In his nearly forgotten book Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, T.S. Eliot observed that “One people in isolation is not aware of having a ‘culture’ at all.” Until I was 12, I lived in western New York state. Then, my family moved to South Carolina for a few years. I was immediately aware of the elements of Southern culture because it was so different from what I had experienced before. But I didn’t understand that I also had a culture; I just thought the Southerners (how they talked, what they ate, what they wore) were weird. At 15, we moved back to Rochester, and for the first time, I discovered that Western New York had a culture too. Things that would have seemed completely neutral and unremarkable as a boy, now struck me as distinctive (how we talked, what we ate, what we wore) and unique to a particular people in that particular place. This is the phenomenon that Eliot discusses: “culture” only becomes an object of concern after an encounter with cultural difference.
Notes Towards the Definition of Culture was published in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Eliot explained that the modern Western world had become “culture-conscious” in a new way, and claimed that this trend “nourishes Nazism, communism, and nationalism all at once.” He saw culture-consciousness as a geopolitical threat. Unfortunately, most Western elites disagreed with him.
The general principle advanced by Western philosophy in the years after the war was that cultural difference is an inherent good that society should protect and preserve. Pluralism had been a part of the American enterprise since its founding, but as the 20th century progressed, the traditional notion of pluralism was displaced by a new dogma. The old concept of “toleration” (a word which implied that the expression of cultural difference, while allowable, may be undesirable) came under attack. Merely tolerating difference was reframed as a form of soft bigotry. It was no longer enough to tolerate, differences must be affirmed and celebrated.
Thus, pluralism, which had been a political principle, was reconfigured as a moral one. The ways that a person’s identity deviated from cultural norms was increasingly viewed as being at the very core of an individual’s value to liberal society at large. This sensibility eventually birthed the maxim “our diversity is our strength,” a secular dogma that now echoes through every major institution of American life.
In The Closing of the American Mind, political philosopher Allan Bloom noted a “fundamental conflict between liberal society and culture.” There is some irony here, since the most politically “liberal” parts of our society are commonly viewed as the most “cultured,” in the bourgeois sense of the term. Popular culture today apes the tastes and fashions of the urban elite, so the second half of the 20th century saw a great liberalization of public culture across the United States. It is now clear that this “liberalization” didn’t simply change the character of American culture; it also changed the common understanding of the term culture itself. Sadly, this new definition of culture systematically undermined the preservation and transmission of the American tradition.
Historically, the operating principle of culture was unity. Culture was the sum of the similarities to be found among one people in a specific place and time. In contrast, Americans today usually understand “culture” as an individual attribute rather than a collective one. We hear frequent descriptions of “my culture,” but fewer references to “our culture,” a disparity which presupposes that “my culture” differs from that of the majority in some meaningful way. The significance of culture is now thought to center on difference rather than similarity. Publicly asserting these differences is the way to be seen in contemporary America. It is the way to be somebody, and if Americans are united in anything, it is our devotion to the cult of individualism and the rituals of self-fashioning.
The cumulative effect of these developments has been to turn the concept of culture inside out. We are hyper-conscious of culture (our own and that of others) because we encounter expressions of individual difference so often. It has become a way of life, a shared routine that masquerades as common culture, but ultimately fails to perform its unifying function. Namely, it fails to create one people out of many, and therefore, it fails to create a “nation.” This gives rise to a key question: Does a society premised on the personal expression of difference have any prospect of survival?
If a rising consciousness of culture led to the catastrophes of the 20th century, the West learned the wrong lessons. As Eliot explained, consciousness of one’s culture increases as exposure to cultural difference increases, and greater culture-consciousness has a negative effect on social cohesion. In other words, the liberal disposition, which reimagines “unity” as a cosmopolitan cohabitation of many cultures, is a threat to national identity.
Rather than encourage assimilation, post-war elites decided that there simply was not enough expression of difference. By incentivizing citizens to center their personal identities on the things that mark them as separate from the majority, the thinking went, people would learn to respond to other cultures in more affirming ways, ensuring that a horror like the Holocaust would not be repeated. By 1990, this outlook had been codified and institutionalized as ideology. It was called “multiculturalism.”
Multiculturalism holds that a society which celebrates all individual differences as inherently good is superior to one that does not. By this logic, the more individual differences are asserted, the more “inclusive,” and thus better, the society. This means that the burden of maintaining a common culture falls entirely on the willingness of citizens to attribute supreme value to the multicultural inclination itself.
But this hints at a paradox in multiculturalism, proving that it cannot serve as the very foundation of national culture. If shared conventions, beliefs, and values are necessary for cultural unity, then a society unified only in its affirmation of difference (that is, affirming ways of life that run counter to the traditional values of the community) is a society in the process of destroying its essential character. For this reason, multiculturalism cannot be understood simply as a “different kind of culture.” It must be recognized as “anti-culture.”
Anti-culture is not counterculture. Counterculture is a tool for changing culture. As was true in the revolutions of the 1960s, the counterculture opposes the dominant culture, but it also cultivates its own culture, a blueprint for the culture that activists hope will replace the status quo. Multiculturalism, on the other hand, is a tool for destroying culture. Unlike countercultural movements, multiculturalism doesn’t aim at destroying this or that particular culture. It is anti-culture because it opposes the concept of culture as such.
The question of “How?” is just as important as the question of “Why?” The reason why multiculturalists oppose the idea of culture is that they correctly ascertain that any culture necessarily involves power, privilege, and exclusion. Mainstream culture encourages those with individual differences to assimilate to the rituals and routines of the majority. It does this by granting informal social, political, and economic advantages to those who heed the dictates of the mainstream culture.
For example, the fact that it is easier to get a job in America if you speak English creates an incentive that pressures non-English speakers to learn the language. Similar pressures exist in every society in the world, and they empower those who conform to each society’s majority culture. People who cannot or will not adapt to the dictates of culture are denied various privileges and silently marked as being outside the norm, a phenomenon that multiculturalists refer to as “othering.” It is precisely this system of benefits, incentives, and consequences that maintains a healthy culture, and it is precisely this system that multiculturalism is calibrated to disrupt.
But how does multiculturalism oppose culture as such? After all, American multiculturalists constantly valorize the elements of other cultures, cultures that contrast the dominant culture of our nation in some way. Members of Congress take a knee in traditional African garb. Public signage is rendered in English and Spanish in this part of town, English and Vietnamese in another. The entire year is carved up into an unending, official celebration of various sub-cultures which reflect some degree of difference from traditional American identity. Last month was “Arab-American Heritage Month.” Now we’re onto Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. In June, the high feast of Pride Month arrives. But all these displays of cultural diversity ultimately de-contextualize and caricature the cultures that they purport to celebrate. Bloom remarked on this nearly 40 years ago: “The animating principle [of these cultures], their soul, has disappeared from them. The ethnic festivals [of today] are just superficial displays of clothes, dances, and foods from the old country.”
Not only does the sanctimony of these rituals cheapen the meaning of the cultures being revere, but the fact that the celebration never ends only increases the culture-consciousness of the society at large. Eliot warned of the dangers of making people aware of their own culture when they had previously been oblivious to it. Bloom, too, understood that this emphasis on difference atomizes the larger culture as individuals organize themselves in smaller groups that are united by increasingly narrow perceptions of self-interest: “the whole notion of cultural diversity in the United States… has contributed to the intensification and legitimization of group politics.” Multiculturalism, then, works to transform the exotic into the banal, even while it claims to advance the cause of “diversity.” It is anti-culture because it distorts every culture with which it concerns itself, albeit in different ways and to different degrees.
The destruction inflicted by multiculturalism is not accidental. It is not an unanticipated byproduct of otherwise good intentions. The destruction is the point of multiculturalism. It attacks culture as a means to foster “inclusion,” bringing about greater “social justice,” a goal that can only be achieved by eliminating the hierarchies, privileges, and coercive force that necessarily serve as the binding agents for every culture.
Ironic, then, that many multiculturalists defend this ideology precisely on the grounds that it protects culture, or least other cultures. It does no such thing. The purpose of culture is to unify a group of people by affirming what they share with one another. Instead, multiculturalism divides people on the basis of their ever-more particular and peculiar differences, differences its advocates insist should lie at the very center of personal identity.
In a graduation address in 1959, the political philosopher Leo Strauss lamented the relativist view of culture that was then coming into being: “If we contrast the present day usage of ‘culture’ with the original meaning, it is as if someone would say that the cultivation of a garden may consist of the garden being littered with empty tin cans and whiskey bottles and used papers of various descriptions thrown around the garden at random.” For as much as the multiculturalists celebrate the virtue of “understanding,” they should not be surprised that fetishizing individual difference can only produce less of it. Understanding depends on similarity, familiarity, and recognition. Multiculturalism promotes the opposite values. If authentic community is the lamb that must be sacrificed on the altar of inclusion, perhaps we’re worshipping a false ideal.
Adam Ellwanger is a professor of English at the University of Houston-Downtown. He is the author of Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self, now available in paperback. You can follow him on Twitter @DoctorEllwanger.