Friday, December 24, 2010

In praise of multiculturalism

There is a very good article by Nick Cohen in Standpoint about the hounding of a great Muslim Indian artist by Hindu nationalists. Read it all.

He raised doubts for me though when he wrote this:
At the heart of multicultural theory lies a trap. Of all the reasons to be wary of unelected religious leaders asking the state to suspend freedom of speech to spare their tender feelings, not the smallest is that selective censorship leaves liberals with no argument against sectarians from the dominant denomination or ethnic group. In India, multiculturalism has led to the majority — or rather demagogues claiming to represent the majority — to behave as if it were a persecuted minority.
Multiculturalism has become one of the targets for parts of the anti-totalitarian left, as well as some long-standing enemies on the right. Alarmed by the rise of jihadi terrorism and sectarian violence both have been speaking loosely of the perils of multicultural policies and argued instead for that old trope of 'integration'. This always makes me anxious and then I came across this splendid piece from Anushka Asthana, a personal account of the experience of growing up in an Anglo/Indian family, defending multicultural principles to the core.
I was listening to the Today programme on Radio 4 when security minister Pauline Neville Jones came on to talk about government efforts to tackle home-grown extremism. "We do think that the previous policy... of multiculturalism, which on the whole emphasised the differences between people, was a mistaken route," she said. The presenter, Justin Webb, carried on with the conversation: no flinch; no surprise; no questions; not even a pause for breath. "For god's sake," I screeched.

Because when did we, as a society, agree that the great multicultural experiment had failed? Where is the proof that policies that specifically celebrate different identities and cultures across our nation fuel extremism in a tiny minority?

It is a great question and one that she answers well. I would go further, I would argue that the critics of multiculturalism are making two categorical errors. They are confusing diversity with relativism and cultural practice with far right ethnic and religious nationalism.

I think that we need to unpack precisely what we are talking about here. Firstly, we have always lived in multi-cultural societies. How else could Disraeli have written of Britain being two nations in the 19th Century? North and south, urban, suburban and rural, rich and poor - above all rich and poor - each have their own distinctive cultures and often separate lives and tastes. So what we really mean when we talk of multiculturalism today is something a bit different. We mean race. Opposition to multiculturalism can sometimes be soft racism.

Secondly, the argument that the whole idea of multiculturalism and related official policy has got it wrong, leading to isolated communities, vastly overrates the impact of policy or even 'theory'. OK governments do not always help; faith schools seem a neat way to create segregated schooling for example and there has been some egregious grovelling to certain nasty self-appointed 'leaders'. However, what produced distinct ethnic areas was not government policy. It was both the internal pressures of choice and cohesion and, much more importantly, the external ones of exclusion, poverty and racism. Multiculturalism is about removing the racism, thus allowing for inclusion without abandoning or devaluing other cultures. It is far weaker as a device for examining economic disadvantage, yet it is, at heart, a path to integration, opening up choices and opportunities.

So the trap Nick Cohen talks about is not a trap at the heart of multicultural theory, but two traps hidden in the liberal rejection of it. One lures the unsuspecting into alliances with soft racism, despite the best of intentions. The other is a cover for a massive failure of judgement, patronising the objects of your pity, thus allowing thoroughly nasty and unrepresentative types to win an uncritical audience by claiming to speak for them.

So why did that misjudgement take place? One reason could be that multiculturalism was not seen, as it should be, as being intrinsically connected to human rights. Diversity is welcome, misogyny is not. Diversity, equality and justice link arms and march together and so if there is one area of convergence in multi-cultural Britain it is towards universal standards of human rights, something that is lost on cultural relativists.

The idiosyncratic French philosopher Henri Bergson saw progress as the narrowing of the division between 'us' and 'them'. He was writing at a time when the view that all will be made right as long as certain groups are exterminated was being widely propagated. Now the politics of extermination are with us again. There are groups willing to define others as those to be eliminated for some imagined slight, ethnic impurity or religious unbelief. They are dangerous and need confronting. And this is where confusion has crept in. The very existence of this politics is seen as the result of one of the most effective means of countering it.

Multiculturalism succeeds because it is not about separation, it is about acceptance; inclusion rather than exclusion; seeing 'them' as 'us'. The demand to integrate is not really inclusive, it is a rejection; be like 'us' and you might become one of 'us', stay as you are and you remain 'them' - a thoroughly unwelcome 'them'. Multiculturalism, in contrast, offers diversity. Yet that diversity does not mean the toleration of injustice, it demands a respect for human rights. And this is what is meant by multicultural tolerance, not accepting the unacceptable or romanticising cruelty, but enjoying diversity and respecting difference.

It is easy to misuse the idea of multiculturalism, but there is nothing new about that. Just because authoritarian neo-fascists are fond of using the word 'freedom' and highly undemocratic regimes are prone to referring to themselves as 'democracies' does not negate freedom and democracy as ideas. Similarly with multiculturalism, its exploitation by the unscrupulous should not mean its abandonment.

Globalisation has tempted us with differing visions of homogeneity; a global market, a common culture or the idea of a revived universal humanism, for example. So it is good to be reminded of the value of a cultural and linguistic diversity that does not reject the benefits of modernity, but enhances it with a variety of patterns of living. In particular, Asthana's conclusion is spot on. We do not face a choice between multiculturalism and integration, the two are complementary, one facilitating the other. We should celebrate it rather than sagely nod our heads and discuss how it has failed.


Graeme said...

Have you read Amartya Sen's Violence and Identity? It's well worth your while if you haven't. It isn't by any means a flawless work, but it's a superb antidote to the "clash of civilisations" type of thinking and really should be a necessary touchstone for thinking and writing on the subject.

Anonymous said...

Well, what does one expect from Justin Webb? He's as much a journalist as Chris Moyles. in 20 years Today has gone from Rehead to airheads.

SnoopyTheGoon said...

Hi Peter. Granted, I am late with a response (sort of), but nevertheless.