A strange thing happens when you say the word “culture.” It is like a confession, the telling of a deep dark secret. The minute I defend my culture as a culture, I have already taken a step back from it. I say “my culture teaches that…,” and it can be a whole range of teachings: my culture teaches that my accomplishments do honor to my ancestors. My culture teaches that God is a father who watches over us. My culture teaches that learning is the highest value. The confession implicit in all of these statements is that my culture is just that: a culture. It is not the divinely ordained order of things. It is not the unquestionable product of nature. It is a culture, something that has been made by people over a period of time. And just as human work turns out new forms and ideals, so culture will always change and adapt.
When we are safely ensconced in a culture we pay little attention to it as a culture. There are times and places where the clash of cultures is kept to a minimum. My mother, for example, who grew up in a uniformly Scots-Irish Protestant part of New Brunswick in the 1930s, never faced serious issues of culture until she came to Montreal (and lived on the fringes of the Montreal jazz world in the late 40s, a fact that never ceases to delight me). When the tension between our culture and the outside world is at its weakest, we barely perceive our own culture as anything but the basic background of everydayness. We spend little time worrying about the rightness and wrongness of our way of life. We even, to some extent, feel a certain ironic distance toward it (perhaps the attitude of those who attended Catholic school towards nuns is a model of this experience). We might call this attitude “ironic culturalism.” When I live in the ironic mode I may claim that I don’t believe a certain thing (say, that Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden), but I comport myself as if I do because others believe it, and so I believe for their benefit. For example, parents don’t believe in Santa Clause but they behave as if they do in order not to disappoint the children. The irony is that when the children stop believing, it is the parents who feel the loss most acutely. In the same way, less literalist Christians will claim not to believe that the entire human race was corrupted by a bad choice of fruits or that a man literally returned from the dead, but they will still participate in rituals based on these imagined events, and may even admire Christians of an earlier generation for their simpler beliefs. The paradox is that the admiration for those who “really believed” is itself a powerful form of belief. So distance from a culture is not the death knell of that culture, but its life blood.
In contrast to ironic culturalism, we see these days what we can call “aggressive culturalism.” This is the stridently proclaimed dogma that my culture is not a culture like others, but the only correct way to live, the only true way in relation to which all other cultures are perversions. Such a stance is, of course, what we have come to expect from fundamentalists, whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim. So we have two possible reactions to modernity’s inevitable collision of cultures: aggression or ironic distance. But at this point something counter-intuitive happens. Although it seems like the aggressive defender of culture is the true traditionalist, the true protector of the past “as it really was,” and that the ironic culturalist (and at this point you may have guessed that I mean “multiculturalist”) is the representative of the corrupt modern world, the opposite is in fact true. The one who angrily proclaims his culture as the true and only way to live, who identifies himself completely as a member of that culture, leaving no room for distance, is the quintessentially modern subject. He falls victim to distinctively modern problems: the undermining of a single set of beliefs by the multiplicity of belief systems, the paranoia that comes from the sense of being invaded by “foreigners,” the vertigo brought on by new sources of criticism and new possibilities of self-criticism. The angry fundamentalist who wants to preserve his culture untainted and unchanged at all costs can, in fact, only exist in the modern world.
The multiculturalist, on the other hand, is forced to live in the ironic mode. He knows that his culture is not the only one in the world. He sees others behaving in reasonable and moral ways — ways as reasonable and moral as his own — without the benefit of his particular culture. He will continue to follow his own cultural rituals, beliefs and practices, but with a kind of minimal distance from them. He can live his culture, in other words, without the need for militant belief. And this is exactly what makes the multiculturalist a traditionalist. The sign that a culture — any culture — is alive and thriving is that its members do not fear that it is fragile and threatened. They understand it simply as the way they live, but they also understand (with the benefit of irony) the unspoken rules of their own culture, the rules that tell them when rules can be broken, where the limits of authority are, and how to live with the unbelief of others. We truly live a culture, in other words, not when we hold it in a death grip, but when we conduct ourselves with a certain flexibility, critical distance and affectionate cynicism. This is the stance of the true traditionalist, the one who knows that his culture will only thrive by evolving, by not desperately grasping at outmoded forms of living. The multiculturalist, therefore, is the real traditionalist, the one who can embrace his culture without being swallowed whole by it, the one who understands that his tradition is most alive when it is most energetically reaching into the unknown future. He understands what may be the most important lesson of modern culture: that to believe truly we must never believe excessively.