Of all the issues plaguing the U.S.—rampant homophobia, extensive class inequality, profound ecological abuse, subtle bureaucratic surveillance and understated racism—New York’s Department of Education has one thing in mind: dinosaurs. According to CNN, approximately one week ago, New York’s Department of Education requested to ban 50 words from the city’s standardized tests. With the controversy that accompanied the list, the department claimed that they would abandon the plan.
This list included words like “divorce,” “Christmas,” “Halloween,” “television”and perhaps the most infamous, “dinosaur.” According to New York Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Sunransky, the purpose of banning these words was, “to be sensitive to student backgrounds and avoid unnecessary distractions that could invalidate test scores and give an inaccurate assessment of how students are doing.”
“Dinosaur” was added to the list because it might offend religious fundamentalists who denounce evolution. And here lies the interesting paradox in neo-liberal multiculturalism.
In the U.S., many of us are taught to respect the culture of others and understand existing differences, rather than denouncing them all together. The implication is that a mutual understanding will eliminate racism and ethnocentrism. Unfortunately, the byproduct of this is multiculturalism as spectacle, or an exotic consumption. Consider the Holi Festival the occurred on Ball Circle last week. Most of us don’t truly believe in these rituals, yet we indulge in this superficial promise of multiculturalism.
However, when we discuss fundamentalism—those who ultimately find truth in their beliefs—we perceive them as anti-cultural or perhaps more precisely, a threat to our own culture. Hence the controversy in banning the word, “dinosaur.”
The underlying argument may be that “objective” science asserts that dinosaurs did exist, but the Holi Festival is a spiritual undertaking, existing apart from objective truth. Again, when we view objective truth as a significant fact, fundamentalists are often reduced, not as being a part of a different culture, but ultimately to barbarism. Is this why science is not seen as culture, but existing outside of its parameters?
In this sense, it is possible to understand multiculturalism, and a broader Western culture, as the opiate of the masses, but not in the same sense that Karl Marx suggests. When multiculturalism becomes a platform of avoiding harassment, which is avoidance used as justification for banning “dinosaur,” we hope to be free from that very same harassment. The core value here is distancing others from ourselves, so we are free from social constraints by circumventing them, rather than dismantling them. In other words, our over-sensitivity in respecting other cultures is acceptable, as long as it does not intrude in our own lives. The meaning is truly self-serving.
Culture becomes merely a basic structure of our lifestyles, legitimized not by imminent truth but the practices in which we do not truly believe in.
Therefore, next time a department tries to ban the word “dinosaur,” we should ceaselessly criticize not just fundamentalism, but our own culture. This false multiculturalism does not dismantle racism or ethnocentrism; it is a cold indifference and separation from it.