The Philosophy of Multiculturalism

Individuals of different moral beliefs are exposed nowadays, more than ever before, to all kinds of other beliefs, other moral values, and other cultural backgrounds. Individuals are challenged to accept them, refuse them, or at least recognize them and respect them. The question nowadays is not any more whether one accepts or refuses new ideas, or innovative ones; the question has become whether one can be persuaded to believe in, and affirm, the basic notion of justice. Justice, in this particular framework, becomes an attempt to attain fairness and equality, not among human beings, but among ideas.

Equality among ideas

I immediately clarify here by saying that equality among ideas is different from equal ideas. The first suggests treating ideas on an equal basis, while the second recognizes that ideas by nature, like thoughts or other intellectual activities, are not necessarily equal to each other, regardless of how similar or how different they are to one another. In this particular sense our attitude towards ideas should be reviewed: do we treat ideas on an equal basis? Do we deal with ideas by giving them an equal chance to reveal themselves equally, to explain themselves evenly and to unfold themselves regularly? If we accept the notion of equality among ideas, then we have to address ourselves to the principle of tolerance. John Locke and John mills in their discussions of tolerance take into consideration the utilitarian grounds, unlike modern pluralism which conceives principally in terms of individual autonomy and the political reconciliation of opposed spiritual and moral views of the world. This approach implies an obligation to seek a kind of public consensus of common principles that will permit an effective agenda of socio-political decision making. Accepting pluralism means accepting tolerance, and accommodating diversity means accommodating broadmindedness. In this context tolerance cannot but mean acceptance of the other, being receptive to the other, being friendly with the other, welcoming the other, being open-minded to the other, hospitable to the other, and cordial with the other. Tolerance becomes an attitude, a style of life, an approach, an outlook, a position, and a state of mind.

Debate of liberalisms

At a purely philosophical level, the debate is simply between several forms of liberalism. To simplify it, the debate could be limited to two kinds of liberals, arguing about the source of reason and autonomy in a modern liberal democratic society: those of a Kantian disposition and those of a Hegelian one. The first follows the moral law, follows reason rather than desire for, as a transcendental political theory; the second focuses on the ideal and ethical arguments for liberalism. Whether defending liberalism on rational and transcendental grounds, or defending it on ideal and superlative grounds, it is fundamental to realize that the philosophy of Multiculturalism cannot be explained and understood without the comprehension of tolerance, meaning the acceptance of diversity and pluralism. To what extent are these terms considered a matter of theory or a matter of practice? That is the question!


To go deeper into the aspects of multiculturalism we cannot disregard the notion of “polyethnicity” or the political recognition of multiple ethnic groups of citizens within one country. Several concrete examples are historically and geographically very clear and very successful. Examples of successful political multiculturalism would include: Australia, Canada, the United States of America, Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, and others. I would say that the key element for the success of political multiculturalism in these countries is the fact that all the related ethnic groups have accepted, and are practicing, concepts such as: recognition of the other, equality in treating ideas and backgrounds, being wholehearted in respecting diversity, and being active in supporting pluralism and practicing tolerance at all levels. All such concepts become an integral part of a certain common culture, a certain common attitude that cannot be avoided or disregarded in multicultural communities, and multicultural environments. When challenging the main stream of liberal thinking one might dwell on the “inescapable effects of power”, and political oppression. In other words political power and liberal thinking are the two poles of multiculturalism.

Multiculturalism and the Western heritage

It has been argued that multiculturalism might mean the “destruction of Western intellectual heritage”. The direct counterargument would be that such a statement accuses, and even condemns, the Western heritage for being weak, fragile, yet pathetic, for being unable to grasp other cultures and take hold of different civilizations and ethnicities. Are we rendering justice to the Western heritage by facing it with such accusations and condemnations? If yes, then I do not share this opinion. If no, then the real question would be: if the richest, and maybe strongest, heritage cannot grasp other cultures and backgrounds, who otherwise can? I do believe that the Western heritage is rich enough to be able to understand, appreciate, interact, and identify with, other aspects of the human legacy and global heritage. Besides this argument, accepting the confrontation between multiculturalism and the Western heritage, means that our understanding of multiculturalism is labeled under another title for any anti-western culture, a notion that defeats the purpose and ignores reality. Multiculturalism, in this sense, is not only a diversity between East and West, it is also a diversity between different aspects of the Western culture and dissimilar features of the Eastern culture. In my book, Multiculturalism and Arab-American Literature, I have highlighted this very significant point in a chapter on “Literature with Multicultural Concern” discussing the cultural diversity between America and Europe as expressed in the fiction works of Edith Wharton. It is a matter of attitude towards the understanding and accepting the other. The act of identifying with others, needs two rational steps: 1) the overcoming of one’s own truth; and 2) the understanding of what knowledge is all about.

Relativity of the truth

Edward Said seems to fall into contradiction when he considers that the notion of East and West us a misleading one, and then argues that diversity requires overcoming one’s truth in order to be able to recognize and appreciate the truth of the other. In that particular sense the notion of multiculturalism becomes insignificant if we do not believe in the relativity of the truth. A key issue in accepting the concept of multiculturalism is the understanding that truth might be relative. This understanding does not contradict the other basic concept of the existence of an ultimate, absolute truth which is God. In other words the existence of God does not contradict the existence of God does not contradict the existence of diversity in his own creatures or an ethnicity of several different creatures, or the multicultural truth that we should recognize, accept, and deal with accordingly. According to Bradley a relative truth is explained as follows:

“to claim that truth is relative is to claim that the very same statement can be both true and false, depending on one’s point of view. I allow myself to add to this explanation that a statement can be both true and false, depending on one’s social traditions, one’s religious beliefs, one’s native language and history, and one’s political understanding and affiliations. This is why we have to accept that what is true to me might not be true to another person, or another group of people. Similarly what may be true to one people, or nation, or even religion, is not necessarily true, or equally so, to another people, or another nation, or another religion. Accepting this argument is accepting the philosophical and political notion of multiculturalism.

What is knowledge all about?

The relativity of truth requires a certain level of understanding, a certain level of knowledge that should be used as a common language for all supporters of multiculturalism. Knowledge, according to John Searle, is “typically a mind – independent reality”. The two key words here are mind and reality: and the interconnection is the reality’s exposure to the mind, or the mind’s projection of the reality, or the reality in the language of mind, or the mind’s perspective of the reality…I feel comfortable whenever I try to play this game of interconnected meanings as part of our understanding of the concept of knowledge.

If epistemology helps us investigate the different grounds and natures of knowledge, and if the main streams of knowledge are based on either rationalism or empiricism, then we are debating here the role of reason versus the role of experience. But whatever these two roles are, we have to admit that reason functions in many different ways with each individual, and experience comes in several diverse traditions, habits, and conducts, and varies with the rich variations of each and every one of these factors. In that sense, epistemology leads us, directly or indirectly, to the notion of multiculturalism.

The Lebanese Experience of Multiculturalism

Modern Lebanese history has experienced different aspects of diversity specifically during the last four hundred years. It goes all the way from the Maronite College of Rome to the Fakhreddine-Italian connections, especially with Tuscany; and from the American and French universities all the way to the Lebanese, Arab, Armenian, and Canadian universities; and from the eighteen religious groups to several language backgrounds spoken and written in the country.

This kind of richly diverse background sets the pace for a literary product characterized by a similar multicultural feature, namely what is known in the States as the Arab-American literature. The Lebanese people have their own multicultural heritage that prepared them for a distinguished contribution to multicultural literature. The following five observations about our Lebanese literary multiculturalism are discussed thoroughly in my book on the subject. Summarizing these observations today may give an idea about our contribution to literary diversity:

  1. Bilingualism: Experiencing the art of writing in two languages means practicing two logics of expression, getting involved in two cultures, being committed to “two ways of thinking, two value systems, and two analytical approaches. This requires from the writer a high level of intellectual tolerance and understanding”.
  2. Common concerns: Part of the common concerns as expressed by Lebanese immigrants in the United States, whether in their own media or through personal publications, deals with issues related to social, educational, and economic development which enriches diversity between themselves and the native citizens of the host country.
  3. Self-identity within diversity: This dilemma caused a clear intellectual debate that was necessary to pave the way for a mutual recognition and for creating a kind of a self identity within the larger new cultural set up. For this reason Arab-American literature faced difficulties in order to find its own platform and its own characteristics.
  4. Touching the “Concrete Universal”: the philosophic question related to this vivid example of multiculturalism is: How does Arab-American Literature merge the particular and the universal? To what extent did the “Concrete Universal” become one of the vibrant themes of this particular multicultural literature?
  5. The Lebanese contribution: it is imperative to define the uniqueness and distinctiveness of our contribution, as Lebanese people, to the American heritage and to the heritage of diversity and multiculturalism. What we are calling for, today, is a rationalization of the one hundred years of multicultural literature, and the for hundred years of social and cultural diversity.

The role of the University in multiculturalism

The post-modern educational agenda in advanced institutions of higher education set their objectives so as to reinforce students’ sense of belonging and pride in a certain ethnic group in which they are particularly and deeply, rooted. This educational objective requires an academic attitude distinguished by two major characteristics: 1) treating all ideas and cultures on an equal intellectual basis, if we do believe that ideas, regardless of their substantial nature, are to be treated equally. Of course this entails, as mentioned before, a certain level of tolerance that should become part of our academic outlook; 2) reviewing our curriculum in such a way as to consider all unfamiliar ideas, cultures, or backgrounds, equally worthy of being present, and significant, in the university programs.

International students and international faculty members become an indispensable component in the campus life and in the academic and research activities and performances of the university of the 21st century. This, in turn, requires a certain recognition, acknowledgement, respect and celebration of the other individual, or the other group of people. This is what Charles Taylor calls the “politics of recognition” meaning the sensitivity and the tactfulness of appreciation expressed to the other.

Richard Rorty argues that challenging traditional views of knowledge and truth poses no threat to educational or any other institutions, because philosophical principles do not support our practices but merely provide optional ways of describing them to ourselves. Why do I believe that Rorty is right in his argument? Because I sincerely think that the rational art of building up a counter argument is, by itself, an enriching exercise of the mind, and an inspiring implementation of the intellectual power that a human being may enjoy. In that particular sense, the act of challenging points of view, which are perhaps considered as traditional, is not intellectually and academically a negative performance but rather a positive and constructive way to rebuild a “traditional idea” and transform it into a new, unconventional, suggestive, unusual, and exceptional thought. This is a typical exercise of contemplation, thinking, consideration, deliberation, and accepting wisdom. Yes ladies and gentlemen, tolerance is directly related to wisdom, and wisdom is in turn directly related to the philosophy of multiculturalism. I call upon you, with no hesitation, to exercise this wisdom and to enjoy this philosophy.

Ameen Albert Rihani May 5, 2008 NDU Issue 43

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