Johann Hari’s lazy column in yesterday’s Independent prompts me to pick up my old, familiar drum. Multiculturalism, he says, provokes domestic abuse, on the basis that some German authorities have allowed men to get away with violence against women, by claiming that it is ‘their culture’.
It is a wilfully petulant view of multiculturalism that allows Hari to draw this conclusion, in part because it is a similar warped view of multiculturalism which causes the ridiculous judgements that he cites. In the cases Hari mentions, and by his own analysis, the concept is defined to mean that all cultures in their entirety are of equal value. If he wishes to argue against this version of multiculturalism, he is welcome to it. Attempting to define something so nebulous as a culture in its entirety is an impossible task. Occasionally, we find jobsworths and fools (usually on the far left, it must be noted) who subscribe to this definition, and they leave themselves open to ridicule and condemnation.
But Johann Hari should know that this analysis has never been what most defenders of the concept, including myself, have been arguing for. To us, multiculturalism is the idea that change is inevitable and should be embraced. To us, it is the idea that one may be changed by other ideas. To us, it is a rejection of the view that the dominant majority culture is complete and perfect, and that it cannot be changed for the better by outside influences. Many people see these ideas as a threat to their entrenched status quo, and so they attack the entire philosophy by citing only its deformation. Hari is clearly pandering to this view.
The column noticeably focuses on problems within Muslim households, as if this is all that ‘multiculturalism’ concerns itself with. Hari forgets that a broader multicultural philosophy also encompasses positive cultural changes such as (say) homosexual rights. We acknowledge these rights precisely because we accept that not all alternative lifestyles and cultures are bad. If it turns out that a given cultural practice is damaging, this does not damn other cultural practices that originate in the same group. Nor does it prove that encouraging other cultures to flourish is an a priori Bad Thing. By railing against multiculturalism in general, Hari endorses both these logical fallacies.
He pin-points the abominable practice of domestic abuse, forgetting that such a practice occurs in our own culture (and endorsed by the Old Testament too, if anyone cared to ask). More important in this context, he forgets it is multiculturalism – in its proper form – that is stamping out this practice.
One real-life example: An Indian friend of mine recently had to confess to her Pakistani boyfriend that she had been previously married. She had refrained from telling him about her past because, well, he is from a very traditional Muslim background. She feared a judgemental, angry reaction… but in the event, his response surprised her. Although he found her revelationd difficult at first, he made the effort to listen, and to understand… something that (he says) would be beyond the strict values of his parents.
This change of outlook is, I suggest, an inevitable product of his time in the UK. When we were interviewing young people for the documentary Sex Lies and Culture last year, we unearthed countless examples of formerly socially conservative parents changing their attitudes (much to the surprise of their children). The change had been brought about by their immersion in a different culture. Multiculturalism is a two-way process. It is not about the introduction of Sharia Law into the UK, as Johann Hari might claim, but in fact the slow yet inevitable undermining of Sharia Law by presenting alternatives (this is why Islamists are threatened by multiculturalism too). In a post-colonial and globalised world, multiculturalism is actually the means by which we export our values to new places and peoples. But unlike in colonial times, the values cannot be delivered to others via the tip of a bayonet, or indeed imposed via legislation. Nor are all guaranteed to survive. Instead, our values must compete and win out in the marketplace of ideas. They are doing so, and the unfortunate incidents Johann Hari cites are noteworthy because they are incongrous, not because they are the sign of things to come.
It is right to be vigilant, and it is right to argue against these mad German judgements. But its a mistake to attribute these tragedies to a failure of ‘multiculturalism’ And it is most certainly a mistake to think that a more insular approach would be a better response to something so fluid as ‘culture’. These debates will define the coming century, and we need to understand the complexity and subtlety of the ideas we are describing.