Since one of my areas of specialization is race/ethnicity, an important issue I address in my teaching is multiculturalism. Discussing multiculturalism is a good fit for some of the racialized issues that come up in my classes, but almost all teachers of sociology introduce the ideas of multiculturalism in their courses. Multiculturalism is a core principle in much of modern sociology. My guess is that this is not a phenomenon limited to the United States but that sociology, and other social science/humanity professors all over the world place a fairly high priority in introducing multiculturalism to college students. One would expect that highly educated individuals throughout modern societies would be at least somewhat versed in their understanding of multiculturalism.
Multiculturalism is theorized to be valuable in helping us appreciate cultural diversity. It is linked to notions of tolerance since we cannot appreciate and work to eliminate an alien culture at the exact same time. I assume that the organizers of the 2014 Asian Games are knowledgeable of multiculturalism, tolerance, and diversity. Indeed the motto of those games was “Diversity Shines Here”. Yet, to paraphrase Inigo Montoya, I do not think diversity means what they think it means. The Qatari women’s basketball team was commanded to take off their white headscarves before play. They refused and walked off the court rather than violate their expressions of Islam. The officials at the games did not relent in their request. Evidently, diversity is valuable as long as that diversity conforms to the cultural mandates of those officials.
I am not defending white headscarves out of an admiration of this custom. This is a custom that has been criticized as sexist and demeaning to women. I am partial to that criticism. But I also recognize that my criticism of the headscarf is shaped to some degree by the cultural assumptions that have developed in the United States. While I am free to offer my own criticism of the use of the headscarf, it is arrogant to ignore the cultural context of that objection. While I, as an American, perceive the scarf as a manifestation of the exploitation of women in an Islamic context, Muslims may envision the sexualization of women in American media as an example of exploitation of women in an American context. I consider myself to be right but the women of Qatari should be perfectly free to disagree with me and choose to wear their headscarf. As long as they are not being forced to wear the scarf, my objections should not be used to compel them to ditch the scarf.
My defense of the Qatari women is also not motivated by some great love for Islam. I am a Christian. On issues of theology, I disagree with the Muslim. This does not mean that I hate Muslims, but I believe them to be wrong as many of them believe me to be wrong. Even though I disagree with them, I respect their right to practice their religion as they see fit as long as they are not directly harming someone else. I am free to feel that it is silly for the Qatari women to play with scarves. But it is still their right to do so if it is their way of expressing their religion. They are not harming me. If I do not want to see it, I can choose to attend a different event.
Multiculturalism, tolerance, and diversity are supposed to be conceptual ways we learn how to respect one another. In theory these concepts are not about whether we agree with those in our out-groups but rather our willingness to understand them in the context of the culture of others. Therefore, despite my theological and cultural disagreements with the Qatari women, I should attempt to understand why they may engage in a practice that I may not like. At the very least, I should not attempt to officially impose my cultural norms on them if they want to participate in an athletic contest. It seems to me that many people like to talk a good game when it comes to issues of tolerance, diversity and multiculturalism. However, when it comes to a time when the rubber must meet the road and they are dealing with a group with whom they strongly disagree, then they are not willing to extend the same level of kindness and openness they want for themselves.
In my book, Compromising Scholarship, I discussed the idea of tolerance – a critical component of multiculturalism. In my conceptualization of tolerance, we do not test this quality unless it is with a group where our disagreement is quite dramatic. The tolerance of a Baptist is untested if we are looking at his/her acceptance of a Methodist. It may be a little more tested if asking about a Catholic and definitely is tested if asked about an atheist. Tolerating someone we basically agree with does not tell us much. So if we are going to test tolerance, we have to find out what a person believes and then we can see how willing he or she is to tolerate those who’s beliefs are dramatically different. Tolerance of those who have dramatically different cultural and epistemological ideals is essential in a society where diversity and multiculturalism are core values.
However, the way we often talk about tolerance is the acceptance of certain cultural values or practices. For example, authoritarian attitudes can be conceptualized as the opposite of the tolerance needed for a successful multicultural society. Authoritarian attitudes denote a desire to use official sanctions to inhibit behaviors and attitudes deemed to be deviant. Yet, the way scales of right-wing authoritarianism are set up tests the willingness of respondents to accept atheists, homosexuals and feminists. One of my criticisms of the right-wing authoritarian scale is that it really a test for accepting the type of groups political and social conservatives are more likely to reject. Consequently, it does not test the ability of progressives to accept their out-groups. As long as we conceptualize tolerance as the acceptance of progressive groups or ideologies, we will not be able to measure tolerance and thus be unable to see if we have the attitudes that make a multicultural society possible.
Yet, there are groups we should reject and do not have to accommodate. It is reasonable that a group like the KKK does not have a place even in a multicultural society. The core goal of the group is the oppression of minority racial groups. It is a goal clearly incompatible with the ideals of a multicultural society. But the temptation is to easily envision those who are our out-groups as unacceptable when that is indeed not the case. In this situation, the officials at the Asian games put the Qatari women in the same place as the KKK as it concerns their scarf. The scarf was conceptualized as unacceptable in a setting that emphasizes “diversity.” Despite my own personal disagreements with the use of the headscarf, I have to ask why the officials accepted such an interpretation. The scarf did not hurt anyone but possibly the Qatari women in the game, and it allowed them to express their religion. It does not oppress others but merely helps the women set boundaries for their cultural behaviors. This is not a core issue that should have made those women’s cultural practices unacceptable in a multicultural society.
There is an argument that the scarves are a symbol of sexism and so should not be allowed in a multinational event. It has become more common for accusations of sexism, racism, homophobia etc. to be used to stigmatize out-groups. The challenge of those who want a legitimate multicultural society is to work to recognize when the use of accusations is due to a real concern of core values that eliminate the participation of others in our society or if those accusations are used in a McCarthy-like manner to make those we disagree with invisible. Officials of the Asian Games made a decision that made the religious expressions of the Qatari women invisible. It was an unnecessary decision since these women were not requiring other countries to wear scarves. They were not exhibiting core values incompatible with a multicultural society. They just wanted their piece of that society to be infused with their own cultural values. The fact that I find elements of their cultural expressions sexist does not give me the right to take overt measures to make their culture invisible. My interpretation does not rule the day for those in other cultures. Neither should the interpretation of the official of the Asian Games be the last word.
In my experience, usually what is worth having is very difficult to obtain. I believe that a true multicultural society is worth having. It is definitely going to be difficult to obtain. To obtain it, we will have to learn to deal with our own judgmental attitudes and propensity to stigmatize those with whom we disagree. This works against our own natural impulses, which is to defend our own ideas and disregard the perspectives of others. In my conceptualization of a multicultural society, there are passionate disagreements between different groups about our cultural, religious, and social values. But we learn to allow those with contrasting ideas to live out those cultural values as long as they are not attempting to overtly eliminate other groups in society. Some social groups will disappear over time as people move away from those groups. Discussion and debate that may facilitate such movement is fine since freedom of speech is one of our country’s conceptual treasures. But it is wrong to attempt to officially eliminate an out-group for ideological heresy. That is my dream of what a multicultural society would look like. Unfortunately, actions like those of the officials at the Asian Games make such a dream less, instead of more, likely to take place.