Earlier this week, I posted an essay ‘In defence of diversity’. But if I am in favour of diversity, I am most certainly critical of multiculturalism. I have long argued that while we should value diversity as a form of lived experience, we should scorn multiculturalism as a political policy. So, as a complement to my defence of diversity, here are extracts from a series of essays and talks from over the years which sum up my critique of multicuturalism.
Milton K Wong lecture, Vancouver, 3 June 2012
Part of the problem in discussions about multiculturalism is that the term has, in recent years, come to have two meanings that are all too rarely distinguished. The first is what I call the lived experience of diversity. The second is multiculturalism as a political process, the aim of which is to manage that diversity. The experience of living in a society that is less insular, more vibrant and more cosmopolitan is something to welcome and cherish. It is a case for cultural diversity, mass immigration, open borders and open minds.
As a political process, however, multiculturalism means something very different. It describes a set of policies, the aim of which is to manage and institutionalize diversity by putting people into ethnic and cultural boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes to shape public policy. It is a case, not for open borders and minds, but for the policing of borders, whether physical, cultural or imaginative.
The conflation of lived experience and political policy has proved highly invidious. On the one hand, it has allowed many on the right – and not just on the right – to blame mass immigration for the failures of social policy and to turn minorities into the problem. On the other hand, it has forced many traditional liberals and radicals to abandon classical notions of liberty, such as an attachment to free speech, in the name of defending diversity. That is why it is critical to separate these two notions of multiculturalism, to defend diversity as lived experience – and all that goes with it, such as mass immigration and cultural openness – but to oppose multiculturalism as a political process.
Talk at the Criticize This! seminar, Ulcinj, Montenegro,
19 May 2012
There 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 they have to 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 make a human being incapable of living well except as a participant of 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.
Read the full transcript.
Pickled Politics, 21 April 2009
Imagine if the council had set up a ‘White Forum’ to represent the needs of the white community in Birmingham. Could such a group have represented the interests of all white people in Birmingham? Clearly not. Some whites vote Conservative, some Liberal, some for the Labour Party, and a few for the communists or the neo-fascists. And some don’t vote at all. Some whites are religious, others militantly secular. And most whites would not see their interests as specifically ‘white’. A white Christian probably has more in common with a black Christian than with a white atheist. A white communist would think more like a Bangladeshi communist than like a white Conservative. And so on. Why should we imagine that Bangladeshis or Sikhs or African-Caribbeans are any different? They are not. It is simply that the council’s policies, like all multicultural policies, seemed to assume that minority communities had somehow arrived in Birmingham from a different social universe. Cosmologists believe that the physical universe in its infancy was homogeneous and uniform. Multiculturalists seem to think the same about the social universe of minority groups. All are viewed as uniform, single-minded, conflict-free and defined by ethnicity, faith and culture. 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 or views of the whole community and resulted in simplistic approaches toward tackling community needs.’
21 April 2009. Read the full extract.
Pandaemonium, 30 March 2012
The first mosque for Bradford’s Bangladeshi community was not opened until 1970, in two houses in Cornwall Road; it was almost 15 years before a second was built. By 1990 the much larger Mirpuri community had built 18 mosques in the city – but 14 of these had been constructed in the previous ten years. One reason that so many new mosques began sprouting up in the 80s was the growing self-confidence of Muslim communities. But that is only half the story. For what the pattern of mosque-building in Bradford reveals is that it was not the piety of first generation Muslims that led to the Islamisation of the town. It was, rather, the power, influence and money that accrued to religious leaders in the 1980s as a result of Bradford City Council’s multicultural policies. Multiculturalism helped paint Bradford Muslim green.
Once the mosques became the voice of the community, then Muslim became the identity stamped upon every individual within that community. People began to accept that identity as their own, because it was the way to relate to the outside world. Just as the Council for Mosques became the channel of communication between the Muslim community and local organisations, so Muslim identity became the interface between individuals within that community and outside world. In The Satanic Verses, one of the anti-heroes Saladin Chamcha is incarcerated in a detention centre for illegal immigrants. He discovers that, like himself, his fellow inmates have been transformed into beasts – water buffaloes, snakes, manticores. How do they do it, he asks one of the inmates. ‘They describe us’, comes the reply, ‘that’s all. They have the power of description and we succumb to the pictures they construct.’ Rushdie was writing of the way that racism demonises immigrants. He could equally have been talking of the way that multiculturalism imposes identity.
Talk at Council of Ex-Muslims Sixth Anniversary event,
15 June 2013
The starting point of multicultural policy is the acceptance of societies as diverse. Yet, on the multicultural map, that diversity seems magically to vanish at the edges of minority communities. Multiculturalists tend to treat minority communities as if each was a distinct, singular, homogeneous, authentic whole, each composed of people all speaking with a single voice, each defined primarily by a singular view of culture and faith. In so doing, multiculturalists all too often ignore conflicts within those communities. And they take the most conservative, reactionary figures as the authentic voices of those communities, precisely because they are reactionary and therefore must be authentic.
The claim that The Satanic Verses is offensive to Muslims, or Bezhti to Sikhs, or Jerry Springer to Christians, suggests that there is a Muslim community, and a Sikh community and a Christian community, all of whose members are offended by the work in question and whose ostensible leaders are the most suitable judges of what is and is not suitable for that community. But what is often called offence to a community is more often than not a dialogue or debate within that community. That is why so many of the flashpoints over offensiveness have been over works produced by minority artists – not just Salman Rushdie or Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, but Hanif Kuresihi, Monica Ali, Sooreh Hera, Taslima Nasrin, MF Hussain, and so on.
Shabir Akhtar no more spoke for Muslims than Salman Rushdie did. Both represented different strands of opinion. So did Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti and the protestors outside the Brimigham Rep outraged by her play Bezhti. But Shabir Akhtar has come to be seen as an authentic Muslim, and the anti-Bezhti protestors as proper Sikhs, while Salman Rushdie and Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti are regarded as too Westernized, secular or progressive to be truly of their community. To be a proper Muslim, in other words, is to be offended by The Satanic Verses, to be a proper Sikh is to be offended by Bezhti. The argument that offensive talk should be restrained is, then, both rooted in a stereotype of what it is to be an authentic Muslim or a Sikh and helps reinforce that stereotype. And it ensures that only one side of the conversation gets heard.
Read the full transcript.
From Beyond Belief, Index on Censorship, July 2011
The Behzti affair reveals the need to rethink ideas of community and diversity. Much of political and cultural policy contains within it unstated assumptions that have had devastating consequences for writers and performers, for arts institutions and for their audience. It also reveals the need to rethink the concepts of social inclusion and audience development. The combination of an instrumental view of culture, embodied in recent ideas of the arts as a vehicle for social inclusion, and a multicultural view of diversity has led, ironically, to the exclusion of many voices, and to the establishment of a culture of invisible censorship, a culture in which such censorship has come to be expressed as a moral imperative.
Read the full essay.
Pandaemonium, 6 May 2013
In defending mass immigration, Goodhart suggested, I am forced ‘to adopt a sort of methodological individualism’, to imagine that ‘there are only individuals, floating free of culture, tradition, language, ways of life, who can just slot into modern Britain without changing anything’. This, he added, ‘is the left’s equivalent of “there is no such thing as society”’.
I have, in fact, long been critical of liberal views of individualism. I have many times made the point that humans are not individuals who become social but social beings whose individuality emerges through the bonds they create with each other. It is, for instance, a key argument in my forthcoming book on the history of moral thought, and central to my discussion of Hobbes, Hegel and Rousseau.
I am, however, equally critical of the communitarian concepts that often underlie anti-immigration rhetoric. There are many ways one can understand the relationship between the individual and the community of which he or she is a part. To reject the Hobbesian view of the isolated individual and to acknowledge the individual as a social being does not mean that one also has to adopt a kind of Burkean view of society and of the ‘continuity of history’. A Burkean, or a communitarian, thinks of a community as constituted through history and bound primarily by its past, ‘an idea of continuity, which extends in time as well as in numbers and in space’, as Burke himself put it. Values, in the Burkean tradition, are defined as much by place and tradition as by reason and necessity. We can, however, acknowledge the social embeddedness of individuals, but think of such embededdness in a different way, in terms not of the constraints of history but of the possibilities of change, in terms not of tradition but of transformation. Movements for social transformation are defined less by a sense of a shared past (though most draw upon history traditions) than by hopes of a common future.
This was part of an exchange between myself and David Goodhart. It began with my review of The British Dream, to which Goodhart responded, to which I in turn replied in three posts, here, here and here.
Pandaemonium, 12 June 2013
What should immigrants be integrated into? For critics of mass immigration the something into which immigrants are to be integrated is usually defined in Burkean terms: a nation, or a community, shaped by a set of values, which in turn are defined not merely by moral or political content but also by the history, tradition, ethnie and place. This is certainly the argument that Goodhart makes. The consequence, as Bridget Anderson observes in her book Us and Them?, is that such nations and communities are also often defined against those without such a history, tradition, ethnie and place; in other words, against the migrant. As a result, the migrant comes to be defined not just in legal but also in normative terms. ‘Part of being an outsider’, Anderson writes, ‘is not sharing the same values – which easily becomes not having the “right” values’. Debates about immigration, integration and citizenship, she adds, ‘are not simply about legal status, but fundamentally about status in the sense of worth and honour’. The irony, again, is that to pose integration in this fashion is to undermine any meaningful notion of integration.
This was my third post in the exchange between myself and David Goodhart.
New Humanist, May 2009
There have developed two broad responses to the quandries of pluralism. Multiculturalists argue that diverse societies can only function fairly if respect is shown to all peoples, cultures, and viewpoints. ‘The liberal is in theory committed to equal respect for persons’, the political philosopher Bhikhu Parekh argues. ‘Since human beings are culturally embedded, respect for them entails respect for their cultures and ways of life.’ Social justice, in other words, requires not just that individuals are treated as political equals, but also that their cultural beliefs are given equal recognition and respect.
Others have responded to the challenges of a plural society by drawing upon the so-called ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis. The phrase was coined by the historian Bernard Lewis in a 1990 essay on ‘The roots of Muslim rage’. It was subsequently popularized by the American political scientist Samuel Huntington. The conflicts that had convulsed Europe over the past centuries, Huntington wrote, from the wars of religion between Protestants and Catholics to the Cold War, were all ‘conflicts within Western civilization’. The ‘battle lines of the future’, on the other hand, would be between civilizations. And the most deep-set of these would be between the Christian West and the Islamic East, which would be ‘far more fundamental’ than any war unleashed by ‘differences among political ideologies and political regimes’. The West would need vigorously to defend its values and beliefs against Islamic assault.
It is an argument that has gained an increasing hearing in liberal circles, particularly in the wake of 9/11. The West, the American philosopher and liberal secularist Sam Harris, argues, is at war not with terrorism, nor even with Islamic terrorism, but with ‘Islam itself’, with ‘the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran’. The distinction between moderate and fundamentalist Muslims is irrelevant because ‘most Muslims appear to be “fundamentalist” in the Western sense of the word’. ‘Is Islam compatible with a civil society?’ asks Harris. ‘Is it possible to believe what you must believe to be a good Muslim, to have military and economic power, and to not pose an unconscionable threat to the civil societies of others? I believe that the answer to this question is no.’
What is striking about these two approaches is how much they have in common. It is true that there is little love lost between multiculturalists and proponents of the clash of civilization thesis. The former accuse the latter of pandering to racism and Islamophobia, while the latter talk of the former as appeasing Islamism. Beneath the hostility, however, the two sides share basic assumptions about the nature of culture, identity and difference. For at the heart of both arguments is a confusion of peoples and values. Multiculturalists claim that the presence in a society of a diversity of peoples limits the possibility of common values. Clash of civilization warriors insist that such values are impossible within an ethnically diverse society. Neither is right.
Read the full essay.
The images are, from top down, Grace Gardner, Black is the colour of my true love’s heart; Karl Benjamin, No.20; Piet Mondrian, Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow; Wassilly Kandinsky, The Colour of Squares; David Jones, Diversity.