A high priority at colleges and universities across the country is promoting awareness of and tolerance for cultural diversity. Students and faculty are urged to learn and teach about non-Western cultures and to show respect for all of the world’s cultures. Jokes, stereotypes, or derogatory language aimed at any culture are strongly discouraged and even punished. The goal is to create an atmosphere of civility and respect and to promote understanding in our diverse and interconnected world. At a school like Saint Anselm, there is a religious motivation behind these efforts as well. The Christian gospel of love requires that we treat others as we would like to be treated, that we love our neighbor as ourselves. And as Jesus makes clear in the Gospels, everyone on earth is our neighbor.
We should all welcome these reminders of the duty to treat others with respect and charity. And yet it is also important to resist and preempt mistaken interpretations of multiculturalism and its associated virtues (tolerance, respect, charity). Some people seem to think that tolerance for cultural diversity requires denying that any culture or religion is superior to others in any way. Cultural relativists assert that one can make moral judgments only from the standpoint of one’s own culture and that one must therefore never make moral evaluations of cultures other than one’s own. Such evaluations, when negative, will often be criticized as manifestations of pernicious biases or of imperialistic designs on other lands (“demonizing the non-Western Other”).
The problem with cultural relativism is that it undermines the very case for tolerance that it wishes to strengthen. Charity and respect are moral values, after all, and if one must not “impose” one’s moral values on other cultures, then one has no grounds for condemning intolerance and imperialism when these are sanctioned by custom in other countries. To condemn oppression of religious or ethnic minorities or of women in foreign lands, for instance, is not to engage in intolerant or “imperialistic” thinking. It is, rather, to follow the logical implications of the very moral principles that lead us to condemn such practices in our own culture. Taking morality seriously means recognizing that it is more than just a set of arbitrary cultural prejudices. If the gospel of Christian love is a mere cultural prejudice, then we would be very foolish indeed to make any serious sacrifices in order to abide by it, let alone be martyred for it.
A further point is that educational institutions are devoted to the pursuit of truth. Following evidence and logic wherever they might lead is central to what teachers and students do. Pursuing the truth about culture, religion, or morality can lead one to conclusions that might make others (including the Other) uncomfortable, or even angry. Pursuing understanding (in the sense of knowledge) might undermine understanding (in the sense of sympathy or cordial relations with others). As we seek to promote understanding in the latter sense, it is important for us to remind ourselves that sometimes understanding in the former sense is the more fundamental value at an institution devoted to the pursuit of knowledge.