The Contradictions of Multiculturalism

Via Andrew Sullivan, an intriguing (and very lengthy) discussion in Eurozine on multiculturalism, much of it from contributors coming (I’d guess) from a leftish point of view, something which makes it all the more interesting.

This (from Kenan Malik) caught my eye:

When I was growing up in Britain in the ’70s and ’80s, we weren’t interested in promoting and pursuing our own ethnic culture. We never recognized ourselves as ethnically different. There was no such thing as a Muslim community. I didn’t see myself as a Muslim. None of my friends did. Actually, we all saw ourselves as “black”, because black in Britain in the ’70s and ’80s was a kind of generic term for non-whites facing discrimination. It was not an ethnic term: we saw the issues as political. There was no such thing as a Muslim community in Britain till the end of the ’80s. Multicultural policies helped created that.

So the point I’m making is the rise of multicultural policies did not primarily come from below. Or only to certain extent, with the rise of identity politics, which is a different issue. It was not because there was a great demand from minority communities for official recognition to be given to our identities, our cultures, our values and lifestyles. What we wanted was official recognition for ourselves as individuals, we did not want to be treated differently by the police, by the immigration authorities, by the housing authorities and so on. What has happened is that the very notion of equality has transformed over the last twenty years. Equality used to mean that everybody was treated the same despite their differences. Now it’s come to mean that everybody is treated differently because of those differences.

And this:

As for the relationship between multiculturalism and constraints on free speech, an argument has developed that runs something like this: we live in a society where there are lots of different peoples and cultures, each with deeply set, often irreconcilable, views and beliefs. In such a society we need to restrict what people say or do in order to minimize friction between cultures and to guarantee respect for people embedded in different cultures. Hence the arguments for hate-speech legislation, for censorship against the giving of offence and so on.

I take almost exactly the opposite view: namely that it is precisely because we live in a plural society that we need the most robust defence of free speech possible. It seems to me that in a plural society, the giving of offence is both inevitable and necessary. It is inevitable because we do have societies with deep-seated, conflicting views. But it’s far better to have those conflicts out in the open than to suppress them in the name of respect and tolerance. But most importantly, the giving of offence is necessary because no kind of social change or social progress is possible without offending some group of other. When people say, “you are offending me”, what they are really saying is, “you can’t say that because I don’t want my beliefs to be questioned or ridiculed or abused.” That seems to me deeply problematic.

Well, indeed.

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