Monday, January 07, 2008

Multiculuralism and Cultural Segregation

Philip Johnston has an opinion piece in Britain’s Daily Telegraph. It concerns the reaction to an earlier piece by Michael Nazir-Ali, a British Anglican bishop of Pakistani descent, who warned that extreme Islam in the UK was turning into forced segregation for more and more Muslims, and in particular generating “no-go” areas for non-Muslims.

Whether that is true I cannot say, and even if so it would be far from unusual; there are many urban neighborhoods in the US where, especially after dark, an outsider of the wrong hue is well-advised not to find himself. But I am struck by the title of Mr. Johnston’s article – “Multiculturalism Is Breeding Intolerance.” Here are the key paragraphs:

In truth, the bishop has simply articulated what many in the Government and in the race relations world have already come to realise (and which most of the rest of us understood years ago), and that is the baleful consequences of three decades of multiculturalism. Last year, even the Commission for Racial Equality, once a cheerleader for the concept, recanted with a report that depicted Britain as an unequal and segregated nation in danger of breaking up.

Like Bishop Nazir-Ali, it feared that extremism was being fostered by the retreat of different groups behind their ethnic walls. For many years, those who wanted Britain to be recognised as a multicultural society which needed to revise, or even jettison, five centuries of Protestant hegemony held centre stage. Anyone who questioned it had their reputations trashed. The multiculturalists even coined an insult - Islamophobia - to try to close down the debate. Some of them yesterday accused the bishop of "scaremongering".

But while multiculturalism began as a facet of Britain's characteristic toleration of other people's ways, religions, cuisines, languages and dress, it metamorphosed into a political creed that held that ethnic minority groups should be allowed to do what they like. It became a guiding principle of governance. When he became prime minister in 1997, Tony Blair urged the nation to embrace multiculturalism. Almost 10 years later, as he prepared to leave Downing Street, he was making speeches informing immigrants they had "a duty" to integrate with the mainstream of society. "Conform to it; or don't come here. We don't want the hate-mongers, whatever their race, religion or creed," he said.


We have to tread carefully here; the word “multiculturalism” is a slippery one. I take it to mean the official acknowledgment of differences among groups, and the belief that those differences should be tolerated, enjoyed, and even reinforced through government policy. It is an ideology that is more advanced in Europe than the US, where the assimilationist ideology, while battered, is still afloat.

We should not be surprised that policies that subsidize separation, e.g. through separate themed schools for each group or government accommodation of each group’s distinctive cultural need, in fact generate more separation. And I think that multiculturalism has another subtly insidious fault – its discouragement of cultural mixing and the breaking down of barriers that result. It is true that humans tend to cleave into groups, but it is equally true that, especially among the young, they seek to taste forbidden fruit by breaking through these group boundaries. They intermarry, they fuse music and food, they adopt the styles of other groups in ways that seem threatening to their elders. Young black and white youth speak each other’s slang, and transgress by listening to one another’s music. Reform Jews manage to accommodate Judaism to modernity, as do Mormons who, forced by their desire to be part of America, abandon polygamy and harsh racial doctrines. This is cultural exchange and evolution in a truly free society.

But it is not so when traditions and distinctiveness are actively encouraged. Multiculturalism works against this healthy pattern, by insisting that each group is a distinct cell, in need of having its boundaries reinforced. (See my essay “Who Hates Globalization?" for an exploration of how the desire by some to maintain this separation generates opposition to global contact of all kinds.) The Muslim or Mormon or black or white father (or mother) who is upset about the way his children are abandoning the tradition for the broader society’s profanely diverse stew has support in a society where “multiculturalism” is explicitly encouraged that he does not have in a society that welcomes all but reinforces the segregation of none.

By making the group the unit of analysis, and assuming uncritically that group norms are constant and cannot benefit from exposure to the norms of different groups, multiculturalism promotes continued self-segregation, and the punishment by members of some groups – from shunning all the way to honor killing – of those who wish to escape their own group’s norms. By preventing, say, members of group X from socializing with members of group Y and learning how Y has reconciled their traditions with the needs of a modern, diverse society, X is relegated to a cultural ghetto, which means that X continues to stay apart from Y and everyone else, and its anger over perceived slights (especially those involving perceived unequal treatment by the state) continues to fester. The peoples of consciously “multicultural” societies should not be surprised at what fruit these seeds have generated.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous ERS said...

In the end, it seems to me, this all boils down to upholding basic, universal human rights.

Ellen R. Sheeley, Author
"Reclaiming Honor in Jordan"

7:25 PM  
Blogger Joshua said...

My comment here is in reply both to this post and the earlier one you linked to. We seem to disagree somewhat here. Before I get to that, though, I would first point out that immigration is hardly the only way in which different cultures interact anymore. Global communications media, especially interactive ones like the Internet, are another. These same media have also done a number on the assimilation ideal. Why bother immersing yourself in your new local culture when the old one is just a phone call or mouse click away?

Anyway, it seems to me that the trouble with cultural globalization isn't that it "pollutes" cultures that were once separate and "pure". It is that cultural globalization, facilitated by instant, pervasive global media, and allowed to evolve to its logical conclusion, will eventually lead to a world with over six billion "cultures of one", but none cohesive enough to form the basis for a stable society within a given geographical area.* In other words, the death not only of our and other nations, but of the very model of the nation-state itself, and the Westphalian world order based upon that model. Ironically enough, that end would suit the multiculturalists just fine.

* Unless, of course, you consider global culturelessness to be a culture in and of itself. Unfortunately, that would only be the basis for the multiculturalists' biggest wet dream, a one-world mega-state.

12:47 AM  

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