Culture and Objectivity

An essay on multiculturalism and the unintended consequences of the desire for social validation, first published in the Humanist, V54, #5, p. 38, 1994.

The ongoing debate over multiculturalism involves, among other issues, what might be called the quest for cultural validation: the desire of racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities to be seen as legitimate in their own right. Black, feminist, and gay subcultures, among others, wish to assert their particular differences from prevailing social norms and want to be accepted by the larger culture they are challenging. Legitimacy will be achieved when society incorporates the subcultural differences as normal social variation and when minorities secure the same rights and protections enjoyed by those in the mainstream. This process of validation and acceptance, slow though it may be, is characteristic of our liberal western democracy, so that the indigenous cultural "repertoire" or "palette" has become increasingly diverse.

What I wish to discuss here is a tactic sometimes used by those seeking validation: the unfortunate tendency to exaggerate the historical contribution of the minority culture by selectively revising or emphasizing the past. For instance, some in the black community think that only by showing the Afrocentric origins of Western culture can they claim equality (or perhaps their "rightful" preeminence). Likewise, some feminists feel they must find, as examples to be proud of, women of influence and power in every historical era. Motivating the sometimes dubious scholarship of such revisionism is the assumption that only a pure, original, founding culture or cultural progenitor has value, and that later additions and participants are somehow less consequential. Establishing a cultural pedigree, it is hoped, will raise the status of the minority viewpoint in question.

But historical precedence is only one, rather superficial, factor which lends value to cultural practices and hence to the minority which imports them into a larger society. Of more significance, for instance, are the sheer differences from the mainstream which a subculture provides. Given the innate human craving for variety we don't really want (or at least I don't want) the MacDonaldization of society which cultural homogeneity would bring. Better that we find our neighbor's beliefs and practices slightly disconcerting than exactly like our own. Another factor which contributes value is the possibility that minority practices will offer models of behavior and belief which will benefit the society as a whole. New cultural "mutations", having nothing whatever to do with esteemed historical precedents, sometimes offer better solutions to problems everyone must face.

If we can agree that cultural validation need not depend on historical prestige then it will be easier to see some revisionist accounts of the past for what they are: unnecessary and ultimately self-defeating attempts to rewrite history for partisan purposes. Certainly the historical background of a tradition helps establish a sense of belonging and rootedness, and hence helps to self-validate members of a subculture, but it is vital that such a background be historically accurate, not a fabrication. A revisionist history that is perceived as fraudulent can only generate skepticism and embarrassment and so retard the acceptance of the subgroup or practices in question.

This brings up the issue of objectivity in historical scholarship. By what standards is an historical account judged to be accurate? How do we know when the line has been crossed from a responsible, plausible revision to a biased, need-motivated revision? Are not all accounts biased and motivated to some extent and so isn't the whole notion of objectivity put in doubt? Positions in the multiculturalism controversy are staked out by the answers to such questions, with those defending the "Eurocentric" tradition leaning towards an absolutistic conception of objectivity, and those challenging the establishment leaning towards a more relativistic conception. One side (the right) believes that standards of scholarship require the notion of perspective-neutral historical evidence, evidence which no sane individual could dispute, while those on the left argue that the very notion of such evidence is part and parcel of an attempt to buttress what is only the dominant version of historical truth. Historical objectivity, says the right, is a function of careful scholarship, the sort developed in conjunction with Western science over the last two centuries. But anything coming out of a given time and place, says the left, inevitably bears the mark of its origins, and so cannot pretend to objectivity but should instead admit its bias.

There is intuitive appeal to both these positions, which suggests that the "truth" of the issue (the scarequotes are a nod to the left) will somehow soften the dispute between absolutism and relativism. A step in this direction is to notice that in making their arguments both sides appeal to a larger community outside their partisan clique. That is, both sides are trying to convince you, a potential recruit, that their arguments have merit. Such an appeal assumes that there is already something you have in common with their point of view, e.g. that you have, perhaps, a preference for scientifically documented evidence, or a conviction that points of view do, in fact, color perceptions. My point is that since each side assumes a community of shared belief to which arguments are pitched, they cannot in fact be so far apart since the community they assume is the same in both cases: those trying to decide about the multiculturalism debate.

This kind of appeal to a larger audience when presenting arguments is, I think, the hallmark of scholarship and science. That both sides of the debate attempt to persuade, rather than intimidate or bully, indicates that they are indispensable parts of a healthy culture of inquiry. Even though the questions surrounding historical objectivity may never be resolved, the arguments and opinions of various factions are united by being part of a single, if multifaceted, discourse. Those who believe that the Western tradition of scholarship is the only road to truth present their case using the same logic and language as those to whom the "hegemony" of white male scholars is anathema. The logic and the language may be bent to different purposes, but the fundamental goal is the same: to win respect for one's point of view in the culture at large.

Such respect can be widely won only if the arguments are found widely convincing, that is, if they appeal not on the basis of a narrow, sectarian bias, but on the basis of something more universal in human experience. Anyone wishing to make a case for how things "really" are (e.g. there is such a thing as unimpeachable evidence, or, there is no such thing as unimpeachable evidence) has to follow the same route: show why we should believe them on the merits of their arguments, independent of our sectarian biases and motives. Inherent in any attempt to persuade is the assumption that some shared notion of objectivity exists, some common ground of beliefs about how the world is which can serve as the basis for argument. The curious situation thus arises that in making a case for radical revisions in a world view, the proponent must proceed conservatively in order to win any converts. As long as persuasion remains argumentative (and not coercive) it is the presumed community of shared belief which acts as judge and jury, and anything too distant from the actual beliefs of that community will fail to gain adherents.

Objectivity, then, is assumed by all parties to the multiculturalism debate, but it is not an objectivity built on perspective-neutral evidence, but derived from shared assumptions, assumptions which may change as the debate proceeds. Such objectivity is therefore relative to the culture to which arguments are put for approval. This conclusion should satisfy the left. On the other hand, the right too can relax since, on this analysis, there will always be implicit standards embedded in the culture which prevent the acceptance of truly radical revisions, historical or otherwise. Science and responsible scholarship are quite resistant to the whims of those seeking to advance special interests just because they embody the agreements that are reached when special interests are put aside.

To return to the earlier question of cultural validation, this means that any historical revision designed to shore up minority self-esteem must pass muster in the wider community of opinion, else it will only undercut the credibility of those proposing it. There is no way to avoid the judgment of the dominant culture if a revision is tendered as serious scholarship, and any radical challenge to received wisdom will be taken quite seriously if it shows the least signs of catching on. To complain that such a judgment only reflects the bias of a ruling orthodoxy is to try to have it both ways: to seek the approval of the wider community and yet to question its authority if approval is withheld. A minority version of the past may indeed catch on, but only because its proponents, working within current standards of scholarship, manage to move the existing orthodoxy incrementally towards the new version. What was once scoffed at may then become the accepted standard, serving as the arbiter of argument and the target of challenges to come.

 ©   Thomas W. Clark

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