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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4 Responses to The Contradictions of Multiculturalism

  1. Acilius says:

    In most of his major novels, Dostoyevsky got round to saying that “People in general greatly love to be offended.” Whether he was right about that I don’t know, but certainly it is true that when we reward people for declaring themselves to be offended more of them can be expected to do so. And if we concede to any group the power to exclude an idea from discussion by the mere act of taking offense, then we can expect that group to become very sensitive indeed.

    At the same time, I do think there is something to be said for ethical ideas such as “good taste” and “courtesy.” Of course, good taste and courtesy are not the supreme virtues, and there are times when it is necessary to disregard them. In fact, this is the strength of the concepts. If we live in a community of people who think in terms of these virtues and value them, then when we believe we must behave distastefully we can explain how we have reached the conclusion that it is necessary to do so and we can be judged on that defense.

  2. John says:

    I’m always amazed by the ability of the left’s ability to compartmentalize their hatred of the West and their desire for the freedoms they enjoy only in the West. Stoning adulterers, the draft, sodomy laws, arranged marriages, all are OK if done by other cultures because they are “authentic”, but no way are they desired here.

    Mexico’s immigration laws are far more restrictive than ours, but I’ve never heard a peep of protest about it.

  3. mike says:

    This article, like so many such pieces, reminds me of Sailer’s old saw “all we need to do is…”

    Basically, we have a problem that is not only intractable but its causes are completely off-limits to discussion. Any discussion about such a problem can only be an exercise in misdirection. However, they do sometimes accidentally let something slip, like this remark:

    “But it is also the responsibility of the cultural elites: to make racism something one should be ashamed of.”

  4. panglos says:

    What John said.

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