Multi-culturalism: the flipside of fundamentalism?

Fundamentalism Multiculturalism 1

It is common to hear multi-culturalism being endorsed as a basis for national identity. Given this era of increasing fundamentalism, what could be more welcoming than a philosophy which embraces the particularities of all ethnicities? What could be more helpful than a mode of thinking which asserts the uniqueness of all cultures (hence, multi-culturalism)?

In a country like Malaysia, where extremists groups like Perkasa and Isma sprout their racist and bigoted views with impunity, multi-culturalism is de facto accepted as the norm. That Malaysia’s varied communities (differing in ethnicity, cultural, regional, religious and social background) have lived peacefully (and tolerated racists and bigots), attests to this fact. Is this not the true form of 1-Malaysia (as opposed to the corrupted formula peddled by Barisan Nasional)? Can there be anything wrong with multiculturalism at all?

I want to, in fact, point out some problems with multi-culturalism. Indeed, fundamentalism and multi-culturalism may ironically be one and the same phenomenon and reflect what Hegel called a speculative identity of opposites. This is to say that often when two phenomena appear to directly contradict each other, there could in fact be hidden a subtle commonality which nurtures them both. For example, multi-culturalists logically can (and should) easily accept the extremity of fundamentalists as something to be embraced and understood as an expression of the Other, whilst fundamentalists can likewise adopt a multi-culturalists stance by affirming the uniqueness of their identities and claims.

If multi-culturalism itself demands that all cultures merit interest and respect, should this not include respecting that particular culture which asserts that other cultures merit less interest and respect than its own? From within a multi-culturalists perspective, should it not respect the fact that a fundamentalist Muslim insists that his unique Islamic identity should be the basis for Malaysia’s national identity?

Unfortunately, many multi-culturalist thinkers would only embrace an-Other subject if he speaks and acts in a manner suggestive of a liberal, democracy-loving and ‘reasonable’ individual. This creates the awkward situation of, say, a Christian and Muslim being extremely friendly with each other as long as they do not publicly assert the superiority of their religion over against that of other faiths, as this would too deeply offend the sensibilities of the multi-culturalist mind-set.

In other words, the more the multi-culturalist insists (inconsistently) that the fundamentalist has to meet a liberal-democratic criterion of thinking and behaviour, the more the fundamentalist would want to emphasise the unique nature of his own specific identity and desires. The speculative identity of opposites appears to be strongly in force.

A short digression into celebrity culture may help to further illustrate my problems with a multi-cultural construction of ethnicity. Consider, for example, how the act of exposing the ‘human weaknesses’ of celebrities or VIPs’, far from bringing them down to the level of the common citizen, instead elevates their position in the eyes of everyone. The aura of mysticism or ‘larger-than-life’ factor of such people both sustains and is nurtured by the desire to read the latest gossips and lurid details about their very human failures.

The more details of their private life we get to know, the stronger the background they provide for the royal charisma, as with a great artist or scientist about whom we are delighted to learn that he also has some human weakness -far from reducing him to our scale, such details render all the more tangible the gap that divides him from us, common mortals.” (Žižek, For They Know Not What They Do, xxxvi, emphasis added).

Likewise, the philosophy of multi-culturalism, far from helping to diminish fundamentalism, may in fact be feeding it. The more we demonise fundamentalist whilst at the same time extolling the tolerance of any and all forms of culture, the more ‘fundamentalist’ we become regarding our capacity for tolerance, creating intolerance for anything other than what we believe and so on. This is not unlike how ingesting ‘everyday’ details of celebrities does not reduce, but in fact accentuates, their superstar status in our eyes, which in turn spurs us to find out more gossip on them ad infinitum.

The relevance of this debate to the reformulation of ethnicities in Malaysia lies precisely in how multi-cultural thinkers have pre-adopted qualifying criteria modelled along liberal-democratic axioms. We have a tendency to promote ethnic hybridity, but only as long as the eventual outcome fits a framework defined or accepted by liberal democracy. In other words, it is not genuinely multi-cultural and universal/neutral but subtly fundamentalist and biased.

What, then, is a possible solution? If ethnic solidarity cannot be found in a ‘universal’ religion (with all its connotations of timelessness and essentialisms, two absolute principles for fundamentalism) and if we reject an approach that privileges communal particularities (multi-culturalism), what other basis for reconciliation and harmony is there?

What about the idea of a trauma? A collectively experienced trauma is what grants subjects in community an identity; a shared antagonism is what holds an ethnic community together. A common identity is founded on authentic communion which in turn is present only when members of a community recognise and affirm the core of uncertainty and anxiety within each other.

When I, as a Chinese, recognise a mutual uncertainty and angst in a fellow subject, I simultaneously embrace him as another Chinese in the very act of establishing or consolidating my own Chinese-ness. To be a Malay is to be someone who is bounded to another by an agony experienced by both and felt to be directed to them as a community. Likewise, an Indian is presumably less of an Indian if he disavows the struggles his people has undergone. Every ethnic group by extension finds definition and unity in a common ordeal or a shared experience of rupture.

This perspective is relevant not only in characterising or demarcating one ethnicity from another, it also helpful in resolving inter-ethnic relations. The ethical injunction here to admonish different communities to see the abyss of limitations and vulnerability in both their own communities and that of others. Ethnic harmony can only grow, paradoxically, when different groups recognise the historical disharmony and discord each other have experienced and are guilty of.

Such a perspective offers a creative balance between the usual negative models in discussion on ethnicity. To see only what the ‘other’ ethnic group lacks is the first step towards racism and bigotry. To see only what my people lack in contrast to others likewise justifies racial policies and discrimination to secure resources perceived to be usurped by other, more powerful, groups. To see what both of us lack is to discover a new kind of solidarity, the kind that derives from shared struggle and pain.

True equality is a traumatic equality which recognises that everybody falls short, hence the need for mutual cooperation and sharing. Ethnicities are together bound by the universality of struggle and lack.

Alwyn Lau is presently pursuing a PhD at Monash University (Malaysia). His research interests include critical theory, misunderstood people and the occasional bad movie. His paper, A Primordial Anxiety: Ontological Trauma and Ethnic Solidarity in Malaysia was recently published by Brill in the Asian Journal of Social Science.