We live in a world where we frequently encounter people from other cultures. Our contemporary global community is one of interdependence. Many of the problems that we face in the areas of economy, environment, health or politics are not local anymore; they are global in their scope. To solve these complex problems we need to overcome our cultural differences in order to collaborate in ways that we have not done before with people who are culturally different from us.
Addressing such complex global issues requires us to become multicultural people, bringing innovative solutions to these problems. Leading American philosopher, Martha Nussbaum reminds us that the ultimate goal of contemporary education is multicultural, that exposes students to the histories and cultures of different groups of people. For her, learning languages, history, religious studies, and philosophy all play a vital role in promoting respect for others that is crucial to have an effective dialogue with people from different cultural backgrounds. It is imperative that contemporary education exposes students to languages, literature, history, politics, philosophy, and the religion of other nations.
It is also critically important that students are encouraged to cultivate important personal qualities to attain multicultural personhood, something that a mere perusal of scholarly books or a regurgitation of facts about other cultures will not engender. In this article, I will draw on the philosophical ideas of the German philosopher, HansGeorg Gadamer, to discuss several qualities that constitute a multicultural person. Gadamer, who is regarded as a leading figure of 20th-century philosophy, was a student of Martin Heidegger and the successor of Karl Jaspers at Heidelberg University. He was the author of Truth and Method, one of the most influential works in the field of hermeneutics, the study of the understanding and meaning of texts. Since the publication of his magnum opus Truth and Method in 1960, Gadamer&’s ideas have appealed to academicians of various stripes. Although Gadamer did not write about multicultural personhood, scholars have appropriated his philosophical ideas to explain this concept. While it is impossible to enumerate all the qualities that define a multicultural person within the scope of this article, I will discuss six of them that are deemed to be critically important by experts:
1.Ability to engage in dialogue: In Truth and Method, Gadamer underscored the importance of engaging in genuine dialogue with the “Cultural Other.” Such a dialogue is marked by openness, respect, equality and empathy. According to Gadamer, in order to have a genuine dialogical experience, one must be willing to change her/his position should the position or presuppositions be found to be incorrect or illegitimate. In a genuine encounter as envisioned by Gadamer one appreciates the uniqueness of the “Cultural Other” and there is no room for objectifying the “Cultural Other” with whom one is interacting. Neither does the “Cultural Other” serve instrumentally as a means to an end.A central notion of Gadamer&’s dialogue is sharing and reciprocity. This entails not just talking but, more importantly, engaging in mutual listening. A multicultural person with effective listening skills shares narratives to widen her/his repertoire of possibilities in describing and explaining the world – and this interest and skill is built on a foundation of openness, respect, and empathy.
2. Being aware of one&’s prejudices: Prejudice, as Gadamer reminds us, can be either positive or negative. A prejudice becomes positive only when we confront it and work toward eliminating it. A multicultural person is expected to have a free and open engagement with her/his prejudices about the “Cultural Other.” Openness means that we should allow our prejudices to be made manifest and put to the test by the appearance of other possible prejudices. Thus, the goal of a multicultural person is not to minimise or dismiss it. Rather, one should confront one&’s prejudices and make them a teachable moment. Only by being open to the prejudices and biases we have about other cultures and its peoples do we get to have a new kind of insight and experience that would not be possible if we remained blind to it.
3. Humility: To Gadamer, a cultured person is one who has the qualities of openness, flexibility and, more importantly, humility. Gadamer sums up the qualities of a cultured person in the following way: “Being cultured does not consist in the fact that someone already knows everything and knows better than anyone else. Rather, the cultured person proves to be, on the contrary, someone who is radically undogmatic; who, because of the many experiences he has had and the knowledge he has drawn from them, is particularly well equipped to have new experiences and to learn from them.” Like a cultured person in Gadamer&’s terms, a multicultural person is expected to be open to examining new and alternative possibilities that may manifest in the dialogical encounter with the “Cultural Other.”
The implication of Gadamer&’s notion of real experience is that we should remain open to the fallibility and contingency of human plans. It should be made clear that Gadamer&’s call for openness, flexibility and remaining “radically undogmatic” does not imply we should not hold any convictions. Rather, it means that while we hold on to our convictions, we do not treat them as absolute – fixed and closed – but open and fallible.
4. Tolerance for ambiguity: It refers to the ease in dealing with situations in which much is inexplicable or unknown. Whether we are abroad or at home, interacting with people who are different from us and who behave in ways that appear “strange” to us requires a tolerance for ambiguity. People, in general, have a natural preference for predictability; uncertainty can be disquieting. All cultures train us to be ethnocentric where we treat our culture as the centre functioning as the norm. It is fairly typical to render judgments on actions that seem foreign or alien to us as being “strange,” “weird,” or even “wrong.”
Unlike multicultural persons, who can deal with culturally ambiguous situations with finesse, most people get angry, frustrated, or even distraught resulting in communication that is judgmental and critical of the other culture or its people. While it is not easy to be non-judgmental, as a multicultural person it is absolutely critical that s/he can manage culturally ambiguous situations effectively. One of the ways of dealing with ambiguous situations will be to describe one&’s observations and feelings in a non-judgmental and noncritical manner.
5. Empathy: Empathy refers to the ability to know what it&’s like to “walk in another person&’s shoes.” Empathic skills are culture bound. We cannot really view the world through another person&’s eyes without knowing something about her or his experiences and life. Many scholars have attempted to come up with a more culturally sensitive view of empathy. For example, some experts stress that to achieve empathy across cultural boundaries people must establish strong relationships and strive for the creation of shared meaning in their interpersonal encounters.
Most scholars now agree that achieving cross-cultural empathy and trying to see the world exactly as the other person sees is very difficult. Consequently, scholars have recommended that multicultural persons utilise a process known as “transpection,” which often involves trying to learn foreign beliefs, assumptions, perspectives, and feelings in a foreign context. Transpection then can be achieved only with practice and requires experience and selfreflection.
6. Commitment to social justice: Multicultural personhood is not just limited to understanding and appreciating the uniqueness of the “Cultural Other” and engaging in effective communication with them. It also entails ethical and moral responsibility that comes with the acquisition of multicultural knowledge and insights. Multicultural education is not just about techniques, which Gadamer says that we often forget. Neither is it exclusively about theoretical concepts that are more general in nature and scope. For Gadamer, real education is all about social justice, which he labelled as praxis. Gadamer&’s notion of praxis is transformative benefiting the larger society and other cultural groups that are oppressed. Gadamer&’s praxis emphasises the need for understanding and caring for others.
In Gadamer&’s opinion, an individual who is knowledgeable in every conceivable way but fails to commit herself/himself to caring for others lacks “sympathetic understanding” that praxis entails. The ultimate goal of praxis is the freedom of the individual and the “making of responsible political and practical decisions about happiness, health, peace, freedom, and other stable factors of human-being-in-nature.” From this discussion it is clear that it is not enough to be knowledgeable about languages, history, politics, literature, philosophy and religion of other nations. In order to be a multicultural person one must also be able to engage in genuine dialogue, confront one&’s prejudices, be humble, deal with ambiguous situations, show empathy, and be committed to social justice issues or, in Gadamer&’s parlance, praxis. Dialogue can play a very crucial role in enabling people from different cultural backgrounds to understand one another.
A multicultural person will be able to transcend parochial tendencies and cooperate with others in search for solutions to problems that plague global communities today. Through genuine dialogical encounter, as envisioned by Gadamer, a multicultural person can sift through various perspectives, East and West, philosophical, political, or religious and cull out what is salient and relevant to solving the problems that confront our world.