Saturday, November 07, 2009


The essay I'm writing this month is about the tension between feminism and multiculturalism and whether there has been a successful resolution by liberal authors. I'm only at the beginning of my reading, but it has clarified a few feelings I've always had.

Multiculturalism has a lot of forms, but the one that seems to be used in this context is the one I have a problem with. It claims that cultures need to be respected and preserved. A number of reasons for why are given, but that isn't really at issue for me. I have a problem with both of those assertions, unless they are very thoroughly qualified.

In terms of respect, I completely respect someone's right to participate in whatever culture they want, as long as that culture doesn't violate the basic rights and values that I think apply to everyone. I don't think I am compelled to respect a culture itself that doesn't deserve respect.

I also have no problem with preserving a culture that is worth preserving.

However, I can't think of a single culture on this planet that I think should be preserved as it is now, or that can be entirely respected as it stands. This, obviously, includes my own. I think all cultures should constantly be open to criticism and reform, because I don't think we even know what a good culture looks like. So no, I don't think we should compromise our principles for other cultures.

But it's not that simple. Multiculturalism as understood as "my culture is not the defining culture and is not more inherently valid than yours" is a Good Thing. Arbitrary laws and norms that have nothing to do with critical values that can't be compromised need to be made more flexible. The working week, for example, is structured around a traditional Christian view of the week, and there is nothing that makes that structure any more inherently valid than any other. It makes sense to move towards a more flexible arrangement that accommodates all religious views.

When we see something in a unfamiliar culture that we find problematic, we need to look at why. Joseph Carens, an author I have just read, has justified accepting gender inequality in Islam on the basis that we accept it in Judaism and Christianity. That strikes me as utterly arse up. We may not pay as much heed to gender inequality in those religions we have lived with for longer because we have become accustomed to it. Maybe, rather than appealing to the lowest common denominator, we should look at why we have a problem with some aspects of Islam and use it to shape up our own society. We should be using the reality of multicultural societies to examine all our cultures. To bring us all a step forward. My culture isn't better than yours, but yours might help me see what I've been ignoring in mine for a long, long time. It might also remind me just how much my culture isn't better than yours.

We've managed in Australia to do it with food - we have integrated food and we have culturally separate food, food is allowed to move between distinctiveness and fusion. Even the most authentic of styles will recognise when a better option comes along, and we all recognise that Thai food isn't better or worse than French or Italian or Japanese. "Australian" food steals something from all of them and adds some local uniqueness. But still, regardless of tradition, food that is spoiled or past its use-by date can't be used. Nor can food that is ethically unacceptable (said with an understanding that "ethically acceptable" is a massively moving target). It's the model we need to adopt with culture, and at the same time, we need to understand that while what is "unacceptable" is a moving target, some things are not negotiable.


  1. Whilst I agree with some of the elements of your post, at the same time I'm uncomfortable with other parts, and I've spent a couple of days now thinking about it because I wanted to be able to articulate it. I'm not quite sure I've yet achieved it.

    I guess if we're not preserving a culture that doesn't deserve preserving, who is making that decision?

    Also I would debate whether we have truly achieved that with food in Australia - your statement Even the most authentic of styles will recognise when a better option comes along, and we all recognise that Thai food isn't better or worse than French or Italian or Japanese. is questionable, simply because there is a huge swath of Australia that _doesn't_ recognise that at all.

    Interesting post!

  2. Hmmm. I can see your point - it makes me a little uncomfortable myself. However, in the end, I think the "who" is the root question of all ethical debates. For me, the answer is me. It's also you. Everyone gets to have an opinion.

    But a key point here, is that I am not advocating singling out cultures to be deemed worth preserving - I very much doubt we'll ever see a culture worth preserving. For as long as I can manage to see into the future, we are still going to need to keep reforming and changing all of our cultures, and multiculturalism to me should be used to inform and accelerate that process.

    And yes, perhaps I should have said that we have managed to achieve that in the little bit of Australia I live in - or maybe more accurately, in the foodie world itself.

    If you find you pin it down any more, please let me know. I find this a really fraught subject - I end up feeling slightly uncomfortable with almost every single discussion about it. I very much doubt this is my final opinion on it and I'm more than happy to hear challenges and other viewpoints.

  3. Oh, I agree that the 'who' is a bit of a straw man argument, really - the whys and wheres and hows are far more relevant. I will definitely keep thinking about this!

  4. I've also been pondering the exact same question, and I think my confusion stems from, "what defines culture?" In most spaces where I talk about multiculturalism, the emphasis is on clothing, ornaments, things for form and seeming, whereas in other conversations, culture refers to rituals, values, and tradition. It makes for a hard conversation. Then there's the question of "what does multiculturalism look like?" Because it's so inherently tied into the power dynamics between cultures.

    Feminism with its attempted all-encompassing values muddies the waters further. But I do agree that all cultures, as they are now, could stand for improvement wrt individual human rights.

    Great post.

  5. Indeed - defining what "culture" is is hard enough - never mind what constitutes "that culture". Very often people hide behind claims of cultural tradition when what they care about is protecting their own power.

    So I would certainly go with the latter definition - rituals, values etc. Although I can think of cases where people have used the former, I haven't really noticed that being prevalent - but I guess it depends on what you are discussing with respect to culture as to what people focus on.

  6. O hai, I got linked to this from Jha's linkfest.

    I enjoyed this article: the usual "it is our culture, do not question it" defense really gets a good, deserving drubbing.

    I felt that there was a little something that was missing in your post, though, because while you did focus quite a lot on culture as a distinct entity that needs to be examined and questioned and very likely changed, you've kind of left out the communities that need to do the questioning, examining and changing -- not just minority cultures, but the majority cultures themselves, who must choose: what kind of relationship do you want with your minorities? What are your privileges? Does this conform to the values you publically espouse?

    I mean, in the end, it's not just a disembodied objective observer saying that this aspect of culture is acceptable, this aspect is not -- it's the people themselves who must decide. It's one thing to say that we -- as in, which "we"? -- must accept gender inequality in Islam as we accept it in Judaism and Christianity. Are there feminist Muslims who say, "hell no, we won't"? Aren't there feminist Christians and Jews who say the same thing?

  7. Welcome tariq-kamal, and thanks for stopping by.

    It's a valid point you raise - I was really only considering the question from a personal point of view. I was considering what I should take into consideration in forming my own personal opinion, and what I think other people should take into consideration in forming their own personal opinions.

    But the next step is what to do with those opinions, and I've not addressed that at all. This would be because it is a really, really hard problem and the answer is intractably context dependent. There is a different answer depending on where the culture is and how it came to be there. There is a different answer depending on whether the oppressive aspects of the culture are formal or informal.

    One of the big issues with multiculturalism is that no-one knows what it means - which you address when you ask what sort of a relationship a majority culture wants with the minority cultures both in its midst and elsewhere. Also, how much responsibility do we have to the relationships that exist within cultures other than our own? This one is probably the most problematic - on the one hand trying to intervene may be seen as enforcing the hegemony, on the other hand stepping away may be regarded as abandoning the vulnerable. I have no idea how you draw the line - either pragmatically or idealistically.

    Anybody got any theories?