The Limits and Impossibilities of Multiculturalism
I walked by a very small anti-circumcision protest/rally on Saturday afternoon in San Francisco. By small, I mean there were probably around ten protestors standing on both sides of Civic Center between the Opera House, City Hall, and the Symphony. I have no idea why they decided to stage their protest on the Saturday afternoon between Christmas and New Year’s because San Francisco is very quiet and empty during this time of year because lots of people generally head back to their hometowns to spend holidays with the families. There was almost certainly not any government officials around City Hall.
The Protestors were holding up signs that declared foreskin is a human right.
Inactivists previously attempted to get circumcision banned in SF in 2011. That movement collapsed with comic book anti-Semitism.
My reactions to the protest were three-fold:
1. Even though I disagree with what they are saying, they have a free speech right to show their beliefs.
2. There is the part of me that wanted to ask why they thought they had a right to get rid of something that has been important to Jewish and Muslim cultures for hundreds if not thousands of years.
3. There is a part of me that also thinks “Well if they really do think circumcision is evil and against human rights, why shouldn’t they press to ban the practice?”
Multiculturalism is one of those things that the many people on the Left (including myself) support. The problem is that a lot of people just like to talk about how multiculturalism is great without really thinking about the serious issues behind it. True multiculturalism is going to involve tolerance for and perhaps ignoring practices that you find ethically or morally gray/questionable because they are important to another culture. This is very hard to do. One of the most common criticisms I’ve heard of New York and other large cities is that everyone is really unfriendly and keeps to themselves especially on public transportation. There is the subway stare or the Tube stare of looking straight ahead and tuning out what is around you to a certain extent. The reason for this is because cities like New York and London operate on very tense social contracts with very different groups living very close together. Sticking to your own is not tribalism but a realization that people do things differently and multiculturalism doesn’t work in ways that are always sociable or friendly.
The problem is that a lot of people are not very good at letting things be if they consider them questionable or icky. I think the proper response for the anti-circumcision movement is not to seek outright bans or change 5000 years of culture but to speak their mind and try and work things on a case by case basis. However, this might result in a lot of failure so blanket bans are easier if ineffective. The idea of banning circumcision in San Francisco is a symbolic but useless victory because people would just cross over to the other parts of the Bay Area to have the procedure performed.
This sort of tension between cultures can also exist on a global scale. A year and a half ago Planet Money did a special on poaching of various African animals because materials from these animals are considered Aphrodisiacs in China and other Southeast Asian countries. The economist answer was to legalize and regulate by setting up African Rhino ranches. The rhinos would be given tranquilizer, have their horns shaved off, and this would be repeated because a rhino horn is like a fingernail. African countries were appalled by this solution because they felt like their sovreignity was being dictated by a foreign culture. Environmentalists and certain parts of the left are appalled by this solution because it feels more like a compromise with erroneous belief and capitalism than an attempt to do something about environmentalism. The preferred solution is seemingly having Chinese culture suddenly change after thousands of years. Meanwhile people are still poaching African Rhinos.
A lot of multiculturalism can be learning to deal and accept that other groups have different beliefs and we might not like these beliefs, we might find them icky but those beliefs need to be respected or ours will not be. The problem is that people see this as being a moral compromise and as I get older I am discovering that a lot of people are still really uncomfortable with the idea of moral compromise and detente. Moral compromise is good. Moral compromise is realizing that the world is up in stark black and white and there are 7 billion people on this world and countless cultures, ethnic groups, affliations, moral and philosophical codes, etc. There is no way of being that is completely correct or incorrect. While I doubt the anti-circumcision people see themselves this way, they come from the same kind of Victorian-colonialists-missionary work that caused Europe to wreck havoc all over the world until the end of the second World War and it is the same kind of moralism which caused Prohibition during the 1920s. There is a seemingly blinkered belief that banning a practice will lead to it stopping or the world will instantly make a leap close to Utopia. According to Donald Miller’s Supreme City: How Jazz Age America Gave Birth to Modern America, the true believing prohibitionists also demanded that the agencies enforcing prohibition be underfunded. People like Wayne Wheeler thought that America would go dry because the law demanded it. The most effective fighters for prohibition were people who realized the law was folly but also saw it as their responsibility to uphold the law because they were members of the Judiciary and it was their duty to enforce the law.
There is probably no easy answer in determining which moral practices a person thinks are wrong but can let slide and which ones a person thinks are so wrong that laws and regulations are necessary. Perhaps the world would be a better place if we learned to be more okay with the morally and ethically gray. My big fear is that multiculturalism will be dominated by numbers and the biggest groups will have their cultures respected but not the smaller ones.