When Multi-Culturalism and Individual Rights Collide

I have always been amazed that so many civil libertarians have embraced multi-culturalism.  To be a good civil libertarian, you have to be willing to defend a certain set of principles about individual rights ruthlessly against all intrusion.  But to be a multi-culturalist, you have to be willing to accept values and behaviors that are wildly out of sync with western liberalism as equally "OK".  These two never seemed reconcilable to me -- civil libertarians pursue moral absolutes, while multi-culturalism preaches that there are no absolutes.

Those on the left who have tried to embrace both civil liberties and multi-culturalism have sometimes had to bend themselves into pretzels to try to reconcile these beliefs.  Today we have the unbelievable spectacle of the same people accusing the US of becoming a theocracy because it is slow to embrace gay marriage at the same time defending radical Muslim groups who would kill gays on sight.  We can watch people go ballistic decrying naked human pyramids as "torture" but still defend Saddam and his Baathists as freedom fighters despite the hundreds of thousands they put into mass graves.  And we can observe that the same people who are trying to invalidate judge candidates because they went to prayer breakfasts are calling flushing a Koran down the toilet "torture".

I suspect, though, that the highly illiberal teachings of the Muslim religion may finally be forcing the left to recognize the incompatibilities of their civil libertarianism and their belief in cultural moral equivalence.  This is the theme of a great new piece by Cathy Young in Reason:

The tension between two pillars of the modern left"”multiculturalism and
progressive views on gender"”is not new. It has been particularly thorny
in many European countries where, in lieu of an American-style "melting pot"
approach, immigrants have been traditionally encouraged to maintain their
distinct values and ways. Recently, however, these tensions have started to
come out into the open. According to a
March article
in the German magazine, Der Spiegel, the murder of Dutch filmmaker
Theo Van Gogh by an Islamic extremist last November after he had made a
documentary about the oppression of Muslim women "galvanized the Netherlands
and sent shock waves across Europe."...

Misogyny and gay-bashing"”religiously motivated or not"”still exist
in Western societies as well, though at least they are widely condemned by
the mainstream culture. We should be able to say, loud and clear, that the
modern values of individual rights, equality, and tolerance are
better"”and just say no to multiculturalist excuses for bigotry.

Some good news on this topic, Kuwait has extended women the right to vote.

  • Mark Horn

    It's not immediately obvious to me why multi-culturalism conflicts with civil libertarianism. Maybe it's because when I think of the term "multi-cultural" I think of being able to pick and choose aspects of other cultures that appeal to me. But where they conflict with an absolute that I believe in, I reject that aspect of the culture. Here's an example: I love Indian food. But just because I do, doesn't mean that I like the caste system. I don't know what kind of food is produced by the theocratic culture of Iran, but I'd be willing to try it even if I believe that the treatment of Iranian women is oppresive and wrong. The distinction is this: absolutes trump customs. But where there's no absolute then there's nothing wrong with customs or tastes or other tame aspects of other cultures.

    Am I looking at this wrong?