"Either People Have Rights or They Have Uniforms."


At Butterflies and Wheels, Kenan Malik has a brilliant piece on the mythology of "cultural preservation." It's long and dense and well worth reading in full.

'It is in the interest of every person to be fully integrated in a cultural group', Joseph Raz has written. But what is to be fully integrated? If a Muslim woman rejects sharia law, is she demonstrating her lack of integration? What about a Jew who doesn't believe in the legitimacy of the Jewish State? Or a French Quebecois who speaks only English? Would Galileo have challenged the authority of the Church if he had been 'fully integrated' into his culture? Or Thomas Paine have supported the French Revolution? Or Salman Rushdie written The Satanic Verses? Cultures only change, societies only move forwards because many people, in Kwame Appiah's words, 'actively resist being fully integrated into a group'. To them 'integration can sound like regulation, even restraint'. Far from giving voice to the voiceless, in other words, the politics of difference appears to undermine individual autonomy, reduce liberty and enforce conformity. You will speak French, you will act gay, don't rock the cultural boat. The alternatives, the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut suggests, are simple: 'Either people have rights or they have uniforms; either they can legitimately free themselves from oppression… or else their culture has the last word.'

A century ago intellectuals worried about the degeneration of the race. Today we fear cultural decay. Is the notion of cultural decay any more coherent than that of racial degeneration? Cultures certainly change and develop. But what does it mean for a culture to decay? Or for an identity to be lost?… As the cultural critic Walter Benn Michaels puts it, 'In order for a culture to be lost…it must be separable from one's actual behaviour, and in order for it to be separable from one's actual behaviour it must be anchorable in race.'

The logic of the preservationist argument is that every culture has a pristine form, its original state. It decays when it is not longer in that form. Like racial scientists with their idea of racial type, some modern multiculturalists appear to hold a belief in cultural type. For racial scientists, a 'type' was a group of human beings linked by a set of fundamental characteristics which were unique to it. Each type was separated from others by a sharp discontinuity; there was rarely any doubt as to which type an individual belonged. Each type remained constant through time. There were severe limits to how much any member of a type could drift away from the fundamental ground plan by which the type was constituted. These, of course, are the very characteristics that constitute a culture in much of today's multiculturalism talk. Many multiculturalists, like racial scientists, have come to think of human types as fixed, unchanging entities, each defined by its special essence.

The idea of "cultural preservation" is useless partly because "culture" is such a catch-all. "I fear for the totality of all learned behaviors" is not a well articulated reason to shut the border or bribe women into pregnancy. Some behavior patterns are worth cultivating, and some are not; some are interdependent, and most are not. Preservationists have trouble individuating various behaviors, as if they were all logically connected in one anthropologic house of cards. Thus, if my cashier cannot speak English, my Second Amendment rights are doomed.