedly Mr. Hirsch was referring to something not yet apparent in this wider context.

I admit, my "appreciation" for multiculturalism has become somewhat more narrow too, when considering whether it is an asset or a liability.

I consider it a liability.


At 2:07 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Radical multiculturalism certainly is a liability. Moderate multiculturalism, as I've conceived of it, might have more positive effects.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been over to read your friends' ordeal. waka'ing I guess you'd call it.

I noticed he'd been baited a few times and yet avoided (I suppose the term "tempted" too loaded) the easy way to argue.

I suspect you and I share the same sort of "means" where it comes to religious differences: questions, perceived sleights. Debates are an "okay" thing. If I lose to your argument, I accept your arguments' merits: or not. But I suspect you'd invite me in for tea, as I would you; disagreements nonwithstanding. And the two of us would part-perhaps expecting tea in the others home, tomorrow.

However, when the "debate" includes the possibility of a beheading or two, a bicycle ride with the de riguer explosive vest: simply to make a point? I realize Malcolm is under duress and my meanderings would be unlikely to help him so...

And by the way, your friend upon whom I've come to depend on for accurately reflecting my nuanced phrasings in Ozarkian commenting - seems somewhat "Weekend Challenged." I read the comments I'd instructed and came away disenchanted. Twisted physics I suppose. Might you request of your friend that when he leaves my regards, well. Perhaps he'll see this.


At 3:35 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, that fellow, JK, just kinda has a tendency to misspell words on weekends . . . or so it seems.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Satchel on

At 7:59 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Satchel on, Bro. Longnose, satch.

Jeffery "Bro. AgNoZetic" Hodges

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At 2:41 AM, Blogger Malcolm Pollack said...

A very interesting post, Jeffery, and thanks for the plug.

The results you describe lend, as far as they go, gratifying empirical support to the innate preferablility of the Western liberal mindset (no surprise there, as far as I'm concerned).

I'm right with you on the important distinction between mulitculturalism as a wish to widen the circle of inclusivity wherever we can profitably do so, and radical multiculturalism, which, I think, includes a generous sprinkling of West-bashing and victim-seeking.

At the core of radical multiculturalism are several related ideas; the "noble savage" canard, which sees Western civilization as the serpent in the Garden; the post-modern dismissal of absolute meaning or value; and a laudable wish to break the sanguinary historical pattern of group-against-group hatred and violence. But it takes two to tango, a fact that seems still to be lost on many.

It remains highly unfashionable in academic and left-leaning circles to suggest that our rationalist Western liberal-democratic cultural model has any innate superiority over other systems, but I think the evidence is mounting that, as Bobby Fischer said about 1. P-K4, it's "best by test".

Regardless though, for the West to adopt radical multiculturalism as a social paradigm is to trip over its own shoelaces.

At 3:33 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Malcolm. Your post and comment both enunciate a critique of radical multiculturalism quite well, and I only put up my blog entry as a addendum to what you had written because I happened to read about that Science article providing empirical evidence against radical multiculturalism.

Radical multiculturalism is so profoundly self-contradictory that I find surprising that anybody could seriously espouse it.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:40 AM, Blogger Malcolm Pollack said...

Thank you, Jeffery.

"3:33 a.m." Do you ever sleep?

At 3:49 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, Malcolm, I sleep in a coffin padded with a bit of earth from my Ozark homeland during the daylight hours.

Have you ever noticed that "Arkansas" sounds a bit Central European . . . like Warsaw, maybe.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:33 AM, Blogger Malcolm Pollack said...

When I was a little boy, back in the late Pleistocene, I thought there were two different places: one that I could see on the map, called Arkansas, and pronouced like Kansas (or the river), and another, somewhere, that was called Arkinsaw.

And by the way, JK, thanks for the support, and for paying my place a visit. I do feel a bit besieged at times, but I bring it upon myself with my curmudgeonry and windmill-tilting.

At 5:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Acometer molinos de viento?

I've tilted a bit too. But I tend to fall over completely more often so I usually try not to interfere if I see someone holding their own.

One curmudgeon to another.


At 5:43 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

In my home state of Arkansas, that river is also pronounced "Arkinsaw"...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:44 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK, are you writing in Pig Latin again?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:50 AM, Blogger Malcolm Pollack said...


Is it? Shows you what a Yankee like me knows about any of this. I thought the river had the Kansas-style pronunciation. Perhaps it does in other areas.

JK, no need to be shy about "interfering" over at my place. I need all the help I can get.

At 6:03 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yep, it sure is . . . but the Kansans insist on pronouncing the pen- and ultimate syllables as they do their own state.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I thought it was Spanish. I'm sorta Romance-Language challenged. It was meant to suggest giants. Alluding to Islam without being too obvious, don't want to stir up the mullahs you know.

I'm not Dutch.


At 7:01 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, I don't know Spanish from Ladino -- and what do I know about Latin anyway?

Jeffery Hodges

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