Cultural Pluralism, The Challenge of our Time
“Cultural pluralism” is a recent concept in Europe to the extent that many do not know what it means. While political pluralism and freedom of thought are deeply rooted in our continent, and everyone is capable of distinguishing a democratic regime from one that is not, there are some extremely extravagant and vague opinions concerning pluralism of cultures and the relationship between the various religious, linguistic and ethnic cultures. The concept of “multiculturalism” is used even by men and women in government to exorcise problems experienced in integrating millions of immigrants and to conceal political failures. We effectively live in multi-ethnic cities which conflicts with a nostalgic, identity-based and homogeneous vision of our communities.
Our initiative entitled “Words and ideas for a plural world” wishes to nourish that fragile idea. Did you know that the concept of “cultural pluralism” was invented by a pragmatic American philosopher in the mid-20th century? His name was Horace Kallen and he wanted to put order in the difficult debate about the famous North American “melting pot” – a crucible of fused metals producing a homogeneous alloy. He instead had in mind an orchestra capable of using many different sounds and wished to introduce the idea that immigrants had the same right, if they wished to, to maintain their mixed identity using a hyphen as in Italo-, Irish-, Armenian- or Jewish-American, as well as the right to see that first half of their identity protected. Did you know that in the end this idea prevailed thanks to J.F. Kennedy and Johnson. In Europe we are instead all (with the exception of the British) more or less openly assimilationists. Basically we do not want the “dashes” and would not be capable of endowing the dashes with the institutional importance they have in the United States.
The process involving a pluralist formation of our public opinions will be encouraged by events such as the flow of migrants and the abolition of orders resulting from globalisation. The promotion of knowledge of the concepts of pluralism and the mental mindset needed to address these differences will be of great help to us in accelerating a level of maturity that is greatly delayed. Think of the xenophobic anti-immigrant tendencies present in the public debate, remember the racist slogans we seem unable to abolish from stadiums and a law on citizenship that is unable to have recognised as Italians those immigrants who have worked and paid tax for over ten years, or children born here or who have completed primary school here.
Culture cannot replace politics, but it can encourage the governing classes to update their knowledge and broaden their horizons. Cultural difference complicates many problems and ignorance can multiply them and result in their exploding. That is why Reset-DoC’s conferences and the workshops that precede them with their readings, images and debates, intend to work on misunderstandings, on the “gap” in the meaning we attribute to words, concepts and symbols. Concentrating on one single word can help us assess how things that seem unchangeable do change over time and in space, how values that we thought were “non-negotiable” quickly become almost silly. In what way and at what conditions do these changes occur? Is it a linear process? Do things change like the wind? Thanks to political initiative? Thanks to personal battles?
Reset-DoC has organized a first “Intercultural Lexicon” meeting with Anthony Appiah from Princeton University and proposes a cosmo-political perspective applied to some of these changes concerning moral issues. This American philosopher of Ghanese extraction explains how it became possible to abolish the cruel custom of bandaging and crushing the feet of well-born Chinese girls, once indispensible for ensuring they would marry well. The same has happened to customs that once seemed unassailable, such as duels in Great Britain and honour killings in Italy. If the unconditional in morals can change, then so can the manner in which we perceive other cultures, marriage arranged by families in India, the submission of women in Muslim society. Certain versions of “honour” are not permanently engraved within a civilisation (as perhaps Sicilians believed a century ago), but are instead something that changes over time. Understanding and fully inflecting a key word, such as this one – “honour” – helps us broaden our horizons and get used to a plural dimension. Different interpretations of the same concept coexist over time and they also evolve.
A similar fate will be reserved to concepts such as wives “obeying” husbands in Muslim societies (although the issue is certainly not unknown in the European tradition) and at the meeting with Nouzha Guessous, who played the leading role in reforming Family Law in Morocco, we will see how religious issues in the Islamic religion, usually used to defend restrictions imposed on women, can be used to implement reform stating gender equality rights. A certain widespread anti-Islamic essentialism, surrounding the female condition (essentialism often applied to all other religions with oppressive rules for women) will undergo critical analysis to establish distinctions between social traditions and principles of faith.
Our third conference, with Michel Wieviorka, a French sociologist who for a long time studied immigration, will focus on the model of assimilation at the basis of the French republican tradition. The Europeans’ capacity to critically assess their own consolidated customs will allow us to better perceive the limitations of an instinctively “monist” and exclusivist idea that is at the basis of our societies. We shall, however, also see how innovative practices complying with the effective plurality characterising our schools and life in our cities are surfacing.
Together with Enzo Bianchi, prior of the monastic community of Bose and a theologian with great communications skills, we will then address a very important aspect of pluralism, the religious one, observing how within each faith one can see perspectives that are the source of enrichment in other religions and not a reason for conflict. When each tribe, with its totems and taboos, discovers the existence of other tribes with other totems and taboos, there is great disquiet. The reaction of the instinctive “monist” (or ethnocentric) philosophy that accompanies us from birth is to suffer this otherness as a denial of our own worlds. Then, if we manage to overcome the destructive conflict stage, interaction with these frightening totems and taboos allows is to elaborate a perspective involving “critical dualism” (Karl Popper) and then “cultural pluralism.” Even the Church of Rome followed this path with some of its most glorious moments, such as the Second Vatican Council. These four events mark the beginning of a cycle that will return in the autumn and continue over time. Our association will continue to foster cultural pluralism and its Intercultural Lexicon.