Multiculturalism as Tribalism

By Peter Schwartz

[This is a talk delivered at the Ayn Rand Conference in Atlanta on November 3, 2018. It is adapted from “Multicultural Nihilism,” in Ayn Rand’s Return of the Primitive.]


What decent person could possibly be against multiculturalism? After all, it supposedly stands for tolerance and respect toward people from other cultures.

If you oppose multiculturalism, you are branded as evil. You’re a xenophobe or a racist. You’re someone who wants to keep foreigners out of the country. You regard people who speak a different language as your enemies. You want to deny them their rights. And all multiculturalism wants—we’re told—is for people from different cultures to be able to live together peacefully. Why would anyone oppose that?

Because in reality, multiculturalism is something very different. It is an ideology with one fundamental purpose: to keep us from judging things as good or bad. Multiculturalism is the demand that no ”culture” be elevated above any other. It is the demand that all beliefs held by various groups be regarded as equally valid and equally good.

Let’s look at what multiculturalism actually entails.

In Florida, a school board tried to follow the tenets of multiculturalism. It designed a program for students to acquire a greater awareness of other cultures. As part of that effort, the program also wanted to ”instill an appreciation of our American heritage and culture, such as: our republican form of government, capitalism, a free enterprise system [and] other basic values that are superior to other foreign or historic cultures.”

Can you guess what the response to this was? Outrage! The teachers union, for example, said it was not in keeping with the spirit of multiculturalism. The union threatened to sue the school board for ignoring a state law that students must be taught ”to eliminate personal and national ethnocentrism so that they understand that a specific culture is not intrinsically superior or inferior to another.”

In other words, if you teach students that America’s social system is better than that of, say, North Korea, or Iran or Somalia, you are violating the doctrine of multiculturalism. Why? Because multiculturalists deny all such distinctions. Each culture has its own way of life, they say, and we can’t label one as better than another. We can’t even say that freedom is better than slavery; we can only say that they are different.

It is not just the value of freedom that multiculturalism wants to bury—but any value. Don’t discriminate, multiculturalists say; don’t be “exclusionary.” But the very act of identifying a value—any value—is an act of discrimination. It’s a discrimination between that value and its opposite. To value is to exclude disvalues. To value food is to discriminate against poison, to value health is to avoid sickness, to value freedom is to exclude, and to condemn, the advocates of dictatorship.

The most obvious, the most self-evident values are pounced upon by multiculturalists as unacceptable. Is the use of, say, advanced mathematics superior to the primitive method of counting on one’s fingers? Multiculturalists recommend the teaching of something called “ethno-mathematics,” defined as ”the study of mathematical ideas of a non-literate culture.” So it’s wrong to tell such a culture that there is a more advanced, a better way of dealing with numbers.

Why is a non-literate culture being held up as praiseworthy?  Isn’t literacy a self-evident value? No, says a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He  criticizes American schools for emphasizing reading and writing, which “are merely technologies of control [and] martial law made academic”; he demands instead a greater focus on the oral traditions of “newly emerging people” because they challenge “Western hegemonic arrangements of knowledge.”

The Office of Student Affairs at Smith College issued a circular titled “Specific Manifestations of Oppression.” It listed a number of concepts—or pseudo-concepts—that are supposed to represent undesirable thinking. For example: “ethnocentricism”—which is the “oppression of cultures other than the dominant one in the belief that the dominant way of doing things is the superior way.” What if a culture becomes dominant because it is in fact better and because people understand that fact? What if a culture of freedom replaces a culture of servitude? Or a culture of individualism replaces one of collectivism? Or a culture of science replaces one of superstition? It’s all oppression, the multiculturalist insists. To make evaluations, he says, is to tyrannize.

Here’s another unacceptable term on that list: “ableism”—which is “the oppression of the differently abled by the temporarily abled.” This means that differentiating between the presence and absence of any human ability—whether physical or intellectual—is abhorrent. So we should not discriminate between someone who can win athletic races and someone who can’t—both should be on the track team and both should be given sports trophies. We should not discriminate between a student capable of getting straight A’s and a student who gets straight F’s—both should be given diplomas and invited to deliver a valedictorian address. No ability whatsoever should be valued over non-ability.

One obvious implication of this is that people who tragically suffer from physical disabilities—the “differently abled”— should not seek to be cured.

You might think that no one could take such tripe seriously. Yet people do. And one of the most appalling illustrations of this is the phenomenon known as “deafism.”

Some children who are born deaf have a medical procedure that can restore their hearing. It’s called a cochlear implant. You would think that every parent of a deaf child would eagerly embrace this life-altering procedure. But there is organized opposition to it—among the deaf.

Why? Because it infringes upon the child’s “cultural identity.” As stated by the editor of Silent News, a periodical published for the deaf: ”It is wrong for a hearing parent to deny a deaf child his cultural identity and force him to be hearing.”

An article in The Atlantic magazine explains further: “Deafness is not a disability. Instead, many deaf people now proclaim they are a subculture like any other. They are simply a linguistic minority (speaking American Sign Language) and are no more in need of a cure for their condition than are Haitians or Hispanics.”

That article is titled “Deafness as Culture.”

So it is “oppression” to claim that being able to hear is better than being unable to hear. According to the multiculturalist, hearing and deafness are merely characteristics of different cultures—and “different” can never imply “better.” The children belong to a culture of deafness and should not leave it. Instead, they must be consigned to a lifetime of deafness.

It is in devotion to the creed of multiculturalism that unspeakable crimes like this are being committed.

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What does multiculturalism mean by a “culture”? An actual culture consists of the dominant ideas and values that a particular society has chosen to accept. Whether it is an advanced, rational civilization or a stagnant, mystical one, its culture is something people have chosen and which influences their basic way of life. Multiculturalism, however, emphasizes the unchosen. It divides people into the crudest, most primitive classifications. Its so-called cultures are defined mainly by some physiological trait—such as race, gender, disability—over which the individual has no choice. They are also defined by random, interchangeable characteristics, which reasonable individuals would not bother making a choice about—such as whether one speaks French or Spanish or whether one lives in Eastern Rwanda vs Western Rwanda. These are the things that determine your ”cultural identity.”

Multiculturalism appeals to a non-conceptual mentality. The characteristics that matter most to it are ones we can observe perceptually, as any animal can. So we see differences among people but we are not to evaluate them. We are simply to use them to divide everyone into ”cultures,” or tribes—e.g., the black tribe, the white tribe, the male tribe, the female tribe, the Hispanic tribe, etc.

And a real culture—say, the Renaissance or the Enlightenment—is then not defined by its great intellectual achievements. No, that’s too conceptual for the multiculturalist. Rather, it’s defined as the product of white, European males—and therefore irrelevant to non-whites, non-Europeans, non-males.

The tribe becomes an unchallengeable absolute—both morally and metaphysically. The tribe is the source of moral guidance and is the primary unit of reality. The individual is told to subordinate himself to the tribe, which is exalted as the fundamental shaper of his identity.

But the actual shaper of your character and your values—i.e., volitional thinking—is dismissed. According to the multiculturalist, it doesn’t exist. The individual, rational mind is an illusion. Just as you shouldn’t discriminate between freedom and slavery, between literacy and illiteracy, between deafness and hearing, so you shouldn’t discriminate between logic and illogic. There is no objective reality out there for us to grasp, no objective process of cognition by which we can grasp it. Reason is a myth—it’s scorned as nothing more than a Eurocentric bias. Each culture supposedly has its own form of mental functioning. All thinking is portrayed as a deterministic action, as a socially determined outcome. “Nothing that passes through the human mind doesn’t have its origin in sexual, economic and racial differentia,” according to a Duke University professor. Each of your ideas—whether it is that individuals have rights or that 2+2=4—is the passive product of your social class. Rational, scientific inquiry is dismissed as a “male way of knowing,” and Isaac Newton’s pathbreaking work, the Principia, is called a “rape manual,” because the pursuit of scientific knowledge is regarded as a distinctively male act of aggression.

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Multiculturalism is a uniquely modern blend of collectivism and egalitarianism. It is a form of collectivism in that it wipes the individual out of existence and makes him into a cell of the tribal organism. And it is a form of egalitarianism in that no tribe is to be elevated above any other. Everything is equal, nothing is superior to anything else.

It’s not that the primitive is better than the civilized, or that disability is better than ability. Rather, there is no better or worse, there is no good and bad. Multiculturalism is the repudiation of values. It is the elevation of the bad in order to do away with the good. It is the attempt to obliterate the entire realm of values by claiming they are not distinguishable from non-values.

Now you may think that the multiculturalists are being hypocritical. On the one hand, they say we all should be regarded as equal; and on the other hand, they seem to want preferential treatment for certain groups. Doesn’t that contradict the notion of equality?

No. Egalitarian equality and “preferential treatment” are the same thing. To regard justice and injustice as the same is to give special, preferential treatment to the unjust. If Mr. X has worked diligently to make a fortune, and Mr. Y has loafed and has no money, the egalitarian says: Let’s take half of Mr. X’s wealth and give it to Mr. Y, so that the two are equal. Clearly, seizing money that one man has earned and giving it away to someone who hasn’t, is to give preferential—or undeserved—treatment to the latter.

Or, to take another example, America essentially values freedom and Iran essentially is out to destroy that freedom. The proper course of action, therefore, would be to take military measures to remove that threat. But the multiculturalist says neither culture is better than the other, both should be treated the same, each should leave the other alone. Leaving Iran alone, however, constitutes an undeserved, preferential treatment.

Whenever some value is not discriminated from a non-value—whenever the two are regarded as equal—the non-value is being given preferential treatment.       

To the multiculturalist, the individual is nothing, the tribe is everything. In any area of life, all that counts is the tribe to which you belong. Is a student applying for admission to college? Grades and achievements don’t matter; the overriding consideration is: what tribe does he belong to and how many of that tribe have already been admitted? Is a nominee for the Supreme Court being challenged by a woman who claims he sexually assaulted her? The existence of convincing evidence does not matter; the overriding consideration is: which tribe does each party represent and whose tribe has been more oppressed by the other?

What does this imply about human interactions? If there is no objective reality, no objective reasoning, no objective legal proceedings—how are people to act toward one another? How are disagreements to be resolved? There’s no alternative except violence. If each tribe has its own reality and its own method of mental functioning, no persuasion is possible between individuals. There is only my tribe vs. your tribe, my tribe’s beliefs vs. your tribe’s beliefs. And no resolution is attainable except through force—no resolution except “might makes right.” By abandoning reason and individualism, multiculturalism is leading us, ultimately, back to the law of the jungle.

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As a quick aside, let me say something more general about this subject. We’ve been trying to understand the essence of multiculturalism. But what we’ve been doing here applies elsewhere too. It applies to the method by which to identify the essence of any ideology. And I would summarize that method in three brief points:

  1. Concretize all abstractions. Don’t be satisfied with vague statements like “respect other people” or “preserve different cultures within one society.” Instead, determine what they mean in actual reality. What specific positions does an ideology uphold? What specific actions does it endorse? You can’t just look at the name of some ideology and deduce from that what it must stand for. Look at what it means in concrete reality.
  2. When you’ve identified the concrete things the ideology supports, or opposes, you have to grasp the underlying idea, the underlying abstraction. You have to use the method of induction to get to a general principle. What do the concretes add up to? What do they have in common? What is fundamental to them all?
  3. It’s important to note the range of positions an ideology finds tolerable. That is, what positions are considered—particularly by its leaders—as being compatible with the basic tenets of the ideology. For example, if someone claims to endorse Objectivism while also supporting a belief in God and a need to follow the Ten Commandments, his views would be disavowed by Objectivists. The same for someone who claims to endorse Objectivism while also supporting anarchism. Such viewpoints would be regarded as incompatible with, as contradictory to, the principles of Objectivism. That tells you something important about what Objectivism does, and does not, stand for.Whereas the ideology of libertarianism, to take another example, does tolerate anarchists. Even if it nominally accepts the institution of government, its prominent leaders do not regard anarchism as destructive of liberty. They tolerate anarchists, in a way that they do not tolerate, say, socialists. That tells you something important about what libertarianism does, and does not, stand for.

It is by using this method that we’re able to see what multiculturalism actually represents. And if you follow this method for analyzing other ideologies, you will often find that they are not what they purport to be. For example, you will discover that environmentalism does not stand for protecting human beings against harmful pollutants. Or you will discover that libertarianism does not stand for the protection of individual liberty.

Let me finish by getting back to multiculturalism. Historically the United States represented the antithesis of multiculturalism. It was known as a melting pot, where people from all over the world, people of all nationalities and ancestries, would come to start new lives. They would discard the accidental characteristics of their backgrounds—the characteristics so celebrated by multiculturalists—in favor of being known as Americans, because they realized that a culture of freedom was the only culture essential to their lives.

This idea of an integrating melting pot is now “politically incorrect,” largely owing to the influence of multiculturalism.  Now, instead of a melting pot, the metaphor that’s used to describe America is an “ethnic mosaic.” Now, people are disintegrated, split into separate, balkanized tribes, each in conflict with the other.

What’s the antidote to this ominous trend? Well, I think you probably know. Let me quote from the end of my chapter “Multicultural Nihilism,” in Ayn Rand’s book Return of the Primitive:

“The antidote . . . requires a commitment to the philosophy of individualism, which, tragically, America never fully had, even at the start. It requires the conviction that in all moral and political issues, the individual is the primary unit—that man’s defining characteristic is his rational mind—that the objective standard of value is man’s life—and that, of all the cognitive discriminations his life requires, the one between value and non-value is the most crucial.

“If enough voices were to articulate such a philosophy, the phenomenon of multiculturalism would quickly vanish. Forced to face the bright, unyielding light of reason, it would sink back into the primordial ooze from which it arose.”♦♦

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