Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Tolerance and multiculturalism

The comments on Stephen Law's response to Ibrahim Lawson [link fixed] have become a conversation about multiculturalism.

Steve Chester appears to argue that condemning any behavior under the umbrella of a religion is tantamount to totalitarian oppression.

The problem with that stance, though, is that nobody supports absolute tolerance. We don't tolerate murderers, thieves, rapists, people who don't pay their taxes, or even people who jaywalk. The Nazis presumably had some sort of prosaic law enforcement, but we are not Nazi-like just because we enforce prosaic civil law.

The question is not whether to be intolerant of anything, it's about what specifically to be intolerant of; not whether but where to draw the line.

It's one thing to argue that we should tolerate some particular behavior. It's a horse of a different color to try to protect some behavior by arguing that we should draw no lines at all. It's so patently false — precisely because we do draw entirely uncontroversial lines — that one wonders why the speaker wishes to distract attention from the specifics of the behavior.

"Multiculturalism" has been assigned so many incompatible meanings that it's been rhetorically bludgeoned into meaninglessness. It can range anywhere from tolerating varying styles of dress to racial tolerance all the way to permitting and condoning the murder and mutilation of one's own children for trivial or even imagined sexual misbehavior.

Part of the problem is that multiculturalism and anti-multiculturalism have been adopted as smokescreens by people with objectionable hidden agendas. Right-wing extremists have adopted anti-multiculturalism to justify naked racism, racial oppression, and to justify wars of aggression to get those damn wogs off of our oil. Religious extremists have adopted multiculturalism to shield abhorrent misogyny and a genuinely totalitarian political ideology from democratic criticism. (Islam is not necessarily totalitarian, but Islamic totalitarianism is hardly a fringe movement, as evidenced by Saudi Arabia, the Afghani Taliban, the Northwest Frontier province of Pakistan, and any number of fundamentalist movements in other Islamic countries, even secular Turkey.

If people are going to live and work together, they need to establish some core values that are affirmed by everyone in that society. However, determining specifically what those core values are or should be is a nontrivial task, because it is also the case that beyond those core values, there is a considerable range of value that can be tolerated, and in many cases a range of values has value in itself.

It's a fundamental value of Western civilization from the dawn of the enlightenment that verbal criticism should never be suppressed. Although J. S. Mill makes the case most forcefully and coherently in On Liberty, it's arguable that freedom of speech is the sine qua non of Western Civilization. I view any attempt to suppress or condemn speech as speech on any basis — multiculturalism included — to attack the very foundation of my own values. Criticize the content of any speech to your heart's content, but to demand that anyone just absolutely shut the fuck up on any basis is beyond the pale.

Within my own (or other Western societies) if Muslims want to defend the practice of murdering their daughters, throwing acid in their faces, crippling their education, or restricting them from full civic participation and equal rights, let them argue the merits of these demands and submit them to full, vigorous democratic debate. To hide behind "multiculturalism" is nothing more than pure cowardice.

And if the racists and colonialists want to defend the practice of subjugating and denying full civil rights to brown people, if they want to defend wars of aggression and robbery on a national scale, if they want to enforce Christianity, let them defend those demands on their own merits. To hide behind "anti-multiculturalism" is equally cowardly.

Update: Here's an example of bullshit anti-multiculturalism (h/t to Political Crank):
Juashaunna Kelly, a Theodore Roosevelt High School senior who has the fastest mile and two-mile times of any girls' runner in the District this winter, was disqualified from Saturday's Montgomery Invitational indoor track and field meet after officials said her Muslim clothing violated national competition rules.

Kelly was wearing the same uniform she has worn for the past three seasons while running for Theodore Roosevelt's cross-country and track teams: a custom-made, one-piece blue and orange unitard that covers her head, arms, torso and legs. On top of the unitard, Kelly wore the same orange and blue T-shirt and shorts as her teammates.
I'm no fan at all of Islamic dress codes for women. I think these codes are inherently misogynist and oppressive, and they deserve criticism. On the other hand, singling out Ms. Kelly in this manner is just egregiously stupid, and the supposed justification is just slavish, authoritarian adherence to a different arbitrary dress code. When multiculturalism vs. anti-multiculturalism becomes a heated argument over which kind of petty authoritarianism to enforce in society, we have entirely missed the point of liberal democracy.

1 comment:

  1. The link to Stephen Law's response to Ibrahim Lawson is broken.


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