For more information, contact:
Gary Schouborg, PhD
Schouborg, Gary (2006).
Fowers and Davidov (2006) promote a multiculturalism for psychologists whose genuine usefulness is obscured by a self-refuting theoretical framework.
Their declared aim is to promote a "deep internalization of cultural relativity" (p. 588) that involves "ongoing internal self-revision or self-examination" (p. 592). They want psychologists to rid themselves of dogmatic ethnocentrism and "gain the maturity to recognize that our heritages do not provide final or universal truth" (p. 587). As formulated, this goal is theoretically self-contradictory and unable to be applied coherently. If all our beliefs are expressions of relative truth, then so is that belief itself.
A combination of self-reflection, rigorous logic, and common sense therefore dictates that in a sea of shifting viewpoints there may be some rocks of truth that we rightly hang onto. Rather than espouse the authors' radical cultural relativism (RCR), with its facile denial that some beliefs are preferable to others, we should adopt a modified cultural relativism (MCR) that does the hard and more nuanced work of sorting out what may or may not be revisable in the culture(s) in which we function.
RCR, like any self-contradictory thinking, is a form of denial. And like any denial, it tends to reveal itself. Consequently, any reader can observe that the authors, though intent on promoting self-examination, never question their own commitment to RCR. This lapse allows them to betray their own principles, as when they assert that in our contemporary culture "we rightly repudiate" [my emphasis] the social inequalities accepted by Aristotle, and when they promote excising "previous socialization" at variance with multiculturalism (p. 584). But if all heritages are relative, on what basis do we "rightly" repudiate anything or encourage a client to rise above any previous socialization? RCR provides no reference point for revising anything. There can be only replacing one viewpoint with another: only pointless change, not revision.
More important to the thrust of the article, denial reveals itself not only in making contradictory assertions, but in acting against one's principles. Regarding the authors' focus on counseling and therapy (p. 581), the denial inherent in RCR can easily allow therapists to impose their own unconscious "final truth" of RCR on clients whose culture claims to have some final truths of its own. When the authors characterize therapy as a "dialogue [in which] the interlocutors actively question their own perspectives" (p. 592), they inadvertently impose their own cultural value of openness on any clients who value committing to some perspectives without question.
Such inadvertence is facilitated by the denial that allows the authors to avoid asking the following hard questions. How would therapists "extend respect and affirmation" to clients from a culture believing in certain final and universal truths, and have "not mere tolerance … but rather an unconstrained involvement" (p. 588) with them? How would therapists "find pleasure in learning about the worldview and practices" (p. 589) of such clients? Would therapists regard the clients as unfortunate victims of oppressive socialization? On what basis consistent with RCR would they hold this view? Such questions have even more bite when we move from the theory of RCR to human rights issues such as slavery.
RCR cannot answer these questions coherently and usefully; but MCR can. Had the authors presented MCR as their theoretical framework, they could have more clearly and usefully identified the core practice derived from multiculturalism: listening to other viewpoints, which requires self-reflection. Listening allows one culture to learn from another. However, befogged by the simplistic RCR, discussions of multiculturalism almost inevitably overlook that learning from another culture is worthwhile only if it helps us achieve our goals (which may, of course, include wanting to enrich our lives with new ways of thinking and behaving). However, unrelated to any goals at all to which we are already committed, "learning" becomes indistinguishable from promiscuity (moving from one set of goals to another without rhyme or reason) or surrender (uncritically dropping our goals to avoid conflict).
Multiculturalists often miss the connection between learning and goals because of a widespread logical error. It is first rightly stated that if all cultures are relative then we have no right to impose our values on another. The illogical conclusion too-often drawn is that we are wrong to impose our values. But if cultural values are relative, imposing one's values on another is neither right nor wrong. The most that multiculturalists can recommend is that we should impose our values with care, reflecting on how well doing so helps us achieve our goals.
In brief, the role of MCR is to identify:
1. values espoused by our culture
2. values espoused by other cultures
3. values that differ from our culture but that we can tolerate, learn from, or even adopt
4. values that conflict with our culture so seriously that we should (to maintain and nourish our culture) impose them on others (by persuasion if possible or by manipulation and even war if necessary)
MCR brings the following benefits to the authors' focus on counseling and therapy (p. 581).
1. MCR reveals that self-reflective openness is critical for the Western therapist who aims to use all the psychological tools available to promote the psychological well-being of the client (p. 582).
2. MCR facilitates the therapist's possible discovery that open self-reflection is not valued in the client's culture.
3. MCR opens the door to truly self-reflective multiculturalist research to develop therapies for cultures that do not value self-reflection or even human rights. Accepting the authors' characterization of psychotherapy as helping clients who are "seeking relief from their psychological pain" (p. 582), MCR research can help identify how therapy might achieve that goal for clients who are committed to some "final truths" and who do not value the openness espoused by the authors.
4. MCR challenges us to face the hard question of whether there are some conditions where it is actually desirable to impose our values on other cultures.
Fowers, B. J., and Davidov, B. J. (2006). The Virtue of Multiculturalism: Personal Transformation, Character, and Openness to the Other. American Psychologist, 61, 581-594.