Flourishing in the Footsteps of MLK: How to Develop a Healthy Relationship with Cultural Diversity – part 1

The MLK Jr. holiday is an opportune time to reflect on a crucial question of our time:  How can a pluralistic society flourish?  By pluralistic, I mean a situation in which there is not one dominate religious system or worldview paradigm that unifies society, but a diversity not only of ethnicity, but of religious and philosophical view points.

One of the official objectives of my theory of knowledge course is to “encourage an interest in the diversity of ways of thinking and ways of living of individuals and communities, and an awareness of personal and ideological assumptions, including participants’ own.”  Recently, I asked my students to reflect on how achieving the course objectives would help them live lives of truth.  A few of them chose this one, so we had a class discussion about how to have a healthy relationship with diversity.

We identified two extremes to avoid.  One is a bigoted, close-mindedness that regards one’s sub-culture as morally supreme to all others and as having exclusive rights to the Truth.  We might call this cultural imperialismThe other is a fickle, open-mindedness that regards all sub-cultures as equal to each other with none having more understanding of the Truth than any other, and is characterized by a discomfited hesitancy to make any kind of definitive judgments of other cultures.  We might call this cultural relativism

The mindset of cultural imperialism is what MLK battled against courageously in the civil rights movement.  The ground he stood on in this battle, intellectually and morally, was not the relativist view that because Truth does not exist, or is not knowable, we just need to tolerate every other view as different but equal from our own.  Rather, he protested on the basis universal moral law by which one can judge other cultures as just or unjust, including the oppressive white American culture he was seeking to reform.  In his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King defends the practice of nonviolent civil disobedience to promote political and social change.  Central to his defense is his distinction between just and unjust laws:

One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.

Note his deep conviction that real moral law exists and is knowable.  All cultures stand under this moral law.  The racist beliefs and discriminatory laws of white American culture were not just different from his own, but were really unjust and thus ought to change.  The problem with cultural relativism is that it inhibits us from making confident moral judgments which are necessary to sustain an orderly, just and prosperous society.  This problem is illustrated dramatically by Chuck Colson in a recent story about an ethics lesson taught by a high school philosophy teacher, Dr. Stephen Anderson, in Canada:

To jump start the discussion and to “form a baseline from which they could begin to ask questions about the legitimacy of moral judgments of all kinds,” Anderson shared with them a gruesome photo of Bibi Aisha, a teenage wife of a Taliban fighter in Afghanistan. When Bibi tried to get away from her abusive husband, her family caught her, cut off her nose and ears, and left her to die in the mountains. Only Bibi didn’t die. Somehow she crawled to her grandfather’s house, and was saved in an American hospital.

Writing in Education Journal magazine, Anderson relates how he was sure that his students, “seeing the suffering of this poor girl of their own age, [they] would have a clear ethical reaction,” one [from which] they could talk about “more difficult cases.”

But their response shocked Anderson. He “expected strong aversion [to it],…but that’s not what [he] got. Instead, they became confused…afraid to make any moral judgment at all. They were unwilling to criticize,” as he said, “any situation originating in a different culture. They said, ‘Well, we might not like it, but maybe over there it’s okay.’”

Anderson calls their confusion and refusal to judge such child mutilation a moment of startling clarity, and indeed it is. He wonders if it stems not from too little education, but from too much multiculturalism and so-called “values education,” which is really just an excuse for moral relativism.

Anderson writes, “While we may hope some [students] are capable of bridging the gap between principled morality and this ethically vacuous relativism, it is evident that a good many are not. For them, the overriding message is ‘never judge, never criticize, never take a position.’” Anderson wonders whether in our current educational system, we’re not producing ethical paralytics?

The solution to bigoted, oppressive cultural imperialism is not cultural relativism, for such a system is not only self-contradictory (for judging those who judge) but cannot produce people with the kind of moral backbone, like MLK, necessary to confront injustice in the world and make the sacrifices necessary to create a more just society.  A better solution lies in a transformed view of truth and knowledge that both recognizes the existence of the real and the need for multiple cultures to work together in order to fully understand the real.  I will lay out such a view in my next post.

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