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On the Limits of Liberalism and Multiculturalism

by Haithe Anderson - August 12, 2002

Since there is no way to adjudicate unverifiable opinions, as Enlightenment philosophers reasoned, the only viable option is to tolerate a diversity of views. In the United States toleration of differences is a core value of a political theory called liberalism, and many liberals endorse the goals of a multicultural curriculum. As multiculturalists argue, schools should teach American children to be charitable toward people from different cultural backgrounds. How should we teach cross-cultural tolerance, however, after the mournful events of September 11, 2001? This tragedy reveals the limits of both liberalism and multicultural tolerance, and this essay explores those limits from the perspective of pragmatism.

For every church is orthodox to itself; to others, erroneous or heretical. For whatsoever any church believes, it believes to be true; and the contrary unto those things, it pronounces to be error.  - John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration


In 1685 John Locke argued that no one could ever know the truth about religion. His plea for religious freedom became a classic defense of religious tolerance, but also of free speech and free press. As history teaches, people will forever adopt unproven and un-provable ideas and passionately assert their validity. Since there is no final way to adjudicate unverifiable opinions, as Enlightenment philosophers reasoned, the only viable option is to tolerate the wondrously diverse views of the world that people inevitably inhabit. In the United States toleration of differences lies at the heart of a political theory called liberalism and, as liberals frequently claim, competing ideologies are granted equality before the law where each is treated without prejudice. This logic of equal protection and neutral application rests on the assumption that the search for metaphysical meaning is a private affair and that it should, therefore, be secured and held in place by extra-political means. Public affairs, by way of contrast, are ostensibly defined by broader common interests and are protected by political means that are presumed to be independent of any particular conception of what citizens should value and how they should live. Liberals assume, in short, that it is possible to rise above the constraints of local ways of knowing and preside over the fray of conflicting beliefs from a vantage point of impartiality.

Nothing shows the limits of liberalism more forcefully than dramatic events like those of September 11, 2001. What the destruction of the World Trade Center reveals, in painful detail, is that liberalism is itself orthodoxy and that, like any other established theology, it is orthodoxy unto itself (not unto the world). Not everyone believes, in other words, that tolerance for a plurality of judgments is in their best interest. Ironically, liberals cannot fully embrace a policy of tolerance either; what they cannot tolerate, in particular, is a doctrine that rejects their core value of toleration. Al-Qaeda and Taliban reject this value, but so do other fundamentalist groups who firmly believe that others live error (members of the Klu Klux Klan, for example). What fundamentalists of all stripes recognize, in other words, is that to be fully engaged with a way of thinking and living is to be fully opposed to other ways of thinking and living.

The conclusion that I will draw from this is that neither liberalism nor multiculturalism occupies a high ground of impartiality—that is, neither our dominant political theory nor its most recent educational philosophy can adjudicate cultural differences without bias.


Multiculturalism’s biases come into view the minute we ask how tolerant its proponents will be of the kinds of cultural differences represented by al-Qaeda or the Talaban. In the view offered here multiculturalists will not tolerate those differences—that is, they will not rush to fold the ways of al-Qaeda or the Taliban into the panoply of cultural differences to be celebrated by American school children—and they have very good reasons for being so intolerant. As multiculturalists frequently assert, all ways of knowing are situated in and sustained by local purposes. From the perspective of Americans, the thoughts and actions of al-Qaeda are driven by bad purposes and must, therefore, be rejected.

Pragmatists like myself agree with multiculturalists when they claim that knowledge is situated. In addition, we would insist that since knowledge is historical and contingent, it is necessarily limited and partial. We could say that pragmatists agree with liberals when they assert that no one can know the truth about metaphysical or philosophical questions; no one has the final answer, in our view, because no one has access to arcanum. Our partiality arises from our cultural situations, as multiculturalists frequently assert, but also from the impossibility of embracing differences that are antithetical to our core values. Multiculturalists, for instance, may look with sympathy upon the plight of impoverished Afghan families, and they may ask American school children, as President George W. Bush has, to be charitable toward the children of that destitute nation. The benevolence of these same teachers, however, will cease the moment the values, norms, and principles of Afghans challenge the core values of their belief system.

What multiculturalists should be teaching, therefore—what they should help American students understand—is that tolerance for cultural differences is limited because our historical situations will always call forth attitudes of intolerance. Al-Qaeda members, for example, are called “terrorists” and, to use a term offered by President Bush, they are considered by many Americans to be the “evil-ones.” Al-Qaeda, however, is not our only archenemy; Iran, Iraq and North Korea have recently been identified by President Bush as “the axis of evil” because they ostensibly house terrorist activities. The assertion that these adversaries are amoral is a gesture of intolerance, not impartiality, and what it reveals is a clash of cultures not an embrace of multiculturalism. Multiculturalists, therefore, need to help their students understand how cultural differences give rise to the mutual disregard of uncharitable attitudes. In this particular example, it could be argued that al-Qaeda's disregard for American life beget America's intolerant attitudes, but it is important to recognize that intolerance everywhere is born of political and ethical conflict, not unilateral ignorance. Al-Qaeda, Iranians, Iraqis and North Koreans are not unschooled; each is educated to the precepts of their particular orthodoxy, and they think, act and live accordingly (more or less). Nor is it the case that U. S. citizens are better educated than al-Qaeda, Iranians, Iraqis and North Koreans. Americans are also well schooled, albeit in a different way, and they think, act and live according to the precepts of their liberal education (more or less). The beliefs that American teachers teach in school, in other words—like those taught by teachers in countries with opposing points of view—are received from culture and education not from a universal library of timeless truths. What American teachers have learned and what they will teach is exactly what teachers everywhere necessarily teach—they teach that foreign ideas radically opposed to homegrown ones must be rejected.

A lesson on the inevitability of intolerance may seem ill-suited to a multiculturalist’s agenda because tolerance is assumed to be without bias. Circumstances like those of September 11, 2001, however, not only make those biases easier to see they also demonstrate how a belief system that upholds tolerance as a guiding principle exports its gestures of intolerance. It has been repeatedly asserted, for example, that the hostile acts apparently committed by al-Qaeda are so subversive that no “civilized” society would tolerate them. Intolerance, in this view, is justified by reference to worldwide standards of judgment and, thus justified, it seems like a natural as opposed to a biased response. The problem with this formulation is that any recourse to normative ethics—any appeal to the reservoir of common values that ostensibly sustains all civilized people—undoes the hope of both liberalism and multiculturalism. One cannot embrace a doctrine of plural judgments and advocate for the celebration of cultural differences and then turn around, when the going gets tough, and claim that world-wide standards of judgments are in force and should be followed. At least one cannot do so and avoid the contradiction that such a move entails.

From the perspective of pragmatism there is no pool of ethical standards that satisfies political differences equally; all people are ethical, albeit in different ways, because all are sustained by local standards, norms and values that assure them of the soundness of their ideas and actions. Indeed, what makes cultural differences standout in sharp relief, when and where they do, is the fact that local politics gives rise to ethical conflict. This is a description of the inner life of cultural differences, not an argument for moral relativism. Pragmatists are, nonetheless, frequently accused of being relativists. This kind of accusation will also be familiar to multiculturalists because the plea to tolerate cultural differences within the United States begets a “you-are-a-vulgar-relativist” response from those who think that national unity should be privileged over internal differences. According to proponents of this anti-multiculturalism argument, if we teach that all values are contextual, contingent and historical—that values are always products of local ways of thinking and being—then ethical judgments will be rendered meaningless. In other words, those who oppose multiculturalism, along with those who subscribe to the possibility of a normative ethics, see a world where local ways of knowing can be transcended by tapping into the universal pool of values that is presumed to underlie all cultural differences.

A pragmatist rejects the transcendental attitudes that a normative ethics recommends. We respond to accusations of moral relativism by reasserting that all wells of knowledge, no matter how deep and widely shared, are fed and sustained by local insights and interpretations, not by universally available ones. Ethical action is possible, in our view, precisely because it is grounded in a community of like-mindedness (as opposed to some transcendental domain). Indeed, if all humans could tap into a pool of universal values—if eternal verities were knowable—there would be no need to declare their value because everyone would be of one mind. From the point of view of pragmatism, moreover, no one can be a relativist because everyone is always and already tied to a local set of interpretative commitments that enable their way of seeing and defining the world. What multiculturalists may find troubling about this assertion is the fact that no one can be multicultural for the same reasons. If cultural differences are largely interpretative, as James Banks (1998) has said, then no one can be multicultural because no one can float free of their interpretative commitments and survey cultural differences with impartiality. How one sees the differences that they do, in short, will depend on the interpretative commitments they inhabit.

All human beings, in the view offered here, are fully committed to their way of seeing the world and this includes Americans in all their diversity, but also al-Qaeda, the Iranians, the Iraqis, and the North Koreans. Humans can and do switch interpretative allegiances, of course, but when we do so we have not transcended to a purer or higher realm that is any less partial than the interpretation we left behind; all we can ever do is trade in one set of limitations for another. “A way of seeing,” as Kenneth Burke (1984) put it, “is also a way of not seeing” (p. 49). What this means, in turn, is that whenever a common ethical ground is declared we can be sure that the meaning it ascribes to all will evoke disagreeable reactions from some. Those who come up on the disagreeable side of this equation, moreover, will be considered outsiders and their exclusion helps secure the identity of insiders. Any time a group claims that their orthodoxy is common sense, in other words, it simultaneously stigmatizes opposing doctrines and the rejection of those doctrines is precisely what allows its preferred biases to stand out as different and better (at least unto itself). Our beliefs are shaped against a background of what they are not and without that background differences could not standout. If it were otherwise, if all ways of knowing were united as one, there would be no need to declare a common ground because universal truth would reign and disputations resign.

Any attempt to elevate one’s moral convictions to the status of common sense, therefore, is nothing more or less than a political move. From the perspective of knowledge, as Stanley Fish (1999) puts it, “the vocabularies and premises of science, religion, liberal humanism, communitarianism, and so on are on a par, each one an orthodoxy to itself, fully equipped with dogma, criteria for evidence, founding texts, exemplary achievements, heroes, villains, goals, agendas, and all the rest. Politics-wise, these visions of life will never be on par but always exist in some hierarchical relationship of precedence or subordination to which it would be foolish not to pay serious practical attention” (p. 218). Common sense, put another way, is a cultural system and, as Clifford Geertz (1983) says, “it rests on the same basis that any other such system rests: the conviction by those whose possession it is of its value and validity” (p. 76). From the standpoint of knowledge our different ways of seeing the world are on par; politics-wise, the United States will always be competing with international-others for a position of dominance in a world-wide hierarchy.


To assert that all ways of knowing are on par is to claim that they are internally coherent, not interchangeable. The minute we move from the realm of logic into history, different ways of thinking are no longer on par because of historical circumstances. The actions of the hijackers on September 11, 2001, for example, were intolerable because—in this time and place—an overwhelming majority of people did not view their target as the twin towers of evil. The point of my essay, however, is not to highlight the historical differences of power and resistance that culminated in the sorrowful events of September 11th. Instead, I am interested in how this national tragedy can help multiculturalists think about the inner life of cultural differences. From the perspective offered here, cultural differences are derived, in part, from the fact that abstract concepts like freedom, justice and liberty have no meaning apart from the context that declares their value. These terms will always be up for grabs because every definition will be derived from an indigenous context, not a multicultural one. Everyone cherishes justice, but what is liberating for one group can imprison another. No one holds freedom’s “true” definition, because no one has the final story. What we have instead are traditions and histories that generate different conceptions of right and wrong and that tell us what differences are worth fighting for and which we should simply tolerate. That many Americans see al-Qaeda as the evil-one is perfectly intelligible because this band of outlaws has threatened local definitions of freedom. Al-Qaeda, however, would reject the adjective of evil-ones because the story they tell themselves asserts that they are right and from the perspective they inhabit—a perspective that I find totally unconvincing and deeply offensive—they are right.

This struggle over securing definitions does not stop short at abstract terms like liberty and freedom; nor is it simply the result of international disputes. Instead, the power to define is central to the production of all public problems. What is considered a public problem in the United States—a problem worthy of public response—will depend on which social group controls its definition. This is because the definition of a problem is rooted in partisan ways of knowing and every solution generated by a particular definition may appear inappropriate to groups excluded from its explication. Take, for example, the case of multicultural education. Multiculturalism provides one answer to the question of how to treat cultural differences in public schools. It is not the first answer to this question, however, as many of its proponents assume. Previous answers included solutions that ranged from exclusion by segregation to inclusion by stigmatization and each solution fit the definition of the problem of diversity and education offered at the time. The re-description of that problem by multiculturalists has certainly brought fresh solutions into view, but, like the definitions it supplanted, multiculturalism’s particular solution is born of historical ways of thinking not ubiquitous ones. What this means, in turn, is that the solution we call multiculturalism is no more inclusive or non-discriminatory than previous solutions because every way of defining a problem is also way of excluding other definitions (along with those who propose them). Discrimination, in other words, is not something you can do away with because new stories about cultural diversity and education do not arise from purer or higher moral visions; they arise instead from fully situated visions that are differently focused and that necessarily discriminate, albeit in new ways. These new ways of thinking, moreover, will always seem valid to multiculturalists because they inhabit a community of like-mindedness that asserts their soundness.

This same logic applies to the mournful events of September 11, 2001. If hijacking passenger planes and flying them into city and rural landscapes offered a solution to those who participated in this act, it was a solution born of their particular way of defining the problem. That so many Americans found this solution utterly surprising demonstrates the limits of liberalism and multiculturalism in yet another way. For those who elevate the idea of tolerance to the high status that liberalism and multiculturalism accord it, the idea of such hostile intolerance is unimaginable and unintelligible. Those who subscribe to the precept of tolerance cannot, as a consequence, imagine themselves as evil-ones let alone as worthy of attack because their way of thinking tells them that they are right and their attackers are wrong. The most generous response toward the hijackers that a pragmatist can muster, therefore, comes straight out of John Dewey’s (1966) Democracy and Education. As he said, “Society is one word, but many things…each of these organizations, no matter how opposed to the interests of other groups, has something of the praiseworthy qualities of ‘Society’ which hold it together. There is honor among thieves, and a band of robbers has a common interest as respects its members” (pp. 81-82). No matter how abhorrent the actions of the hijacker's were, those actions were born of collective thought and identity that asserts their validity.

While all ideas arise from a context that gives them meaning and validates their soundness, this does not mean, as I have already suggested, that all ideas are suited to the historical occasions that contain them. Some ideas are bad because the circumstance of their birth is one of unforgiving selfishness and vindictive hatred inappropriate to the time and place of its expression. What I am recommending, on the other hand, is that hating is not an incoherent activity; it is the product of group logic that enables people to turn bigotry into moral principles worth fighting for. Misbegotten actions—actions that are arrantly irreverent toward their historical situations—are frequently noticed with the aid of hindsight. The unintelligibility of our current situation, for example, would also be shared by previous generations of Americans whose thoughts and actions have been excoriated by contemporary accounts of American history. The Americans who purposively spread the devastating disease of smallpox among Indian Nations, for instance, assumed that their actions were those of progress—of eliminating the world of savagery and making way for civilization. They would be surprised to learn that many of their future compatriots (but not all) would censure their behavior. American history is replete with examples like these and those who participated in acts condemned by hindsight (like slave owners, for example) would not be able to see themselves as egregiously wrong because their way of thinking assured them they were unequivocally right.

Does this justify past actions? Does it justify the actions of fundamentalist groups—in and out of the U.S.—who kill civilians to further their political ambitions? That would depend on who is asking the question. In the view offered here, since there is no universal moral code and no way to justify our actions by reference to a foundation of truth, there is no way to pass judgments on the truths embraced by previous generations of Americans or those offered by fundamentalists without bias. That we are all biased—that liberalism and multiculturalism cannot exist without limits—is, of course, my bias. I am prejudiced, above all else, by historical accounts of our moral situation (knowing full well that history is nothing more than another biased interpretation) because the only way to make a distinction between aggressors and victims is to place hostile acts in their context. While my historical understanding of our confrontation with al-Qaeda is slim at best, I can recommend some neatly packaged versions of the history of morality. For a history of the United States, for example, one could return to Howard Zinn’s (1980) popular book, A People’s History of the United States, or one could take a more global view by reading a recent text by Jonathan Glover (1999), Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century. The stories in each are similar and what they show us are the limits of moral resources, whether they are those cultivated by our interpretative-others or those grown at home.

It is difficult to read Glover (1999), for example, and not feel humbled before the psychological demands that impose, upon those who fight wars, a condition foreign to the moral situations they inhabited prior to war. Actions that would have otherwise been taboo for some soldiers (but not all) become, in the course of war, not only thinkable but also doable. In our recent past upstanding Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan, like their American counterparts in Vietnam, collected human ears as trophies and put them on display in one way or another.  Or, remember the events of March 16thin the year of 1968. Five hundred Vietnamese civilians (old men, women and children) in the village of My Lai were massacred by 120 American soldiers. Or, to step back even further in time, remember the events of August 6th in the year of 1945 when an American plane called Enola Gay (named in honor of the pilot’s mother) dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima—a city filled with civilians. There are no more intolerant and disrespectful acts than the misdeeds of war, and their homecoming in the events of September 11, 2001 has been extremely painful.

What this very brief account of war atrocities suggests is that the conditions of war generate, from local and historical exigencies, situated moralities that redefine the standards of ethical judgment previously embraced by the combatants. As often as not, these standards give soldiers new ways of sorting right from wrong and new ways of justifying their decisions. Like all moral standards, those generated by the demands of war are exclusive to the situation that contains them (and thank goodness they are). Al-Qaeda is at war with Americans, and if our own history were to guide our understanding of their position it would assert that the demands of war have reshaped their humanity and moral sensibilities in the same way that the demands of war reshaped the humanity and moral sensibilities of American soldiers in different skirmishes. War, it seems, is a condition of active antagonism, and once intense hatred is activated moral resources shift to accommodate life’s extremes.


Acknowledging the inner life of cultural differences helps us recognize what we share with those we oppose, but it does not answer the dilemma that war poses for those who cherish tolerance. That liberalism and multiculturalism will survive this dilemma, however, seems certain. What, after all, are our options? We could, I suppose, take a strong approach to tolerance and uphold it no matter what. That would mean that our government could not punish what it considers wrong because there would be no way to sort right from wrong in a world where all ethical stances are tolerated equally. Alternatively, we could simply assert that a policy of tolerance is the last word and ignore all other pleas to the contrary. This heavy-handed approach, however, would irritate fundamentalist groups in and out of America because they believe that they have the last word. If the overt assertion of one belief system over another were taken seriously, moreover, the clash of doctrines—that Enlightenment philosophers dug their way out of with liberalism—would be upon us again. Since Americans prefer to avoid conflict—to avoid in particular, the notion that our belief system plays a central role in the production of international strife—I suspect that what we will do is keep on doing what we have been doing. What we have been doing is assuming that our politics of tolerance, along with its multicultural education, is without bias.  We could continue to assume, in other words, that liberalism and multiculturalism are capable of safeguarding the interests of all Americans (if not all citizens of the world). This would mean that, since fundamentalist groups in and out of the United States will still find this policy offensive, liberals will continue to regard them as living in error and feel justified in excluding them from their multicultural curriculum and their formulation of the good life.


Banks, J. (1998). The lives and values of researchers: Implications for education citizens in a multicultural society. Educational Researcher, 27, 4-17.

Burke, K. (1984). Permanence and change: An anatomy of purpose (3rd Ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Dewey, J. (1966). Democracy and Education. New York: Free Press.

Fish, S. E. (1999). The trouble with principle. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Glover, J. (1999). Humanity: A moral history of the twentieth century. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Geertz, C. (1983). Local knowledge: Further essays in interpretative anthropology. New York: Basic Books.

Zinn, H. (1980). A people’s history of the United States. New York: Harper Colophon Books.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 12, 2002
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11009, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 9:24:37 PM

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About the Author
  • Haithe Anderson
    Bowling Green State University
    E-mail Author
    Haithe Anderson is an assistant professor at Bowling Green State University with a specialty in philosophy of education, the history of ideas and cultural studies. Dr. Anderson's most recent publications appear in Educational Theory and Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines and are forthcoming at Educational Studies and Studies in Philosophy of Education: An International Quarterly.
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