Philip Carl SalzmanLike disciplined anarchy, monogamy with multiple spouses and promiscuous chastity, multiculturalism is an incoherent and self-contradictory idea. So is Canada’s multiculturalism in a bilingual society.

Culture is the way of life of a people. In the 19th and 20th century, culture was the central concept of anthropology, a tool to guide the study and understanding of peoples and their diverse societies.

Edward Tylor, in Primitive Culture (1870), defined culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”

The great lesson of modern anthropology, learned through first-hand ethnographic fieldwork among peoples all around the world, is that the various parts of social life and culture are interrelated and largely compatible.

The great lesson of comparative anthropology is that the many peoples around the world have social arrangements and belief systems highly divergent from one another, based on totally different principles and played out in totally different ways.

Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture (1934) and Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) offer striking comparisons of remarkably distinct cultures.

Benedict wrote: “In culture too we must imagine a great arc on which are ranged the possible interests provided either by the human age-cycle or by the environment or by man’s various activities. … Its identity as a culture depends upon the selection of some segments of this arc. Every human society everywhere has made such selection in its cultural institutions. Each from the point of view of another ignores fundamentals and exploits irrelevancies. One culture hardly recognizes monetary values; another has made them fundamental in every field of behaviour. In one society technology is unbelievably slighted even in those aspects of life which seem necessary to insure survival; in another, equally simple, technological achievements are complex and fitted with admirably nicety to the situation. One builds an enormous cultural superstructure upon adolescence, one upon death, one upon after-life.”

The three peoples I lived with and studied, although selected for the common feature of raising livestock on natural pasture, were markedly different. The Yarahmadzai Baluch of Iranian Balochistan were a tribal people; egalitarian and decentralized, they organized through kin groups large and small, each balanced in opposition to its neighbour. The Reika of Rajasthan, India, were clean caste members of the hierarchical caste system, in a society traditionally ruled by maharajas. The fragmented families of shepherds of highland Sardinia were peasants by virtue of being encapsulated by the Italian state, although as individuals they exhibited self-help in vendettas, and resistance to various state institutions and policies.

If each culture is a particular way of doing things, then in bringing cultures together, we’re attempting to combine contrasting, conflicting and incompatible features that can’t fit together.

For all that British and Canadian cultures share, they still drive on different sides of the road. How exactly could these two traffic cultures be combined? Only with a lot of smashed metal, shattered glass and broken bones. Traffic has to go on one side alone.

If I brought together my friends from Baluchistan, Rajasthan and Sardinia, how could we communicate with the Baluch speaking Baluchi or Farsi, the Reika speaking Marwari Hindi, and the Sardinians speaking Sardu or Italian? To live together, people need a common language or languages. Language is also more than a means of communication; it includes concepts and categories that are critical to a specific culture.

Canadians take pride in the principle of equality before the law; South Asian law is applied according to caste. Canadians have a constitution and British common law and French civil legal systems; some cultures respect only religious law or have instituted religious law.

Gender equality is a major value of contemporary Canadians; in some cultures, all women by law must obey their male guardians.

Different cultures are incompatible because elements of each contradict those of another culture. A society can’t be at the same time egalitarian and hierarchical, decentralized and centralized, kin-oriented and law-oriented, secular and religious.

A large majority of Canadians think multiculturalism is a good thing. But at the same time, a large majority wishes that minorities would try harder to adapt to the Canadian mainstream. So Canadians embrace multi-ethnic and multi-racial society, but they want that society to be Canada, not an amalgam of miscellaneous customs and practices from around the world.

Canadian culture rests on the foundational heritage of Great Britain and France. Our official languages, political institutions and laws all stem directly from those countries. So too our religion, literature and art. Canada is firmly within the tradition of western civilization.

What harm can come from Canada’s official policy of multiculturalism?

Multiculturalism implies that all cultures are equally valid and good, and that there is no basis to criticize, reject or ban any customs or practices from any culture. This cultural and moral relativism undermines not only our morality and ethics, but our institutions and law.

Multiculturalism, as a national policy, is an incoherent concept, proposing the marriage of opposing principles, values, institutions and practices.

Why require people to respect the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms if their caste law or sharia law or communist law is equally worthy? Why object to female genital mutilation, child marriage or honour killings when these are well established cultural practices? Why demand that people learn English and French, when Chinese and Hindi and Arabic are equally effective languages?

The answer is that Canadians have a right to decide what’s acceptable within their culture and what’s not acceptable.

Language, customs and practices that conflict with Canadian custom, institutions and law can’t be carried out without bringing chaos and anarchy to Canada. Cultural minorities can’t succeed here without adapting to the Canadian culture. That’s why for generations immigrants to Canada and the United States strove and succeeded to assimilate to Canadian and American culture. The success of Canada and the U.S. is partly a result of the effective integration of cultural minorities and of the contributions of those new Canadians and Americans.

But let’s be clear: culture is not race and race is not culture. Do not let anyone tell you that criticism of a culture is racist.

Every society must have a culture that’s to some substantial degree coherent or else chaos will ensue. Western civilization is our heritage and is valuable and worth defending. And democracy requires that majorities, cultural and electoral, be respected. So it’s the duty of immigrants and minorities to adapt to mainstream culture.

Philip Carl Salzman is professor of anthropology at McGill University, senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and fellow of the Middle East Forum.


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