Multiculturalism again

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.

5 Replies to “Multiculturalism again”

  1. I don’t have all the details to hand, but as far as I know the first case Hari cites and on which he mainly bases his column is not painting the full picture. He omits quite a few details and what has happened since.
    First of all the judge only denied an early/speedy divorce (there’s a rule you have to wait a certain number of months or something like that). The husband was actually given some kind of restraining order, keeping him away from his wife. It’s not as if she was still being beaten up because of the judge telling her she has to stay with him.
    Then there has been a huge public outcry and discussion about the decision. The judge was taken off the case and has publicly apologised. I’m not sure about the latest status, but I believe the decision has since been reversed and she has been granted an early divorce.
    So while this was a bad decision it is a quite bad example to use as a general trend and example. And another example of bad fact checking by the mainstream media. But I’m getting to used to seeing this as someone seeing both sides and trying to clear things up again and again (I’m German but live in England, I frequently find myself correcting nonsense the British press writes about Germany and vice versa).

  2. Indeed. I’ve touched upon some of the sticking points in a follow-up post. I would start by saying that cultures are not entities in themselves, but means – frameworks, perhaps – by which people can live and flourish. They are valuable because of what they can do for an individual. If the culture is causing harm for individuals it is not doing its job and should not be revered or respected.
    The issue over who gets to define the culture is also a flashpoint. I think the advantage of the Pickled Politics/NGN approach is that the critiques come from within a group. It is noticeable that in the ridiculous, extreme examples such as those cited by Johann Hari, the arbiters of what constitutes the ‘authentic’ culture are actually not part of the group they are pronouncing upon.

  3. There is at least one case of a child in the UK dying because PC social workers (is there any other kind ?) refused to intervene in clear cases of child neglect/abuse because they felt to do so would be “culturally insensitive”…… UK law says the law must be applied equally, multiculturalism clearly says not.
    In any event all cultures are demonstrably not equal. Leaving aside the intellectual argument that to demonstrate equality one must have some absolute concept against which to measure that equality (in which case the relativism on which multiculturalism is based collapses), if all cutures are equal then how do dominant cultures (either within or between nation states) acheive dominance if not through superiority and the operation of social darwinism ? (I appreciate that the logic behind that statement could lead to the invocation of Godwins law but inequality does not IMHO automatically equal persecution)
    I think you misunderstand the “fear” (as you describe it) of multiculturalism. Anyone with a modicum of intelligence realises that culture is dynamic and change for the better (or worse) can only occur through the absorbtion of new ideas. However, to argue that this can only be acheived through muticulturalism is to take a very narrow definition of culture. Culture is driven more by science than by immersion in new food/drink/language/ideology. For example the internet has created a paradigm shift in global culture, it has not just enabled faster/better communication but has created new forms of communication and arguably a new language – 10 years ago I could not contribute to this blog, 20 years ago the words Google or ipod would be meaningless. It is difficult to argue that this would not have happened without an influx of migrants to the UK. Einstein developed the theory of realivity using his brain and a blackboard, he did not need to be exposed to new external influences, his existing culture provided all the tools required.
    Culture has show itself perfectly capable of improvement “from within” and the argument that muticulturalism will cause a defacto improvement in the existing culture (however you define it) is not based on any credible evidence, it is also not without economic and social cost. That is why people baulk at being told they must celebrate/embrace it.

  4. Robert Sharp makes the bizarre claim that multiculturalism 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.”
    So who, in God’s name, ever said that their own culture WAS “complete and perfect”???? Not even the BNP make this claim. The BNP are quite happy with British culture looking at and learning from other cultures (via books, foreign travel, the Internet, etc etc etc).
    But this is quite different from multiculturalism on the normal definition, i.e. the co-existance in a country of people from different religious or national backgrounds.

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