Inter-culturalism (or multiculturalism as it is commonly referred to) comes in different forms. You have multicultural state ideologies, which emphasize the importance of inclusion and diversity, claiming that the more diverse cultures you have, the better. You have corresponding anti-discrimination and pro-diversity policies in companies. You have “inter-faith dialogue” movements, which seek to find common ground and mutual respect among believers of different faiths. You have “affirmative action” programs, international children’s summer camps, the peace movement, political correctness seeking to ban whatever words have become racist slurs—and so forth. Among theorists you find such thinkers as the philosopher Charles Taylor, who emphasizes the importance of ethnic minority groups having “rights” to the preservation of their culture.
The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘Nordic Ideology: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book Two’. This is the second book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications. In this post you will be introduced to the idea of Trans-culturalism which is a key component of Gemeinschaft politics, one of six new forms of politics proposed in Nordic Ideology.
The general idea here is that ethnic tensions are to be resolved through a high degree of exposure of ethnic groups to each other, and that more diversity is almost always preferable to less.
The problem with multiculturalism is of course that it does not qualify which kinds of diversity are good, in what quantities, and under what circumstances. It’s just that diversity is good in-and-of-itself, which is then taken as a dogma, and it is often seen as unethical to even question this assumption: multiculturalism is good, period. This naturally leaves the field open to all sorts of dysfunctional social and cultural practices to be defended in the name of ethnic or cultural diversity, be it forced marriages, brainwashing and scaring children with de facto ghost stories, or female circumcision.
Inter-culturalism has important roots in anthropology and ethnology. What anthropologists have found time and again is that the modern project—its bureaucracy, market and “civilization”—has oppressed and destroyed the life-worlds of smaller societies, disrespecting their ways of seeing the world and ruining their societal dynamics. In our days, this view is perhaps most famously represented by the anthropologist James C. Scott, who has argued in Seeing Like a State (1998) and Against the Grain (2017) that all development from agriculture and onwards may be a mistake. Anthropologists hang out with animist cultures and notice that life there isn’t so bad. They notice there are many “beauties lost”, and that there is a profound richness and diversity which is tragically effaced by modern civilization. So the stance generally becomes to defend the minority cultures against discrimination and oppression from the majority. A defense of understanding, multiplicity, diversity—and a critical distance to one’s own culture.
On a strictly logical level, the inter-culturalist idea doesn’t really work. It emphasizes that all cultures are equal, and that each of them has a right to exist, but it is still somehow preferable with more different cultures rather than fewer. This leads to self-contradictions: a) If all cultures are equal, this means that cultures which work against multiculturalism and seek to retain isolation and purity should also be seen as equal; b) if all cultures have a right to be preserved, they must also be allowed to defend themselves from subcultures splitting off, which then works against a greater diversity; and c) if all cultures should be exposed to one another, this leads to monoculture, which often effaces cultural differences in the first place.
Trans-culturalism is a multi-perspectival and developmental view of cultures and ethnicities; it sees all of these as being in constant flux. In a way, it is the synthesis of the three former perspectives.
Cultures and ethnic identities can always be transformed, and they should be transformed to be the best versions of themselves, whenever this is possible without destabilizing people’s lives too much. Even if humans do need cultures, shared imaginaries, narratives, histories, customs, traditions and other vital aspects of Gemeinschaft—this does not mean that all current cultural forms and expressions are necessarily good and conducive to sustainable human flourishing, or that all combinations of cultures are mutually enriching under all circumstances.
It is an empirical matter of when cultures spur development and exchange with each other, or when they create pathological dissonances that breed conflict, confusion, insecurity and resentment. The answer, naturally, differs from case to case. And it is a matter of cultural discourse and exchange to determine which values should—in the long run—trump which other values. Is freedom better than chastity? Under the circumstances of modern life, yes! Are human rights better than respecting the logic of caste systems? Yes. Is equality better than slavery? Yes. Is peace-loving better than war? Yes. Is gender equality better than patriarchy? Yes. Are animal rights (or some other version of caring for all sentient beings) better than anthropocentrism? Yes. This does not mean that these values should be defended at all costs, that they should be forced upon all people under all circumstances. It is simply not worth the rapid breakdown of someone else’s world, or an ethnic cleansing, or an inquisition, or a Thought Police. But given the choice, given the chance, we can and should evolve cultures.
Cultures have a right to exist, but it is not an absolute right. And in the last instance, all cultures will change and evolve either way, so we might as well have some ideas regarding in which direction they should develop.
But that does not mean certain cultures have infinite rights to impose their values upon others; it just means the more universal and functional values should be allowed to win in a longer Darwinian struggle, and that such victories should be secured in the least painful and detrimental way possible. Cultures generally have something to learn from one another—and the aim of trans-culturalism is to make sure that this exchange is genuinely enriching, sustainable and conducive to human flourishing.
Trans-culturalism corresponds to a more metamodern take on ethnicity. In academia you can find early beginnings of a trans-culturalist perspective among sociologists, such as Michael O. Emerson’s and George Yancey’s 2010 book, Transcending Racial Barriers: Toward a Mutual Obligations Approach.
The best example I know of trans-culturalism in action is in the Belgian town of Mechelen, under the ingenious mayor Bart Somers, who also received a “World Mayor Prize 2016” for his efforts. Belgium was the European country with the largest per capita outflow of ISIS fighters. But Mechelen, with a population of some 85,000, has had no such registered cases. A couple of decades ago, the town had plenty of ethnic tensions, a large group of alienated immigrant inhabitants and growing nationalist and racist sentiments. All of this was turned around by a number of policies and practices under the leadership of Somers. Initially, the city established a much stronger police presence on the streets so that people could feel safe. Hence, housing prices stopped falling in “unsafe areas” and segregation was curbed. Then, they had forceful information campaigns against discrimination and racism, urging tolerance and openness as civic obligations of all citizens, creating a common civic identity around such values. Then the municipality officials talked the white middle-class families into putting their kids back into the schools with many children of immigrants, family by family—hundreds of them—by giving them specific guarantees of how the quality of their kids’ education would be preserved. Then they put higher pressure on dysfunctional immigrant families to fulfill their social obligations and live up to their increased status in society, offering to support the civic actors who played important parts in this. And then—this is where it gets really radical—they sent Muslim kids on special study trips to Córdoba, Spain, where they learned about the era when Islam was a dignified European power and Córdoba was a center of science and tolerance, a multicultural society ahead of its time. The kids were thereby presented with a positive narrative of what it means to be Muslim: to be a pinnacle of enlightened civilization, as the Caliphate of Córdoba was in the 10th century AD.
You see what they did there? Mayor Somers and his crew took a majority culture and pushed it towards tolerance, and they took a minority culture and gently pushed for its transformation in a progressive direction. That’s trans-culturalism in action, and it is also the beginnings of metamodern Gemeinschaft Politics—and the beginnings of the listening society. How cool is that? [i]
Mayor Bart Somers with his city Mechelen in the background.
All of this is an example of what smart Gemeinschaft Politics might look like. Imagine if what Mayor Somers is doing was already part and parcel of how societies diffuse ethnic tensions. And could it be further developed? Maybe there could be meeting places and settings that provide facilitated exchanges between different ethnicities? Wouldn’t that dramatically improve society, lessen ethnic tensions and create a firmer basis for a transnational global community?
Yes, it’s an increased level of the intimacy of control. But is it oppressive and manipulative? Or is it just constructive and liberating? Should sociological, cultural and ethnic issues really be beyond the scope of the political realm?
Stupid forms of Gemeinschaft Politics will be nationalist, non-nationalist, or inter-culturalist. Smart Gemeinschaft Politics will be trans-culturalist.
Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.
[i]. Bart Somers did write a book about it all, but it’s in Dutch.
See: Somers, B., 2016. Samen Leven. Een hoopvolle strayegie tegen IS. Belgium: Houtekiet.