African-Americans, for instance, are not particularly culturally homogeneous. The music, the sports, the literature, the movies they care about, they care about not as blacks but as individuals, or hipsters or the like. They’re likely to share tastes with white individuals as well as with black ones.
In fact, the problems that multiculturalism aimed to solve were never really about cultural differences. They were about differences of identity. And the difficulties of cohabitation in modern so-called multicultural societies are really about people trying to live together while recognizing that their identities are wildly diverse.
What’s an identity? Well, it’s a label people share that comes with ideas about how people labelled that way should behave. These notions lead people to think of themselves as, say, Canadian, and then to act as Canadians; and they make other people also respond to them as such.
Casting differences among groups in terms of culture is asking for trouble. Because you can’t ask the state to treat cultural traditions with equal respect. Homophobia and honour killing may be cultural traditions. That doesn’t mean a liberal democratic state is obliged to respect them; it’s obliged not to.
What you can ask of the state is that it treat individuals of different identities with equal respect. In practice, this means that, if something matters deeply to an identity group, the state will try to reach an accommodation with them, so long as doing so isn’t too costly, or irreconcilable with liberal democratic values (including those of basic morality).
It comes down to this: When the state stops you from engaging in practices rooted in your identity, it shouldn’t be because it has contempt for who you are. Jehovah’s Witnesses think that getting a blood transfusion will condemn you to everlasting damnation. Should the government let a 14-year-old die because she needs a transfusion and her parents object on those religious grounds? Certainly not, but everyone has to be clear that it’s not because we’ve got a grudge against Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The state should be able to give a clear and plausible explanation of its compelling rationale. If you’re telling a Sikh he can’t serve in your police force because you think buzz cuts look tidier than turbans, figure you’re probably in the wrong.
Once you realize that identity, not culture, is at the root of much social discord, other things come into focus. It’s not cultural differences between men and women that produce the problems of sexism that feminism aims to put right. It’s not two cultures. It’s one culture, in which many people of both sexes learn as they grow up to think of women as somehow less than men.
In the U.S., black-white issues are largely about racism and its legacies. White racists don’t dislike black people because they eat chitterlings or sing too loud in church; if anything, they dislike chitterlings and loud cheerful services because they associate them with black people. It’s not black culture they look down on, it’s black people.
If cultural difference isn’t the heart of the problem, then teaching people to respect other cultures won’t be the solution. What will be? Creating an overlay of a common culture – a civic culture – where everyone recognizes that people are entitled to respect whatever their gender or sexuality, their race or religion, and wherever they came from.
In the course of developing that shared culture of respect – a common cultural citizenship – much that the multiculturalists hoped for may come about. If you respect people of all origins, you’ll understand why your Bengali neighbours are interested in Indian history and you’ll want your own children to know something of that history, too. Once you recognize that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are invested with the same human dignity as anyone else, you won’t want lesbian and gay children bullied in schools.
So let’s retire a rhetoric that makes it sound as if culture, all by itself, justifies and legitimates whatever it is that people do. An old exchange from colonial India makes the point clearly, if a little crudely: An Indian defending suttee tells the British official who tries to stop the fiery proceedings, “But it’s our custom to burn widows.” To which the official gives the perfectly reasonable rejoinder, “And it’s our custom to hang murderers.”
Any functioning state has to be able to create citizens who grasp what makes a liberal democracy work. A concern for the dignity of all men and women is a part of this. And when some culturally enshrined custom or tradition can’t be squared with a concern for human dignity, so much the worse for “culture.”
Kwame Anthony Appiah, who teaches philosophy at Princeton University, is the author of The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen.