Sunday, February 28, 2010

Gallimaufry Station: A Take on Multi-Culturalism

Note: I started this post back in November, so some of the ideas are kind of dated.

Lately, I've been considering what "multi-culturalism" means, whether it's in fiction or in everyday life. I find that whenever discussions of multiculturalism comes up, it's very much like talking about racism, in the "we shouldn't discriminate against each other on the basis of culture! We should be free to share what we have, no matter what!" sort of way that erases actual concerns about the concept.

It was only while reading Buck Godot, Zap Gun for Hire, by Phil Foglio that I started to put my finger on why I'm starting to really doubt whether it actually exists in real life, and why, in discussions about multiculturalism around people who aren't really knowledgeable about issues surrounding race and privilege, I always find myself uneasy, despite their good intentions. (Aside, you know, from believing that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions and all...)

There is a setting in Buck Godot, called Gallimaufry station, and I'll let its description speak for itself:
The Gallimaufry is only one of a number of trading and communication foci maintained by the Prime Movers. There are almost a hundred such within our galaxy alone.

What makes it rather confusing at first is that these organizations do not have any fixed boundaries and, indeed, there are some trading centers that have dozens of separate trading centers nestled deep within their sphere of influence.

When discussing matters of race, the concept "colourblind" comes up a great deal - a concept where people ignore the racial identity of others. It's a nice concept in theory, but in practical application, leads to aversive racism, micro aggressions, and other such ill effects. We'll also put aside the fact that when you ignore someone's race, you are possibly ignoring a huge part of their identity.

When discussing multiculturalism, though, a similar theme emerges, and it runs like this - "people shouldn't be possessive of their cultural items." "After all, cultural exchanges happen all the time." "Complaining about cultural appropriation is just resisting the inevitable." And with the implied, "I don't like it when I catch shit for  wearing / using  / doing something that doesn't belong to my culture." Add a large dose of "but XYZ cultural item is so cool, it should be spread around and used by everybody!" Which culminates in an air of "I don't care what you, minority individual who is still systemically disadvantaged, think about the usage of these cultural makers."

 Firstly, we need to analyze the concept, and to begin, we must ask, "what constitutes a culture?"


Now, I'm no cultural critic / theorist / anthropologist / sociologist, just a blogger who reads too little of too much. Your opinions on what culture constitutes may vary, depending on your understanding of it and your own cultural context. Mine is that of Malaysia, which is purportedly multi-cultural, and it's got enough angst issues for it to show. Feel free to debate.

The term "culture" is, as with the concepts of race and gender, a construct. Unlike race and gender, it doesn't necessarily have a biological basis, but it can. For example, the Chinese and Japanese cultures, similar in many ways, yet different, do not have a biological basis. There's a geographical basis for the similarities, historical basis for the differences, maybe.

Now, there are cultures which have grown in response to a movement, such as Deaf Culture. I'm not knowledgeable enough to speak about this, but I imagine this would be an example of a culture that has grown out of a biological basis.

No matter the basis, cultures have a function: to bring communities together. On an abstract level, cultures provide rules, value systems, ethical guidelines for the community to adhere to so that it remains a cohesive whole within which its members find solidarity. On another level, cultures have rituals, traditions, sacred days. These bring people together as well, and also serve the purpose of delineating a hierarchy of sorts within the society.

On a concrete level, a culture is manifested in practices, language, clothing, architecture, designs - all of which provide clues as to its origins. If I walk down the street and I hear someone speaking Malay or Chinese, there is a chance that we both belong to / originate from the same community.

Cultures are not solid, unchanging things. They are not stable in meaning or form. They are constantly in flux, reacting to changes in environment, societal values, so on, so forth. The concept of culture permeates us all - none of us grow up in a cultural vacuum; to do so is to grow up lacking social skills needed to survive. At the same time, culture permeating us all means we internalize messages that may conflict with values not our own.

Do we grok so far? Yes? No? It's okay if you don't, 'cos I ain't an expert either.

What's a Multicultural Space?

Looking at the term "multiculturalism," the basis of the term, really, is [multiple] + [culture].

Technically, this means, that within a given geographical region, there will be groups of people. Each group will have cultural markers which identify them as different. Distinct from others. Part of a specific cultural group. Theoretically, this could happen, except you know, Fear of the Unknown and Hatred of the Other, which means most of us are pre-disposed to thinking that our own group is So Much Better than the Other's, and either try to nullify, subjugate, or annihilate the other cultures.

These days, it's not so overt - instead, we take the cultural markers of the Other and trivialize them, turning them into capitalist ventures, into consumer products and services that we can sell. (I know some of you are going to bring up the discussion on "but those folks do that in their own countries!" so here you go, a discussion which touches on that, have fun.) This quote about the open-house policy of Gallimaufry embassies quite nicely delineates the problem with the theory that if we all just shared stuff, we'd get along:
The theory is that through an informal 'getting to know each other' process, bonds of acceptance, tolerance and friendship will result despite 'official' policy. And a lovely theory it is.

The wise tourist, however, will keep in mind that there have been numerous wars caused by flash photography, littering, attempting to take ambassadors home as souvenirs, and "excessive breathing of our air" - Fleetztrow's Guide to the Gallimaufry 
Most of us don't live in multi-cultural spaces - what we get are spaces where there's a dominant culture, with little pockets of other cultures. We like to think we live in multi-cultural spaces because it gives us an air of cosmopolitanism. But as I said, in reality, we live in mono-cultural spaces that shunts minority spaces into, at worst, ghettos or, at best, tourist spaces. Think "the projects" versus "Chinatown".Why are these spaces separate from general spaces? Why are they specific?

Like the issue of race, most of us are blind to the fact that despite bad experiences, some of us are more privileged than others. (Please do not make the mistake of conflating "privilege" with "luxury". Privilege means that between myself and, say, a poor person taking a test, I am likely to be better off, because my middle-class background affords me the means to study for this test.)

When most people imagine multiculturalism, they're usually imagining a space where the exchange of cultural markers is easy and free, done without censure. (Oddly enough, most of them tend to be the same people who really dislike the idea of communism/socialism.) Because (as with the communist/socialist ideology) most people tend to imagine multiculturalism as a melting pot where everyone is free to mix with each other and general identifiers are stripped, re-distributing cultural artefacts, no matter which shelf or jar you're from.

This isn't multiculturalism. Mixed long enough, everyone becomes the same flavour. That's homogenization.

Here's some more info on Gallimaufry Station, which is quite resonant with our topic here.
This paradox is resolved when we remember that these are primarily organizations dedicated to promoting communications, and the vast majority of sentients cannot directly communicate with each other. Some species operate on different time lines, or are out of phase with the four dimensions we can perceive, are too small or too large or, if they had to acknowledge us, they would have to kill us. So even when an atomic matrix life form that feeds off the microwave hum left over from the Big Bang and excretes time lines is in the same solar system with your typical silicon-based life form that eats rocks and excretes hydrogen, communication between the two may be close to impossible.
We are all different peoples. Different is not bad. Sameness isn't bad either. There's nothing wrong with separate groups. Nor is there anything wrong with separate individuality.

What's wrong is when we don't realize the inequalities between these different groups, and presume a sameness which does not exist. What is awkward is when you try to treat me the exact same as you would another person, without acknowledging that I might find your approach offensive or hurtful. Or, when I ask you to acknowledge it, you get defensive and say, "my XYZ friend wouldn't have minded" - I'm not your XYZ friend.

My God, you people might say. How can these people co-exist?
Luckily it's not really a problem, because they usually don't have anything to talk about. Or so it appears, right up until said atomic matrix life form begins a simple operation to make the local sun go nova in order to harvest neutrinos and, to their surprise, are vigorously opposed by those gritty little creatures clinging to the orbiting rocks who have had to start throwing anti-matter around to get their attention. Things usually deteriorate from there. Thus one of the most important functions of the Prime Movers is to coordinate operations between these various races.

This helps prevent unscheduled supernovas, black holes, inversions, atomic shift rifts, shiftspace collapse, chrono-synclastic infundibula and quasars.
We can't have a completely mixed boiling pot, or even a nice salad of leafy veggies with tomatoes, avocadoes, and anything else you feel like having in a salad, or, in my case, yee sang, for a simple reason: people and the items which we give significance to as identity markers aren't the least bit comparable to leafy vegetables and other such ingredients. We're not vegetables and we're not unmoving, unthinking ingredients in a pot - we're people, with minds that can grow and chance and learn and, unfortunately, pass judgement.

Station Gallimaufry is fortunate in that it has an active moderator in the form of the omnipotent Prime Movers, who are there to make sure things don't get completely out of hand. We don't have that luxury.

But why do we insist, then, on these spaces where we live with the Other?
Happily, most races realize that since there are more of "Them" throwing ideas around than there are of "Us", you tend to get more out of it than you brought into it. This is a universal concept that appeals to everybody.
This is an ideal. Technically, this is true. We are stronger and more creative when we have more people involved in discussion. That's why exclusion is so bad - we miss out on different perspectives that could offer us better solutions when we exclude people who are different. And that is why inclusionary language is so important, because it promotes multiple sets of people and communities to become part of the conversation.

It's a little ironic I'm synthesizing this idea from inspiration in a comic where the main character is a white man, and a setting which relies heavily on aliens as Other (although there is a nice mix of humans too), but this is what optimism and idea-sharing is all about.

I don't actually know how to end this post, so I'm just going to stop here with a recommendation to read Buck Godot, which has its problems, but is still a pretty fun read if you have nothing else to do on a lazy afternoon.

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