book cover imageThe Democratic Contradictions of Multiculturalism
by Jens-Martin Eriksen and Frederick Stjernfelt.
Telos Press, 2012.
Paperback, 410 pages, $25.

This is an important, even a courageous book, as it challenges the now-hallowed idea of multiculturalism. It examines the history of this idea and its ultimate incompatibility with Western (liberal) norms, especially individual rights and free speech. The book is specifically targeted at the Western political left, but will also upset many conservatives, as well as the very groups multiculturalism seeks to protect.

The authors, both Danish academics, begin with a chapter on Malaysia—a case study of a classic multicultural society. The subsequent three chapters delve into the history of multiculturalism and current conflicts surrounding its development in Western societies. These latter chapters present the authors’ main argument. Yet the case study of a non-western multicultural society is an important introduction, one with great relevance to the West.

The Muslim Malay majority has created a society in which its norms prevail at the expense of Chinese and Indian minorities. Although outright violence against minorities is rare, political dialogue or criticism is not allowed, creating a subtle but effective authoritarian system. The authors’ point is that this is not unique to developing societies. Rather this is the trend in all the world’s multicultural societies, including the West, where individual rights and freedom of speech will slowly be compromised to protect cultural rights.

Cultural identity or “culturalism” is a twentieth-century phenomenon. It began with the cultural studies of anthropologist Franz Boas. His disciple Ruth Benedict then wrote the definitive book on culture—Patterns of Culture (1934). It defined culture as something internally whole, yet externally distinct. As such, people are solely conditioned by their cultures, but cannot comprehend the essence of other cultures. Cultures are incommensurate.

Melville Herskovits, another Boas disciple, made the cultural idea international when he criticized the 1948 United Nations Declaration on Human Rights. The UN sought a human rights definition that was universal and explicitly individual because of the mass genocides of World War II. But to Herskovits, such universal decrees did not take culture into account. He argued the individual cannot be separated from his culture, which conditions his very existence and thus determines his rights. Cultures needed protections and rights, rather than individuals.

Why did leftist scholars like Herskovits defend culture? Cultures, especially the small and isolated ones studied by anthropologists, were seen as particularly vulnerable to Western imperialism. Even the humanitarian UN and its universal human rights declaration was defined as such. The authors note that the UN episode was an important ideological watershed in the West because “culturalism” began to replace Marxism as a foundation of progressive politics.

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz was another important figure in this transformation. By making the historicist argument that all cultures create their own values and standards, he explicitly rejected—indeed ridiculed—any absolutes applied to any human culture and behavior. As such, he enshrined cultural relativism. The idea now pervades academia, the media, and society at large throughout the West. The UN also succumbed to this argument and today the organization, especially through UNESCO, actively defends and promotes culturalism and cultural relativism worldwide.

The authors see culturalism as another political ideology, a form of nationalism that operates primarily at the social level. And culturalism, like nationalism, has left and right variants. Conservative or “hard” culturalism defends a national culture, usually associated with a distinct geographic territory, against other cultures. It is often xenophobic and tends towards ostracism, even violence, against other cultures and minority groups. The attitude of Malaysian Muslims is an example.

The liberal or “soft” variant defends the existence of many cultures within a territory and attempts a peaceful coexistence between them. This latter is “multiculturalism,” which is predominant in the West and is thus the focus of most of the book’s criticisms. However, the authors warn that the struggle against culturalism of all types is the main political struggle in contemporary Western society.

But the political left still comes in for the harshest condemnation. First it betrayed liberal (Enlightenment) principles by adopting culture and integrating it into a liberal/Marxist framework. Culturalism is at root a conservative and romantic notion, deeply distrustful of reason and universal social norms. It is also deterministic, tending to undermine any sense of individual will or conscience.

Second, and worse, the left has allowed culturalism to ensconce itself in Western societies. The authors argue much of this stems from ignorance, as the left really has no understanding of the cultures it defends. Culture is still synonymous with race. Thus, anyone who criticizes non-Western culture is a racist. The left counters xenophobia with an equally irrational position—xenophilia. Non-Western peoples are not just exploited, and thus deserving of rights, but morally superior. Here is the return of another romantic myth—the noble savage.

The authors continually emphasize the political nature of culturalism and how it will transform Western societies. The emphasis on subjective norms will enforce cultural relativism, which is ultimately incompatible with the liberal idea of tolerance. As a consequence, cultural rights can be used to defend any type of human behavior. Eventually these rights will trump individual human rights. And in the end all individual rights and freedoms—which liberals have always championed—will be lost if culturalist ideas remain.

These problems are already occurring in Europe. And here the authors narrow their focus on the cultural politics of Muslim communities living there. Radical Muslims, particularly the Islamic Brotherhood and the OIC (Organization of the Islamic Conference), have successfully pushed cultural rights. This became manifest after the “Danish cartoon crisis” in which the newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a dozen images of the Islamic prophet Mohammed.

The Islamic community in Denmark, then Europe, and eventually the entire world was soon inflamed. Danish embassies were threatened, Danish products boycotted, and cartoonist Kurt Westergaard was nearly murdered in his home. The authors note, with irony, that almost none of the protesting Muslims ever even saw the cartoon. The book presents one of the more controversial images, which to Western sensibilities is hardly offensive. But Islamic culturalists thought otherwise. As a result freedom of expression in Denmark has been curtailed. Few now dare to critique any aspect of Islamic culture.

Another Islamic practice that the authors critique is apostasy. In Islamic culture, any individual who willingly leaves his religion is subject to punishment—death penalty in Saudi Arabia and Iran, fines, prison terms, or social ostracism in other Islamic communities. This practice has gone unchallenged in the West. The authors ask why and whether this allowance undermines the very idea of free choice.

How can multiculturalism be challenged? One of the authors’ solutions is restoration of classical republican government, with an emphasis on active civic engagement rather than passive noninterference (the multiculturalist position). They emphasize the most important freedoms in a republic are from arbitrary violence and persecution—so-called negative freedoms. The protection of these freedoms for every individual is defined as liberty, which is the essence of republican democracy.

But multiculturalists are notcontent with liberty. They desire new and special freedoms—positive freedoms. Here the authors will gain support from many conservatives, who have long criticized the growth of positive freedoms because this also means the growth of government to ensure those freedoms are properly enacted and defended. As such, cultural minorities have become important government clients (for voting, legislation, and welfare) in all Western societies.

Conservatives, especially Christians, will be less supportive of the authors’ other solution to culturalism—to eliminate all cultures. The book ends sharply with the line “Down with culture!” This obviously rhetorical statement can be understood as a desire to marginalize or privatize culture to allow liberal Enlightenment principles to be the only social norms. But in their desire to marginalize culture, the authors still use the culturalist definition of culture—in reverse. Rather than all cultures being radically different, they are radically the same.

Here the authors reveal their own ignorance of cultural differences. This is especially true with respect to religion. According to the authors, all religions are the same because all undermine Enlightenment reason and freedom. But is this a reasonable position? Are the teachings of the Koran, New Testament, and the Upanishads identical? Are the lives of Mohammed, Jesus, and the Buddha identical? As political analysts, they should also be asking the critical questions of whether the political perspectives of all religions are identical.

These political-theological questions are of utmost importance because they define human freedom. They are the essence of free speech. Unfortunately, in Western societies the art of filmmakers, novelists, and cartoonists dominates free speech. Much of this speech is at the level of the emotions, which tends to marginalize serious intellectual debate. Free speech must begin at the intellectual level, and in multicultural societies must focus on religious and political ideas of different cultures and their compatibility with host cultures. As intellectuals the authors should have developed this argument further. But they failed to do so.

By failing to analyze cultures and to make differences explicit, especially religious and political ones, the authors also allow the culturalist narrative to remain unchallenged. The continued use of the word “culture” is critical to this narrative, because the term does not point to religion, politics, or anything conflictual. It is an inoffensive term, implying something small, quaint, and exotic, which is also vulnerable to exploitation and discrimination. This is the old Boasian view of culture.

However, none of the cultural groups the book examines are small and quaint. All are representatives of the world religions—Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism. What the authors are really describing is the “clash of civilizations,” not some domestic problem over cultural assimilation. The most important critique of multiculturalism is that it is not about culture, but civilization. And the foundation of every civilization is religious and political ideas. And these are not the same in every civilization.

Despite the book’s shortcomings, professors Eriksen and Stjernfelt must be commended for opening a critical debate over the meaning of multiculturalism and its consequences for Western societies, indeed Western civilization. This debate is over more than free speech and individual rights, but about the very meaning of freedom. One only hopes other intellectuals, and Western society at large, will join them.  

Tobias J. Lanz, Ph.D. teaches in the political science department at the University of South Carolina