Sunday, July 31, 2005

The Culture of Multiculturalism

A few years back during the first season of Babylon 5, one of the episodes depicted each of the major alien races on the station inviting others to witness some cultural or religious event that defined the dominant culture of their world. When at last it came to the humans' turn, the captain introduced his alien guests to a row of representatives of all of the major religions on earth. The message was that there was no dominant culture or religion. But as my friend Pat pointed out, there was--the culture of the captain, who was able to arrange all of those believers in a line, like voices in a choir.

This is the culture of multiculturalism. It's premises, briefly stated, are as follows:
  1. You may believe anything you like, provided that you accept that your beliefs may be wrong.
  2. Rational discourse based upon solid evidence shall be the sole mode of discourse in the establishment of the truth. Anything outside this is mere opinion. You may not dictate to others what they must believe, nor employ force to spread your beliefs.
  3. You may choose to partake in the arts and customs of any culture within the limitations laid out by the law, but you have no power to force anyone else to do the same.
  4. No governmental agency may act to encourage or discourage any religious belief or lack thereof.
Multiculturalism has been represented as a form of cultural relativism--a wishy washy, non-commital stance meant to appease . In fact, it is itself a very strong position regarding truth and belief. This distinction can be observed in the pursuit of science and the procedures of our courts. Truth is arrived at by the rational empirical method, sound reasoning based upon verified evidence. Truth must be established beyond a reasonable doubt. Religious belief is tolerated because it cannot be proven, or, strictly speaking, disproven. No religion can be favoured in law--none of them can present a solid case, nor will any admit that any body of evidence is sufficient to disqualify it. It has no evidence to support it, and dodges all attempts to falsify it. We must agree to disagree. To do otherwise would be to enshrine mere whim as law, the tyranny of popular opinion. The first step in establishing a state religion is to put God into the law, because it requires the courts to define God. The tolerance of the law ends when extremist thought becomes extremist action. You can think whatever you like, but you can't do whatever you like, nor can you encourage others to break the law.

This position is the high water mark of human civilization. By extension, it might be better if we abolished religion altogether. It is, after all, not proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and encourages a great deal of muddy, wishful, magical thinking, not to mention some extremely dangerous irrational behaviour. The ethical component so often touted as the primary incentive to preserve religion is a cunard. Religion is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for moral behaviour, and it encourages as many sins as it does virtues. But it is foolish to insist on this position, simply because religion is encouraged and supported by a host of emotional motives and cognitive disfunctions that are apparently endemic to the human mind. I've prepared a list of these, but they are too many to go into here. Suffice it to say that it takes more effort and dedication than most people are willing to spend to rid themselves of it, and even most atheists have arrived at their position without much thought. Religion is not going to go away.

At the same time, the essentially secular attitude upon which multiculturalism is based can, should, and will defend itself against all challengers. These challengers will espouse some form of orthodoxy, whether religious or secular. Political correctness in all its variations are as much a form of orthodoxy as Christianity or Islam; the views of a confirmed Marxist or free market proponent will often rival the staunchest fundamentalist for pigheaded rigidity. Even postmodernism is a form of orthodoxy; defending its positive assertions with the sophistry of relativism, postmodernists dodge counterarguments by denying all truth, only to sneak back and try to establish their own opinions as the final word.

Multiculturalism amounts to the admission that you can't control what people think, nor should you try. It's a broader form of a tolerance for eccentricity. The tolerance ends, though, when it is abused and taken for weakness, when the broad social contract that underlies it is ignored or exploited. Then we remember why we chose this ironic attitude towards beliefs of all kinds. Our own history demonstrates how, given the chance, religion becomes tyranny. We may not be able to get rid of it, but at least we can prevent it from taking over.