The Problem with Multiculturalism

I recently listened to Kenan Malik’s lecture What’s Wrong with Multiculturalism? – A European Perspective, which was presented on June 3, 2012.

The lecture is a very thought-provoking piece of work. This post is a series of quotations and personal reflections on the lecture, which admittedly omit some highly relevant points: I implore you to listen to the whole lecture or read it in its entirety.

Malik begins by suggesting that ‘multiculturalism’ has evolved two distinct meanings:

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.

Thus, multiculturalism can refer to both an ideal and to a political agenda. It is the political agenda of multiculturalism that Malik takes to task. He aims “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.”

Malik suggests that a major problem with multiculturalisic policy is that it leaves the responsibility of defining cultural lines solely to the political elite. “The debate about multiculturalism is a debate in which certain differences (culture, ethnicity, faith) have come to be regarded as important and others (such as class, say, or generational), which used to be perceived as important in the past, have come to be seen as less relevant.”

Understanding how political policy has shaped the current terms and norms of multiculturalism is thus essential. Malik looks at the evolution of multicultural policy in several European countries, noting both the stark differences and the commonalities across national agendas.

France, for instance, seems to presently be suffering from a severe case of historical amnesia:

The irony in France is that, for all the current hostility of the French state to Islam, and to public displays of Islamic identity, such as the burqa, for most of the postwar years, while migrant workers were defiantly secular, successive governments regarded such secularism as a threat and attempted to foist religion upon them, encouraging them to maintain their traditional cultural identities. Paul Dijoud, minister for immigrant workers in the 1970s government of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, declared that ‘The right to a culture identity allows the immigrant, despite his geographical distance, to stay close to his country.’ The government sought in Islam ‘a stabilizing force which would turn the faithful from deviance, delinquency or membership of unions or revolutionary parties’. When a series of strikes hit car factories in the late seventies, the government encouraged employers to build prayer rooms in an effort to wean immigrant workers, who formed a large proportion of the workforce, away from militant activity.

Following the racially-fuel riots of the late seventies and early eighties, British authorities realized that, in Malik’s words, “unless black communities were given a political stake in the system, their frustration could threaten the very stability of British cities. It was against this background that policies of multiculturalism emerged.”

Local authorities in inner city areas pioneered a new strategy of making black and Asian communities feel part of British society by organising consultations, drawing up equal opportunity policies, establishing race relations units and dispensing millions of pounds in grants to minority organisations. 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. The old idea of British values or a British identity was defunct. Rather than be expected to accept British values, or to adopt a British identity, different peoples should have the right to express their own identities, explore their own histories, formulate their own values, pursue their own lifestyles.

Germany, which grew its immigrant population initially through recruiting migrant workers, drew up policy that, in Malik’s view “did not so much represent respect for diversity as provide a means of avoiding the issue of how to create a common, inclusive culture.”

Instead of creating an open society, into which immigrants were welcome as equals, German politicians from the 1980s onwards dealt with the so-called ‘Turkish problem’ through a policy of multiculturalism. In place of citizenship and a genuine status in society, immigrants were ‘allowed’ to keep their own culture, language and lifestyles. The consequence was the creation of parallel communities.

First generation immigrants were often secular, and those that were religious wore their faith lightly. Today, almost a third of adult Turks in Germany regularly attend mosque, a far higher rate than among Turkish communities elsewhere in Western Europe, and higher than in most parts of Turkey. First generation women almost never wore headscarves. Many of their daughters do. Without any incentive to participate in the national community, many did not bother learning German.

At the same time as Germany’s multicultural policies encouraged immigrants to be at best indifferent to mainstream German society, at worst openly hostile to it, they also made Germans increasingly antagonistic towards Turks. The sense of what it meant to be German was in part defined against the values and beliefs of the excluded migrant communities. And having been excluded, it has become easier to scapegoat immigrants for Germany’s social ills. A recent poll showed that more than a third of Germans think that the country is ‘over-run by foreigners’ and more than half felt that Arabs were ‘unpleasant’.

At issue here is Malik’s argument that multiculturalism as a policy ideal was not born from the bottom up, but from the top down: “Multicultural policies emerged not because migrants demanded them,” says Malik, “but primarily because the political elite needed them to manage immigration and to assuage anger created by racism.”

The claim that minority communities have demanded that their cultural differences be publicly recognized and affirmed is, then, historically false. That demand has emerged only recently. The myth that multiculturalism was a response to minority demands gets cause and effect the wrong way round.

Instead, argues Malik, multiculturalism essentially trains us to be cultural categorizers, to see others in terms of ethnicity, race, and faith. “It is how you are seen; so it is how you come to see yourself.” In expounding the transcendent value of ‘the other’ in society, and by formulating policy specific to their customs and traditions, multiculturalism consequently builds more separation than bridges. “Multicultural policies have helped create the very problems they were meant to have resolved.” They have, perhaps inadvertently, “fragmented societies, the alienation of many minority groups and the scapegoating of immigrants.”

The consequence is what the great Indian-born economist 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 concept of ‘plural monoculturalism’ gets at the heart of the issue. A society built in distinct cultural silos, differentiated by rigid and policy-defined demographics, is no less fragmented than a society orchestrated by, say, castes or socioeconomic stratas. In other words, multiculturalism is another political mechanism to avoid the dangerously hard work of actually working together.

But the very thing that is valuable about diversity – the cultural and ideological clashes that it brings about – is the very thing that many people fear. And that fear takes two forms. On the one hand, you have the nationalist sentiment: immigration is undermining the national fabric, eroding our sense of Britishness or Frenchness or Germanness. And on the other you have the multicultural argument: diversity is good, but it has to be policed to minimise the clashes and conflicts and frictions it brings in its wake.

To say that clashes and conflicts can be good does not mean, of course, that every clash and conflict is a good. Political conflicts are often useful because they repose social problems in a way that asks: ‘How can we change society to overcome that problem?’ We might disagree on the answer, but the debate itself is a useful one.

Multiculturalism, on the other hand, by reposing political problems in terms of culture or faith, transforms political conflicts into a form that makes them neither useful nor resolvable. Multicultural policies both constrain the kinds of clashes of opinion that could prove politically fruitful, and unleash the kinds of conflicts that are socially damaging. They transform political debates into cultural collisions and, by imprisoning individuals within their cultures and identities, make such collisions both inevitable and insoluble.

So what then is the alternative to multiculturalism as a policy tool for societal peace and integration? Are we to look upon immigrants in our country as targets of total assimilation? Shall we define a singular monoculture and force minority groups to shed all traits of foreign identity in order to seamlessly mesh with our society? Of course not. In the comments on his blog, Malik is asked to address the issue of assimilation, in which he delivers what I think is perhaps one of his most important points in this whole discussion:

Just as there are two notions of multiculturalism that are constantly confused, so there two notions of assimilation that are rarely distinguished. On the one hand, assimilationism has come to mean the resolve to treat everyone as citizens, not as bearers of specific racial or cultural histories. On the other it has come to mean an insistence that equality requires a high degree of cultural homogeneity, and hence requires immigrants to give up their differences in the name of social cohesion and national unity. Assimilationism is this sense is a means not of enforcing equality but of pointing up differences, and of tolerating, indeed of institutionalising racism.

If I were to construct an ideal immigration/citizenship policy, it would be to marry multiculturalism, in the sense of enhancing the lived experience of diversity, with assimilationism, in the sense of the resolve to treat everyone as citizens, rather than as bearers of specific racial or cultural histories. In practice what European nations have done is the very opposite. Different countries have institutionalised either multiculturalism, in the sense of policies to place minorities in boxes, or assimilationism, in the sense of equality as meaning the giving up of cultural or religious differences. Both, in other words, have rejected the best aspects of their outlook, and institutionalized the most wretched parts.

Regardless of your specific views on multicultural policy, it befalls upon you and me as members of a diverse society “to treat everyone as citizens, rather than as bearers of specific racial or cultural histories.” Then, and only then, do we collectively become a society that is not merely the fabrication of acceptance, shallowly rooted in the architecture of public policy, but irrefutably grounded in the conviction that diversity benefits us all.

Personal Followup Reflections

Malik’s point that multicultural policy defines the lines of social division struck me. If true, then there is insight here to other categories of societal division. ‘Social policy’ increasingly differentiates between so-called ‘sub-demographics’, using ‘markers’ such as mental health, age, physical capacity, gender, and sexual orientation. We do not usually categorize these as ‘multicultural’ differences because, as Malik argues, our definition of multiculturalism is arbitrarily and generally narrowed (and limited) to the scope of ethnicity, nation, and religion. And this is precisely the question: what if all public policies that targets specific ‘subsets’ of population potentially carry the same longterm consequences?

Here is a home-grown example: the Constitution of Canada legislates that a minority faith group has the right to a institute a separate school system. But not just any minority religion: this legislation comes from 1867, at a time when the “religions” of Canada were simply two divisions of Christianity: Catholic and Protestant. Since the Catholic population was the minority, the “separate schools” were Catholic. (And, according to legislation, can still only be Catholic today. And this only applies to three provinces and three territories.)

From the perspective of 1867, this legislation was extremely progressive: the educational rights of the minority religion made equal to that of the majority. From a cultural perspective, the institution of separate schools meant that Catholic families could reenforce their religious beliefs through education system as well as at home. This was not a piecemeal nod to inclusiveness, it was a bold declaration that Canada would be a “multi-faith” community.

Now, 145 years later, the Catholic school is an issue of some contention in Canadian discourse. How is it fair, many ask, that only one religion is given constitutional protection for running state-funded education institutions? The debate about the equality of religion has come full circle: the institution that was originally established to provide fairness and equity is seen by many as the antithesis of a truly equal, multicultural society.

Legislating a multicultural society means that you are always aiming at a moving target.

Whenever public policy has been used to leverage resources for one segment of citizens vis-a-vis the whole, the eventual outcome seems to be the opposite of what was originally intended. When you legislate fairness, you eventually incite disparity. In this light, I think we would do well to consider the long-term consequence of the policies currently being written regarding “equal rights” for every imaginable, definable cluster of our population, from gender equality to mental health awareness. From the viewpoint of history, ideological micromanagement looks pretty dangerous.

An integrated society is not accomplished through social policy that subdivides and categorizes the population by specific demographics. At least it hasn’t seemed to work very well so far.