Friday, July 24, 2009

I knew Henry Louis Gates was a total dork 10 years ago.

Back then, while attending college as part of my second midlife crisis, in the English composition and critical thinking class, we were to read certain essays (including one by Gates) and then answer some questions. Here is what I wrote in February of 1999 for this assignment:

          According to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., multiculturalism is thought to be “a pretty name for ethnic chauvinism” and “the mindless celebration of difference.” He then declares the debate “miscast from the beginning,” stating “I don’t think that is what multiculturalism . . . ought to be.” Substituting a definition of his own, “ . . . truly humane learning, unblinkered by . . . narrow ethnocentrism,” he gives examples to support multiculturalism as he defines it, using “cultural pluralism” synonymously. Writings that oppose his view he dismisses as “jeremiad.” (My dictionary defines this to mean “mournful and lamenting.”)

         Gates would have served his readers better if he had made it clearer throughout that the “multiculturalism” he supports is not what most people, by his admission, think of when they hear that word. In the third paragraph he more or less wishes away the commonly held definition of the term and substitutes his own. He then argues in favor of his version of “multiculturalism,” neglecting to mention that opponents of multiculturalism do not in fact oppose that which he supports. I find such sophistry highly annoying. When commentators can only make their point by knocking down a “straw dog,” I can only conclude that their argument lacks substance. Who but the most rabid Eurocentrist could argue against “multiculturalism” as Gates defines it? Recent news events have clearly shown that attempting to re-define words to suit one’s own wishes brings only ridicule and loss of credibility.

         We could give Gates the benefit of the doubt and applaud his attempt to reclaim the word and assign to it the meaning he thinks it should have. However, for maximum impact, one must speak the language of one’s audience. Gates would be much more credible if he had found a new way to describe his vision of “truly humane learning” without using a word that has come to mean something entirely different in popular usage.

Unfortunately I no longer have the source citation for the essay by Gates that I quoted above.


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