What is the ‘other’?
A definition of ‘other’
- There is nothing essential about ‘other’ cultures, so there is no inherent aspect of an individual that marks them out as ‘other’; it is entirely possible for a majoritarian individual to be part of a minority ‘other’ culture if they happen to have closer ties to members of that ‘other’ group than to majoritarians.
- There is nothing special about the membership rules for ‘other’ cultures; just about any assemblage of people can form a non-majoritarian culture, so long as they have unusually strong within-group links.
- ‘Other’ groups need not arise from exclusion by majoritarian society; they form as a result of preferential attachment, and this need not arise purely from exclusion: it can be a result of choice.
These facts are incredibly important, as the theorists of ‘otherness’ would have us believe the exact opposite. In particular, they undermine the notion that the ‘other’ is the excluded and disempowered.
Monoculture, polyculture, multiculture
Let us start the argument by considering Christian theology. There are different schools of Christian feminist theology applying to latina women, black women and white women. Now, if they are Christian then they must all be referring to one God, and yet they take radically different views of what that God is. That is to say, it is entirely plausible that one’s starting point in discovering God will depend on ones sex and race, and that the questions one asks will also be so contingent. But the end-point should be discovery of truths about the one God, which means that these truths should remain true regardless of ones sex or race. Moreover, the same applies to majoritarian theologians, which implies that their theology cannot be rejected out of hand.
But, of course, that is precisely what those who define themselves as ‘other’ do do: they reject majoritarian theology as being somehow tainted and arrive at pictures of God that seem more like pictures of themselves than of any universal deity. Of course, they could assert that their God is not universal, in which case the argument stops here, but in that case they are not Christian, which they say they are, so let us continue. Consider specifically the rejection of majoritarian theology (the same argument applies to the necessary rejection of differing ‘other’ theologies). The only intellectually tenable way of doing this is to assert that (say) Aquinas was mistaken, because he had the world-view of a man in a male-dominated culture, and that world-view has been shown to be, or is taken to be incorrect. But in that case, what guarantee is there that a feminist / womanist / latinista theologian’s world-view is any better? The hidden assumption in the preceding statement is that majoritarian thinkers’ world-view is flawed whereas that of the particular ‘other’ to which the theologian making the argument belongs is not.
The frequently rehearsed argument justifying this rejection is as follows. (1) The ‘other’ group has been oppressed by majoritarians, and now they have thrown off the shackles of that oppression; (2) they reject being forced themselves to act and think as majoritarians; (3) they assert that the majoritarian world-view is not useful to them; (4) By extension, they assert that the majoritarian world-view is not useful at all, and that any product of it is of no value to them; (5) depending on how relativist they are, they either (5a) assert the existence of an epistemic barrier between their culture and majoritarian culture, or (5b) assert that majoritarian culture is entirely worthless. Now let us analyse this. Step (2) is trivially correct; it is not a matter of logic, but of justice. Step (3) is, as I have hinted above, questionable, as it may be that not all aspects of the majoritarian world-view are pernicious, but it is certainly the case that they should start from their own world-view and see whether there is anything useful to be gained from adopting parts of the majoritarian view, and not vice versa. Step (4) is where the argument breaks down; it and step (5) are not logical or philosophical statements, but political, being the starting point for a power-grab of greater or lesser extent (depending of which of (5a) or (5b) is chosen). And, as one would expect of political statements, they have no basis in observed fact, but are emotional statements designed to resonate with those who feel anger against majoritarian culture.
Therefore the argument in favour of rejecting the majoritarian culture is unsound. However, consider its consequences. Deploying (5b), the ‘other’ group silences the majoritarians and becomes the new majoritarian culture. But then different ‘other’ groups can do the same to that group and each other, until in the end everyone is silenced. Deploying (5a) and fractioning from majoritarian culture leads to a regression of smaller-and-smaller non-communicating monocultures, which continue to fraction until they reach the end-point of one-person cultures, and hence silence. Or the argument can be dismissed, in which case it is necessary to accept that all groups, including ‘other’ and majoritarians, have a part to play. So either everybody’s views should be taken into consideration or nobody’s should.
To say that nobody’s views should be considered is, of course, the end state of deconstruction, but it is something of a counsel of despair. We can do better than that. Say we have a number of schools of theological thought, each of which sets out from some world-view (and bear in mind that even the majoritarian culture is hugely fractured in this respect). What we could do is to have a big fight, with the strongest group getting to decide what is true. That is what is said to have happened in the past (though a quick look at the sheer variety of theological ideas espoused by majoritarians suggests that the true position is somewhat less black and white), and it is clearly not an acceptable approach. So, instead we could announce that each ‘other’ group has its own version of Christianity, that they are all equally valid, and that to try achieve consistency between them is disallowed, as it dilutes their status as ‘other’. That is essentially what we have now. It is a position much beloved of post-deconstructionists, who revel in a false ‘diversity’ of ‘truth’. False because in fact the logical consequence of their position is that there should be a number of totalitarian groups within each of which only one ‘truth’ is permitted. True diversity can be achieved only if all accept that they must listen to the views of those who are our ‘other’, regardless of how ‘other’ we may consider ourselves to be.
So how can we listen to the ‘other’, for it is surely true that something obviously true within one world-view can be not obvious at all in another? The following is a highly condensed version of an argument of W.V.O.Quine. Say you and I have no langage in common, and I note that whenever you see a rabbit you use the word ‘gavagai’. What do I do? I could assert that it’s your culture and I have no right to interfere, in which case we are off down the road to island monocultures with no intercommunication save the occasional sling-shot. Or I could conclude that ‘gavagai’ means rabbit. Now it may actually be that in your culture you discuss animals not as wholes, but as a collection of body parts, so ‘gavagai’ refers to a collection of two short legs, two long legs, a body, two long ears, etc. Now there is no way that I could ever know that ‘gavagai’ conveyed much more information than the word ‘rabbit’, for I would hear ‘gavagai’ for rabbit, I would take words for individual body parts as referring to those parts, and so on. But this means that though some meaning would be lost in translating from your language to mine, the part that is lost is precisely that which you cannot express linguistically. And, similarly in translating from my language to yours (to assume otherwise is a form of inverted chauvinism).
Before anyone objects, I am aware that this is a purely linguistic argument. I am not thereby denying the possibility of meaning conveyed by numinous states. However, that meaning becomes culture, which is a shared public thing, only to the extent that it can be communicated, which requires expressive ‘language’ of some form, whether it be natural language, symbolic language or the emotional languages of art. Therefore, within this broadened scope of ‘language’, it follows that those ideas that a group can communicate internally using the expressive means available to it, can be translated and communicated externally. To deny this implies not only that intercommunication between cultures is impossible (a commonplace of neo-deconstructionism), but also that cultures cannot intracommunicate, so individuals are locked inside their own heads. So there are no epistemic barriers between cultures, or, to put it another way, contrary to what a university acquaintance of mine once claimed, the lyrics ofBohemian Rhapsody do not hold secrets that can only be understood if one is gay.
Putting the rabbit into action
In the case of a feminist theologian talking to Aquinas, this means that though Aquinas may not appreciate the feminist’s private meaning (or she his), they can be confident that they understand one another in as far as they limit themselves to the expressible. Which means that if the feminist theologian disagrees with Aquinas, they can identify which of his premises she takes issue with, though he may not be able to explain to her why he believes it (because he cannot explain that even to himself). And at this point they can have a discussion, which might lead to each of them understanding the other better.
So I am not denying the value of differing perspectives, far from it. I am saying that in academia as in culture, we need the input of many different world-views, as they are the only way we can become aware of unjustified cultural assumptions that shape our thinking, and begin to understand what is baggage that we can let go and what is real core belief that we cannot. Or, in a wider context, what is assumption about the way art should be that can be challenged, and what is essential to our artistic identity. We can only do this if we have a cultural marketplace, where artefacts are valued based on their merit, not their tribal adherence. As soon as we start privileging certain artefacts on the basis of their ‘other’ status, or asserting that there are epistemic barriers between groups, we are taking the first step on the road to the isolated monocultures.
Multiculturalism or death
So to conclude this part of the argument, I am arguing for multiculturalism, in which we do not destroy individual cultures or preserve them in aspic. Rather we allow them to join to a wider discourse in the hope of producing greater. The alternatives are not pleasant. In monoculturalism one group gets to assert its pre-eminence and suppresses all ‘other’ cultures. This has been tried and found wanting. In polyculturalism we defend many small totalitarian cultures in the only way we can, by retreating from contact with one another. And once that has been done it will happen again, with each of the small cultures fractioning into smaller cultures, until we achieve the end-state of the deconstructionist programme: six billion cultures, each consisting of one individual locked inside their own head. That way lies silence and death.
Appendix: epistemic barriers
- Things at one end of the range of the parameter are of type 1 and things at the other end of type 2
- If thing A has one type then so do all other things with parameter value sufficiently close to that assigned to A
Then one of the following is true:
- The two types are identical
- The range of parameters can be divided into two regions that are clearly separated from each other
Let the population be the human population parameterised by some variable used to define groups as ‘other’ and let the types correspond to communities of intelligibility, so within a type individuals are mutually intelligible. Then the preconditions are met (clearly a small change does not effect intelligibility) and so one of the two outcomes is true. In outcome 1 the two types are identical, so the whole population is mutually intelligible and there is no epistemic barrier. In outcome 2 there is an epistemic barrier and the population can be divided into two groups, one of type 1, the other of type 2, with a clear gap between them in terms of values of the parameter. But the standard variables – gender (not sex), sexuality, race – are all extremely malleable, so this gap is unrealistic. Therefore there is no epistemic barrier. To put it more succinctly: we are one species; an epistemic barrier would require us to be two or more.
The danger of being ‘other’
Increasingly, self-identified ‘other’ groups announce that majoritarian culture is of no value to them, and that their own culture is all they need. As such, cultural products of members of that group are asserted to adhere to different norms to those of other groups, and so cannot and should not be held to the same standard. In extreme cases it is even argued that non-members cannot appreciate or comprehend the group’s culture. This is the cultural equivalent of the fragmentation of Christian theology discussed above.
Isolationism and art
One metaculture, many cultures
So, to conclude, there is nothing essentialist about culture. To say, as I have heard one critic say, that male writers cannot write convincing women characters, and indeed, should not be allowed to do so (I wish I were joking) is nonsense. To switch ‘other’, Thomas Mann could write convincingly about an elderly ephebophile in one book and an exuberantly heterosexual young man in another. Stravinsky could write brilliant jazz-inflected music without diminishing jazz or his own art.
The analysis above showed that there is only one stable situation, which I will now give a new name. What we need is a metaculture, within which many cultures exist. Each of us exists predominantly within one of those cultures. But rather than being told that that is where we must stay, and that appropriating ideas from other cultures is oppression or imperialism (take your pick) we should have in front of us the whole toolkit making up the metaculture, and be able to appropriate what we need from it. And then if we create something new, it doesn’t become the property of our culture, it becomes part of the metaculture.
So we celebrate the diversity of people, not as members of homogeneous groups, but as people, and allow each to form their own personal cultural toolkit that they use and extend as they reach for the one other that really matters – that of transcendance. That is the individual’s personal culture, and it, the selection of tools and the way they are used, reflects the individual’s nature. Some may prefer to stick broadly with the tools of a particular culture, and to extend and enrich that culture, others may prefer to create fusions of many cultures, and to create new things that belong only to the metaculture. Both approaches are equally acceptable. But to say that one can only use the tools that the doctors of cultural theory have hallowed for one’s use, based on one’s officially identified status as ‘other’ (or not) is fascism.