The Failure of Multiculturalism and Its Resolution: Transculturalism

Across the world, Multiculturalism has been failing over the recent decades: conflicts, racism, discrimination, antagonism, distrust, ghetto despair, the rise of rightwing populism, riots, crime, and even ISIS as an emergent transnational vortex of discontent and violent regression. These realities are grasped differently across the political spectrum, damning or defending Multiculturalism. But none of the established positions seem to embrace a proper update of the Multiculturalist stance: Transculturalism.

[Note — this was written last week, before the invasion of Ukraine. My comment upon that issue is upcoming.]

In my book, Nordic Ideology, I outline six new forms of politics that I feel must become institutionalized parts of societies across the world for the core challenges of late modern life to be properly managed. One of these I call Gemeinschaft Politics — “Gemeinschaft” being a German word that sociologists use to denote the aspects of society that are not formalized into rules, regulations, and bureaucracies. It’s the informal weave of relationships in society: friendships, family and courting practices, inter-citizen trust and solidarity, religious, cultural, and ethnic or racial relations. It’s the politics of “fellowship” — the active and deliberate work to heal, develop, and improve upon such informal but crucial aspects of society.

In the book, I go on to outline a few positions on gender/sexuality as well as ethnic/racial relations in society. In the latter case, I suggest the following positions that I hold can be observed in societies across the world:

  • Nationalism — the (purported) defense of the majority culture, race, and ethnicity at the expense of minorities and foreigners. To the extent that nationalism has more cosmopolitan aspects, it’s in the defense of the right to nationalist assertion across countries and cultures.
  • Non-Nationalism — the emphasis on market solutions and integration between ethnicities through a liberal order that empowers people to get a job and achieve social mobility and new contacts across different groups in society. In its left-wing version, this position holds that inequalities of culture, race, and ethnicity are surface phenomena and are fundamentally distractions to differences of class, and that class should be re-focused as the real basis of social relations. To the extent that people are treated differently because of e.g. skin color, this can be explained by socio-economic differentials at a group level.
  • Multiculturalism — (or, as I rebrand it in the book, Inter-Culturalism) which is the standard “progressive” position that takes up anti-racism, inclusion, the defense of minority rights, and the higher valuation of multiple ethnic groups and their contribution in terms of unique ways of life and perspectives. As championed by Canadian sociologist and philosopher Charles Taylor, this position holds that people don’t only have individual “liberal” rights, but also collective or social rights that pertain to their needs to live in and express their culture, not only at the level of token attires or exotified “ethnic” festival color explosions, but as a real and felt part of everyday life. This position tends to hold that diversity is in and of itself a good: the more of it, the better.
  • Transculturalism — the view we shall be exploring here, and which I hold can and should be a part of an effective Gemeinschaft Politics. The transculturalist position holds that it is both true that diversity is good, that racism, inequality, and discrimination are real issues with their own respective (often postcolonial) historical roots, and that there are real problems of integration and inter-cultural relations, as well as real limitations to and problems inherent in the cultures of different ethnic groups and cultures in society. As such, it takes a transformational view on ethnic groups (whether these happen to be constructed along the lines of race, nationality, ethnic denominations, or religious practices) and holds them responsible vis-à-vis one another as parts of “the whole” of society that results from their interactions. This sometimes involves making a value judgment of or comparison between the ethical desirability of cultures.

It should be noted that these four positions largely line up around four different “value-memes” prevalent in late modern societies (value-memes being the overall structures of people’s values and ways of making sense of the world): Traditionalists tend towards Nationalism, Moderns (“mainstream people”) towards Non-Nationalism, Postmodernists towards Multiculturalism, and Metamodernists towards Transculturalism.

(My own version of understanding these “value-memes” are discussed in detail in my book, The Listening Society.)

I thus hold that societies need to increasingly cultivate and establish institutional practices informed by Transculturalism. This is in keeping with the idea that societies around the world would do well to develop more “metamodern” institutions in order to thrive and survive in the face of mounting disruptions that come with systemic shifts. Transculturalism is a social process (or set of social processes) that manages and develops the quality of ethnic and racial relations. If we seek to resolve the culture wars of today, Transculturalism is our best bet. If we seek to create harmonious relations between groups in society, Transculturalism, the same holds true.

In brief, it can be argued that Nationalism exacerbates ethnic division while only momentarily soothing the grievances of the in-group, Non-Nationalism fails to address ethnic realities and treats the issue with a naïve belief in the progress of society through economic transactions, while Multiculturalism leads to some inescapable paradoxes: More cultures are added and strengthened besides one another, but they fail to interact productively across their cultural divides, and the relativism of “you cannot judge one culture on the premises of another” leads to impasses when it comes to challenging and transforming cultures into better versions of themselves, with better interactions across cultures.

The Paradoxes of Multiculturalism

“Rather than reaping the richness of multiple perspectives, the political realm becomes increasingly charged with ethnic tensions, and ethnic divisions begin to infuse the party politics of formerly reasonably functional democracies.”

I should stay a little longer on this last point, the paradoxes of Multiculturalism.

One such paradox is the incompatibility of its two core positions: 1. More diversity is good, so adding more cultures is good, and 2. Cultures should be allowed to preserve themselves in their current form. On the face of it, both of these positions appear reasonable and honorable. But the moment that it is part of a certain culture to be intolerant of other cultures (which is arguably an aspect of all cultures to some degree), the two positions collide. The same thing occurs the moment one cultural practice somehow bothers and disturbs another one (and this also happens as soon as cultures coexist in the same spaces). A simple example: let’s say that one culture has another view on the role of women in society, and this leads to what is perceived as street harassments of women by gangs of young men from that culture.

Multiculturalism seems to be unable to resolve these paradoxes. If members of one culture begin to judge the practices of another culture, that is perceived as racism and condemned. When the first culture responds by defending and preserving its practices, that is perceived as chauvinism and nationalism (and perhaps, correctly so). What you get is an increase of quiet grievances and taboo topics, which results in the suppressed frustrations that play out in all arenas of society: the street, the workplace, the labor market, the housing market, in education. Segregation mounts and ethnic divisions are deepened. Rather than reaping the richness of multiple perspectives, the political realm becomes increasingly charged with ethnic tensions, and ethnic divisions begin to infuse the party politics of formerly reasonably functional democracies.

Ironically, there seems to be a “sociological wormhole” that leads right from the underbelly of Multiculturalism back to the dynamics of Nationalism — albeit in a situation when a larger and growing number of groups contend for power and recognition. Multiculturalism, and its many expressions, is a well-meaning but ultimately self-defeating way to approach the problem. In its admittedly commendable struggle against racism and structural inequality, it inadvertently breeds the very divisions and resentments it seeks to transcend.

Then again, perhaps the very most damning paradox of the Multiculturalist view becomes apparent if we situate it within a wider Postmodern project. This project includes such things as challenging the hegemony of white men, challenging toxic masculinity, of unearthing biases buried in our language — all of which are directly about transforming culture. Yet, if all cultures are to be treated equally and have the right to preserve themselves and define themselves as they wish, all such projects of critique and transformation would reasonably be off-limits.

The Multiculturalist “solution” to this problem is generally to hold the hegemonic culture (usually, Western, white, male, etc.) to a different and higher standard than other cultures (minority, indigenous, counter-culture, etc.) But this solution falls on its own rope: Implicitly, it’s treating one culture as superior, adult, and responsible, and another as inferior, child-like, and exempt from responsibility. In other words, Multiculturalism itself ends up being racist. And so, it’s not that surprising there’s a wormhole right back to Nationalism and Balkanization at the core of the Multiculturalist project.

Shifting Gear to Transculturalism

“Without each other, we are culturally blind. With the right processes — arduous as they must be—we can see our own cultures from the outside, and work to honor our respective cultural heritages by cultivating cultures that we are proud of and command the liking and respect of others.”

It is these paradoxes that must be addressed for the current societal impasse to be surmounted. The fundamental shift of perspective from Multiculturalism to Transculturalism is the following one:

  • If cultures are to have the right to exist and gain recognition in an environment of other cultures that they interact with, they must also be charged with the obligation to develop and transform into versions of themselves that are — not subjected to, but — compatible with the other cultures.

In terms of majority cultures, this very often comes down to increased tolerance, inclusion, and acceptance. It comes down to curiosity towards “the other” and strong norms against discrimination, as well as increased self-awareness of how privileges can shape biases and prejudice. This is not to say, in the case of for instance Western majority populations, that self-defeatism and shame should become the norm, or that the cultures should cease to express themselves through traditions, customs, and values. It simply means that, in order for these cultures to live up to their own values, racism should be viewed as entirely unacceptable — and that histories of oppression (colonial, genocidal, or other) are owned up to. You have the right to express pride in your own culture, but also the obligation to embody the best version of that culture in a manner that respects other cultures. In other words, nationalist and chauvinist reactions must be questioned and condemned. On a day-to-day level, it’s not okay to refuse to rent your summer house family to another family-based only on their Arabic family name, for instance. Hence, real work with transforming dominant cultures and owning up to the postcolonial heritage must be worked with until the norms are conclusively shifted towards tolerance and inclusion. As argued in last week’s article, cultivating the psychological capacity for Acceptance among the population may be an effective lever to pull in this regard.

This struggle with postcolonial ghosts of Christmas’ past undeniably even has geopolitical consequences. If Western cultures retreat into Nationalism or default to Non-Nationalism (largely ignoring issues of race, still the majority position in Western cultures), this will only feed the revanchist tendencies of new global powers, from China, to India’s Hindu nationalism, to the public Russian support for Vladimir Putin’s warmongering. The Global South, in Africa in particular, is increasingly turning away from the West’s attempt to uphold a liberal world order, and often questionable regimes are colluding increasingly with the powers of Russia and China in what seems to be amounting to a new Cold War.

Simply said, Western cultures, in their failure to take up the obligations that come with their own values, are fanning the flames of hurt pride around the world, of peoples trampled over decades and centuries. Whereas the dark clouds on the geopolitical horizon cannot simply be reduced to this one issue, it is very likely a strong contributor to the situation. “We” Westerners need to evolve our cultures, swallow some pride (which is often disowned shame and guilt), and be humble towards the rich contributions of others. But the hurt pride of other cultures lives on even within our own societies — from the experience of being Black or Latino in the United States to being Arab or African in Europe, people are feeling downtrodden, and understandably so. When riots arise in our banlieues or ghettos, or when ISIS emerges as a specter of our cultural dynamics, we shouldn’t be so surprised.

For other cultures, the demands upon their evolution naturally vary from case to case. Indian culture has a grim heritage of the caste system, which is viewed as largely unacceptable in other parts of the world. Honor killings, antagonistic isolationism, and limitations on the freedom of women are unacceptable aspects of many Muslim communities in the West. In each of these cases, the answers do not lie in denial of one’s own heritage, but in creative redefinitions of the culture.

A similar position has been explored by the sociologists Michael O. Emerson and George Yancey in their 2010 book, Transcending Racial Barriers: Toward a Mutual Obligations Approach. While I don’t support everything in the book, and while the study they base their reasoning on is much too small and limited, I do feel that they capture something essential in their “mutual obligations approach”. Groups have a right to be mutually respected, yes, but they also have obligations towards one another. And those obligations can only reasonably be negotiated mutually. There need to be institutional practices that facilitate such mutual expectations of obligations to develop, to evolve, to transform. That is marital counseling functions, and cultures of the world are, in an interconnected world, stuck with one another. We’re collectively married, whether we like it or not.

Today, such institutional practices and skillsets of facilitation hardly exist. But it could certainly motivate people to change their own cultures and positions — in keeping with their own traditions and customs — if people see corresponding work to change on the other side. Again, just as the two individuals of a marriage are reasonably obliged to help both parties become the best versions of themselves, so cultures can and should be charged with the task to help one another improve, to live up to our own ideals, to become cultures more worthy of respect and recognition.

And that’s the real wealth of multiple cultures co-existing. It’s that each culture is a parallel perspective, a weird mirror through which we can see new aspects of ourselves. The promise is not perfect harmony or the resolution of all ethnic tensions. The promise is increased collective intelligence. As a global community, we’re ultimately lucky to have each other, even if it hurts, even if there are clashes and misunderstandings.

Without each other, we are culturally blind. With the right processes — arduous as they must be—we can see our own cultures from the outside, and work to honor our respective cultural heritages by cultivating cultures that we are proud of and command the liking and respect of others.

The Transcultural Arbiter: Three Concepts

“In summary, the idea is to treat cultures more like we treat people: not as monolithic and essentially fixed, but as responsible, responsive, and highly malleable.”

All of this leaves us with the question: On what grounds should different co-existing cultures reasonably negotiate their mutual obligations? Through what methods of discourse and facilitation? After all, if people’s very identities and psychologies are always layered within their own cultures, how then can a member of one culture ever pass judgment on the practices of another culture? Is slavery wrong — who’s to say? Is it wrong to burn the wife of a deceased husband alive at his funeral pyre — who knows, right? Female genital mutilation? Destroying the natural environment? Sacred child temple prostitution? It’s all being tried and tested under the sun, as we speak.

There are other questions to be answered, for sure, but this one seems first in line.

As a very first step, let us simply state that, on a trivial level, it appears fairly obvious that not all cultures in all times are equally good for human thriving, if that is taken as a universal goal of humans to live dignified lives. You have, for instance, in terms of indigenous cultures a wide range from peaceful and friendly ones to highly violent, aggressive, and “toxic” ones. Nor is every aspect of a certain culture equally good for the thriving of its members (or those of other cultures). Admittedly, the cultural relativism of classical anthropologists like Ruth Benedict and Franz Boas served as a vital counterweight to the horrors of European colonialism and paternalism — but in the context of today’s diverse cultural context of globalized societies, the cultural relativist stance leads to all of the impasses discussed above. Most notably, it precludes the capacity to critique cultures and thus to develop them. Such critique and development, in turn, need to rely upon the productive meeting and merging of cultures.

As such, the rights of a certain culture to preserve its way of life must be balanced against its corresponding obligation to interface reasonably well with its neighboring communities, as well as against the collective will of its members to be subjected to critiques of (what others view as) toxic dynamics that result in the oppression of its own members. In turn, the right to make reasonable demands on other cultures is won. The aim, then, is not to efface the crucial aspect of critique from cultures in the name of diversity and respect of inter-cultural boundaries, but to make use of the interactions between cultures in order to co-critique — empowering critical and silenced voices on both sides. Within every culture, the downtrodden, the “subaltern”, can find valuable allies outside of their own culture, to make their case. This holds true of women subjected to honor culture in Arab families, to Black communities in the US who can reveal that the white Western mainstream treats them and Native Americans with similar disregard, and for Dalits in India who can make use of international critiques of the caste system.

In summary, the idea is to treat cultures more like we treat people: not as monolithic and essentially fixed, but as responsible, responsive, and highly malleable. If cultures have deep historical roots that cannot simply be disregarded (and, as such, always have a resistance to change), they are also ever re-interpreted and re-enacted by their members — always in the process of being invoked and socially constructed by real people with real and often conflicting interests.

Especially if we hold that cultural transformations are necessary for the Modern world-system to transform to a sustainable and more humane Metamodern or Protopian system (or meta-system), we simply cannot afford a stance that precludes the possibility of cultures around the world to transform. Such transformations must find ways to honor traditions and ways of life, while still helping cultures to become parts of a greater whole — a whole that is not monocultural, but deeply diverse and still relatively integrated in a manner that allows resonance across diversity.

This, the “rules of engagement of cross-cultural development”, is a too complex issue to be done justice in a single article. But let me introduce three concepts to get us started: The Parallax View, The Cultural Hybrid, and Ethnic Inter-Creativity. Both of these hold within them great potential to unlock a more self-aware and co-creative relationship with cultures around the world.

  • The Parallax View is the critical view of one’s own culture that comes from deeply immersing oneself in the perspective of “the other”. It is a form of “triangulation”, and so often requires not only the two meeting cultures to have facilitated meetings of negotiation, but also the presence of representatives of one or more other cultures who can comment upon the positions, critiques, and demands made by either side. As such, the self-critique within each culture is empowered and corroborated by the views of outsider observers. This affords stronger vectors of critique and cultural evolution on both sides — while balancing the demands in manners that attempt to counteract the power relations between the two cultures. The aim here is a kind of cross-cultural fairness or justice: that cultures are treated as equals, and thus that their members feel more respected and dignified, which allows for lesser defensiveness and greater openness to challenge own practices and biases.
  • The Cultural Hybrid is the person who is deeply immersed in more than one (usually two) cultures and can thus serve as a bridge and interpreter during Transcultural negotiations. Often, they may have one parent from each of the cultures in question, or at the very least have lived in and identified with both of them. They thus feel responsible for and loyal towards both sides. Tyson Yunkaporta, the author of Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World, can serve as an emblematic example, here in the case of the intersection between Aboriginal and Australian (Anglo-Saxon) cultures. The Cultural Hybrid is thus an invaluable resource in cross-cultural development — in Transcultural processes. They are better situated than others to adopt The Parallax View of the interactions of cultures. Again, this underscored the profound value of deep inter-cultural interactions: without close relationships, fewer such hybrids are born and socialized.
  • Ethnic Inter-Creativity is a concept I explored (albeit under different names) in my own earlier work with the role of race and ethnicity in police work. The idea is that members of one culture (usually the majority culture) should become as aware as possible of their own role of co-creating the ethnic identities of members of other communities, by virtue of how they interact with and treat them. People define their own ethnic and racial identities to a large extent by how they are met by members of other cultures. For instance, the treatment a minority group member receives by law enforcers that represent the hegemonic culture will lead to identifications with the own culture in more or less antagonistic terms. By extension, the same argument holds across all such interactions: Part by part, we shape how the culture of “the other” is expressed, which parts of it are emphasized, embodied, and enacted. This leads to greater self-reflection and to a greater sense of empowerment in regard to how “other cultures” play out in society. You come to realize that you have more power to shape how other cultures evolve than you might think, and you begin to take greater responsibility for how your own actions mold them.

Taken together, these are steps towards creating institutional practices that serve as a Transcultural Arbiter. One culture can never fully grasp and judge another culture. But this very paradox can be turned on its head and be made to work in favor of mutually desirable developments across cultures. Of course, the ideal should be to work towards cross-culturally universal values. But these “universal values” cannot simply be West-centric and Global North-centric “liberal” (Modern) values of human rights and individual expression. Rather the universality must be viewed as ever-open-ended, to be mutually explored precisely through the fault lines that cause tensions between cultures. Like in marital counselling, the tensions are hidden depositories of mutual insight and potential transformation.

An Example of Transculturalism: Mechelen

“Cultures are not static. They flow. They evolve. And if they have a right to exist as organic, living entities, it stands to reason that must also be held responsible as such.”

Mechelen is a Belgian town of some 80,000 inhabitants. In the early 2000s, the city had high unemployment, a large immigrant (mostly Muslim) minority, and high crime rates, with ethnic tensions as a result. This development was turned around with a comprehensive plan to adjust ethnic relations, which arguably serves as a case of Gemeinschaft Politics and Transculturalism. When ISIS exploded across Europe, Belgium had the highest per capita prevalence of people joining the organization — but Mechelen impressively had no recorded instances.

Under the leadership of Mayor Bart Somers, a program was introduced that took the following steps, in sequence:

  • Restoring order through increased police presence in key areas, increasing the sense of safety.
  • A wide public information campaign that set up a sort of “mutual obligations” social contract: Ethnic Flemish Belgians were asked to show tolerance to minorities but have zero tolerance of the discrimination of minorities, while minorities were asked to take steps to make their families conform with law and order.
  • Middle-class families of ethnic Belgians were reached out to, one by one, in the hundreds, to get them to accept having their own children in the same schools as immigrant children, tackling each of their concerns with safety and quality of education on a case-by-case basis. This broke up the segregation and re-zoning of school districts that had accumulated, increasing the number of positive interactions between ethnic groups.
  • Most controversially, perhaps, the Muslim youths of the municipality were all offered trips to Cordoba in Spain, where the Cordoban Caliphate of the 10th century has been a Muslim center of learning, science, pluralism, and tolerance of Europe in the Middle Ages. This thus tilts the expression of Muslim minority identities — towards pride, and also towards a real historical heritage of progressiveness and cosmopolitanism. Arguably, this was key to creating an alternative local Muslim identity, one that proved resistant to the lure of ISIS propaganda and chauvinism.

Simply stated, a rather advanced version of a “mutual obligations approach” was adopted over a number of years. And indeed, ethnic tensions were reduced, while still honoring the cultures and heritages involved. Mayor Somers was awarded the World Mayor Prize in 2016.

This is just one simple example of the potential inherent in the Transcultural stance. It’s not perfect and can certainly be critiqued. Much still needs to be invented by movement leaders, grassroots, and public officials on a case-to-case basis.

It stands to reason that Protopian and Metamodern societies would have advanced Transcultural practices as part and parcel of their institutional frameworks — combining these with facilitated processes of deliberative democracy (i.e. councils that discuss to reach mutual understanding of complex issues) with stakeholders from across sectors of society.

Simply put: Cultures are not static. They flow. They evolve. And if they have a right to exist as organic, living entities, it stands to reason that must also be held responsible as such. And they evolve together — depending upon the invaluable outsider perspectives of one another. Let us thus weave the best possible conditions for cultures to co-evolve into more ethical and universal versions of themselves, while still honoring their respective historical roots. That brings us beyond the impasses of Multiculturalism, and lands us in a co-creative space of Transculturalism.

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 Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.