Mohanty: Culture wars & claims of multiculturalism

Interesting commentary from an Indian perspective:

DESPITE the claim of universality, we are far from finding conclusive answers to the multiculturalism debates in the media, academia and the larger community today. The British philosopher C.E.M Joad once observed: “Socialism is like a hat which has lost its shape, because everybody wears it.”1 In a similar manner, Nathan Glazer’s book We are all Multiculturalists Now2 seems to suggest that multiculturalism has come of age. What began as an attempt to reform pedagogy in the Eurocentric context has acquired, over the years, the nature of a ‘culture war’ in the name of multiculturalism, which threatens to Balkanise societies the world over. What may be the answers to this crisis? Is multiculturalism a battleground or a meeting ground?

Recent scholarship at the international level has questioned the dominant paradigms of national identity. For instance, in The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital,3 the critic Lisa Lowe brilliantly unmasks the contradictions between the emergence of the United States’ economy in search of cheap labour and the role of the political state that ensured “the disenfranchisement of existing labour forces to prevent accumulation, by groups of Chinese, Japanese, Filipino and South Asians”. Thus, it may be logical to conclude that “immigration has been historically a locus of racialisation and the primary site for the policing of political, cultural and economic membership in the U.S. Nation State”.4

The intersection between politics, society and culture has led to newer understandings, a welcome shift, in the U.S. for instance, from the concept of the American melting pot to that of the salad bowl or the mosaic and beyond that to the notion of hyphenated identities5 and multiculturalism that act as a beacon for a liberal order. It has significant implications for postcolonial nation states like India as well. Many issues of multiculturalism nevertheless remain unresolved. We need to make a deeper inquiry into the movement and its underlying philosophy if we are to go beyond the commonly accepted “feel-good” factor that societies and individuals often adopt as an easy palliative.

Key questions

The problems of multiculturalism could be articulated in a series of questions: How do we determine our individual and collective self-image? How to resolve our allegiance to the multiple identities—linguistic, ethnic, national and global—that participation in a democratic order entails? How is the question of our collective identities linked to our view of the past? How shall we retrieve alternative pasts and submerged memories? How much of the memories of this past shall we retain and how much of the trauma and nightmare shall we abandon? Some of the answers are being attempted by feminist projects of archival retrieval and some in the fields of Holocaust studies, for instance.

A challenge is to ask whether these seeming divergences could be harmonised by a multicultural thinking under the larger umbrella of inclusiveness. How can such inclusiveness be promoted in literary, cultural and ethnic terms in the context of embattled marginalised groups? This is easier said than done. Modern societies have not fashioned the magic tool that can harmonise rival claims.

I had an opportunity to pose some of these questions to Edward Said, one of the most distinguished thought leaders of the 20th century, at the international seminar on “History and Literature” in Cairo, Egypt, in 1994. His answers were full of insights and illuminations. We need to highlight, he said, “the face of the many dissenting traditions”, of women, of coloured people, of culturally marginalised groupings and of modern nation states. He added: “It is better to offer resistance to the bigger monolithic nation that has always usurped the state apparatus for its hegemonic role.”6

Literature and multiculturalism

We must begin the exercise by asking the most basic question: How is literature related to multiculturalism since that is the primary academic discipline where the problem appears to have originated? Literature has traditionally been defined as a body of canonised texts. To canonise is to valorise, to impose values upon texts. Shakespeare is mandatory reading in the classroom, it is argued, since his texts are viewed as transcultural and transhistorical. In other words, he has “stood the test of time”.

In recent years, however, this traditional view of the literary canon and canon making has been challenged on literary, theoretical, pedagogic, demographic and cultural grounds. The canon is seen as ahistorical; it must give way to an alternative perspective that reflects the changing literary climate in consonance with alternative theoretical paradigms and the needs of an increasingly diverse student population.

The romantic-modernist conception of literature accorded uniqueness to the text and the author. It lent singularity to the creative artist and the literary artefact. William Wordsworth spoke of the “inward eye”;7 S.T. Coleridge, in his celebrated Biographia Literaria,8 theorised about the “Primary” and “Secondary Imagination”, holding the latter to be the unique attribute of the “authentic” poet; for William Blake, the “true God was the human imagination”;9 in his Defence of Poetry(1821), P.B. Shelley defined poets as “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”; and, finally, to John Keats, who said: “If poetry comes not as naturally as leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.”10 It was the mind of the poet that gave birth to poetry and art, and therefore, this mind and heart were held as sacred and sacrosanct. All other aspects such as the sociopolitical, ideological and contextual factors may have had a role to play, but they were invariably held as subordinate and secondary.

Radical critique of the canon

Such views of art and artist were seen as elitist, a reflection of the long-cherished Euro-American “high modernism”. Four volumes, pivotal in nature, may be cited in this context: Richard Ohmann’s English in America: A Radical View of the Profession, 1976;11 Alvin Kernan’s The Death of Literature, 1990;12 Gerald Graff’s Literature Against Itself: Literary Ideas in Modern Society, 1982;13 and Leslie Fiedler’s What Was Literature?: Class, Culture and Mass Society,1982.14 Varied groups of multiculturalists such as feminists, minorities, African Americans, Hispanics and, in India, Dalits and Adivasis attacked the view—considered axiomatic and self-evident at one time and unquestioned for long—as flawed, narrow and exclusive for excluding and marginalising the literary-cultural experience on political grounds.

Conservative backlash

In America, it led to a conservative backlash. Four books that became in due course bestsellers in the mainstream media may be mentioned here: The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom (1987),15 Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know by E.D. Hirsh (1987),16 Tenured Radicals: How Politics has Corrupted Our Higher Education by Roger Kimball (1990),17 and Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus by Dinesh D’Souza (1991).18

In The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom laments how American students have fallen victim to mindless destruction by treating all traditional literature as oppressive and reactionary.19 Similarly, in his 1987 book, the conservative critic Hirsh regrets the state of academic affairs. “To be culturally literate,” he argues, “is to possess the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world.”20 Much of this knowledge, he maintains, lies in texts of European origin. Cultural relativism, he argues, is not likely to lead the American youth anywhere.

The attack against the traditional literary canon and syllabi began in America, famously in the Stanford Movement in 1985 wherein large sections of black students on the Stanford University campus protested against William Bennett, the Conservative U.S. Secretary of Education, and demanded inclusion of texts they could relate to, those that were historically denied to them by the faculty and academic administrators, dominated for long by upper-class white males.21

Inspired by this movement, protesters occupied the offices of deans, provosts and presidents in various American campuses. The protest had the desired effect: hiring policies were changed; syllabi were altered; anthologies such as The Norton Anthology and The Heath Anthology of American Literature underwent changes to reflect newer approaches to the study of works by women, minorities and the historically marginalised groups in schools and colleges; and researchers in the field produced new textbooks

The disciplines of history, literature, philosophy, sociology, anthropology and psychology found greater acceptance in the context of the emergence of identity politics. With immigrants of colour and diverse ethnic and class backgrounds around, liberal democracies in the West began to listen to the voices of multicultural thinkers such as Charles Taylor and Anthony Appiah when it came to city planning and citizenship rights. Despite such progressive measures, present-day America appears to be beset with serious problems in the classroom. For instance, a recent article entitled “Culture War, Academic Freedom, Teaching History”,22 reports: “Between January and September 2021, 24 legislatures across the United States introduced 54 separate bills intended to restrict teaching and training in K-12 schools, higher education, and state agencies and institutions. The majority of these bills target discussions of race, racism, gender and American history, banning a series of ‘prohibited’ or ‘divisive’ concepts for teachers and trainers operating in K-12 schools, public universities, and workplace settings. These bills appear designed to chill academic and educational discussions and impose government dictates on teaching and learning. In short: They are educational gag orders.”23

Lasting changes: new historicism

Despite resistance from conservative sections of the legislature and the political establishment in America, it must be admitted that the changes in the direction of multiculturalism have been deep and lasting. In Marvellous Possessions: The Wonders of the New World,24 Stephen Greenblatt, the founder of the influential school of new historicism, offers a profound meditation on Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America, redefining in the process the relationship between mainstream and marginal cultures. He makes a fundamental distinction between Columbus and Sir John Mandeville as travellers. In contrast to Mandeville, who travelled for travel’s sake, Columbus, he argues, was carrying a passport, royal letters and edicts. He was on a state-sponsored mission. He offers not an account of a battle but a series of “speech acts” and “proclamations” by which he takes “possession” of the islands, followed by the giving of names. For him, taking possession is primarily a set of “linguistic acts”, “decoding, witnessing and recording”. He is not only the medium through which the crown could take possession, he also “enacts the ritual of possession” on his own behalf and on behalf of his descendants.25

Secondly, argues Greenblatt, Columbus invokes the medieval concept of natural law, according to which “the claim to sovereignty” is by “the right to discovery”. That is to say, if you discover a land, you have the right to own it. Therefore, Columbus “empties the land” by making it uninhabitable, terra nullius. He denies the natives linguistic competence. At landfall, he decides that he has offered to serve Portuguese, English and Spanish monarchies. All “rituals of naming”, Greenblatt argues, are “the rituals of possession”. Columbus therefore goes on a naming spree: San Salvador, El Salvador, and so on. The “claim of possession” is grounded in “the power of wonder”. Columbus never gives up hope. God, he declares, “spake so clearly of these lands by the mouth of Isaiah in many places of the Book… His holy name should be spoken to them”. Here is an extraordinary manner in which Columbus’ “discovery” of America is given a multicultural reading; the lessons here are applicable to all societies and cultures that strive to go beyond inequities and injustice.

The learning and education can begin in the classroom, and therefore, the classroom becomes the primary locus for multicultural thinking and action. Properly taught, the classroom becomes not a battleground but a meeting ground. Gerald Graff’s “staging the debate” is an outstanding example of such dialogues in the classroom that promote, in a Socratic manner, critical thinking rather than rote learning and indoctrination.

Greenblatt’s project in revisionist history cannot be comprehended without a critique of the Enlightenment model of modernity (and capitalism) that logically leads to colonisation of the world.

As the historian Dilip Menon correctly states: “The term modernity comes to us masking both its origins within a distinct geographical space as well as an imagination almost entirely concerned with a description of change in Europe and America (what we refer to euphemistically as the West). It is precisely because the term modernity appears to be neither temporarily nor geographically grounded that there is increasing suspicion towards its relevance as a term for understanding historical change.”26

Multicultural education

Thus, what is valid for Europe is not necessarily applicable to the rest of the world. Each nation, community and groups of people must be allowed to shape their destiny, their systems of thought and governance. Approaches to multicultural education vary. In his seminal book, Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition (1992),27 the eminent Canadian theorist Charles Taylor advocates public institutions recognising particular group identities as part of multicultural education, and others like Stephen Rockefeller caution against a particular cultural identity over the universal identity of democratic citizens. Yet others, like Susan Wolf, see the need to correlate the demand for multicultural education with the American sense of who they essentially are.28

On the other hand, in his book, Identity Against Culture: Understanding of Multiculturalism (1994), Kwame Anthony Appiah, one of the leading exponents in the field, voices “the need and possibilities of maintaining a pluralistic culture of many identities and subcultures while retaining the civil and political practices that sustain national life in the classic sense”.29

The future of multiculturalism

On the basis of the above reflections, we could come up with the following tentative conclusions:

First, despite the setback in electoral politics, multiculturalism is here to stay; it addresses fundamentally and inescapably the demographic and democratic concerns of learners and the citizenry across class, caste, region and ethnicity. It must remain resilient, flexible and imaginative and respond to changing demands and times in a creative manner.

Secondly, multiculturalism must not be equated with identity politics of a narrow, sectarian and dogmatic kind that leads its acolytes and followers to a dead end. The answer to Orientalism, Edward Said tells us wisely, is not Occidentalism. Nor does it envisage revenge history, violence and annihilation of the “other” in the name of rectifying historical wrongs, both real and imaginary, through acts of revenge and reprisals. Rather, it calls for truth and reconciliation through acts of reading and acts of atonement. Lessons very relevant for contemporary India, which finds itself tragically polarised across caste, community, religious and ethnic lines.

Thirdly, multiculturalism does not envision a set of windowless boxes, erection of walls or ghettos that block communion; rather it stands for dialogues, for mutual understanding, for mutual benefit and welfare. It eschews all self-righteous acts of contempt and condemnation in favour of understanding and acceptance.

Fourthly, multiculturalism does not suggest that the answer to Eurocentrism is Afrocentrism. While all forms of anthropocentrism are abhorrent, the primacy of any systems of thought in a hegemonic manner over others leads to asymmetry in cultural transactions among communities and nations.

Next, multiculturalism entails allegiance to multiple loyalties: to the individual, the family, the commune, the province, the nation and the world in a non-hierarchical manner; that is to say, not one at the cost of the other. To realise the truth of the one, one needs to simultaneously see the truth of the others. This relationship is not based on self-interest in the narrow sense of the term. It must not be mercenary; it must encompass the deeper core of our being and seek to realise the greatest good of the largest number of the people and organisations, especially the deprived and the dispossessed.

It must accept cultures and life values of individuals, groups and communities without force or duress of any kind. Most of all, it must not look at the market or the state as the arbiter of individual or social behaviour. At the deepest level, this approach will enable us to give up the habitual binary of the modern mind and embrace the deeper core of our being, indeed our psychic and spiritual selves, as Soren Kierkegaard, Gandhi, Sri Aurobindo and other existential/spiritual thinkers have taught us.

The new culture in the academia, as I see it, believes in democratic pluralism. The main problem of democratic pluralism, as Patrick J. Hill suggests, “is less that of taking diversity seriously than that of grounding any sort of commonality. It is the problem of encouraging citizens to sustain conversations of respect with diverse others for the sake of their making public policy together, for forging over and over again a sense of shared future.”30

It is in the search for a shared future that multiculturalism will find its true meaning.

Sachidananda Mohanty is a former professor and Head of the Department of English, University of Hyderabad. Winner of many national and international awards, he has published extensively in the field of British, American, gender, translation and postcolonial studies. He is a former Vice Chancellor of the Central University of Odisha.

Source: Culture wars & claims of multiculturalism

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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