It seems that the focus on cultural differences as opposed to similarities is part of a bias in multiculturalist rhetoric which is rarely questioned because of the implied or assumed anti-racism embedded in the concept. Anti-racism is obviously a very important element – perhaps the most important element – in peace education. Consequently, multiculturalism seems almost intuitively good and difficult to criticise.
I have been exposed to some discourses that challenge the concept of multiculturalism and propose interculturalism and transculturalism instead. The critique of multiculturalism points to the lack of discourse between cultures; the juxtaposition of differences (individualism versus collectivism, monotheism versus polytheism); the exposure to only superficial symbols or signs of cultures (food, clothing) which do not delve into modes of thinking (political or religious ideologies or philosophies); the lack of co-creation and synthesis of ideas which could result from meaningful dialogue instead of a superficial focus on symbols (i.e. “us” and “them” instead of “together”; East versus West instead of métissage, créolisation, new identities). There is also a risk of essentialising cultural identities and affirming stereotypes (people from country X are like this/think like this versus people from the same country having various identities and ideas). It seems that interculturalism might move the focus towards dialogue and cooperation. Transculturalism appears to be an exciting opportunity for co-creation where individuals from a variety of cultures and multiple identities can interact and build something new.
I was moved by the following except in Vrasidas and Zembylas’ article:
“Ironically, the unavoidable degree of veiling of one’s identity in online interactions ‘may also foster and encourage a more vivid disclosure’ (Blake, 2000: 191). This interplay between ‘disclosure’ and ‘veiling’ suggests an ‘online nomadism’ that subverts essentialist descriptions of cultural identities” (Zembylas and Vrasidas, in press)” (Vrasidas & Zembylas, 2003, p.284).
Online learners or participants in an e-community can choose how much information to disclose. In a multiculturalist discourse which emphasises only difference and not a common humanity, it can be frustrating for those who are always perceived according to external signs or symbols of their identity. This emphasis on difference can have positive effects of exposure and offer a glimpse into different views but if the attempts of inclusiveness focus primarily on the symbol of difference (which can be superficial), such as a garment, pigmentation, accent, physical disability, gender, stereotyped signs of alternative gender or orientation, etc., the focus on this difference can obstruct what the community member is trying to communicate. In fact, the community member’s very identity can be confused and confounded for the external sign which becomes an artificial signifier for what is incorrectly being signified. For example, many of my Iranian friends are atheists and gay but as soon as people find out they are Iranian they are sometimes assumed to be Muslim. In some cases, they were perceived to have traditional views of gender and sexuality. I was stunned to hear other community members’ assumptions about one of my friends (“I don’t want to talk to F– about religion and women because I know we won’t agree”). Another one of my best friends is from Egypt. The focus on her hijab and then removal of hijab led to assumptions about her sexuality and gender relations (on the one hand, assumptions that she was sexually conservative, and on the other hand, that she was sexually permissive and not a virgin). These are examples in which the superficial focus on difference frustrates communication. My friend who is Egyptian eventually came to experiment with her online identity. She posted a photo of herself wearing hijab and holding a wine glass with the caption: “Trust me, women who wear hijab do drink.” She also blogs about sexuality but does so anonymously. My friend who is Iranian has encountered essentialising stereotypes in online dating on the part of a few men who could not perceive dating an Iranian man.
I like the idea of online nomadism proposed by the authors. The individual can choose how much information to disclose. The individual can avoid being essentialised according to cultural stereotypes but can also choose to express deep cultural ideas which are not rooted in superficial signs or symbols but might be reflective of original thought.
Vrasidas & Zembylas. “The nature of technology-mediated interaction in global distance education.” International Journal of Training and development 7:4. pp. 271-286.