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2007 02 20
Toronto Culture and Multiculture, Part II

In Toronto we'd like to think our multiculturalism has made us culturally rich. What other city provides such opportunities for tasting the world -- as when crossing Toronto? Yet, at the same time, in the very midst of Toronto's unrivaled multicultural diversity, we feel culturally deprived. We say, repeatedly, that Toronto lives in no one's imagination. The Globe & Mail said it. The Toronto Star said it. Toronto Life said it (twice). We say so as a matter of fact. We mention it as we might snow in winter or puddles after rain.

It’s puzzling, though. Why would we feel culturally starved by the banquet of Toronto multiculturalism? What is culture, after all, but shared experience and tradition – including culinary tradition? And, since we share such diverse experience and tradition in Toronto – how could we possibly feel culturally starved here?

It’s totally puzzling so long as we believe shared experience to be the source of culture. It isn’t, though. Came to me a couple years back – while lecturing, of all things. Very much in passing, I’d said that culture doesn’t come from shared experience. At lecture’s end, one of the course directors demanded I reveal where culture does come from – if not from shared experience. I tried not answering. With the tide of almost 200 students fidgeting to leave, I tried laughing it off. Said that was another lecture – for another day. But she insisted. Vehemently. And the students had stopped fidgeting. Tide halted mid-stride. As if they actually wanted to know. What to do? Had to say something. So I said culture comes from shared principle. I said it like it was the most obvious thing in the world. Which it was, after I’d said it. But, regardless how obvious now, I haven’t forgotten that moment. Mostly due to her shocked reaction. Dramatic expressing that the very notion of culture emerging from shared principle rather than experience not only flies in the face of materialism – but gives it a spectacular shiner to boot.

Why we starve for culture surrounded by such diversity of experience as Toronto offers can’t cease puzzling while we believe culture emerges merely from shared experience. Fact is, shared experience is to culture as the visible tip of an iceberg is to the glacial sheet from which icebergs shear. Culture is tectonic. It is shared interpreting the significance of experience – regardless whether the experience itself be shared, orally told or posted on YouTube. Culture is shared signification in light of common principles. Culture is shared meaning. Far beneath and beyond ways of people coinciding, it is the very identity of peoples. Culture is who we are and what we stand for. It is the nation building mortar of common thought – and the often devastating bondage of common thinking.

Total fiction – culture emerging merely from shared experience. Yet, for Toronto, it has proven a highly useful and convenient fiction. For seating diversity, Toronto is front row centre. Progressive as it gets in terms of multicultural diversity. All that and more. While elsewhere, far less spectacular diversity has been feared to cause trouble. Like, pretty much everywhere in the world. Thing is, we don’t fear such trouble in Toronto. Got nothing to fear here. We’re culturally rich and fear no culture clashing – that’s how progressive we are in Toronto.

Hardly. We’re multi-culturally diverse – not culturally rich. Culturally, we’re starved. Toronto lives in no one’s imagination. Being Torontonian means having nothing to declare. What’s there to declare? So long as we maintain culture as nothing but shared experience, habits and traditions, there’s nothing to declare. Were we to admit culture as identity signifying shared principles, there’d be plenty to declare. Our cultural – maybe even personal – principles. But, while only we keep from admitting it, we reduce culture to shared experience fictions. Including culinary shared experience. Like taste-testing each other – instead of declaring who we are and what we stand for. As if who we are were reducible to what, when and how we eat. As if it came down to what’s in our spice-racks. As if. Yet, thereby, we may continue congratulating ourselves on spice variety in Toronto life. As if spice variety sufficed making us culturally rich – not just multi-culturally diverse.

Very convenient fiction – culture as merely shared experience. Enables our believing variety of experience available sharing in Toronto makes us culturally rich. Perhaps more importantly, it encourages our illegitimating those persisting declaring themselves. Since there’s nothing to declare. Right? Maintaining culture as shared experience, we look very far down our noses at them going on about who they are and what they stand for. Wan’na get included in legitimate cultural exchange? Shut up and stop declaring. No faster way getting disqualified from Toronto life than walking the streets declaring who you are. Shut up, stop declaring and open a restaurant.

More than just convenient – our fiction of culture as shared experience. Safety measure, too. The more diverse we become, the more hazardous should too many of us start running the streets declaring ourselves. Declaring who we are, where we stand, what we run the streets for. Because, if too diverse many of us run streets declaring inevitably contradictory principles – well, sure, it might lead to culturally enriching discourse. It might get us thinking a little more about who we ought and might yet be. But far more likely, if we run the streets declaring ourselves, it’ll just get us clashing cultural principles right there in the streets. And most of us would rather avoid that. Much rather. Most of us escaped here to get away from the consequences of precisely that.

So we’re mostly agreed. Culture is just shared experience. We require nothing but multicultural diversity to enrich us culturally. Nothing cold about Toronto but occasional weather. We aren’t culturally starved here. Most of all, we don’t hold with all that declaring. We’ve got nothing to declare here. Far as we’re concerned, too much declaring illegitimates culture. Yet more personally – too much declaring illegitimates character.

It has worked well for us. Though impoverished culturally, we’ve enjoyed unrivalled multicultural diversity – without fearing cultures clashing. It’s really something, how much we don’t make the (bad) news when it comes to cultures clashing. But we’re running into trouble now. In her February 8th Globe&Mail article (Do ethnic enclaves impede integration?) – Marina Jimenez warns: “Canada’s famed multicultural mosaic has morphed into a series of monocultural neighbourhoods. And she cites some shocking statistics. Apparently, in 1981, there were only six “ethnic enclaves” in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. By 2001, however, there were 254.

Sure sounds like trouble. But what sort? Should we look to a future when all our neighbourhoods become so thoroughly and pervasively monocultural that they proclaim independence and demand sovereignty association – or worse? Of course not. Neighbourhoods can’t secede. Trouble is, though, that they can – and increasingly seem to – withdraw into monocultural enclaves. Which, taken to eventual extremes suggested by Marina Jimenez, would mean irretrievable cultural fragmentation. City and country wide cultural fragmentation. In other words, an end to viable continuity across city and country – to be replaced by culturally segregated communities regarding one another with increasing suspicion and through increasing mutual alienation. Finally, there would be hostility – cultures clashing in the streets.

But it’s not that monocultural enclaves impede integration. That’s not at the root of this trouble. No. It’s that we’ve gone too far maintaining the culture as merely shared experience fiction. We’ve culturally impoverished ourselves too much in Toronto, Canada. We’ve starved ourselves to the point where there’s no culture remaining to integrate with, other than the kind of multiculturalism we encounter at food festivals, festivals that leave us hungry because their sustenance only a shadow of a meal. In Toronto, Canada we’ve lost all clue who we are and what we stand for. Thus, it’s only natural for those who retain some however residual identity in former cultural principles to seek each other out. Yes, they have come here searching better lives. Yes, they have materially improved their lives coming here. But not culturally. Much as 'they' might wish to join with 'us' culturally – there’s nothing here for them to join. So why should they impoverish themselves as we have?

We must figure out who we are and what we stand for. Not so that our cultural principles preclude or even occlude those of newer arrivals. Precisely not that. To the contrary. It’s about finding such mortar as will preserve our cultural mosaic from fragmenting entirely. We must figure out what it means to be Canadian – and Torontonian. We must so that those arriving will at least have something declarable to integrate with – beyond recipe sharing.

To be concluded next week with a positive proposal for cultural (re)discovery. (Part I may be read here).

[Peter Fruchter teaches in Humanities at York University and writes about the nature of truth (and truths of nature). North America is his third continent.]

[Cultural mosaic image by Jose Ongpin and used via a Creative Commons license.]
[email this story] Posted by Peter Fruchter on 02/20 at 01:19 PM

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