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Thesis on Multi-culturalism
Why multi-culturalism is reactionary, and counterproductive
The ideology of multi-culturalism is reactionary, and counterproductive. It blocks the rational discourse on human progress.
Multi-culturalism, sometimes also referred to as cultural pluralism, is a condition and project within Western societies. Western Europe, Canada, and USA have seen a steady stream of immigration of diverse, non-European ethnic groups. It is an essential part of the thesis put forward here that this immigration, as well as migration streams in general, as part and parcel of cross-cultural learning, is an important positive factor in the advancement of global human progress. Another part of the thesis is concerned with the fact that migration and cultural learning are not always as successful as could be. The ethnic minority groups that settled in Western societies have tended to maintain a high level of cultural distinctiveness, rather than integrating and blending into the melting pot of a unified national culture. The original idea of Western states was to achieve integration, following the example of the Anglo-Saxon culture of the USA where integration eventually, after initial frictions, succeeded with respect to German, Irish, Polish, and Jewish immigrants among others. However, not all immigrant groups were equally welcomed, able or willing to blend in. The African American minority is a very special, highly complex and contested case that cannot be addressed within the confines of this paper.
It is important to be clear about the concept of culture that is at stake in this paper and thesis. The concept of culture discussed here has little to do with superficial folkloristic garnish like ethnic foods and nostalgic memories preserved in artistic artefacts etc. The cultures to be critically engaged with are deep seated patterns with momentous implications for productive performance. Thomas Sowell’s concept of culture is relevant here: “Cultures are not museum-pieces. They are the working machinery of everyday life. Unlike objects of aesthetic contemplation, working machinery is judged by how well it works, compared to the alternatives.”[i] Rather than with folklore or even culture in the sense of high-brow artistic or literary works, we are concerned with culture as connected with valued personality types, character traits, prevalent social values and internalized interaction institutions as factors impacting individual and cooperative economic achievement. As Thomas Sowell, we are concerned with “those aspects of culture which provide the material requirements of life – the specific skills, general work habits, saving propensities, and attitudes towards education and entrepreneurship - in short, what economists call ‘human capital’.”[ii]
In the UK Pakistani culture and communities remained distinct and separate. A similar result is manifest with respect to Turkish communities in Germany as well as North African and West African communities in France. This lack of cultural and social integration, in each instance, goes hand in hand with a certain statistically significant relative economic underachievement, and overrepresentation with respect to welfare dependency. Occasionally, mostly from conservative quarters, the worry of ‘parallel societies’ is being articulated due to the often rather different mores and norms found in some ethnic communities, norms that are indeed in some respects incompatible with those of the host nation. By now the mainstream approach welcomes the persistence of the cultural distinctiveness of these groups. In many of his works on race and culture Thomas Sowell emphasises that his work “collides head-on with prevailing doctrines about ‘celebrating’ and preserving cultural differences.”[iii] It is the thesis of this paper that these prevailing doctrines are counter-productive and must be taken on head on.
The general, mainstream attitude towards these distinct cultures is, deliberately and decidedly non-judgemental. Judgement is tabu. The dominant approach is indeed, as Sowell already lamented in 1988, to uncritically celebrate this cultural diversity. This certainly is a way to avoid strife and conflict and let everybody feel good. The underperforming cultures are allowed to persist by being subsidized via welfare provisions. Pointing to the welfare dependency of these cultures is not meant as a reproach. The point here is rather to note that it would be in the long-term best interest of the immigrants and their children to adopt and adapt the host nation’s culture in order to fully take advantage of all the opportunities available. This would also be in the best interest of the society at large. However, the welfare subsidies, immediately and always available to these groups, blunt the existential pressure to adapt and to adopt the host nation’s culture. Welfare here as everywhere, rewards failure and perpetuates cultural maladaptation, and over generations deepens distinctions and deprivations, eventually leading to divisions and conflict. Welfare everywhere, due to our basic, universally shared human nature, functions as nearly irresistible, addictive, disabling drug, that indeed locks in the white underclass as much (or even more) as the culturally conservative minorities. The persistent minority underperformance, however, is never attributed to the persistent, maladapted cultural patterns but is rather attributed to a lack of opportunities due to (supposedly groundless) persistent prejudices within the host nation, or more recently, due to myriad imperceptible forms of structural or institutional racism, “detected” and “verified” by the measured inequity of outcomes. This short-circuit conclusion is obvious scientifically indefensible but trumps the discourse unchallenged because it has become the demand of a new pervasive “morality”. Morality, as Luhmann teaches us, is all about the conditioning of respect. The simple withdrawal of respectability beats or rather silences here all rational arguments.
The philosophy that underpins this celebratory and protective attitude is cultural relativism. This philosophy was first articulated within early 20th Century anthropology and expounds that all cultures must be respected as equally valid, since all observers, including the anthropologists, are always already inescapably embedded within their particular culture, each with its own particular criteria of evaluation. It is supposedly inadmissible or non-sensical to judge one culture by the standards of another. The possibility of universal standards is dismissed. It indeed makes little sense within a descriptive-explanatory project like anthropology to pass judgement. It is outright non-sensical, within anthropology, to judge individual behaviours or institutions - which make only sense in the cultural system they are part of – by the standards of another culture. Matters are however very different when a cultural group, rather than functioning independently, is hosted within another superior culture which sets standards for the overall functioning of society. Similarly, when a developing country tries to advance in emulation of a another, economically superior country, it makes sense to for it to judge its own behavioural patterns and institutions by the standards prevailing in the emulated country. Due attention, however, has to be given to the interconnectedness of all or most behavioural patterns and institutions that together constitute a culture as integrated system. This interdependency of the elements of a culture or system makes the transition from one culture to another, superior culture difficult, but not impossible. Transformations have to progress on many fronts simultaneously. Tensions will be inevitable. The main point here in relation to cultural relativism is that timeless, universal standards are not necessary. All that is required to overcome relativism is the ability to compare and rank cultures in terms of overall results. A single global measure of success is needed. Such a measure is de facto always already operating: prosperity. A superior culture is a culture that participates in and contributes to an economy that delivers higher average, median or minimum standards of living. This criterion is widely, even pervasively appreciated as crucial and manifest in the fact that the living standard differentials set migrants into motion world-wide. Perhaps this overall societal success criterion is slightly more complex, namely a combination of prosperity and liberty, that we might call material freedom. However, this can often, for many practical purposes, be condensed into the simple measure of prosperity, e.g. as expressed in the level of the minimum guaranteed living standard of the ranked societies, because in the top ranking societies have mostly very similar degrees of liberty, so that prosperity becomes decisive. That’s why migrants moving westwards from the Middle East tend to pass through Poland to move on to reach Germany. Cultural relativism might make sense in anthropology where it functions like a methodological principle. However, it makes no sense in the context in which the project of multi-culturalism exists. Here cultural relativism becomes an ideology.
This cultural relativism harmonizes very well with the project of multi-culturalism. Indeed, we could identify multi-culturalism or cultural pluralism, considered as an ideology rather than as a societal condition, with this ideological doctrine or dogma that all cultures must be of equal value. This dogma comes along with moral force: to think that one culture is superior to another is an afront, disrespectful, hubris, a violation, an attack on the dignity of those communities and persons that live and breathe these cultures.
In this paper, the topic is not the problem of the supposedly disenfranchised minorities in Western democracies. This phenomenon was here briefly discussed to explain the origin of the currently hegemonic ideology of multi-culturalism or cultural pluralism. This problem of multi-culturalism can be abstracted and treated more generally, with respect to all cultures, old or new, traditional ethnic-based or new age, including subcultures.
The same problematic is at play in relation to the phenomenon of underdevelopment or uneven development in the global context. Here too, reference to cultural patterns as factors of differential development trajectories is rebutted as blaming the victims. (Blame is certainly not the gist of the thesis put forward here, only causal analysis.) Here too, in the international arena, global forms of structural racism are supposed to be at play. This paper does not argue that racism does not exist or has no impact whatsoever, nationally or internationally. However, the thesis put forward entails that this impact is, both nationally and internationally, negligible, in comparison with the impact of cultural inertia and maladaptation within the population supposedly victimised by a racist system. There are too many examples of immigrant groups flourishing and rising to top economic performance, often outcompeting the host nation’s population, in the face of severe discrimination and impediments, to argue that external impediments or differential treatment by society is decisive. The Jews in Europe and the Chinese in South-east Asia are striking examples. What also supports this scepticism is the fact that the elimination of the most severe impediments and the fading away of outright discrimination did, in some cases, not lead to the expected developmental take-off. The disappointing failure of African American advancement since the civil rights beak throughs of the sixties and seventies are an example. That’s why many black intellectuals[iv] followed in the footsteps of Thomas Sowell in resisting the by now hegemonic trend of attributing the persistence of the African American income and wealth gap to a supposed structural racism and are focussing instead on cultural patterns and dynamics. Nobody would argue that racism plays a causal part in the productivity differences between North Europe and South Europe. But that there are cultural differences that play a role in accounting for the productivity differentials is hard to deny. Few would probably deny this in this context where the emotive charge of possible racism is on nobody’s mind. Few would deny that cultural differences exist between North Italy and South Italy, and that they probably play a role in economic performance. Here too these cultural differences and economic disparities are being perpetuated by corrupting subsidy streams.
In the international arena, with respect to the developmental gap, many more factors than cultural patterns are coming into play. However, the dismissal of cultural factors is here also hampering solutions due to the ideological blind spot of cultural relativism or pluralism. To be sure, cultural catch-up transformation is here much harder than in the case of minorities in advanced Western countries with opportunities all around. The failure of the diasporas of the global South to culturally adapt and to fully take advantage of these opportunities – a failure which I attribute only to some extent on the self-preserving, conservative tendency inherent in most traditional cultures, but mostly to the misguided ideology and practices of Western multi-culturalism - also implies a lost opportunity in terms of the influential role these diasporas could play in the cultural modernisation of their home nations.
The thesis promoted here is that the doctrine of multi-culturalism makes no sense as a premise for a rational, critical discourse aimed at improving world society and the human condition. Rational discourse must strive to identify and argue for the most productive and life-enhancing ways of life and patterns of sociality and forms of civil society institutions attainable with respect to current technological conditions. This entails the critique of outmoded and dysfunctional ways of life and thinking. While it might not be possible to conclusively identify the best currently attainable way of life, the competitive search of the most viable and promising cultural patterns should be on. Also, it should certainly be easy enough to achieve a broad consensus within a forthright discourse about the counterproductive backwardness of certain – traditional or more recent - cultural patterns and practices. However, the hegemonic ideology of multi-culturalism does censor all frank discourse on these questions. That most or all lingering pre-modern cultural patterns are maladaptive is a reasonable hypothesis. While we witness the gradual eradication of these vestiges, this process is much slower than it could be, and beset with temporary reversals like the resurgence and political empowerment of fundamentalist religions in several parts of the world. The disappearance of these vestiges will not usher in a wholly homogenized single world culture. This is not to be expected due to the world division of labour in conjunction the different cultures that fit with different occupations or industries. Agricultural regions, regions based on mining, heavy industry, regions based on tourism, clusters of high-tech manufacturing, regions specialising in software development, financial centres, entertainment industries etc. etc. all select for somewhat different cultures, even within the framework of a large single nation like the USA or China. These are the cultural differences we have to reckon with far into the future. However, it is reasonable to hypothesise that there will, in an integrated modern world economy, a universally shared set of cultural norms and practices that facilitate world commerce, at least as a minimal requirement of global cooperation, and participation in world society. This can be expected despite the different cultures that will emerge from the world division of labour in spatial industrial clusters and regions. The base set of shared cultural patterns will provide an overarching (or underlying) framework. Within this overarching framework we should expect industry and regionally specific differentiations. Different cultural debates will flourish in each regional sub-culture. A basic globally shared culture of communication is all the more necessary as the occupationally and industry-based subcultures are not always spatially separated. In every large nation state, and in many large metropolitan areas many of these different industry clusters rub against each other and indeed overlap. The very concept of the division of labour implies continuous market exchange between these cultures. The different education levels and income levels associated with different positions in the division of labour also imply cultural distinctions, for instance in terms of a more cosmopolitan versus more localist orientation. Even within the educated cosmopolitan elites there are distinct subcultures. Investment bankers are culturally very different from artists in terms of their world view, sensitivities and in-group interaction patterns, the former group is a key customer group of the latter. Not only market exchange but also collaboration on projects is often required. While the community of designers is culturally quite distinct from the community of engineers, they have to collaborate on nearly every industrial artefact. Contemporary world society exhibits both a certain regional clustering of functions in the world division of labour, as well as the layering of several globally networked occupation-based cultures.
These different functionally based cultures - to the extent that they are all well-adapted to their respective roles in the world division of labour - will engage with each other as equals and in mutual respect, although not protected by any tabu against critically probing debates. In contrast, the debate between different cultures today – which are nearly all framed in terms of treasured traditional ethnic backgrounds - cannot proceed from the assumption of perfect symmetry. There is a definite asymmetry in terms of economic performance, prosperity and living standards. People implicitly, although not explicitly, acknowledge this asymmetry by voting with their feet.
However, the currently hegemonic left-liberal mainstream ideology of multi-culturalism and cultural relativism has placed a strict tabu on any debate that would engage in a comparative evaluation of different cultural patterns. All cultural diversity must supposedly be celebrated and the basic respect for all human beings supposedly entails and demands respect for anybody’s cultural inheritance, ideas, or values, whether ethnicity-based or otherwise. The assumption is that questioning somebody’s culture is disrespectful, an insult, undermining the addressed persons. Issues of national and ethnic pride loom large here, because many people identify unreasonably deeply with the culture and people of their origin, connecting their own sense of pride and self-worth with the perceived greatness and past achievements of their people. This attitude, which also still lingers in the mind of many Europeans, is a pre-modern vestige that is incompatible, or at least in strong tension with, modern individualism, and with the fundamental future orientation and expectation of continuous modernisation that is an essential ingredient of the modern mindset. This pre-modern attitude of a collectivist approach to self-respect – which was and perhaps still is to some extent active in modern nationalism - is strongly promoted by all traditional cultures where to begin with individuals are never considered except was avatars of their family and clan. Collective pride is not always something altogether false, even in today’s world. It makes sense and fulfils a constructive purpose if it relates to current collective achievements. It makes perfect sense that all who have actively participated in a successful project feel proud about this. Successful cooperation depends on a vibrant esprit de corps and solidaric team dynamics. In contrast, being proud of one’s ancestors is getting in the way of a contemporary cosmopolitan high-productivity culture that best bases self-worth on personal achievements and with respect to collective pride best identifies with elective rather than inherited communities. Examples of elective communities might be universities and their alumni networks, a political party one chooses to affiliate with, successful firms employees seek out, work for and identify with, cities people seek out, settle within and contribute to etc. To be sure, all nation states, as well as all firms, try to install a sense of patriotism, as a means to inspire loyalty. However, being born into this or that nation state should neither boost, nor deflate anybody’s sense of pride and self-worth. These irrational psychological mechanisms do more harm than good, and should be debunked and ridiculed rather than taken for granted or endorsed. This sense connection of self-worth with the history of “one’s people”, gets in the way of advantageous cultural transmission.
The willingness of the Japanese during the second half of the 19th Century to import Western culture nearly lock stock and barrel was an (extremely successful) exception, triggered by the shock of being confronted by a technologically superior military power, in the form of a USA war ships. Japan recognized that it had to learn from the West, both in terms of technological advancements and institutional reforms. The government sent several missions to Western countries to gather knowledge, insights, and best practices. The most notable of these was the Iwakura Mission, an elite delegation that went on a two-year systematic learning expedition to the USA and Europe in 1871, to study Western systems of governance, legal codes, education systems, technology, infrastructure, modern factories, military organization etc. The mission consisted of around 50 officials, scholars, and students. It was led by Iwakura Tomomi, a senior statesman, and included several influential figures, such as a future Prime Minister and a future Foreign Minister. Upon its return the leadership was initiating a break-neck Westernisation programme, while simultaneously outlawing many traditional practices. The reform process left no aspect of Japanese society untouched. This Westernisation process was reversed however, at least with respect to outward cultural symbols, once the technological and economic catch-up was achieved and Japan’s self-confidence in its own prowess was restored. By 1920 a certain cultural resurgence got underway, a deliberate effort to re-emphasize traditional Japanese values, aesthetics, and practices. While Western-style clothing, for instance, had become widespread, particularly among the urban population and officials, there was a renewed appreciation for traditional Japanese attire like the kimono for certain occasions. Likewise, while Western art and literature were popular, there was also a resurgence in traditional Japanese arts and crafts. However, it's essential to understand that this was a selective and relative superficial process. Japan continued to use Western technology, organizational methods, and many suitable cultural patterns, while it tried to reconnect to and symbolize its national identity by the use of traditional aesthetics, pomp and circumstance. Turkey moved through a similar arc, perhaps with less success, and a less than merely superficial reversal.
More recently a superficially similar arc could be observed in China. Mao’s notorious Cultural Revolution tried to force through a comprehensive erasure of all aspects of Chinese traditional culture, as well as all remnants of capitalism. Like in Japan, the cultural revolution was initiated from above. However, it was as least partly motivated by internal factional strife within the CCP and used by Mao to consolidate his power by instituting purges, instigating the aggressive energy of organised and empowered youth groups. Like the earlier Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution was disastrous in its effects on economic development. Instead of being based on the emulation of cultural and institutional forms from a successful model - the Soviet Union had no positive track record - these radical revolutionary, forced reforms were ideologically driven, based on theories that soon proved fallacious, rather than following a proven precedent.
Successful cultural transformations cannot rely primarily on power. Also, proven precedents to emulate are an indispensable precondition for rapid transformation. Catch-up development can be rapid. The original culture of the advanced precedent models, in contrast, was always the result of a long, organic, trial and error evolution. Progress into uncharted territory at the frontier is never fast or linear. Many complementary aspects of an economically successful culture have to slowly come together. Empirically informed theoretical guidance can play a role, but such intricate structures and patterns cannot be invented or constructed ex novo. Revolutionary or radical reformist zeal is – in relation to such intricately evolved, complex cultures - therefore often more destructive than constructive. Friedrich Hayek has been warning against such over-zealous, solely theory-based efforts, which he referred to as ‘constructivist rationalism’, and regarded as vain ‘pretence of knowledge’, a form of hubris. In comparison to this kind of constructivism, a certain degree of conservative caution is recommended. Giving organically evolved institutions the benefit of the doubt, even if it is not always clear how and why these forms work, is indeed often the more rational approach. The Woke cultural revolution that currently sweeps through all our institutions can be criticised in this light.
The disastrous experiment of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, bringing China to the brink, then opened the way for another revolution, again initiated from above. Deng’s reintroduction of capitalism was spectacularly successful. It broke with the invented, self-isolating path of communism and opened up the country to outside influences. Hong Kong was an impressive example to follow. As in the case of Japan, the capitalist revolution was instigated from above, not so much through impositions but through liberalisation, and by opening up new degrees of economic freedom for everybody, although in the case of China this was first tried in special economic zones, before being rolled out on a national scale. Deng’s revolution was also influenced by and partaking in the simultaneous neo-liberal Thatcher and Reagan revolutions. This revolution too, also in China, had some theoretical guidance, for instance through the works of Friedrich Hayek. It was not just a merely empirically based imitation, although, of course much more based in following successful historical experiences than the communist project. The success of pro-capitalist economic liberalization was ultimately delivered bottom-up, based on myriads of individual initiatives. As Japan in the 1930s, China in the 2000s, after the economic dynamics were well under way, started to slow down and eventually partially reverse the privatisation and liberalisation process, reestablishing more top-down control and authority. In recent decades regime and society tried to connect back to its grand history as a source of pride and identity. In both 1930s Japan and current China the connection back to grand ancient history seems to be connected to a re-emerging authoritarianism. How the sage of Feudal China Confucius can really guide contemporary China beyond generic truisms remains a mystery. The practical effect of this felt need for a prideful, historically rooted identity, can only be disorientation. Headlines like this one from the 21st July 2023 issue of China Daily are a regular staple: “Ancient values that transcend time – Forum highlights how Hongshan Culture provides vital reference points for China’s modernization”. The article reports on a ‘Vision China’ event organized by the National Cultural Heritage Administration. Xi Jinping is quoted as summarizing five prominent features of Chinese Civilisation: consistency, originality, uniformity, inclusiveness, and peacefulness. Such themes can be extracted at will and do not seem to place any serious constraints. However, such uses of history are less than enlightening and the fact that everybody everywhere, not only in China, seems to feel the need to sustain at least the appearance of a continuity with a unique tradition-based culture is certainly a drag on the much needed free cross-cultural flows and the overall cultural progress of world civilisation, a process that should allow for a certain functional differentiation in accordance with the world division of labour, but should ideally leave all tradition- or ethnicity-based cultural identities behind.
History should never sponsor inferiority complexes. The pride-sponsored rewriting of history is a wasted and fragile effort, that only feeds the same false logic of worth built on real or supposed ancestral achievement. Afro-centric historiography is a touching example of such misguided efforts, at least when it overshoots and goes way further than the correction of biases and distortions of earlier Euro-centric historiography. Such projects establish cultural silos. What should be the focus and point of departure of developmental reform trajectories is the comparative analysis of current achievements with the aim to distil the perquisites of advancement, including its cultural prerequisites.
The attempt to depict current national economic success, which in actual fact is based on the adoption and extrapolation of modern cosmopolitan culture, as being specifically indebted and based on “one’s own” ancient culture, as China does these days, is disorienting rather than enlightening. Guidance towards further development should be pragmatic, result-oriented, and therefore unencumbered by nostalgia or the need to build on “one’s own unique ancient culture”. Such a need is either unduly constraining or mere garnish, at best distracting. However, knowing and reckoning with this strong and nearly universal tendency of collective backward-looking pride, and prideful reluctance to adopt another civilisation’s culture, implies or recommends, as interim strategy, the avoidance of the phrase ‘Western culture’, using ‘modern culture’ instead, and to emphasise, with Homi J. Bhabha, the deep, inextricable hybridity of contemporary modern culture and civilisation, which is the result of a centuries long interweaving of cross-cultural influences, a process the ancestors of virtually all contemporary peoples have contributed to. This might serve to ameliorate the tendency of group pride that gets in the way of the kind of rational discourse and shameless pragmatic cultural copying we seek. However, this stratagem, which is based on the reality of cultural (as well as racial) hybridity, must be combined with an ultimate ridiculing and rejection of all ancestry-based pride or anxiety.
The thesis here is that questioning somebody’s potentially problematic culture, i.e. somebody’s world view, values and moral dispositions, should not be construed as ad hominem attack, but, if not as gift, then at least as a friendly, discursive challenge that can potentially be liberating for the person addressed. Attacking a dysfunctional culture is potentially an act of emancipation that, at least in retrospect, will or should be welcomed by a person shackled by the false ideas and dysfunctional behavioural dispositions inherited through being socialized into a particular outmoded culture. This very possibility should imply the self-reflection and realisation that a prideful resistance or protective tabu is detrimental both to self-development and societal development. The critical questioning of somebody’s culture and identity should thus not be a priori taken personally as an attack on the person who has inherited the culture in question. A precondition for discursive success here is of course that this critique does not come with self-righteousness, arrogance, or an indignant emotional charge that could be read as hostility towards the person or persons addressed. To parse this is not always easy, and requires ample social skill. It also requires trust. Perhaps all the overemphasis and pervasive uptake of a restrictive and protective communication culture that allows everybody to feel safe and respected, has by now established enough trust to, from here on, start to move towards a frank debate of the problematic aspects various cultures, without being misunderstood as yesteryears bigotry and personal animus. Personal respect and empathy for all being addressed in such a discourse remains a value that can and should be upheld in the face of frank and ruthless criticism of ideas and cultural patterns.
Since the tabu of frank cultural criticism undermines all rational debate about cultural patterns, it cannot be rationally motivated. However, it can be emotionally motivated. It is a concession to a supposedly vulnerable sense of identity, to supposedly tender sensibilities, to an identity that is possibly invested with an existential depth. But a faith or an investment into a cultural identity is no immutable characteristic. Sensitivity, empathy and tact are called for in the critique of a lived culture, but an outright ban of such a critique as disrespectful or illegitimate makes no sense. It is also rather patronizing in its assumption that anybody with traditional sensibilities is vulnerable and incapable of critical self-reflection and rational interrogation of his/her own cultural presumptions. The implication of multi-cultural ideology is that rather than opening people up to the possibility to overcome their potentially self-limiting cultural inheritance, they are always automatically encouraged to proudly cherish who they are, as if the rejection of once’s cultural inheritance was a morally questionable ingratitude or even a form of self-denial. Cultural identities and differences are thereby essentialised, treated as immutable. This not only blocks self-development but might also play into the hands of power structures that are often sustained by traditional cultures. The philosophy of existentialism is perhaps, despite or rather because of its unsustainable exaggeration of an untethered freedom to reinvent oneself, the best anti-dote here. The fact that Western philosophy spawned such an exaggeration within its radical modernisation trajectory is interesting and telling.
Human progress has been historically non-synchronous and developmental progress remains uneven across nations as well as across distinct ethnic groups within nations. That large and persistent cultural differences are both the cause and effect of these developmental and economic disparities is a reasonable hypothesis that is posited and presupposed here. Ample evidence for this can be found in the many related works of Thomas Sowell. However, as Sowell points out, “the erosion of both racial and cultural distinctiveness has been as real as their persistence”.[v] Cross-cultural influence and borrowing, and indeed the global diffusion of successful cultural patterns, had been going on throughout history, and still is today, a key factor in global human progress. This cultural copying clearly implies that, at any stage in history, some cultural patterns are more successful – those that are spreading by being emulated - than other cultural patterns that are being abandoned. (The recent moral injunction on so called ‘cultural appropriation’ is one more contradictory absurdity of current multi-cultural/woke ideology.) The hypothesis here is that the conduciveness to prosperity is the primary selection criterion that drives the sustained, long-term diffusion of certain cultural patterns.
Most people, irrespective of cultural background, aspire to a higher living standard. Migration pressures from poor countries to rich Western countries demonstrate this. This means that some cultures are superior to others and deserve to be emulated. This does not mean that it is always easy and quick to emulate or import the successful cultures. Not all the necessary ingredients and prerequisites are always obvious to even the keenest observers and imitators. Also, especially when it is nation states rather than groups within a nation state who are trying to emulate and catch up, we must recognize that cultural patterns are rarely the only factors or necessary ingredients of societal economic development. There are also many organisational prerequisites that must be built up. While the national capacity to build up the requisite organisational structures and processes also depends on the cultural development of the human capital, it is a distinct, time-consuming factor and prerequisite of successful catch-up development. How rapidly new cultures and organisational structures can be emulated depends on the prior developmental state in each of the two factors of cultural and organisational capital.
Despite the overwhelming historical evidence of differential development and its correlation with cultural differences, the forthright discussion of cultural differences has been hampered by the ideology of multi-culturalism in recent decades. Talk about superior versus inferior cultures is now absolutely tabu. This is understandable in the light of yesteryear’s pseudo-scientific race theories that had posited the genetically determined inferiority of non-European races and that had been used to justify slavery, genocides, apartheid regimes, and colonial subjugation as natural. However, our discussion here, as well as Thomas Sowell’s work, is not working with a biological concept of race positing genetically determined capacities. Such a concept has long since lost its credibility and plays no role anymore, except in extremist fringes without any legitimacy or resonance in the discourse.
The squeamishness about and indeed the tabu against any attempt to compare and critique different group cultures is based on a false and counterproductive assimilation of the attempt to discuss and critique different cultures with yesteryear’s racism. The accusation of racism is flung about increasingly indiscriminately, and has lost its meaning, except its accusatory thrust. The tabu against the comparative evaluation of cultures, protected by the looming accusation of racism, protects the irrational dogma of multi-culturalism or cultural relativism according to which all cultures are equally valid and worthy of being perpetuated. It should be clear from the discussion above that this dogma is incompatible with any account or explanation of humanity’s progress, as well as with any attempt to push social and societal progress forward.
The current state of the discourse on cultural issues and identity is full of contradictions. Multi-culturalism contradicts the simultaneous agenda of social progress and cultural development. Here is another contradiction: The same left-liberal milieu that promotes innovative ideas and practices like gender fluidity and criticises Western metropolitan societies as bigoted, dismisses and de-platforms any critique of Islam, whether coming from a feminist or older liberal position, as Islamophobic, thereby protecting a culture that certainly does not reciprocate with respect or tolerance for any version of left-liberal culture.
Multi-culturalism in the sense of the positive celebration of a diversity of cultures also contradicts the simultaneous rejection, within the same left-liberal milieu, of the idea of cultural “stereotypes”. The way this concept is deployed implies that stereotypes are always false stereotypes, based on ignorant prejudice. This prohibition against stereotyping means that any attempt to define, characterise and probabilistically predict behavioural dispositions of those who subscribe to a particular cultural or ethnic identity and value-set is a priori fallacious and illegitimate. The contradiction is blatant: this move leaves the celebrated diversity of cultural identities utterly empty, devoid of any content, meaning or practical significance. What becomes clear is that contemporary discourse is so dominated by sensitivities, symbolic gestures, the expression of respect and empathy, as well as the signalling of virtue that there is literally no room of manoeuvre left for logic and critical-rational problem solving. What is pointed to but denied by the notion of stereotypes is the very topic of this paper: systematic cultural patterns – including typical, valued and expected behavioural dispositions - as factors contributing to productivity, prosperity and human flourishing.
[i] Thomas Sowell, Conquests and Cultures: An International History, Basic Books, New York 1988, p.X
[ii] Thomas Sowell, Race and Culture, Basic Books, New York 1994, p.xii
[iii] Thomas Sowell, Conquests and Cultures: An International History, Basic Books, New York 1988, p.X
[iv] Black intellectuals following Thomas Sowell in focussing on culture: Shelby Steele, Larry Elder, Glenn Loury, John McWhorter, Jason L. Riley, Coleman Hughes a.o.
[v] Thomas Sowell, Race and Culture, Basic Books, New York 1994, p.6
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