Tribes, Tribulations, and Self-Evident Truths
Julie Ann Kessler
October 1, 1991
It was a typical college scene: a group of students gathered in the lobby of a dorm talking. There wasn’t anything especially different about the banter except the addition of a new member to the group. The new student had just recently arrived from South Korea and so, naturally, much of the discussion centered around him and his country. "What about the United States, above all else, has left the greatest impression upon you?" I asked him when it was my turn to keep discussion flowing. He stopped for a moment and stared at me, but it was not an empty or questioning stare. I could tell that this was a question he had thought about extensively, and one that he was prepared to answer. Perhaps his stare originated in surprise. Possibly he was simply surprised to have some actually ask him what he thought. Maybe he expected me to ask him about Korean art or cuisine, or other aspects of Korean "culture." At any rate, after a deep breath he began: "In my country," he said, "everybody same. All look same, talk same, do same. It is homogeneous. Here," he went on, "everybody different. Not homogeneous. I don’t understand; how do you live together? But I think this is good. I like this country very much. " [emphasis added]
Needless to say, though I had anticipated an answer akin to this, I was at a loss for words. "I like it too," I finally said, "very much." Later, however, in a more composed and less public setting he was more straightforward. "How," he demanded, did we Americans live together? I guess, at the time, I just didn’t realize the fundamental nature of the conversation, because I just looked at him and replied in my "this is too easy to be a serious question" tone, "Because all men are created equal." He looked dissatisfied, even puzzled, and it was only then that I realized what I was confronted with. This was the ground upon which we would truly meet; not as a "Korean" and a "God-knows-what"-American, but rather, as men; as two equal human beings. And, as men, we had the following conversation:
"You mean all rich men equal to other rich men?"
"No," I said, "I mean all men are equal."
"You mean all white…"
"No," I interrupted, "all men."
"You mean all Americans…"
"No," I stopped him here. "All men are created equal. That is what we believe. This is why anyone can be an American, no matter where he is born."
"All men are created equal?" he asked.
"Yes," I said. "I think this is good."
"Yes," he said, "this is good."
Though the smile on my face was approaching my ears, and the tears swelling up in my eyes were threatening to spill over at any given moment, I somehow managed to get out these few words, (feeble after what has transpired), "I think so too, Lee."
As the night progressed, I learned a great deal about Korean culture, politics, and religion. These were things that I had not known before and it was certainly interesting to learn them. Similarly, he learned about Disneyland, apple pie and all of the things that tend to characterize the life of a typical American. Yet, while all of this was interesting, it was certainly not on the same level as our previous conversation. It was polite dinner conversation, the kind we all experience upon meeting someone new. And while there were interesting differences displayed in our two cultures, we understood that they do not define one’s humanity; they don’t determine one’s identity.
The thing that did define the identity of my guest was his last statement. "I," he said, "think this is good." I, as a man, think. That is what is important. Yet, when looking at American behavior over the past several years, and especially the behavior manifested on America’s college and university campuses, one would be hard-pressed if he had to prove that Americans really do believe this; the only truth that can hold them together as a nation and the only truth that gives that living together worth.
We are besieged with calls for a more "Multicultural" approach to learning and life. Americans are supposed, according to this view, to be "sensitive" to the many different cultures that surround them. Underlying these calls to sensitivity, however, is an assumption that Western culture is evil, and has, by caveat and coercion, oppressed all other cultures and made them feel inferior. Thus, all people who belong to these oppressed cultures, whether they realize it or not, have a low self-esteem. It is therefore the task of "Multiculturalism" to expose the evils of Western Culture, summarily discredit it, and by empowering disadvantaged and oppressed cultures and holding them to their own standards (whatever those might be) allow the members to thereby gain in that ever-important self-esteem. Their actions should be judged according to their culture, not their human duty. All of this has its own obvious and evil implications for a civil society. It threatens to bring every issue down to the level of a relativistic tribalism. But perhaps even more invidious than the idea of cultural/tribal rule is the current understanding in American culture.
Membership in a "culture" is not determined by the factors that one might expect it to be. In America, it has very little to do with where one is born or raised. It has very little to do with customs, traditions, or language. Membership in a culture might be granted to/imposed upon someone simply because of his race, sex, or ethnicity; and the characteristics of the culture club to which he is now a part are determined not by his own actions, but by the so-called "leadership" of that "community." The individual is defined only in terms of his group and his only rights exist not by nature, but because of whatever level of power that particular group is able to take. Similarly, power is obtained not in the name of Justice – for Justice is relative to one’s culture – rather, power is got in the name of Desire. All members of the culture, in order to be "authentic," must voice the rhetoric determined by the leadership. Thus we have seen all sorts of people, from undergraduates to Supreme Court nominees, decried for "looking black, but thinking white."
"Thinking white." What exactly does it mean for one to think white? Or for that matter, to think black? Upon a closer examination one sees that what is really meant by saying that someone "thinks white" is a condemnation of the individual in question for not following the established rhetoric and "ideas" of his so-called culture. Upon an even closer examination, of not only the intention of such charges, but also the implications of such, dare I call it "logic," are the following: my conversation with the student from South Korea meant nothing. We are two incompatible things, he and I. There can be no possibility for discourse or thought between us. The fact is, according to this way of looking at culture, I am an American white female, he is a Korean male. We are not capable of transcending these factors. All that we think or do or say is determined by these elements of our existence. In other words, we are not human beings, or rational thinking creatures with a free will; we are simply lumps of clay shaped by factors beyond our control.
Who does control these factors that shape our existence? The leaders of our culture of course! (Or, if one is unfortunate enough to attend a university or college that pays attention to this stuff, the curriculum committee!) Thus, we are through the media, through our laws, and in our very classrooms force fed these views on culture and we play no role in shaping them. All of this in a country whose very birth is the refutation of the importance of culture and the declaration to the world of the dignity of the human individual.
I do not mean to say that one can learn nothing from culture. Certainly one can. But there is a danger when one places an artificial importance on culture. It is a part of our existence, not its essence. So while there is obviously nothing wrong with learning about different customs and ways of doing things, it seems that when we get to the point where we have to divide academic departments along racial, ethnic or other insignificant lines and where most Americans feel the need to hyphenate their citizenship, we are in the midst of a serious flirtation with a most dangerous possibility.
In sum, there seems to be too much made of culture, ethnicity, and gender in today’s education and public life. Americans, quite foolishly, are giving more attention to those things which divide us than we are to those things that unite, and even elevate us. If we were living in a place like India, for example, where there are 15 different languages recognized and generations upon generations of hostile history between tribes with no universal principle of equality readily accessible, then and only then might such attempts at "Multiculturalism" be justified. But we are not living in a particular nation; a nation where truth has to be sacrificed in order to maintain peace. We are living in the universal nation; the only nation whose founding document pledges the "lives, fortunes, and sacred honor" of its Founders and future citizens to the principle that "All men are created equal." In other words, why should we search for "Multiculturalism" when we are living in a regime that is above culture? Our quest to apply "Multiculturalism" to our institutions of learning and in our public life is similar to the crusades of Don Quixote, with one important difference. When Don Quixote fought his "giants" there was little chance of him taking them down. If we keep up this exercise is self-destruction there is no guarantee that we won’t take down the "giant," only to discover that it was actually a very worthy windmill.
Julie Ann Kessler is a senior from Zanesville, Ohio, majoring in Political Science and minoring in History.