Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Layers of Identity and Polyculturalism

People identify themselves through many filters: Family, friends, culture, ethnicity, nationality, race, gender, species, etc. Normally, these are not in conflict, nor are they actively in operation at any one time. Yet conflicts between these identities occur frequently. Does one go to war even though doing so harms one's family? Or might one take the longer view and believe that defending one's nation is actually how one benefits one's family over time? To argue that assumes things about what “the nation” is, a belief that one's nation will in fact defend its composite members, a belief that some (Jews in the 1930s, for example) were mistaken in holding.

Belief in nationality is typically, though not always, associated with a belief in some kind of consistent border or homeland. Even the Jews, who have been in diaspora for millenia, view themselves as belonging to a homeland that they believe they can sketch out the borders of. The Kurds demand Kurdistan, the Quebecois an independent nation-state, and so on. Unfortunately, the European combination of the ethno-cultural nation with the political state has created situations where those who were not represented in the initial divisions of power feel underrepresented. Further, to gain resources, other groups typically must suffer a proportional loss of resources or territory. These two phenomena create the foundations of much civil and international war.

It is quite unlikely that such long-standing divisions will cease immediately, even after revolutionary alterations in the economy or polity that admittedly solidifies such divisions. It seems to be human nature to form tribes of some kind. Tribes are combined with borders to create in-out dichotomies, and of a wholly artificial nature. A Californian is, according to the demands of national culture, supposed to be more concerned with the fate of Rhode Islanders who he has no economic or cultural ties with than of Mexicans who he is quite close to and integrated with, and conversely so with the Rhode Islander and Canada. While borders of management do make some sense, nations regularly choose wholly artificial places to put such borders, and even when a logical location such as a river or mountain is chosen, ecological consciousness is regularly forgotten. Pollution does not stop at borders: whether in the air or in the oceans, it ignores human constraints and moves across geographies only. The same can be said for ecosystems that emerge, unified in nature's eyes but divided in men's.

Anarchists such as myself have quite extensive literatures on how to deal with nationalism, statism and other pressures. Roughly speaking, regarding ethno-national identity, anarchists have two solutions.

The first is a political and economic one: federation. Whatever ruling bodies (ruled by the people in direct proportion to the degree to which decisions affect them) emerge should be primarily local at the first level, to allow direct participation; then, if delegation is required, councils formed from layers of delegates to deal with issues of larger and larger scale. If group divisions do remain, such solutions allow them to rule over localities and regions that they view as theirs while still retaining a proportional stake in decisions that still affect them but also affect other groups.

Regarding guaranteed representation: While requiring a degree of guaranteed representation along ethnic lines is an appropriate solution for initial trust-building, the unfortunate consequence is that these ethnic divisions become encoded artificially into ruling structures, acquiring new and distinct meanings even if groups are in the process of fluid shifting. It also artificially undermines the direct rule of people as people.
The second is what Justin Podur calls “polyculuralism”, which is a cultural-behavioral change. The notion here is to recognize precisely this hierarchy of identity that all human beings have and to thus strike a middle ground between assimilation and multiculturalism. Assimilation has the benefit of eliminating certain groups from calculation and thus preventing them from causing trouble. This is fair enough, except, as Podur notes in “Revolutionizing Culture”, “Assimilation gets rid of the problem of a powerful community oppressing a less powerful community by absorbing the less powerful into the more powerful.” Even when it does not do this, keeping equal parts of each culture (and historical examples are few and far between), it eliminates a human component, something that makes people uniquely “them”, and thus would be avoidable. But the alternative, multiculturalism, is typically quite lazy. To assimilation's “melting pot”, it proposes a “salad bowl”, with each component living in harmony but nonetheless separated. This begs the question of a human rights advocate: what of the nasty undersides of each culture, the internal repression? Here we are seeing a identity conflict. Let us take a patriarchal culture. A woman's place in it is a conflict with their ethnic status: one seeks to overwhelm the other. Multiculturalism has the initial appeal that it categorically avoids the issue of cultural imperialism and unwarranted interference or protection of other cultures, but it has the downside of preventing warranted interference. As Podur puts it, ”What is lacking in it is a notion of what happens within these ‘cultures’ and between them. If we have a multicultural society where every ‘culture’ gets to ‘govern itself’, does this mean that ‘culture’ can be used to justify sexism, or homophobia, or capitalism? What rules govern the hundreds of interactions across cultures that will happen every day? How will conflicts between people of different cultures be solved? Multiculturalism doesn’t provide the right tools to understand these problems or to deal with them.” Polyculturalism instead proposes recognizing at least two levels of identity: an area where each culture can safely exist and co-exist as a culture, intermingling and trading insofar as they please; then a shared area, the polity and economy, where cultural conflicts that arise are put aside. In this shared area, every individual has guaranteed rights, and if a certain culture seeks to deprive it, the individual wins.

To introduce such mechanisms would require radical alteration of existing economic and political structures, indeed revolutionary alteration, as it is the imposition of borders, resource conflicts, flags, and power that statism creates, as well as the rush to the bottom that capitalism creates, that helps foist and foment ethnic conflict. But, to quote a culinary advocate of multiculturalism, Alton Brown, “that's another show”.


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