Identity Politics and Multiculturalism

As we debate ad nauseum the conflicting identities within the State, it often seems as if other aspects of multiculturalism are neglected. Specifically, the different and conflicting identities that exist within the individual. While a compromise with (or even a capitulation to) the behemoth that is ‘mainstream culture’ might be theoretically possible on a group level, this is not true on the level of the individual.

Over at Pickled Politics, Sunny Hundal presents his essay on how the War On Terror has fractured the British Asian community along religious lines.

… a change has been taking place within minority communities in the way they interact with each other, identify themselves and become politically engaged… The atmosphere of distrust following 9/11 and 7/7 made it easier for Muslim, Sikh and Hindu religious extremists to openly express distaste towards other religious minorities.

For me, the a key feature of the post-9/11 politics, which includes the enigma that is ‘Britishness’ and the hammering of ‘multiculturalism’, has been a focus on differences between groups: How does the white majority interact with the minorities; how do the values of different groups differ, and can they be reconciled; what concessions does the State make to these groups, and does it ask for any change in return?

As we debate ad nauseum the conflicting identities within the State, it often seems as if other aspects of multiculturalism are neglected. Specifically, the different and conflicting identities that exist within the individual. This is a particular issue for British-Asians (Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims all) as well many people with dual nationality, and many people of mixed race (an exponentially expanding group). For these people, to suggest that notions of multiculturalism should be abandoned is nonsensical. For while a compromise with (or even a capitulation to) the behemoth that is ‘mainstream culture’ might be theoretically possible on a group level, this is not true on the level of the individual.

That is not to say that people, on an individual level, cannot resolve what conflicts they are presented with. Indeed, they seem to succeed much more often than they fail. At places like Pickled Politics I think the contributors manage to elucidate very well how they reconcile such differences, and what immediately becomes clear is that their solutions do not lie in their granting total supremacy of one culture over the other. That they can do this proves for me the value of multiculturalism. The most sensible commentators seem to be those who can say, for example, “I am 100% Hindu and 100% Asian and 100% British”.

And yet much of the political debate (from both the, erm, generic white majority, and also within the various interest groups Sunny highlights) refuses to accept that this kind of reconciliation is possible. Because these critics cannot make that reconciliation themselves, they smear those who can as either delusional or fake. In this dismissal, they fail to accept the idea that one may be changed by other ideas, fail to understand the value of multiculturalism, and therefore become a kind of fundamentalist. Its a shame that the post 9/11 political climate has exacerbated this problem too.

4 thoughts on “Identity Politics and Multiculturalism”

  1. If by multiculturalism is meant the setting up of parallel cultures in a society with a view to outpopulating and eventually dominating that host society, then it indeed needs to be abandoned. If what is meant is the integration of the individual, with all his culture and mores into the existing society, such as it is and the adding to that society and enriching of it, then that is to be encouraged.

  2. I think you’ve got it the wrong way round. In the US multiculturalism “works” because individuals, not groups, are asked to buy into the National Identity of the country. The whole problem with european muticulturalism is that it expands notions of positive “rights” to the group, rather than the individual. In effect it demands that I unconditionally love all muslims (as a homogenised group) rather than chosing (or not) to have individual muslims as friends. This is the coercive (and deeply racist) aspect of multiculturalism which meets the most resistance and causes the most friction.
    The solution is to dismantle the manifestation of all groups below national level and give individuals control over their own integration. Notions of cultural supremacy miss the point, which is to create a culture that doesn’t belong to any particular group whilst being accesible to all of them.

  3. Both of these are pertinent points. I don’t think domination has ever been the intent of multiculturalism, or indeed the effect (although it might seem that way to some). Nor are the policies meant to absolve any group from criticism. Instead, it the policy as it stands seeks to counter racism towards a minority group. As Matt has often pointed out, these policies are often ineffective, leading to the suppression of criticism, rather than any positive change in attitudes. I think that the distinction between individuals and groups is important, because I’m still not at all sure that groups have rights of their own, independent from individual rights. “Dismantle the manifestation” seems ideal, yet sadly unrealistic, not least because some of the groups – such as The Church of England – are part of the apparatus of The State.

    Another problem stems from the lack of agreement on exactly what and what is not part of our identity. The arguments over the role of The Empire in our history are a good example of the quicksand we can slip into.

  4. The point about the CofE is a good one – we agonise over the integration of minorities whilst our statute still prevents catholics from being prime minister or sitting on the throne.
    The “meaning” given to ceratin events (e.g empire) will always be debated but I’ve never understood why that should be an obstacle to their inclusion in a Bristish identity. Many countries have more recent and painfull histories (e.g Germany) but it doesn’t seem to stand in the way of a consentual national identity. Like it or not, the CofE would have to be a part of British Identity, in a way that Islam, for example, would not.

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