Consider that it may be a mistake to declare one’s affiliation by declaring an order of priorities: I am “x” first and then “y.” It may be that the ordering of such identifications is precisely the problem produced by a discourse on multiculturalism which does not yet know how to relate the terms that it enumerates. It would be a great consolation, I suppose, to return to a ready-made universal perspective, and to compel everyone to identify with a universal moral attitude before they take on their various specific and parochial concerns. The problem emerges, however, when the meaning of “the universal” proves to be culturally variable, and the specific cultural articulations of “the universal”work against its claim to a transcultural status.

This is not to say that there ought to be no reference to the universal or that it has become, for us, an impossibility. On the contrary. All it means is that there are cultural conditions for its articulation which are not always the same, and that the term “universal” gains its meaning for us precisely through these decidedly less than universal conditions. This is a paradox that any injunction to adopt a universal attitude will encounter. For it may be that in one culture a set of rights are considered to be universally endowed, and that in another those very rights mark the limit to universalizability, i.e. “if we grant those people rights we will be undercutting the foundations of the universal as we know it.” This has become especially clear to me in the field of lesbian and gay human rights where “the universal” is a contested term, and where various cultures and various mainstream human rights groups voice doubt over whether lesbian and gay humans ought properly to be included in “the human” and whether their putative rights fit within the existing conventions governing the scope of rights considered universal.

Consider that to claim that there are existing conventions that govern the scope of rights described as universal is not to claim that that scope has been decided once and for all. In fact, it may be that the universal is only partially articulated, and that we do not yet know what forms it may take. The contingent and cultural character of the existing conventions governing the scope of universality does not deny the usefulness or importance of the term “universal.” It simply means that the claim of universality has not been fully or finally made and that it remains to be seen whether and how it will be further articulated. Indeed, it may well be politically important to claim that a given set of rights are universal even when existing conventions governing the scope of universality preclude precisely such a claim. Such a claim runs the good risk of provoking a radical rearticulation of universality itself. Whether the claim is preposterous, provocative, efficacious depends on the collective strength with which it is asserted, the institutional conditions of its assertion and reception, and the unpredictable political forces at work. But the uncertainty of its success is not enough of a reason not to make the claim.

One might enter various domains of culture in order to find there “examples” of world-citizens, and then to cull from those examples the self-same lesson, the self-same universal bearing. But is the relation between culture and the universal appropriately construed as that of an example and the moral dictum that it is said to support? In such cases, the examples are subordinate to the universal, and they all indicate the universal in the same way. But the articulation of the universal can happen only if we find ways to effect cultural translations between those various cultural “examples” — to see which versions of the universal are proposed and how and whether they might be reconciled with one another. When competing claims to the universal are made, it seems imperative to understand that cultures do not exemplify a ready-made universal, but that the universal is always culturally articulated, and that the complex process of learning how to read that claim is not something any of us can do outside of the difficult process of cultural translation. This translation will not be an easy one in which we reduce every cultural instance to a presupposed universality, nor will it be the enumeration of radical particularisms between which no communication is possible.

The risks will be that translation will become an imposition of a universal claim on a culture that resists it, or that those who defend the universal will domesticate the challenge posed by cultural differences by culling from that very culture an example of its own nascent universality, one which confirms that such a universality is already achieved. What kind of cultural imposition is it to claim that a Kantian may be found in every culture? For whereas there may be something like a world-reference in moral thinking or even a recourse to a version of universality, it would sidestep the specific cultural work to be done to claim that we have in Kant everything we might want to know about how moral reasoning works in various cultural contexts.

Importantly, then, the task that cultural difference sets for us is the articulation of universality through a difficult labor of translation. That labor seeks to transform the very terms which are made to stand for one another, and the movement of that unanticipated transformation establishes the universal as that which is yet to be achieved and which, in order to resist domestication, may never be fully or finally achievable.