can multiculturalism work?

institut français, london, 16 november 2002

Much of the problem in a debate such as this is a confusion between two different meanings of multiculturalism - multiculturalism as ideology and multiculturalism as lived experience.

When most people say that multiculturalism is a good thing what they mean is the experience of living in a society that is less insular, less homogenous, more vibrant and cosmopolitan than before.

Those who advocate multiculturalism as an ideology are, however, talking about something different. Multiculturalism, they argue, requires the public recognition and affirmation of cultural differences. We live in a world, so the argument runs, in which there are deep-seated conflicts between cultures embodying different values. Different peoples and cultures have different values, beliefs and truths, many of which are incommensurate but all of which are valid in their own context. Social justice requires not just that individuals are treated as political equals, but that their cultural beliefs are also treated as equally valid, and indeed are institutionalised in the public sphere. As the American scholar Iris Young puts it 'groups cannot be socially equal unless their specific experience, culture and social contributions are publicly affirmed and recognised.'

I want to suggest that such multiculturalism as ideology is not only politically reactionary, but also undermines much of what is valuable about multiculturalism as lived experience.

At the heart of the problem of multiculturalism is its confusion of political equality with cultural identity. Equality of cultural identity is not the same as political equality. Indeed, it undermines the possibility of any such equality. First, because political equality requires a distinction between the public and private spheres. The private sphere is inherently unequal. Political equality only becomes possible with the creation of a ring-fenced public sphere, which everyone can enter as political equals, whatever their cultural, economic or ethnic backgrounds. The creation of such a sphere is one of the great advances of modernity. The demand for the public recognition for individual or cultural differences is, on the other hand, a demand to erase the distinction between the public and the private spheres, and hence to undermine the possibility of real equality.

Second, political equality requires, not a plurality of meanings, but a common measure of judgement. The very demand that we accord equal recognition to cultures is an appeal to a universalistic principle of social justice. But the possibility of establishing any such principle is, ironically, undermined by the embrace of a pluralistic outlook.

To treat different cultures with equal respect (indeed to treat them with any kind of respect at all) we have to be able to compare one with the other. The principle of difference cannot provide any standards that oblige us to respect the 'difference' of others. At best, it invites our indifference to the fate of the Other. At worst it licenses us to hate and abuse those who are different. Why, after all, should we not abuse and hate them? On what basis can they demand our respect or we demand theirs?

What this suggests is that we can either recognise people as equal, or we can recognise cultures as equal. We can't do both.

Equality arises from fact that humans are political creatures and possess a capacity for culture. But the fact that all humans possess a capacity for culture does not mean that all cultures are equal. Some societies, some political systems, some cultural forms, are better than others: more just, more free, more enlightened, and simply more conducive to human progress.

Clearly no human can live outside of culture. But that is not to say they have to live inside a particular one. Many multiculturalists, however, often confuse the idea of humans as culture-bearing creatures with that of humans as having to bear a particular one. To view humans as culture-bearing is to view them as social beings, and hence as transformative beings. It suggests that humans have the capacity for change, for progress, and for the creation of universal moral and political forms through reason and dialogue.

To view humans as having to bear specific cultures is, on the contrary, to deny such a capacity for transformation. It suggests that every human being is so shaped by a particular culture that to challenge or undermine that culture would be to undermine the very dignity of that individual. It suggests that the biological fact of, say, Bangladeshi ancestry somehow make a human being incapable of living well except as a participant of Bangladeshi culture. The idea of culture once connoted all that freed humans from the blind weight of tradition, has now, in the hands of multiculturalists, become identified with that very burden.

In large part, this denial of the transformative character of human existence is the product of political disillusionment and defeat. The end of the Cold War, the collapse of the left, the defeat of most liberation movements in the third world and the demise of social movements in the West, have all transformed political consciousness. In this process, the quest for equality has increasingly been abandoned in favour of the claim to a diverse society. Campaigning for equality means challenging accepted practices, being willing to march against the grain, to believe in the possibility of social transformation. Conversely, celebrating differences between peoples allows us to accept society as it is - it says little more than 'We live in a diverse world, enjoy it'. As the American writer Nancy Fraser has put it, 'The remedy required to redress injustice will be cultural recognition, as opposed to political-economic redistribution.' And therein lies the fundamental problem - multiculturalism inevitably fades into a plea to be included in, rather than a demand for social transformation.

The real question we need to ask ourselves is why we should value diversity. There is nothing good in itself about diversity. It is important because it allows us to compare and contrast different values, beliefs and lifestyles, make judgements upon them, and decide which are better and which worse. It's important, in other words, because it allows us to engage in political dialogue and debate that can, paradoxically, help create more universal values and beliefs.

But it is precisely such dialogue and debate, and the making of such judgements, that multiculturalism attempts to suppress in the name of 'tolerance' and 'respect'. I've lost count, for instance, of the number of occasions over the past decade I've been refused permission by both newspaper and radio editors to quote from Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses because it was considered to cause too much 'offence'. The very thing that is valuable about diversity - the clashes and conflicts that it brings about - is what contemporary multiculturalists most fear.

Multiculturalists often suggest to me that they deal with the messy realties of the world, while I, as an Enlightenment universalist, think of the word in clearcut black and white terms. In fact, the opposite is the case. Multiculturalists are frightened of the messiness of the world, want everything nicely parcelled up, free of conflict, all neat and ordered. And such order can only come at the cost of our liberties.

Consider, for instance, Tariq Modood's demand for what he calls an 'equality encompassing public ethnicity: equality as not having to hide or apologise for one's origins, family or community, but requiring others to show respect for them, and adapt public attitudes and arrangements so that the heritage they represent is encouraged rather than contemptuously expect them to wither away.'

But why should I, as an atheist, be expected to show respect for Christian, Islamic or Jewish cultures whose views and arguments I often find reactionary and despicable? Why should public arrangements be adapted to fit in with the backward, misogynistic, homophobic claims that religions often make? What is wrong with me wishing such cultural forms to 'wither away'? And how, given that I do view these and many other cultures with contempt, am I supposed to provide them with respect, without disrespecting my own views? Only, as the philosopher Brian Barry suggests 'with a great deal of encouragement from the Thought Police'.

A truly plural society would be one in which citizens have full freedom to pursue their different values or practices in private, while in the public sphere all citizens would be treated as political equals whatever the differences in their private lives. Today, however, pluralism has come to mean the very opposite. The right to practice a particular religion, speak a particular language, follow a particular cultural practice is seen as a public good rather than a private freedom. While our rights to do, write or even think as private citizens are increasingly curtailed in the name of 'tolerance'.