Multiculturalism and the First Amendment

Multiculturalism and the First Amendment
Can multiculturalism coexist with freedom?

What happens when cultural sensitivity conflicts with the First Amendment? What do we do when reverse discrimination takes place? How do we proceed against shoddy scholarship and historical inaccuracies perpetrated in the name of multiculturalism?

The cover story for Newsweek, December 24, 1990 was, Thought Police: Watch What You Say. The article was packed with incidents of multiculturalism run amok. The idea that the First Amendment is suspended on school campuses was a large topic of discussion:

Philosophically, PC represents the subordination of the right to free speech to the guarantee of equal protection under the law. The absolutist position on the First Amendment is that it lets you slur anyone you choose. The PC position is that a hostile environment for minorities abridges their right to equal education. "Sure you have the right to speech," says Kate Fahey, an associate dean at Mt. Holyoke College. "But I want to know: what is it going to do to our community? Is it going to damage us?"*

It's easy to dismiss the fear of multiculturalism as xenophobic. The current violence over political cartoons brings freedom of speech and freedom of the press in direct conflict with the idea of religious sensitivity. Will the press feel bound not to run anything inflammatory for fear of sparking violent protests? How do we debate issues if we are not allowed to discuss them? How will scholarly discourse flourish in an environment where students and faculty are not allowed to express ideas, even outlandish ones, and argue over their merits?

Reverse discrimination is a valid concern when multicultural education is interpreted as only presenting the history of minorities and women. Equity ends when only one facet of society (white men) is portrayed as the perpetrator of all society's ills.

One of the most controversial PC initiatives took place at the University of Texas at Austin, where the English faculty recently chose a new text for the freshman composition course, which is required for about half the entering undergraduates. Up till now, instructors had been free to assign essays on a range of topics for students to read and discuss. Henceforth all readings will be from an anthology called Racism and Sexism: An Integrated Study, By Paula S. Rothenberg. The selections, some of which are excellent, comprise a primer of PC thought. In the first chapter Rothenberg answers what many white men wonder but few dare ask: why are they the only ones ever accused of racism or sexism? The sine qua non of racism and sexism, Rothenberg explains is subordination, which in Western society is exercised only by whites over blacks and men over women. Hence reverse racism and sexism by definition do not exist.*

This text straddles the issues of reverse discrimination and poor scholarship. It paints all white men as sexist and racist. Rothenberg also ignores the free people of color in the United States who owned slaves.

Such incidents are at the heart of most objections to multicultural education. When the "classics" were tossed from the curricula to be replaced by works of dubious worth parents, politicians, educators, and students complained. They did not see the value of multicultural education when history and literature were rewritten to serve a political purpose.

Next to Read: A Truly More Diverse Notion of Excellence

*--Jerry Adler, “Taking Offense,” Newsweek, vol 116, no. 26 (December 24, 1990).

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