das unbehagen 600

My first book in German was published this week: Das Unbehagen in Den Kulturen. It is a translation of my 2013 book Multiculturalism and its Discontents (and the German title a nod to Sigmund Freud’s Das Unbehagen in der Kutur). Here is the opening section of the talk I gave in Berlin on Saturday, which explores the changing context of the debate on multiculturalism:

There is something odd about discussing multiculturalism today. The whole context of the debate has changed over the past decade. I have long been a critic of multiculturalism, from the days when it was anything but fashionable to be so. But I am as critical of many of today’s critics as I am of multiculturalism itself.


My critique of multiculturalism is rooted in a defence of equality; in a defence also of immigration, of freedom of movement, of a more open, cosmopolitan society. Much of the contemporary critique of multiculturalism, on the other hand, stems from a hostility to immigration, and in particular to Muslim immigration, and to the very idea of a diverse society.


The irony is that both the advocacy of multiculturalism and the critique of immigration in the form of a critique of multiculturalism draw upon a similar vision of collective life: that of politics as identity. Multiculturalism is a form of what we now call identity politics. So are many of the contemporary critiques of multiculturalism.


Identities are, of course, of great significance. They give each of us a sense of ourselves, of our grounding in the world and of our relationships to others. At the same time, politics is a means, or should be a means, or taking us beyond the narrow sense of identity given to each of us by the specific circumstances of our lives and the particularities of personal experiences.


In recent years, though, identities have become much narrower. And politics, far from taking us beyond our narrow identities, has become defined by them. It is against this background tha both multiculturalism and hostility to immigration have emerged.

And this is the final section of the book (in English):

‘For are they not conjoined opposites, these two, each man the other’s shadow?’ asks Salman Rushdie in The Satanic Verses about his two anti-heroes, Saladin Chamcha and Gibreel Farishta. One might ask the same question about the multiculturalist argument and the clash of civilizations thesis. These two responses to diversity appear as conjoined opposites, each as the other’s shadow, each betraying fundamental liberal principles. One abandons the basic Enlightenment idea of universal values, suggesting instead that we should accept that every society is a collection of disparate communities and that social harmony requires greater censorship and less freedom. The other turns belief in the Enlightenment into a tribal affair: Enlightenment values are good because they are ours and we should militantly defend our values and lifestyles, even to the extent of denying such values and lifestyles to others. Or, as Rushdie says about Saladin and Gibreel, ‘One seeking to transform into the foreignness he admires, the other seeking contemptuously to transform.’


When we say that we live in a diverse society, what we mean is that it is a messy world out there full of clashes and conflicts. And that is all for the good, for it is out of such clashes and conflicts that cultural and political engagement emerges. Or, to put it another way, diversity is important, not in and of itself, but because it allows us to break out of our culture-bound boxes, by engaging in dialogue and debate and by putting different values, beliefs and lifestyles to the test. But the very thing that is valuable about diversity – the cultural and ideological clashes that it brings about – is also the very thing that many people fear. That fear takes two forms. On the one hand is the dread of the Other, a sense that immigration is undermining the national fabric, eroding the continuity of history and culture, undermining Western values. On the other is the multicultural belief that diversity has to be policed to minimize the clashes and conflicts and frictions that it brings in its wake, that everything has to be nicely parcelled up into pigeonholes of cultures and ethnicities and faiths, the messiness neat and ordered. These are the Saladin Chamchas and the Gibreel Farishtas of the contemporary world. It is time we rejected both. It is time we rebuffed both multiculturalism and its discontents. It is time we stopped fearing the messiness of the world and started seeing it as the raw material of social engagement, the bricks and the mortar of social renewal.

One comment

  1. Tony Buck

    The key question is: What can keep a diverse society glued together, prevent it from collapsing ?

    Enlightenment values ?

    Not everybody holds them. Nor is it clear what they are. For example, are traditional religious beliefs to be smilingly tolerated or is it a question of joining with Voltaire to “ecrasez l’infame” ?

    Universal beliefs ? Yes, which boils down to two – compassion and justice (strictly in that order, or you get a merciless authoritarian state and society).

    Everybody pays lip-service to these two values; leaving us with the question: What will encourage people actually to practise them (even when it’s difficult to do so) for the first time in human history ?

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