My CentreTerm class officially ends tomorrow. (Sniff, sniff.) Our last unit of the course was an examination of the competing political ideologies of classical liberalism and multiculturalism. Classical liberals argue that treating people equally means treating everyone the same, irrespective of their individual characteristics or group differences. To do otherwise would be unfair. In contrast, multiculturalism argues that group differences must be taken into account in determining how the law should apply and affect different people in different situations. To multiculturalists, equality means an equal respect and reasonable accommodation of differences based on identity and culture.
We watched two episodes of Star Trek and the original X-Men movie. In each, the characters have grapple with difficult choices involving trade-offs between universal rights and individual circumstances and cultures. For example, the Star Trek episodes we watched involved situations where the crew of the Enterprise encounters individuals being kept in oppressive slave-like conditions, but where it’s perfectly acceptable according to the culture of the alien species. Should the Starfleet officers free the oppressed on grounds of universal rights, or respect cultural rights and differences? Captain Kirk of the 1960s sided with the former, Captain Archer of the 2000s sided with the latter. This is an interesting example of how our political sympathies have shifted over the last several decades here in the United States.
For the most part, my students tended to side with the multicultural argument when it came to the situations in the fictional universe. However, they also tended to side with the classical liberal argument when it came to things in the “real world”. For example, in the 1990s an Iraqi refugee couple in Nebraska was placed in custody because they arranged a marriage for their 13- and 14-year-old daughters to men in their 30s. That was against the law in the U.S., but perfectly normal in the conservative Muslim community that they came from. By an overwhelming majority, my students sided against the parents on the grounds that too young is too young, regardless of your culture, and that they should have to obey U.S. law if they were choosing to live in the United States.
I wonder if that says something about our political culture when we’re more willing to embrace multiculturalism in the abstract, but less willing to endorse it when it comes to “real world” situations.