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Multiculturalism & the Illusion of Diversity

Tuesday 1 November 2016, by siawi3


21st August 2016

Terri Muray
Essayist, published author, activist and director of studies at the Fine Arts College Hampstead

Most educated Europeans, when they hear the word ‘multiculturalism’, assume it to be synonymous with diversity. This is not surprising, since the word seems to be a conjunction of ’multi’ (many) and ’cultural’ (cultures). So the logical conclusion is that multiculturalism is simply a doctrine that says mixing lots of cultures together is good. Cosmopolitan Europeans are accustomed to living among a wide variety of people from a vast array of cultural and ethnic backgrounds, who speak different languages and pray to different Gods. This is an enriching experience. It allows us to see our own background beliefs and perspectives as less than obvious. Beliefs or assumptions we may have taken for granted are relativised, their universality or absolute ‘truth’ called into doubt by the encounter with others who do not share our worldview. Thus cultural mixing improves our education and expands our critical faculties. It makes us better able to empathise with others and to see their human experiences as valuable. ​

However, ‘multiculturalism’ is not the same as cultural diversity. In political theory it refers to an approach that states adopt in order to negotiate the relationship between specific cultures and other members of society. Multiculturalism as a political ideology grew out of a rejection of modern Enlightenment values, which historically extended civil rights and liberties to blacks, Jews, gays and women. Multiculturalism is rooted in the belief that universal citizenship, equality before the law, and equality of opportunity (based on merit) are insufficient and that citizens in liberal states must be obligated to recognise and respect members of a cultural minority, should not be permitted to offend them, and must actively support the protection of their cultural beliefs from insult or criticism.

In order to understand how illiberal multiculturalism is, and what kinds of demands it places on citizens, it is important to understand its paternalistic concept of ’respect’. It does not require that respect be earned through robust debate and argument. Rather it is enforced under threat of legal sanction or penalty. As Nick Cohen has pointed out, this is the kind of ‘respect’ that Tony Soprano might demand. One must perform a silent, polite deference towards doctrines that one disbelieves and/or disrespects, even to the extent of repressing one’s own opposing views. The demand is not merely that citizens refrain from harming or legally discriminating against others with whom they disagree. It is that they must behave as though they have positive regard or esteem for others’ views or practices. This entails that they may not express objections to, say, ideologies or religions, even if they are deeply offensive or arguably harmful to others. To truly understand the demand this type of ’respect’ makes on us, imagine telling a Muslim that he has to respect (not just tolerate) the homosexual lifestyle, or Western feminism’s mode of dress. This would mean that he could not preach the immorality of homosexuality in his mosque without risk of prosecution under ’hate speech’ legislation and he could not criticise the “immodest” way that Western women dress. Effectively it would mean that he cannot practice his own religion. Multiculturalists understand that a Muslim should not have to ’respect’ non-Muslims, but they do not seem to recognise the reverse. Non-Muslims do not have a duty to act or to speak as though Islam were good or even morally acceptable. Like the religious fundamentalist, non-religious citizens too should be permitted to voice their objections to religious lifestyles and practices, without being caught in the “hate speech” net.

By contrast, liberal tolerance (which entails voicing disagreement, satire, and active engagement with opposing ideas) shows respect for the other by treating him/her as an adult capable of resilience in the face of disagreement. Instead of granting a minority culture’s ideas special immunity, and treating its adherents as fragile infants, it treats them as adults capable of submitting their beliefs to public scrutiny and defending them in response to critical examination.

Nowhere is this more important than when religious or political ideologies are concerned, since neither are private matters and both involve (sometimes huge) claims about how others should live, what they should value or honour, and what they may or may not say, wear, eat, drink or do with their own bodies.

Multiculturalism has been influenced by an assertive identity politics. Because it is closely related to communitarianism, identity politics is conservative and reactionary. It is grounded in the belief that individuals’ identities are constituted primarily in relation to the social institutions of the communities to which they belong, including the family and the church. A core multiculturalist assumption is that personal identity is embedded in group or social identity. Therefore, like nationalism and even racialism, it is a form of collectivism. Because individuals are formed by their social bonds, they owe a debt of obedience and respect to their society’s traditional institutions, such that individuality is relatively unimportant. Communitarianism views individuals as thoroughly ‘enmeshed’ in the social roles into which they have been born. On this model, I am assigned my identity by my family and my culture. I am first a daughter, a wife, a sister or a Christian, before I am an individual. As such, my goals and purposes are defined by my social relationships and duties, not by me and my aspirations to determine my own goals or pursue my own projects. The constraints on individuals’ liberty are seen as relatively less important than their duties to others within their communities.

As an ideology, multiculturalism encompasses a variety of approaches, not all of them inconsistent with Enlightenment, liberalism or modernity. Liberal multiculturalism celebrates diversity within a liberal framework, rejecting intolerant or authoritarian practices that are inherently incompatible with individual liberty. Pluralist multiculturalism, however, places greater emphasis on diversity than on equal rights and equal opportunities for all. Its advocates push for value pluralism and moral relativism: the idea that different moral outlooks (both those that respect individual liberty and self-determination, and theocratic or fundamentalist ideologies that do not) are equally legitimate. One problem with this is the assumption that someone who is coerced to conform to an ideological worldview can accurately be described as holding “values”. Holding values involves a choice. Submission to someone else’s ideology under threat of punishment or death does not. Arguably, pluralist multiculturalism does not lead to value pluralism and actively prevents it.

Cultures are not homogeneous but complex. Multiculturalism describes loose groupings of individuals with similar backgrounds, religions or language as a ‘culture’ and then assumes that the diverse individuals within that culture belong to the same “community”. Far from protecting, say, “all Jews” or “all Muslims” from generalisations, it reinforces the political fiction of cultural or religious unity. Whether any such cohesive community exists is doubtful. To suppose that there is a broad consensus amongst say, all Muslims, about every aspect of their religion or their culture is a myth. Even as staunch defenders of pluralistic multiculturalism constantly remind us that there are “many Islams” and that “not all Muslims are the same”, they simultaneously defend (even patronisingly protect) ‘the Muslim culture’ from criticism and satire, as though they know that “Muslims” (as a group) will feel uniformly offended by any criticism or ridicule of their religion or its prophets. It could be that a majority of Muslims are tolerant and moderate, and so, like any other tolerant people, enjoy send-ups of their religious orthodoxies or its dogmatic spokespeople or the attitudes they personify.

Amartya Sen (2006) has developed a substantial attack on what he calls the ’solitaristic’ theory underpinning multiculturalism, according to which human identities are assumed to be moulded by membership to a single group or monoculture. If people identify only with their own monoculture, this diminishes cross-cultural understanding and creates “ghettoization” and insularity. Those who stress “intersectionality” have distorted Sen’s concept by prioritising the individual’s membership in multiple sub-cultures of oppression, domination, or discrimination to the exclusion of membership in groups of privilege and power. A Muslim man from Pakistan may share both the oppressed status of an ethnic minority in a European host culture, while also enjoying huge male privilege both in his own culture and in his Western European host culture. Therefore, a Western European Christian woman may identify more strongly with a Pakistani woman than with a Western European man. Intersectionality seems to overlook this.

As any LGBTI person born in the West before 1975 or in a Muslim-majority country today knows, culture can be a form of oppression or captivity. A large part of what culture involves is socialisation. Even as multiculturalism’s Western European or American defenders rage against patriarchal constructions of gender in their own cultures, they simultaneously defend very similar religious constructions of gender in minority cultures. Unless socialisation is grounded in free, informed choice (rarely the case in religious indoctrination), then it amounts to an assault on personal autonomy, and becomes what traditional liberals have called ‘a tyranny of the majority’. As J. S. Mill perceived, cultural or social tyranny can become as formidable as any oppressive state apparatus, because it inserts its tentacles into the minutiae of personal life and leaves no part of it untouched. Liberals have always maintained a robust defuse of the private sphere in order to protect individuals from the pressures exerted by majorities.

Another problem with pluralist multiculturalism is that adherents of cultures that exist within host nation states and alongside its other citizens sometimes view their cultural identity as primary and separate from their political citizenship within the state. They may feel a stronger sense of allegiance to norms, authorities or Gods of their own culture than to the laws of the host nation. Consequently, pluralist multiculturalism presents a problem for social cohesion because it is at odds with the political rule of nation states.

Finally, and most crucially, the politics of cultural recognition and assertion undermines the idea of a common humanity. This limits peoples’ sense of moral responsibility to members of their own cultural community. The constant demand by some cultures that others acknowledge them, their culture or their belief system is not, even by their own accounts, one that can be reciprocated. This is where liberalism has a distinct advantage over pluralist multiculturalism’s moral relativism. It allows all ideologies to co-exist on equal terms.

Despite false claims to the contrary, liberalism does not hypocritically impose “its own” ideology on other sub-cultures within liberal states. Liberalism is a political framework, or set of rules which function as a ‘container’ for multiple ideologies, while not being an ideology in itself. Ideologies involve the identification of a social problem, a proposed solution, and an ideal goal or state of affairs that serve as an ultimate goal for all. Often they involve the veneration and adulation of charismatic figures who occupy a mythological status within society.

Liberalism is expressly anti-ideological because it requires state neutrality with respect to ideological visions of “the good life”. Its demands on citizens are very minimal. The aim of the liberal state is not to make people good (according to some ‘Western ideology’) but to create the conditions within which moral virtue (“the good life”) is a coherent concept. Liberal states secure the individual’s liberty (freedom from coercion by others) to pursue goals that are genuinely his own. Political liberalism has been successful in protecting an expansion of rights to minorities because of its underlying insight that, without liberty and self-determination, moral virtue becomes incoherent. No one can be made (coerced) to be a virtuous person or to live a morally good life. One can be made a slave or a ‘performer’ of other people’s moral rules, but such a follower, acting from fear and self-preservation, not from her own convictions, makes a mockery of moral agency and renders it hollow. It is in order to avoid this kind of slavish obedience to others’ (fallible) beliefs that liberalism provides a fair framework within which any ideology can be pursued, within limits that protect the equal and reciprocal pursuit of rival beliefs. By contrast, intolerant cultures will not accommodate rival ideologies and police dissent from their own. Liberal multiculturalism can, and does, protect and promote diversity, while pluralist multiculturalism threatens to erode it.