Public Arguments: Nine Perversions of Multiculturalism

The fraudulence of much that currently masquerades under the name “multiculturalism” results from gross perversions of what, in 1972, in called the new ethnicity. Multiculturalism is a profound betrayal to the fundamental principles of the new ethnicity.  In the current culture wars on campus, however, an explicit indictment of the perversions of multiculturalism may be useful.

(1) Anti-Americanism. Since it regards the West (at least its white males) as imperialistic, and America as the most advanced face of the West, multiculturalism expresses hostility to American traditions and institutions, while glorifying non-Western cultures, especially those inimical to America.

(2) Victimology. Multiculturalism tends to divide the world into a privileged set of victims and their alleged oppressors, through the lens of a loose and vulgar Marxism. This Marxism is cultural rather than economic.

(3) Ego-boosting. The aim of multiculturalism is to boost “self-esteem” at the expense, if necessary, of facts.

(4) Evasion. The assumption of multiculturalism is that its selected favorites cannot meet universal standards because of the evil actions of others; therefore, multiculturalism regards honest inquiry as pointless. It further pretends that its privileged groups are innocent. Having no awareness of “original sin,” it is merciless toward others.

(5) Tactical Relativism. Multiculturalism pretends to be “non-judgmental,” hiding behind the myth of moral equivalence, while it is in fact based upon harsh judgments about good and evil (and the oppressed and their oppressors).

(6) Censorship. Since it regards inquiry as useless, criticism as malevolent, intellect as impotent, and reason as nothing more than a servant of power, multiculturalism protects its wishes through speech codes, the banning of books, and the shouting down of opposing voices.

(7) Groupthink. Blind to the complex relations of individuals to the communities that nurture them, multiculturalism approaches people only as members of groups and, afraid of the creativity of dissenting individuals, imposes thought control by humiliating dissidents in public, and encourages its partisans to look to each other before speaking out.

(8) Egalityranny. In the name of “equality” wrongly understood, multiculturalism focuses on groups, group outcomes, and group statistical profiles — in ways destructive of individual aspiration and achievement. Equality falsely construed (as uniformity) can scarcely be imposed upon the blooming, buzzing abundance of individual vitality — except through despotic methods.

(9) Double standards. Multiculturalism is constituted by double standards. Multiculturalism basks in the supposition that there are no universal standards by which individuals and cultures may be judged.

By contrast, the new ethnicity also recognizes that every human being is “rooted,” and that each one’s social history is important — but never forgets that the unlimited drive to ask questions (implanted in each of us) impels us toward the higher standards and aspirations possible to the human species as a whole, rather than to those of our particular group or culture. For the new ethnicity, it is human to be rooted; from whichever starting place destiny gives us, it is our vocation to fulfill universal standards — to give play to our capacity for universal sympathies, to our unlimited drive to ask questions, and to our unrestricted desire to know. Multiculturalism is moved by the eros of Narcissus; the new ethnicity is driven by the eros of unrestricted understanding.

To be sure, the diversity of human cultures is so great, and the nuances of difference are so many, that it is probably not possible to state a common faith (or moral code) in one set of abstract universal principles. On the other hand, so many basic elements of life are common to the human condition that there are likely to be “family resemblances” in the ways in which peoples deal with such realities as these: birth, growing up, falling in love, sickness, pain, striving and failure, marriage and having children, eating and drinking, betrayal, friendship, separation, death. All communication across cultures depends on such resemblances — on the analogical method — rooted in the fundamentals of human life. The search for analogies (“family resemblances”) is more fruitful than the search for universal abstract statements of principle. Of many cultures, we are one species. We thirst to recognize our common humanity. The act of recognizing analogies awakens a natural desire for transcultural standards, such as might express our ultimate unity.

For such reasons, the study of other cultures is endlessly fascinating. It is so even as a way of gaining self-knowledge, since in others one may also discover unknown parts of oneself. Similarly, it takes more than a lifetime to appropriate — [Latin, ad + proprius, to make one’s own] — that is, to internalize, the riches of one’s own heritage.

For centuries, humans have suffered, and from suffering have drawn wisdom. To absorb this precious wisdom requires respectful attention to the records of the past. One learns, as well, from evils committed in the past. The past records both: sins against wisdom, and wisdom painfully acquired. Let those whose ancestors are without sin throw the first stones. Let those without sin throw the first stone at their ancestors. My father once told me that people who boast about their ancestors are like potatoes — “the only good part of them is underground.” Yet he urged us all to study history avidly. He warned us not to be surprised to find that our ancestors were in some things smarter than we. (That is probably a good definition of a conservative — one who believes that his grandparents were at least as good as he.)

When and if multiculturalism embraces truth — shows genuine respect for all (including dead white males) — and ceases to be intolerant toward any but the “politically correct,” it may command some measure of respect. As long as its fundamental appeal is to its own moral superiority, intolerance, and coercion, it deserves to be met with contempt by those who seek to live under standards of evidence and truth.

Michael Novak


Michael Novak held for many years the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and is now a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. He is a philosopher, theologian, and author, as well as the 1994 recipient of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He has been an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. He has written over twenty-seven books on the philosophy and theology of culture, especially the essential elements of a free society. He also founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982.