How to be multicultural?

Religious beliefs have the same status in logical argument as the parents who shout, “Because I said so!” at their children.

It is very easy to say that you are pro-multicultural. Politicians, religious leaders, journalists, all declare that they are in favour of diversity. And yet, they all, each and every one, have their own personal faith, that is almost always at odds with everyone else’s. How can we respect and tolerate someone, if our own beliefs are contradictory to theirs? If this question is not answered, then all talk of cultural diversity is meaningless.

Imagine three guys sitting around a table during freshers’ week (that’s shouldn’t be too hard). During their opening chit-chats, it becomes apparent that they have different faiths. One is Christian, another is a Jew… the third declares he is an atheist. During their discussions, the following beliefs emerge:

The Christian believes that Jesus Christ was the Son of God; The Jew believes that God exists, but Jesus was not His son; and the atheist believes that there are no gods.

These are three mutually exclusive viewpoints. They cannot be held simultaneously. No one knows who of the three is right, but we can be certain that at least two of them are wrong. Two of the eager students are embarking on a university career, their entire belief system based on falsehood. Is it not doublethink to respect faiths and religions, when we know that the great majority of them (including, probably, our own) must be completely wrong?

The problem with this stance, trivially correct though it may be, is that it focuses on the central tenets of a particular belief. This does not advance our understanding, nor does it help us when we realise we have to live next door to these people. We must recognise that everyone has to put blind, illogical faith in something. Even the atheist has to bridge a gap of logic if he is to believe that no gods exist. These beliefs have the same status in logical argument as the parents who shout, “Because I said so!” at their children.

What is open to discussion, however, is how those tenets effect the way people lead their lives. For example, to Christians, the most important thing about Jesus Christ is that he died and was resurrected for the sins of humanity. For non-Christians, i.e. most people, the love and forgiveness Jesus is said to have preached, and that their Christian neighbours try and do the same.

There is a challenge therefore, which extends to any group of people and not just the religions used in the example above. The challenge is to show the rest of the world how they approach life, how they treat fellow humans, based upon whatever traditions and tenets they subscribe to. (This is a particular challenge for atheists, who have to explain how they live without recourse to an ancient text). Explaining your moral system to others is interesting, rational, and most importantly it allows us to form a consensus with other cultures, on what exactly those morals shall be. Mutual respect all around the table.

Simon Schama suggests how we should conduct our political discourse:

Put another way, the fight is between power based on revelation (and thus not open to argument), and power based on persuasion, and thus conditional on argument; militant theocracy against the tolerant Enlightenment.

Competing groups may follow their own traditions and code as they interact with others, but at no point must they use their own articles of faith as a reason for political action. “We have the right to do this, because God says so” is an irrational argument and will not wash in polite debate. Sadly, many politicians on the international scene use this sort of rhetoric, over and over again. We know who they are and we should ask them to stop, because then we might be able to have a proper conversation.

How to forgive?

Review of No Future Without Forgiveness by Desmond Tutu

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was so improbable, I needed Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness to remind me that it was not some figment of my imagination, and did in fact exist. It was so unlikely, in fact, that I feel a quick summary of Commission’s activities is required, so its astounding nature can be fully comprehended.

Let me get this right: After apartheid ended and a fully democratic government was elected, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established. This body was created to facilitate a national catharsis, where people were given a platform to narrate their stories of the era. In the case of the victims of the apartheid regime, those who has been abused and tortured by the government security forces, the Commission had the power to grant them a symbolic compensation. “So far so good,” you might say—nothing too radical there. However (and you might have to read sentence twice) the Commission also had the power to grant an amnesty from prosecution, to those who confessed to crimes against humanity, committed during the apartheid era! People could come to the TRC, tell everyone that they had abducted, tortured, maimed and killed, say sorry, and then go home.

It’s all so improbable. South Africa was for half a century the epitome of animosity. The apartheid system took an entire race of people and stomped them into the ground. There was regular violence. There were massacres, notably at Sharpville in 1960 and in Soweto in 1976. There were bombings. The history of South Africa from 1948 points inexorably towards a chaotic civil war, similar to the many other conflicts that have crippled the African continent.

And it just did not happen. Not only did it just not happen, but also out of the negotiations of the early 1990s, there emerged the TRC, which began granting drive-by amnesty and gung-ho forgiveness left, right and centre.

We already know how this came to pass. It was made possible by that unique man Nelson Mandela, and also by people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who took the helm of the TRC when it was established 1995. These South Africans were able to steer their nation away from seemingly certain civil war and onto the path of resolution and development. Such a thing was possible entirely because of the good character of those involved. The source of their morality, sketched in Tutu’s memoir, is something that should be studied by everyone.

The core message of No Future Without Forgiveness is encapsulated bluntly in the title. Before we examine its credibility and implications in detail, there are other nuggets worthy of inspection. What I find most interesting is Desmond Tutu’s account of ubuntu. I will describe it in a moment, but first a few observations on multiculturalism, and my own dabbling with it.

Whenever people talk about cultural exchange as a valuable thing, the reason cited is that we may “learn things from other cultures”. However, what it is we actually learn is never really explained. We can appreciate unfamiliar traditions, but they are always trumped by western liberal values if the push really comes to the shove.

Furthermore, culture as a concept is difficult to define at the best of times. Despite this, my personal experiences have convinced me that we do have valuable lessons to learn from non-Western cultures, and as such I am always delighted when a solid example of non-Western culture surfaces, and proves itself to be superior. Ubuntu is one such example, and one I have experienced before.

In Tutu’s words, which I shall quote at length with no qualms or apologies:

Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language. It speaks of the very essence of being human. When we want to give high praise to someone we say, ‘Yu, u nobuntu’ … this means they are generous, hospitable, friendly, caring and compassionate. They share what they have. It also means my humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in theirs. We belong in a bundle of life. We say, ‘a person is a person through other people … I am human because I belong.’ I participate, I share. A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good; for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.

This is one of the best articulations of ubuntu I have read, and it makes me smile. When I read it in No Future Without Forgiveness I instantly recognised it that distinctly African way of treating other people that I experienced when I lived on the other side of the Limpopo, in Zimbabwe. It is the thing that says, “you will always feed a visitor to your house”, that says, “you will give a ride to those you see standing beside the road.” It is that attitude that says, “Respect your family,” that says “you will be better off working together.” Ubuntu is a way of saying “we are all part of the same team, the same human race.” It is a very communal attitude to take, one that is not evident in Britain, mid-2002.