Bowing to the Arbitrary (Guest Post)

Micah returns to STC with his second exhaustively researched, brilliantly argued post. In this he takes on the challenges of multiculturalism, a philosophical conundrum that challenges the very heart of Western culture today in both Europe and North America. A big thanks to Micah for his Considerate perspective and engaging, enlightening writing.

Bowing to the Arbitrary
Micah J. Fleck

Literary theorist and legal scholar Stanley Fish once wrote in his essay: Boutique Multiculturalism, or Why Liberals Are Incapable of Thinking about Hate Speech, a criticism of liberal multiculturalism's titular "boutique" form that addressed said ideology's seeming incapability to recognize what Fish saw as the notion of an "impasse" between multiculturalism's claims of tolerance and its simultaneous refusal to acknowledge the desultory necessity of force or violence in order to truly engage with intolerance. Fish (1997: 392), in his section of the essay addressing hate speech, posits the following: "This is a lesson liberalism will never learn; it is the lesson liberalism is pledged never to learn because underlying liberal thought is the assumption that, given the world and enough time... difference and conflict can always be resolved by rational deliberation, defined of course by those who have been excluded from it."

What precisely is being referenced in this passage, and how does the surrounding context of the rest of the essay, as well as perhaps the insights of some of Fish's fellow scholars, help us explicate Fish's meaning? Well first we might want to understand how Fish differentiates between boutique and strong multiculturalism – and to be fair, Fish seems to favor neither and cynically fustigates both in regards to how each form still ends up bowing to the arbitrary notion that difference cannot be truly acknowledged, lest one break with the quasi-dogmatic belief in the "core" (Fish 1997: 379). But in any case, Fish (1997: 384) states that "the boutique multiculturalist does not take difference seriously because its marks (quaint clothing, atonal music, curious table manners) are for him matters of lifestyle, and as such they should not be allowed to overwhelm the substratum of rationality that makes us all brothers under the skin."  And what of the strong multiculuturalist? Well, this figure fails in Fish's estimation for precisely the opposite reason, in that he "takes difference so seriously as a general principle that he cannot take any particular difference seriously." (Fish 1997: 384)

So multiculturalism as a whole, and thus liberalism at large, is to Fish a kind of self-delusion that skirts around the issue of true conflict between differing worldviews and cultures – whether through failure to acknowledge it at all or by way of focusing so hard on overcoming it so as to completely miss the point – in favor of a bland, and arguably illusory notion of prevailing underlying sameness. This outlook then postulates the notion that somehow all human beings are enough alike to where if we can simply find the right common ground, ubiquitous vernacular, shared interests, etc., we can then eviscerate the things that keep us apart and salvage only those that might bring us together.

What we may ask next, then, is why doesn't this strategy work? Aside from what Fish has already delineated for us regarding their selective hearing regarding difference, there are other concepts to point to as explicit examples of the multiculturalists' outlook not holding up to real world interaction. Once such instance can be found in Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks (1952: 82-86) in which Fanon describes his discovery of the fact that one cannot simply discuss similarities or ignore difference and expect a liberating end result from the socially indoctrinated. While clearly Fanon is taking aim more consciously at colonialism and the resulting harm found obtrusively in colonized societies in this writing, the soft brand of liberal multiculturalism Fish disparages is still clearly applicable. Because if the boutique multiculturalists were correct and some core humanity lying at the center of all of us could overcome our cultural differences, then Fanon should have simply been able to speak reason to those who misunderstood him and find said core indubitably.

But instead, Fanon's readers find a different turn of events that contradict these aforementioned notions. For one, Fanon admits that in order for one to begin the ingratiating process upon another, a certain amount of legitimization and reverence toward the opponent's views must be made: "Ontology–-once it is finally admitted as leaving existence by the wayside–-does not permit us to understand the being of the black man. For not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man" (Fanon 1952: 82-83). So already we are once again seeing that difference, when approached from the soft, or boutique (according to Fish) methodology of the multiculturalist, necessitates a sort of illusory approach in which one is obliged to not take on the actual problem of conflict, but instead pretend it doesn't really exist and as a result bow to the wrong-headedness of Fanon's ontology. No conflict, for certain, but has the real problem been addressed? Fish and Fanon, each for their own reasons, would argue no.

But what of perhaps a middle-ground approach that lies somewhere between boutique multiculturalism and all-out confrontation? After all, one could find a legitimate philosophical manifestation of this strategy in Emmanuel Kant's essay An Answer to the Question: 'What is Enlightenment?', where he presents the scenario in which taxation can be seen as the way of the land, and in order to truly get along with it, a resident "cannot refuse to pay the taxes imposed upon him," and yet at the same time, "the same citizen does not contravene his civil obligations if, as a learned individual, he publicly voices his thoughts on the impropriety or even injustice of such fiscal measures" (Kant 1991[1784]: 56). This approach is two-fold in that it both makes a distinction between one's private rights to speak out against injustice and one's limitations on how much action can follow in the public sphere. And while Kant's aspirations to not rock the boat are noble, Fanon's experiences show where this might still not always be applicable – especially when one's livelihood as a whole is threatened.

Indeed, as Fanon (1952: 86) continues in his accounting for what led him to this conclusion, he recalls facing what he calls the schema (indoctrination) of the anti-black colonials head-on. Perhaps the most striking example of Fanon experiencing this first-hand is when, after attempting very insistently to fit in with white culture by speaking, behaving, and interacting on its specific terms, a woman still speaks about Fanon, to his face, as if he were nothing more than a quaint, sub-human curiosity: "Look how handsome the Negro is," with Fanon's retort, "kiss the handsome Negro's ass, madame!" But he goes on to further explain just how this realization hits him: "While I was forgetting, forgiving, and wanting only to love, my message was flung back in my face like a slap. The white world, the only honorable one, barred me from all participation. A man was expected to behave like a man. I was expected to behave like a black man... I was told to stay within bounds, to go back where I belonged" (Fanon 1952: 86). Since that moment, Fanon changed his strategy and faced the differences between himself and white culture head-on, with arguably much more effective and "enlightening" results than even what Kant proposed. Fanon spoke to the masses, published literature, and sometimes outright broke rules (which set him apart from Kant and aligned him more with Thoreau), admitting the complexity of the situation was found within the conflict rather than without.

The argument, essentially, is that one cannot utilize the very surroundings that bred the conflict in the first place to then overcome that same conflict just as easily. Again, applying this to Fish, the sort of assimilation Fanon first aimed for was a type of cohabitation that was defined "by those who have been excluded" from the conflicts it seems to ignore (Fish: 1997: 392). In Fanon's case, the "excluded" were the white men who got to draw the lines between what was and was not still acceptable. So the true differences remained unacknowledged and the conflicts unsolved until Fanon decided to actually address that certain distances between the two worlds could not be crossed without force or upset.

Fish (1997: 382-383) brilliantly summed up this problem to be more generally applicable: "the trouble with stipulating tolerance as your first principle is that you cannot possibly be faithful to it because sooner or later the culture whose core values you are tolerating will reveal itself to be intolerant at that same core; that is, the distinctiveness that marks it as unique and self-defining will resist the appeal of moderation or incorporation... a beleaguered culture will fight back with everything from discriminatory legislation to violence."

Enter Charles Taylor who, in his work Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition, argues a similar public/private distinction a la Kant, but at the same time is just as cynical as Fish of softer multiculturalism's claims. With Taylor, however, a finer point is put on it wherein his equivalent of Fish's boutique multiculturalism is referred to as "difference-blind liberalism" (Taylor 1994: 62). Taylor argues here that he finds this strain of liberalism's claim "that it can offer a neutral ground on which people of all cultures can meet and coexist" to be lacking in the aforementioned public/private differentiation, and that "liberalism can't and shouldn't claim complete cultural neutrality" (Taylor 1994: 62). For Taylor however, his sticking point is something a bit more nuanced in what he saw as a relationship between universal equality and politics of difference – the latter outlook, rightly or wrongly, seems for Taylor to be largely due to Frantz Fanon's earlier referenced calls to violence "as the way to this freedom," with "this" referencing the anti-colonial brand of liberation Fanon so strongly advocated (Taylor 1994: 65).

Nevertheless, despite Taylor's subcategorization of types of multiculturalism being arguably more prismic than Fish's, and aside from the fact that Taylor and Fanon might disagree on the mechanism by which to unshackle oneself, all of these men still seem to take umbrage with the notion that mere solidarity can be found through an actionless delusion of differences being somehow unimportant or beside the point. All men, in other words, have aptly identified, dissected, and rejected the straight of liberalism that Fish calls boutique multiculturalism. In this way, it can be concluded that our interpretation of Fish's position from the top of this essay, that multiculturalism postulates a false notion that clouds and ignores the real issue of difference, has been absolutely and referentially explicated.

So what can we do about it? Does this mean that all forms of relativity are illusory and therefore not worth our time? Quite the contrary. But we must take care to avoid the sort of thing the greats before us have already shown to be significantly wanting. Certain research fields have already taken such heed; such as in anthropology, for instance, where a clear distinction is made between cultural relativity and moral relativity. The anthropological perspective on this is that the former is possible to achieve while the latter is not. For Fish, Fanon, and the like, their criticisms were of a sort of mishmash of both that tends to be all too liberally applied – arguably even more so today in a time when we strive to be better fellow human beings and maintain open minds and maximize freedom.

These wishes are certainly noble, but misguided and imprecise. So to follow the example of those who came before us, we must strive to recognize the difference between maintaining an open dialogue with our fellows and simply taking leave of our individual stances on the morality or rationality of a contrary action or viewpoint. In other words, we have to be intellectually consistent without being immovable in our perspectives. Dialogue and debate is about walking this line, and the sooner we learn to recognize the difference, the more successful such ventures will be.


References Cited

Fanon, Frantz

    2008[1952]  The Fact of Blackness. In Black Skin, White Masks. Charles L. Markmann trans. London: Pluto Press.

Fish, Stanley

    1997 Boutique Multiculturalism, or Why Liberals Are Incapable of Thinking about Hate Speech. Critical Inquiry 23(2):378-395.

Kant, Immanuel

    1991[1784]  An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? In Kant: Political        Writings. H.S. Reiss, ed. H.B. Nisbet, trans. Pp. 54-60. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, Charles

     1994The Politics of Recognition.In Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition. Amy Gutmann, ed. Pp. 25-73. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.