This Ruthless World

Adventures in absurdity

When Multiculturalism Becomes Bigotry

A few years ago, an acquaintance of mine took a trip to Uzbekistan, a small land-locked country in Central Asia. The people who inhabit it speak a Turkic language, are predominantly Muslim and possess a rich and ancient cultural tradition. In centuries past, their position along the Silk Road and the fertile Fergana Valley made Uzbek khanates rich. It was then that Tamerlane built his gleaming blue-and-gold palaces at Samarkand, and the area became renowned for its scientists, mathematicians, poets and artists. Today, Uzbekistan is a poor country, with a crumbling infrastructure and a low standard of living. And yet, it rewards the traveler intrepid enough to venture into that part of the world with sights of exquisite beauty and ornate ancient cities that represent, I think, the closest anything in the real world comes to resembling the idealized, nostalgic East that we think of when we read the Arabian Nights.

Notwithstanding the splendor of places like Samarkand, Kokand, Bukhara and Khiva, my acquaintance was disappointed.

Part of it was that he saw a couple of lepers and raw sewage in the street in some particularly poor areas. Another part of it was that wherever he ate, he simply could not make the chef understand how it is that you skin a chicken and carefully remove every trace of fat or gristle from it before cooking. (Uzbek cuisine is fantastic. Alas, that whole Californian steamed-with-a-side-of-steamed-broccoli-no-oil-no-salt-no-pepper-0g-fat is something that the local chefs still haven’t quite mastered.) But his biggest peeve was the signs of rapid modernization and westernization: when he finally nagged his guide into taking him to see the site of the old Silk Road, he discovered it was now a modern paved highway, with gas stations, roadside vending machines and trucks instead of mules and donkeys; the local residents seemed to prefer jeans and tee-shirts to khalats and pointy shoes; and young people watched Hollywood movies and listened to pop music.

“Parts of Tashkent look like Queens!” lamented my acquaintance. Modern buildings, conventional city planning, hospitals and old Fiats were everywhere.

He ended his account with a rueful comment: “It’s really sad and tragic how the West corrodes everything with its influence. It’s evil, really. There isn’t a single culture in the world that it will leave intact.”

“But …” I responded not quite knowing where to begin tackling his litany of complaints, “Doesn’t it make sense to build a modern road along an ancient route that everyone is used to and that goes through the most densely populated areas?”

“Maybe,” he allowed, “But roads bring destruction to people like that. It would have been better for them to just follow their traditional ways. With the road and everything, they are losing their culture.”

It is amazing, really, how often one can hear the most sophisticated Westerners, ones who are careful to exhibit utmost sensitivity to other cultures, ones who are politically and socially liberal, ones who possess the most progressive ideas about ethnic and religious diversity, ones who get righteously indignant at the slightest hint of “Westernism”, to say nothing of prejudice, spout stupid, patronizing crap like that.

The biggest problem with this world view is that it promotes othering and the very toxic paternalism that people who espouse it often decry. This view denies the Other (that is, people in non-Western countries) agency: the benevolent Westerner treats these people as naive, child-like savages who are incapable of looking out for their own interests or make informed decisions about what is important to them; he, the Westerner, knows best what is good for them.

Of course, it is understandable to be saddened by people’s seeming preference for trash. And, it does make sense to some extent to talk about “preserving” a culture. But ultimately, culture being an expression of a people’s collective mentality, it cannot exist as a separate entity.

I think for enlightened Westerners, the core difference between their own cultural umbrella and non-Western cultures is that the latter are perceived to have authenticity, whereas the West does not. The concept of authenticity is closely tied with that of tradition and ultimately implies an absence of long-term change, a culture that is set in stone. This, in turn, denies the most fundamental truth of the human condition: that all cultures change all the time, especially if they are in regular contact with others. This goes against the grain of many classical cultural narratives: historians now know, for instance, that the Ancient Greeks were heavily influenced by the Egyptian, Persian and Near Eastern cultures.

As an aside, it is also a mistake to view “authentic” cultures as autonomous, insular and discrete. Example: to the west of Uzbekistan lies the mountainous country of Kyrgyzstan. Despite their close proximity, the two people are very different. Unlike the urbane Uzbeks, the Kyrgyz have traditionally been nomadic sheep herders. For hundreds of years before any prolonged or close contact with Europe, the Kyrgyz would regularly take their lambs over the Fergana Range, into the valley to the west and sell them to butchers at Uzbek bazaars. They would bring back with them kilims, cooking utensils, fabrics and foodstuffs. If you check out the most traditional Kyrgyz recipes, you will see that while they center around lamb, cooking in metal utensils is involved, and vegetables, rice and noodles are staple ingredients. So: if the Kyrgyz did not traditionally engage in agriculture or do metalworks, is their traditional cuisine then not truly authentic? The two cultures existed long-term in a kind of symbiosis, and this is the predominant way in which most cultures interact.

The most offensive aspect of the kind of “cultural sensitivity” that my acquaintance exhibited is that it implies that the West is still “better” — that only the West should get to enjoy technological progress, cultural novelty and modern conveniences. Everyone else is required to live perpetually in a time bubble. It does not occur to enlightened Westerners often enough that maybe these “simple savages” legitimately view “authenticity” as less important than safety, comfort or an improved standard of living; that they too want to have advanced medicine, good roads, epidurals for child birth and air-conditioned homes; that perhaps they really don’t want to do laundry by hand, or use mules for transportation or live without indoor plumbing; that maybe they don’t want to have ten babies in ten years and lose half of them to dysentery and scarlet fever. None of these desires seem like evidence of moral decay to me. Wearing jeans or listening to Lady Gaga doesn’t either, for who are we to decide what’s “right” for this or that group of people?

Alas, as the world gets smaller through communication, “authenticity” will continue to dwindle, until it completely disappears. Cities will look more and more alike, and it will become increasingly difficult to pinpoint someone’s origins by the way they dress, what they eat or how they entertain themselves. It will be a loss to some degree, for sure — but one that is offset by the privilege of living as we choose.

The kind of cultural sensitivity that I’ve described masks a massive sense of entitlement — the entitlement that exotic places serve as Disneyland for adults (from Western countries), with quaintly dressed local residents doing quaint and weird things and living in their quaint and weird-looking houses. But no raw sewage in the streets, please, because that’s just gross. And they should learn how to cook chicken properly, dammit.

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2 thoughts on “When Multiculturalism Becomes Bigotry

  1. Barbara Backer-Gray on said:

    Well put. That’s exactly it: some people expect the rest of the world to be their Disneyland. They forget that their own lives have become as comfortable as they are because of paved roads and modern conveniences. It’s that ubiquitous “close the gate behind me attitude”.

  2. multiheaded on said:

    Hear, hear!

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