The term ”multicultural” has come to define a society that is particularly diverse, usually as a result of immigration. It has also come to define the policies necessary to manage such a society. It has come to embody, in other words, both a description of the lived experience of diversity and a prescription for the management of such diversity.
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 homogeneous, more vibrant and cosmopolitan than before. Those who advocate multiculturalism as a set of prescriptive policies are, however, talking about something different. Multiculturalism, they argue, requires the public recognition and affirmation of cultural differences. 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 be treated as political equals, but that their cultural beliefs also be treated as equally valid, and indeed that they be institutionalized in the public sphere.
I want to suggest that this vision of multiculturalism as a political process undermines much of what is valuable about multiculturalism as lived experience. At the same time, multicultural policies create the kind of segmented society to which they are supposedly a response.
At the heart of most multicultural philosophies is the belief that an individual’s cultural background frames his or her identity and helps define who that person is. Hence, if we want to treat individuals with dignity and respect, we must also treat with dignity and respect the groups that furnish them with their sense of personal being. ”The liberal is in theory committed to equal respect for persons”, Bhikhu Parekh argues. ”Since human beings are culturally embedded, respect for them entails respect for their cultures and ways of life”.
We cannot, in other words, treat individuals equally unless groups are also treated equally. So society must protect and nurture cultures, ensure their flourishing and, indeed, their survival. The sociologist Tariq Madood takes this line of argument to make a distinction between what he calls the ”equality of individualism” and ”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 what does all this mean in practice? Does it mean that schools should be forced to teach Creationism because it is part of Christian fundamentalist culture? Or should public arrangements be adapted to reflect the belief of many cultures that homosexuality is a sin? These are not simply abstract questions. In 2002, in Australia’s Northern Territory, Jackie Pascoe Jamilmira, a 50-year-old Aboriginal man, received a 24-hour prison sentence for assaulting and raping a 15-year-old girl. He had apparently been plying the girl's family with gifts since her birth so that she would become his wife upon coming of age. According to the judge, because the girl was an Aborigine, she ”didn't need protection. She knew what was expected of her. It’s very surprising to me he was charged at all”.
In California, a young Laotian-American woman was abducted from her work at Fresno State University and raped. Her assailant, a Hmong immigrant (one of the boat people who had fled Cambodia and Laos in the final stages of the Vietnam War) explained to the court that, among his tribe, this was a customary way of choosing a bride. The court agreed that he had to be judged largely by his own cultural standards and sentenced him to only 120 days in jail.
Most multiculturalists would undoubtedly abhor such cases, arguing that they have little to do with real multicultural policies. Yet it is not difficult to see how the demand that everyone’s heritage should be respected and that public arrangements be adapted to preserve each distinct heritage would inevitably create situations such as these. Cases such as Jamilmira’s are not unusual in Australia. The courts increasingly accept that Aborigines should have the right to be treated according to their own customs rather than to be judged by ”whitefella law”. According to Colin McDonald, a Darwin barrister and expert in customary law, “Human rights are essentially a creation of the last hundred years. These people have been carrying out their law for thousands of years”.
This is a central theme in many kinds of multicultural policies - that to preserve cultural authenticity, we must respect the right of certain people to do X because their ancestors also did X. The demand that, because a cultural practice has existed for a long time, so it should be preserved, is a modern version of the naturalistic fallacy - the belief that “ought” derives from “is”. For nineteenth-century Social Darwinists, morality - how we ought to behave - derived from the facts of nature - how humans are. This became an argument to justify capitalist exploitation, colonial oppression, racial savagery and even genocide. Today, virtually everyone recognizes the falsity of this argument. Yet, when talking of culture rather than of nature, many multiculturalists continue to insist that ”is” defines ”ought”.
Part of the problem here is a constant slippage in multiculturalism talk between the idea of humans as culture-bearing creatures and the idea that humans have to bear a particular culture. Clearly no human can live outside of culture. But then no human does.
To say that no human can live outside of culture, however, is not to say that humans must live inside 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 change or undermine that culture would be to undermine the very dignity of that individual. It suggests that the biological fact of, say, Jewish or Bangladeshi ancestry somehow makes a human being incapable of living well except as a participant in Jewish or Bangladeshi culture. This would only make sense if Jews or Bangladeshis were biologically distinct – in other words, if cultural identity was really about racial difference.
The relationship between cultural identity and racial difference becomes even clearer if we look at the argument that cultures must be protected and preserved. The Canadian political philosopher Will Kymlicka argues that, since cultures are essential to peoples’ lives, so where ”the survival of a culture is not guaranteed, and, where it is threatened with debasement or decay, we must act to protect it.” For the philosopher Charles Taylor, once ”we’re concerned with identity, nothing ‘is more legitimate than one’s aspiration that it is never lost”’.
But what does it mean for a culture to decay? Or for an identity to be lost? Will Kymlicka draws a distinction between the “‘existence of a culture” and ”its ’character‘ at any given moment”. The character of culture can change, but such changes are acceptable only if the existence of that culture is not threatened. But how can a culture exist if that existence is not embodied in its character? By ”character” Kymlicka seems to mean the actuality of a culture: what people do, how they live their lives, the rules and regulations and institutions that frame their existence.
So, in making the distinction between character and existence, Kymlicka seems to suggest that Jewish, Navajo or French culture is not defined by what Jewish, Navajo or French people are actually doing. For if Jewish culture is simply that which Jewish people do, or French culture is simply that which French people do, then cultures could never decay or perish – they would always exist in the activities of people.
So, if a culture is not defined by what its members are doing, what does define it? The only answer can be that it is defined by what its members should be doing. And what you should be doing, for cultural preservationists, is what your ancestors were doing. Culture here has become defined by biological descent. And biological descent is a polite way of saying “‘race”. As the American writer Walter Benn Michaels puts it, ”In order for a culture to be lost… it must be separable from one’s actual behaviour, and in order for it to be separable from one’s actual behaviour it must be anchorable in race”.
The logic of the preservationist arguments is that every culture has a pristine form, its original state. It decays when it is no longer in that form. There are echoes here of the concept of ”type” that was at the heart of nineteenth-century racial science. A racial type was a group of human beings linked by a set of fundamental characteristics that were unique to it. Each type was separated from others by a sharp discontinuity; there was rarely any doubt as to which type an individual belonged. Each type remained constant through time. There were severe limits to how much any member of a type could drift away from the fundamental ground plan by which the type was constituted.
These, of course, are the very characteristics that constitute a culture in much of today’s talk of multiculturalism. In a recent debate, the political philosopher Sir Bernard Crick, chair of the Crick Report on British citizenship, wrote that he ”would accept… gladly” the description of multiculturalism as a society ”composed of a small number of organic cultures dancing around each other”. Multiculturalism, in other words, is driven by a concept of ”cultural type”. For all the talk of culture as fluid and changing, multiculturalism invariably leads people to think of human cultures in fixed terms. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how multicultural policy could conceive of cultures in any other way. How could rights be accorded to cultures, or cultures be recognized or preserved if they did not possess rigid boundaries?
Once membership of cultural types is defined by the possession of certain characteristics, and rights and privileges are granted by virtue of possessing those characteristics, then it is but a short step to deny membership of a culture to people who do not possess those characteristics, hence denying them certain rights and privileges. The language of diversity all too easily slips into the idiom of exclusion. Will Kymlicka suggests that ”It is right and proper that the character of a culture changes as a result of the choices of its members”. But, he goes on, “‘while it is one thing to learn from the larger world”, it is quite another ”to be swamped by it”.
What could this mean? That a culture has the right to keep out members of another culture? That a culture has the right to prevent its members from speaking another language, singing non-native songs or reading non-native books? Kymlicka’s warning about ”swamping” should, as the American philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has observed, make us sit up and take notice. It is, after all, the right that has long exploited fears of cultural swamping to promote xenophobic campaigns against immigration. Will Kymlicka is a liberal anti-racist and certainly no xenophobe. But once it becomes a matter of political principle that cultures should not be swamped by outsiders, then it is difficult to know how one could possibly resist such xenophobic arguments.
Both racists and multiculturalists, the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut observes, draw on similar Romantic ideas of culture that go back largely to the work of eighteenth-century German philosopher Johann Gottfreid Herder (1744-1803). Herder rejected the Enlightenment idea that reality was ordered in terms of universal, timeless, objective, unalterable laws that rational investigation could discover. He maintained, rather, that every activity, situation, historical period or civilization possessed a unique character. What made each people or nation – or Volk - unique was its Kultur: its particular language, literature, history and modes of living. The unique nature of each Volk was expressed through its Volksgeist – the unchanging spirit of a people refined through history. Every culture was authentic in its own terms, each adapted to its local environment. Today, Finkielkraut suggests, Herder’s romanticism inspires ”at the same time…unyielding celebrations of ethnic identity and expressions of respect for foreigners, aggressive outbursts by xenophobes and generous pronouncements by xenophiles.” The two sides have ”conflicting credos but the same vision of the world”.
To see the practical consequences of all this, I want to look briefly at the historical development of multicultural policies in Britain, and in particular at the consequences of such policies in two British cities – Bradford and Birmingham.
One of the enduring myths of multiculturalism is that Britain has become a multicultural nation because minority groups have demanded that their cultural differences be recognized and respected. In fact, while the question of cultural differences has preoccupied the political elite from the beginnings of mass immigration, it was not a question that particularly troubled black and Asian Britons for a considerable period.
First- and second- generation postwar immigrants were concerned less about preserving cultural differences than about fighting for political equality. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, four big issues dominated the struggle for political equality: opposition to discriminatory immigration controls; the struggle for equality in the workplace; the fight against racist attacks; and, most explosively, the issue of police brutality. These struggles politicized a new generation of activists and came to an explosive climax in the inner-city riots of the late seventies and early eighties.
It was against this background that the policies of multiculturalism became institutionalized. Local authorities in inner-city areas, led by the Greater London Council, pioneered a new strategy of making black communities feel part of British society by organizing consultation with black communities, drawing up equal-opportunity policies, establishing race relations units and dispensing millions of pounds in grants to black community organizations. At the heart of the strategy was a redefinition of racism. Racism now meant not simply the denial of equal rights, but the denial of the right to be different. Black and Asian people, many argued, should not be forced to accept British values, or to adopt a British identity. Rather, different peoples should have the right to express their identities, explore their own histories, formulate their own values, pursue their own lifestyles. In this process, the very meaning of equality was transformed: from possessing the same rights as everyone else to possessing different rights, appropriate to different communities.
By the mid-1980s the political struggles that had dominated the fight against racism in the sixties and seventies had became transformed into battles over cultural issues. Political struggles unite across ethnic or cultural divisions; cultural struggles inevitably fragment. Since state funding was now linked to cultural identity, different groups began to assert their particular identities ever more fiercely. The shift from the political to the cultural arena helped to entrench old divisions and create new ones.
The city of Bradford provides a very good example of how the institutionalization of multiculturalism undermined political struggles, entrenched divisions and strengthened conservative elements within every community. Bradford has a large Asian population - mainly Muslim, but also including significant numbers of Hindus and Sikhs – as well as a smaller Afro-Caribbean population. Despite the large Muslim population, the question of Islam was not a political issue in the city in the 1970s. Instead, the main issues were the same that concerned minority communities elsewhere – racist attacks, immigration laws, workplace discrimination and police harassment.
In 1977 the Asian Youth Movement (AYM) was created to give a voice to radical Asian youth. AYM activists did not distinguish themselves as Muslim, Hindu or Sikh; indeed, many did not even see themselves as specifically Asian, preferring to call themselves ”black”, which was seen not as an ethnic term but as a generic political term for non-whites. They challenged not just racism but also many traditional values, particularly within the Muslim community, helping to establish an alternative secular leadership.
Faced with this growing militancy, the Bradford Council drew up equal opportunity statements, established race relations units and began funding black organizations. A twelve-point race relations plan declared that every section of the ”multiracial, multicultural city” had ”an equal right to maintain its own identity, culture, language, religion and customs”.
By the mid-1980s the focus of anti-racist protest in Bradford had shifted from political issues, such as policing and immigration, to religious and cultural issues: a demand for Muslim schools and for separate education for girls, a campaign for halal meat to be served at school, and, most explosively, the confrontation over the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. This process was strengthened by a new relationship between the local council and the local mosques. In 1981, the council helped to set up and fund the Bradford Council of Mosques. By siphoning resources through the mosques, the council was able to strengthen the position of conservative religious leaders and to damp down more militant voices on the streets.
As part of its multicultural brief to allow different communities to express their distinct identities, the council also helped set up two other religious umbrella groups: the Federation for Sikh Organizations and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, both created in 1984. The consequence was to create divisions and tensions within and between different Asian communities, as each fought for a greater allocation of council funding.
There had always been residential segregation between the black and white communities in Bradford, thanks to a combination of racism, especially in council house allocation, and of a desire among Asians to find protection in numbers. But within Asian areas, Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus lived cheek by jowl for much of the postwar period. In the 1980s, however, the three communities started dividing. They began increasingly to live in different areas, attend different schools and organize through different institutions. New council-funded community organizations and youth centres were set up according to religious and ethnic affiliations. By the early 1990s, even the Asian business community was institutionally divided along community lines with the creation in 1987 of the largely Hindu and Sikh Institute of Asian Businesses; of the Hindu Economic Development Forum in 1989; and of the Muslim-dominated Asian Business and Professional Club in 1991. The Asian Youth Movement, beacon in the 1970s of a united struggle against racism, split up, torn apart by such multicultural tensions.
A similar process has taken place in Birmingham. In 1985, Birmingham was rocked by riots in the Handsworth area of the city; blacks, Asians and whites took to the streets in protest against poverty, unemployment and, in particular, police harassment. In October 2005, another riot erupted in the Lozells area of the city, next door to Handsworth. This time the riot was between blacks and Asians. An unsubstantiated – and almost certainly untrue – rumour that a Jamaican girl had been raped by a group of Asian men, led to a violent clash between the two communities during which a young black man was murdered.
Why did two communities that had fought side by side in 1985 fight against each other 20 years later? The answer lies largely in the policies introduced by the Birmingham Council after the original riots. In response to those riots, the Council proposed a new political framework for the engagement of minority communities. It created nine so-called Umbrella Groups, organizations based on ethnicity and faith that were supposed to represent the needs of their particular communities while aiding policy development and resource allocation. These included the African and Caribbean People’s Movement, the Bangladeshi Islamic Projects Consultative Committee, the Birmingham Chinese Society, the Council of Black-led Churches, the Hindu Council, the Irish Forum, the Vietnamese Association, the Pakistani Forum and the Sikh Council of Gurdwaras.
The Birmingham Council’s policies were aimed at drawing minority communities into the democratic process. Their impact was anything but democratic. First, as in Bradford, the policy treated minority communities as homogeneous wholes, ignoring conflicts within those communities. As the council’s own report put it,
The perceived notion of homogeneity of minority ethnic communities has informed a great deal of race equality work to date. The effect of this, amongst others, has been to place an over-reliance on individuals who are seen to represent the needs of views of the whole community and resulted in simplistic approaches toward tackling community needs.
In other words, multicultural policies have not responded to the needs of communities, but have created those communities by imposing identities on people. And they created communities by ignoring internal conflicts – conflicts that arise out of class, gender and intra-religious differences within communities. What multicultural policies do is to empower not minority communities, but so-called “community leaders”, who achieve power not because they represent their community but because they have a relationship with the state.
At the same time as they ignored conflicts within minority communities, Birmingham’s policies created conflicts between them. As one academic study of Birmingham’s policies observes, the “model of engagement through Umbrella Groups tended to result in competition between BME communities for resources. Rather than prioritising needs and cross-community working, the different Umbrella Groups generally attempted to maximise their own interests”.
Once political power and financial resources became allocated by ethnicity, then people began to identify themselves in terms of those ethnicities, and only those ethnicities. The consequence is what Amartya Sen has called “‘plural monoculturalism” – policy driven by the myth that society is made up of a series of distinct, homogeneous cultures that dance around each other. And policy makes such a segmented society a reality. The result in Birmingham was to entrench divisions between black and Asian communities to an extent that sparked inter-communal rioting.
The real failure of multiculturalism as a political process is its failure to understand what is valuable about cultural diversity as lived experience. There is nothing precious in and of itself about diversity. It is important only insofar as it opens people up to different experiences - not just relatively trivial ones like Indian take-away or South African jazz, but differences of values, beliefs and lifestyles – and creates the kinds of clashes and conflicts necessary for fertile political dialogue and debate. Only out of such clashes and conflicts can emerge a collective language of citizenship.
Multiculturalism as a political process, however, limits the extent to which people can absorb different experiences. It also undermines the possibility of dialogue and debate, by dividing society into fixed cultures and by imposing rigid identities upon the individuals who ”belong” to each culture. And, in the name of ”tolerance” and ”respect”, multiculturalism seeks to limit the kinds of clashes and conflicts necessary for a vibrant political culture. The multiculturalist believes that, in a plural society, there must be strict limits on free speech so as not to offend diverse cultures and beliefs. As the sociologist Tariq Modood puts it, ”If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism”. One of the ironies of living in a more plural society seems to be that the preservation of diversity requires us to leave less room for a diversity of views.
The opposite is in fact true. In a truly homogeneous society in which everyone thought in exactly the same way, giving offense would be nothing more than gratuitous. But in the real world, where societies are plural, it is both inevitable and important that people offend the sensibilities of others. Inevitable, because where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable. And we should deal with those clashes rather than suppress them. Important, because any social change or social progress means offending some deeply held sensibilities. The right to ”subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism” is the bedrock of an open, diverse society. ”If liberty means anything”’, as George Orwell once put it, “It means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”.
But while multiculturalism constrains the kinds of clashes of opinion that could prove politically fruitful, it also unleashes the kinds of conflicts that are socially damaging. It transforms political debates into cultural collisions and, by imprisoning individuals within their cultures and identities, makes such collisions both inevitable and insoluble. That is why, if we want to preserve diversity as lived experience, we need also to challenge multiculturalism as a political process.