Multiculturalism depends upon the explicitly stated desire to be together. This desire is the public face of the multicultural ideal. It says “Let’s talk to each other. You tell me about your way of doing things and I’ll tell you about mine. I’ll eat your cooking and you eat mine. I’ll do a dance on your holiday and you light a candle on mine.” Without this public proclamation of good will (and the proclamation must be not only public but ongoing; it doesn’t count unless it is proclaimed as a regular part of our public discourse) there could be no understanding between cultures, races, language groups, religious beliefs. We all know this.
What we may not know is that there is another side to this open invitation into our lives. There is another proclamation, not so public, but enacted in public every day by every one of us. That proclamation is “Leave me alone.” Just as we cannot live together unless we are open to being together, we can also not live together if we don’t know when to back off. Another name for this knowledge is “tact.”
Last month I had a tactless encounter, one that we have all had and handled with varying degrees of diplomacy. My doorbell rang and when I answered the door I was met with two very unwelcome things: an icy breeze and a religious enthusiast who felt obliged to share with me the knowledge that I was not living correctly. I informed him that, thank you, but I have also thought about these issues, have taught the Bible and have come to my own conclusions and to my own philosophy. In other words, “Thanks, but I don’t want to talk to you.” He then proceeded to inform me (while I was politely trying to close the door and wish him better luck at the next house, and trying to bear the blast of cold air chasing all the expensive heat from my apartment) that he was not talking about a “philosophy” (a word that he pronounced with a definite sneer) but a “belief.” I countered with “I’ll tell you what I don’t believe in. I don’t believe in aggressive proselytizing.” The last word stunned him long enough for me to close the door.
In my imagined version of the conversation I say this: “You think I am living my life in an incorrect manner. I believe that you are delusional. I believe your assumption that you have access to the mind of God is arrogant and in direct contradiction to your purported humility. I believe that your arrogance is a step away from a dangerous aggression, and I think that you are wasting your life and doing more harm than good. So we both believe that the other is wrong. But here is the difference between you and me: I don’t knock on your door to inform you that I believe you are wrong. I respect your privacy and your right to have this delusional belief.”
This encounter has brought home to me the need for tact in a society where we all live together. When I say that we practice this skill every day, I mean that we navigate our lives in the close- packed urban world knowing when to give each other space. We understand when not to make eye contact, when to ignore behavior, when it is appropriate to have those small limited exchanges that make modern life more agreeable. Mostly, we understand how not to make ourselves burdensome to others. So, far from decrying the alienation that is a part of the modern world, we should see in it our salvation.
The hard truth of multiculturalism is that we only embrace the easy parts. It is no real moral challenge for me as an agnostic to light a candle at midnight and listen to the Greek Orthodox priest announce the resurrection of Christ. It is easy to like world music. It is more than easy to love Singapore Noodles. Food, music, holidays: if these were the whole of multiculturalism, it would not create such passion. The uncomfortable part of a multicultural society is when we believe that others are living not just differently, but incorrectly. I believe that your culture does not show women respect. You believe that my culture shows no respect for proper authority. I believe that you are a slave to tradition. You believe that I don’t really care about my family. We can’t wholeheartedly embrace those aspects of the other that clash with our own sense of right and wrong. So what are we to do?
We already know the answer: leave each other alone. We know we won’t convert each other, so we will just have to ignore those parts of each other’s cultures that we can’t agree with. As in any socially awkward situation we will practice diplomacy, look the other way. The paradox of multiculturalism is that it is only possible where there is a unifying belief to which any culture can subscribe. Finding such a belief is next to impossible if we are looking for some particular proposition that we can all agree to. It is, however, much easier when the statement that we agree to is “None of us will break the law, but I’ll do what I do, and you do what you do.” It is only when we demonstrate this tact to each other that we can ever hope to gain the trust that would allow us to ask questions of each other, challenge, debate. But we must learn to do so not by knocking on a closed door but by having the skill not to go where we are not invited.