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Renewing Transcultural Dialogues in the Age of the Anthropocene


Diana Brydon. Paper for the 4th International Conference on Multicultural Discourses. “Multi-Inter-or Trans-cultural Communication: Reflections”


Questions about the survival of multiculturalism and the roles of transcultural dialogue abound these days. Today’s talk argues for the necessity of renewing transcultural dialogues about multiculturalism within nation-states and as part of a global dialogue about immigration and refugee resettlement. I further argue that in order to renew these dialogues effectively, we need to change the terms of the debate. Instead of thinking within the established categories of current discourse, we need to pay attention to emergent theories stressing the entanglements rather than the separations of humans and their environments. My title refers to the age of the Anthropocene—literally, the age of Man. The Anthropocene has gained currency in the last five years but it is highly contested. Theoretical and political arguments are advanced against using this term to signal the current climate change crisis in which human beings are changing the geological face of the earth and much more besides. In using the term here I am signaling three points. 1. There is a link between current humanitarian crises around refugee movements, state multiculturalism, and climate change. 2. Because these crises are linked, the best way to address them, is to start thinking them together.  3. These linkages are complex, site-specific, and in flux. Yes, climate change is a global event, but its local impacts are being felt, and met, or not met, differentially.

Therefore, there is no single model for addressing cross-cultural communication and climate change in ways that can work in all times and places. With that warning in mind, I will raise for discussion the solution offered by Carlos Fraenkel, in his book Teaching Plato in Palestine set in dialogue with the agonistic politics of Chantal Mouffe.  Fraenkel records philosophical conversations in a variety of locations across the globe that each model different ways of cultivating an open-ended culture of debate. An alternative model of debate is recorded in Jason W. Moore’s edited book, Anthropocene or Capitolocene?, Is this the Age of Man or the Age of Capital? How we name a problem matters.

In academia, we need to strengthen attitudes of openness and avoid foreclosure of important debates. In politics, there comes a time of decision when choices must be made. For such situations, Chantal Mouffe’s model of democracy that she calls “agonistic pluralism,” is most helpful. She argues that “a central task of democratic politics is to provide the institutions which will permit conflicts to take an ‘agonistic’ form, where the opponents are not enemies—not antagonists– but adversaries among whom exists a conflictual consensus.” On some things, we can agree to disagree. In this talk, I argue that multicultural policies can enable a democratic practice in which, conflicts will not disappear but will be “less likely to take an antagonistic form.” Like Fraenkel, Mouffe argues that “the democratic ideal can be inscribed differentially in a variety of contexts.” Democratization does not require Westernization. I argue that multiculturalism too can work differently in different times and places, and that it may help us imagine a world beyond Western notions of cosmopolitanism.

Today, I use Anthropocene rather than rival terms for current environmental crises because it allows us to stage such debates within a broader frame of reference than attention to capital alone allows. Whether we stress the impact of humans on their environment in a general way—the Anthropocene—or focus more specifically on the system of capitalism and its impact, these big picture frames for understanding our global situation require attention.  Our ideas about culture need to change from the terms set by a focus on identity, possessive individualism, traditional humanisms, and the borders they erect toward models that recognize the co-dependencies of humans within a world of entangled frictions and flux.

The Anthropocene fails to capture that necessary shift in emphasis even as it currently stands out as a possible successor to globalization as a new grand theory to describe the challenge of our times. Coined in 2000 by the atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, the Anthropocene has been proposed by a team of earth scientists as the latest addition to the Geological Time Scale, following the Holocene, the epoch that began at the end of the last Ice Age. While there are multiple definitions of the kinds of evidence that might justify the naming of a new epoch, the key determining feature of the Anthropocene is its emphasis on the observable effects of human activity on the planet. It’s a type of grand narrative that means different things to different people. My interest is in the way it pushes our thinking beyond interdisciplinary dialogue into bringing together categories that we have traditionally been encouraged to keep apart: local and global, nature and culture, public and private, national identity and multicultural identity.

My argument follows in three parts, I will first speak about the Canadian history of multiculturalism and its current exceptional status within the international scene. I will then discuss Carolos Fraenkel’s ideas about cultivating an open-ended culture of dialogue. In my conclusion, I will return to the transcultural challenge of thinking the Anthropocene and beyond it.

  1. Current multicultural debates and the Canadian exception

People point to a number of recent events to support their views that multiculturalism is dead. Numerous terrorist attacks on civilians across Europe. Brexit: the United Kingdom’s vote to exit the European Union. The election of Donald Trump in the recent United States elections. Escalating climate change is logically the biggest threat facing people today. Yet fears of foreigners, immigrants, and refugees, seem to be much stronger—especially within countries of the global North, which, objectively, are dealing with smaller numbers than are many of the countries of the global South. As a result of these fears, the embrace of xenophobia is on the rise in many parts of the Anglophone and European world. Except in Canada. What does this mean? Why is Canada so different? Is it really that different? Is there a Canadian model that can be exported around the world? Does Canada really offer one vision of a viable future for thinking about how to make intercultural communication work? If it is a form of multi-, inter-, or trans-cultural communication that makes Canada work as well as it does, then what is the link between these forms of diversity and a secure and equitable society? This conference is devoted to discussing some of these questions. My contribution derives from my dual role as an analyst of Canada and a student of globalization. I hope it will stimulate further discussion during the rest of the conference.

This talk will chart a path for thinking about these questions more deeply. Canada’s difference is a product of geography, history, some shrewd decisions at moments of opportunity, and a certain amount of luck. The specificity of the Canadian experience makes it difficult to export as a model for anyone else. But it may suggest strategies for enabling transculturalism. I prefer transculturalism to multi- or inter-culturalism because it suggests that culture is created by human beings in interaction with each other and with what Jane Bennett calls the “vibrant matter” of their environments. Culture is never static. It is always produced. Trans suggests this interactive and entangled dimension of culture in ways that multi- and inter- as modifiers do not.

Canada is a settler-colonial state, populated by immigrants, some of whom took the country from its first inhabitants through a combination of force, legislated appropriations, and dishonoured treaties. Not all areas have treaties and there are substantial disagreements about how the treaties should be interpreted and honoured today. Although indigenous people are a small portion of the total population of the country, their role as recently recognized founding nations and original owners of the unceded territory of the land, plays an important part in how Canada understands itself as a nation today. They cannot be seen as simply one component making up the multicultural nation and their demands for decolonization need to be heard. As an immigrant-receiving settler-colonial state, Canada has always needed immigrants to power its economy and populate its territory. Its geography has made it possible for Canada to pick and choose its immigrants. Unlike Europe, Canada is bounded by three seas. It is not easy to get to Canada, and in the past, even the few ships with refugees who managed to make the long journey, were sometimes sent back rather than accepted into the country. Canada has regulated its immigrant and refugee intake since 1869, two years after it was officially founded as a nation. Like the other so-called white Commonwealth countries, Canada took most of its immigrants from Europe until a switch from family reunification policies toward a points based system awarded for skills and language proficiency was introduced in 1967.

My point here is that Canadian immigration has always been managed by the state in the interests of the state. Canada has almost always been selective in the immigrants it has approved and even with the recent increase in intake under the new Trudeau federal government, Canada takes fewer immigrants, proportionate to its population, than does Sweden. In Canada, immigration and multiculturalism are joint state projects. Multiculturalism works to integrate immigrants into the Canadian diversity-based national identity, encouraging the retention of languages and customs to the extent that they are compatible with the Canadian values protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Canada adopted an official policy of multiculturalism at a particular point in its history, under the direction of Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, in part as a way of managing sovereignty demands from Quebec. Biculturalism came first. After the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism that ran from 1963 to 1969, Parliament passed the Official Languages Act in 1969. The Canadian Multiculturalism Act followed in 1988. That policy has been contentious ever since, and it has evolved continuously to the point where it is more appropriate to call it a model of transculturalism. Neither the mosaic nor the melting pot work well anymore as images of how transculturalism works in national practice. With transculturalism, established borders become porous and leaky; they do not disappear but they shift, depending in part on where the viewer stands within or outside them, and in part on the functions they perform.

From this brief history, you can see five distinct features of Canadian multiculturalism. 1. It was made necessary by Canada’s need for immigrants and its need to both accommodate and contain Quebec nationalism and French speakers across the nation. 2. It was a state-sponsored initiative, conceived and managed by the state in its interests. 3. As the needs of the state have changed, so have its immigration policies and its attitudes to multiculturalism. 4. Canada was the first nation in the world to legislate multiculturalism as an official policy and over the years, it has come to shape many Canadians’ vision of themselves. 5. As a policy, it seems to have worked quite well. But it works because immigration has always been managed and immigration numbers are relatively low. Canadian support for immigration is pragmatic. Demographers have suggested that the points-based system has meant that immigrants to Canada come from a wide variety of places, ensuring diversity, and preventing a high concentration of members from any one group.

Still, one wonders, what makes this diversity work as well as it does in Canada when it does not seem to be working in Australia, Britain, or the U.S.– countries one might think have similar democracies? Perhaps most Canadians feel little fear of immigrants because their own lives are relatively secure. Canadians enjoy a range of public policies that provide a significant degree of security. In addition to universal public medical insurance and an excellent public education system, we have the Canada Pension Plan, Old Age Security, employment insurance, paid maternity leave, welfare, and smaller programs, all designed to ensure that fewer people fall through the cracks. We have the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, put in place in 1982. Teachers and government workers are well paid. These protections make Canadians less fearful of others and help ensure that Canada remains a country of high social mobility.

Some of these programs, such as medicare, multiculturalism, and the Charter, constitute the fabric of Canadian identity, which otherwise is less nationalistic than that of comparator nations. These programs are evidence of Canadians’ willingness to change with the times, and adapt our national culture to changing views of what is just. Our relatively early abolishment of the death penalty and adoption of same sex marriage are further testament to our willingness to see our culture as constantly evolving and growing. Such a view is consistent with that expressed by a majority on our Supreme Court, which sees the law as a living tree rather than frozen from the time of its first constitutional enactments.

I have been thinking about these issues because I have been asked about the Canadian model increasingly since the election of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government in the fall of 2015. The Liberals, and it seemed Canadians more generally, embraced a policy of welcoming Syrian refugees, promising to reset relations with Canadian First Nations, and appointing a Cabinet that reflected Canadian diversity, including for the first time, half of them women. The Cabinet includes Sikhs, a young woman who was an Afghan refugee as a child, and several members of different First Nations, The official face of our government is diverse. Without genuine social mobility on all fronts, these appointments could be dismissed as mere window dressing. They represent a beginning on which the nation needs to build.

So multiculturalism appears to be fully entrenched, generally embraced, and still evolving in Canada. Quebec embraces a policy of laicité, or official secularism, derived from France. This policy can sometimes conflict with values of multiculturalism in other parts of Canada. But Quebec does not embrace insularity or xenophobia. Quebec advocates its own policy of interculturalism. The difference is one of emphasis.

The old multicultural model of a mosaic is now seen as too static. It suggests that culture is a possession rather than a process. Surveys tell us that most Canadians, including Quebeckers, believe that immigrants should adapt to Canadian values, especially our belief in the equality of persons. How that belief is manifested is still a matter of debate. But the belief itself is core. Is women’s equality best respected through an affirmation of her choices as an individual, or through an affirmation of the state’s official commitment to secularism in all things? Should a woman’s individual right to choose her clothing take precedence over the state’s commitment to secularism in attire as well as actions? There is no simple answer. But Canadians continue to have the debate. The more we explore such questions together, in respectful dialogue, the more likely we are to come eventually to some consensual decisions about how best to govern our lives together, at least until better ideas emerge.  We may also continue to agree to disagree on implementation. The protections afforded by the Canadian Charter make it possible for Canadians to engage in risky debates together.

To sum up: In this section, I have argued that state provisions of a social safety net, active protections of rights, openness to legislating progressive social change, and above all, institutional supports for these provisions, enable members of Canadian society to engage in the cultivation of an open-ended culture of debate, the focus of my second section,

  1. Cultivating an open-ended culture of debate

In the title of this talk I used the word, dialogue, rather than debate. That was deliberate. When I delivered a talk in Sweden about the open society and stressed the need for debate, some in the audience worried that debates were too confrontational. Too often, they are conducted to win points, instead of collaboratively working together to discover truth. Sadly, this is a dominant tradition of debate in Anglophone cultures. We saw it at its worst in the recent U.S. elections. That is not what I mean here.

An open-ended debate in a truly transcultural mode is more like a dialogue conducted with the goal of deepening understanding across differences and creating the kind of culture in which disagreements can be welcomed as opportunities to search together for emergent truths and values. Carlos Fraenkel calls this kind of discussion an “open-ended debate.” Accepted cultural norms may remain “hidden and inarticulate” under normal circumstances, so we “should welcome the disruptions that compel us to confront them.” His views come from his personal experience as a child of Jewish Brazilian immigrants who fled the dictatorship to live for a while in Germany, and then returned to Brazil when he was a young boy. He now teaches philosophy at McGill University in Canada.

What I find most valuable about his book is the individual case studies he narrates of his extended encounters with different communities around the world to engage in this kind of debate around the issues most immediate to their situations. Through the stories he tells of the workshops he ran, he hopes to “show by example and argument that making philosophy part of our personal and public lives is something worthwhile.”

He makes some bold claims: “Can philosophy save the Middle East? It can.” Through a seminar he co-teaches at Al-Quds University, the Palestinian university in Jerusalem, he hopes to raise questions about philosophy, politics and religion that might open “a new perspective on the Middle East.” He expects the texts to resonate differently there than with his students in Montreal, and they do. With two professors in the classroom, formed within different religious identities, it becomes easier to dramatize the procedures of open-ended debate. His method is to help his students “rediscover the wide variety of positions that were defended in the history of Islamic thought,” thereby opening discussion beyond what Vandana Shiva calls a “monoculture of the mind.” For Shiva, this phrase describes the authoritarian blindness that drove the Green Revolution and its destruction of seed biodiversity and local seed sovereignty in favour of bioengineered and expensive seeds owned by a corporate monopoly. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak adapts the phrase—monoculture of the mind– to describe the denial of difference within social, economic, and political spheres. It has become one of my favourite metaphors for the closed society. We see such closures happening in many parts of the world today.

Fraenkel starts his workshop by connecting his experience  with that of his workshop’s participants. From the Middle East, he goes to Indonesia, then a Hasidic Jewish community in New York, a public high school in Salvador, Brazil, and finally Akwesasne, one of the largest Mohawk reserves in North America, just outside Montreal. These latter two raise the citizenship questions that most interest me. In each, he takes his workshops beyond a university setting into versions of the public sphere.

“Citizen Philosophers in Brazil” raises questions about how to achieve equality in one of the world’s most unequal societies and “Word-Warriors: Philosophy in Mohawk Land” considers the challenges of designing self-governance for a community of roughly twelve thousand Mohawks whose territory is “crisscrossed by five national and provincial borders: Canada, the United States, Quebec, Ontario, and New York.” In addition to these jurisdictions, there are two officially recognized governing bodies and two traditional Mohawk governing bodies that carry authority with the people but not with the Canadian or American governments. Given the community’s long history of colonization, Fraenkel explains: “some of the most fundamental questions require new answers: how to reconcile modernity and tradition, what it means to live well, who should rule, and who counts as a Mohawk.”  In both places, the value of what he is trying to do is questioned, especially by those whose authority would be undermined by an open culture of debate.

In Brazil, he is challenged by both elitist academic philosophers in the universities and by pragmatic teachers who teach to the tests that govern students’ life chances in a system where access to good higher education is limited and mostly denied to the racialized poor. In Akwesasne, his motives for approaching their community are challenged as is the value of the discussions he can offer. But in both cases, interesting discussions are recorded although no conclusions are reached. Fraenkel concedes that philosophical discussions “are often inconclusive.” But he contends that conclusiveness has been over-valued. What he offers are some of the tools for arriving at decisions and revising them as times and needs change. Those tools are what we in the university community can offer to the shaping and conduct of our respective national debates about the values of multiculturalism, interculturalism, and transculturalism.

Fraaenkel concludes people today are lucky that globalizing processes are making it impossible for people “to avoid exposure to beliefs and values different from our own” because this situation puts us all “under pressure to justify what we think and do.” He admits, though, that “diversity and disagreement on their own” are insufficient. His argument is for fostering “a culture of debate—an institutional framework in which diversity and disagreement can be transformed into a joint search for the truth.” An open-ended culture of debate is a particular form of transculturality, in which cultures co-create each other through debate. Fraenkel believes people need training in “techniques of debate,” how to clarify one’s views and meet objections, and training in the “virtues of debate,” that is, in “valuing the truth more than winning an argument.” We need to discuss further how to encourage such a culture, what institutional supports we can devise to support it, and what societal structures inhibit its growth.

Fraenkel’s stories are good to think with. His account of the opposition his project met from established university Philosophy departments in Brazil is discouraging. Could his techniques for encouraging an open-ended culture of debate be scaled up from small group discussion to a nation-wide level? Could they be adapted to calm fears of immigration and multicultural policies on the larger scale of nation-wide discussions?  He believes that “If we can transform disagreements arising from diversity into a culture of debate, they cease to be a threat to social peace.” Is this too optimistic?

In Canada, there are some examples of how such debates have worked.  Canadians have now developed a long tradition of debating what counts as a “reasonable accommodation” of practices that fall outside established hegemonic societal norms. The discussions don’t get any easier, yet in the long run, they can lead to progressive social change. Canadians used to debate the appropriateness of the Sikh male turban within public spaces. That is no longer an issue. Neither is same-sex marriage. Gender neutral bathrooms have entered the public domain in Canada with little fuss. In some circles, however, the niqab still arouses emotional debates.  These public signs of difference can act as flashpoints for violence in some constituencies, whereas in others, when conducted in an open-minded spirit of inquiry, they can lead people into deeper discussions of societal values.

Central to an “open-ended culture of debate” is the willingness to change your mind after careful examination of the issues, if the evidence warrants it. It allows for achieving greater clarity about why certain values matter and what is at stake in defending them. Before it was defunded in 2006, the Law Commission of Canada performed a similar function, consulting widely on emergent issues of concern and making recommendations on necessary updating of the law to take account of changing circumstances, needs, knowledges, and social norms. After consultation, it recommended legalizing same sex marriage and the government of the day then followed through on that recommendation. If the rule of law is to maintain its legitimacy and hold respect, it needs to work to bring itself closer to ideals of justice. It is in this sense that Fraenkel too believes that through informed discussion, people can progress.

There are two potential problems with his argument. In his defense of reason, does he pay insufficient attention to the role of emotion?  In his core value of freedom of expression, is he at risk of promotion a form of ethnocentricism? He addresses these, but questions remain. I raise his book today to ask the question behind my paper: Given a problem as big as the Anthropocene, will an open-ended culture of debate be sufficient for achieving communal agreements on appropriate climate change action in time?

  1. Anthropocene Imaginaries

The Anthropocene is a transworld problem but how transcultural are Anthropocene debates? How open are these debates to ways of understanding the world that were colonized by Western cultures? The Anthropocene as a concept is used in two ways, each of which privileges human agency. It is used by many to criticize the ways in which humans are killing other species, polluting the environment, and causing climate change. And it is also used by some to suggest that humans will be able to solve the problems they have created through further technical ingenuity. The first use argues that humans need to change their ways; the second, that they must continue even more aggressively on the same path.

In this context, we need to change the terms of the debate. Non-Western cultures suggest imagining a world in which human beings are not the sole figures with agency, a world in which we exist among many other living things with their own kinds of interacting agencies. Furthermore, far from being distinct from these worlds, human beings are also entangled within them.  Once, such cultures were consigned to the past and their insights were disregarded. Now, times are changing. Their ways of knowing are being revived, and they are finding complementary partners among many Western-trained scientists.



The work of scientists, poets, and indigenous peoples around the globe are coming together in ways not previously seen. Alternatives to neoliberal imaginaries of a universal system are advanced within the justice-seeking stories explaining the pluriversal realities of subalternized peoples around the globe. They have long recognized what physicist Karen Barad calls the “entanglement of matter and meaning,” Those entanglements are respected within decolonial, indigenous, and new materialist framings of how to live well through decolonizing the modes of knowing derived from colonial modernity. These theories challenge what Julia Suarez-Krabbe (citing her indigenous interlocutors) calls colonial modernity’s “death project.” In such work, the “slow violence” (Nixon) of imperial and environmental devastation are shown to be inseparable from the epistemic violence of their imaginings. Illustrative counterparts to these theories may be found in the poetry and fiction of many writers from around the world, whose metaphors and stories can help readers understand what is at stake in imagining alternative ways of inhabiting the world as our home. Learning to listen, to read, and to interpret such imaginings can redirect transcultural dialogue toward the values of respect, reciprocity, and negotiation that are necessary for genuine thinking and communication to take place. Donna Haraway offers the idea of “staying with the trouble” as her model for rejecting both cynical despair and naïve hope as responses to the challenge of our times. To stay with the trouble is to accept the challenge of difficult forms of knowledge, and of living together in our various localities within the world. Haraway pushes multi and transcultural imaginaries even further beyond anthropocentric formations to argue for the need to “make kin” with other beings. Such a shift in thinking need not be at the expense, however, of human suffering around the globe.

Many refugees and so-called economic migrants are fleeing environmental disasters, desertification, rising ocean levels, and other kinds of violence resulting from escalating climate change, These problems are pressing. More stable nations cannot accept all of them but we must learn how to help more effectively, by welcoming them into our societies where possible, by helping them in place, and by addressing the causes of their dispossession. These causes are multiform but they are connected to imaginaries that make them seem insoluble. The problems need to be addressed concurrently on at least three scales of engagement. 1. To make life more tolerable, wherever possible, where people are; 2. To aid the movements of peoples to resettle elsewhere, when necessary; and 3. To change the kinds of thinking that have led our world to its present state of crisis. Canada is not doing enough on any of these fronts. Nonetheless, states remain crucial actors whose actions can be influenced by an engaged population. But, neither citizens nor states can make the necessary shifts in attitude and policy without fundamentally changing the terms in which we stage our public policy debates.

The research for this paper was funded, in part, through the Canada Research Chairs program.

Works Cited

Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2007.

Fraenkel, Carlos. Teaching Plato in Palestine: Philosophy for a Divided World.

Hamilton, Clive. Christophe Bonneuil and Francois Genenne, eds. The Anthropocence and the Global Environmental Crisis. New York: Routledge, 2015.

Haraway, Donna. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Cthulucene. Durham & London: Duke University Pfress, 2016.

Moore, Jason W., ed. Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism. Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2016.

Mouffe, Chantal. Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically. London: Verso, 2013.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2011.

Shiva, Vandana. “Moonocultures of the Mind,” Trumpeter 10.4 (1993): 1-11.

Suarez-Krabbe, Julia. Race, Rights and Rebels: Alternatives to Human Rights and Development from the Global South. London & New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.


One Comment
  1. Thank you for your insights. I too find that Karen Barad’s “entanglement of matter and meaning” is congruent with the indigenous philosophy.

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