Is multiculturalism conservative?

I’ve been re-reading a little bit of Andrew Sullivan’s book The Conservative Soul, in which he attempts to wrestle back conservatism from the theocons. By his analysis, Conservatism is the Politics of Doubt (and thus incompatible with fundamentalism, be it Christian or otherwise). This is outlined in chapters Five and Six. The pace of change for a conservative is necessarily slow, argues Sullivan, because conservatives are naturally skeptical of any change, and will endorse such a change only when his questions have been exhausted.

The conservative, unlike the fundamentalist or Marxist or any other adherent of a direction for a time, simply observes that this is the way the world is. He will confront the fundamentalist with a puzzled look, and ask him how he knows for sure that something beyond contingency and choice is at work in human history, that some other force is directing human action and ends. … He will enjoy pointing out the collapse of this great history or that one. And in the meantime, he will simply make the choices he wants to make and live.

Reading these chapters, it occurs to me that multiculturalism could be considered conservative in its temperament. By this analysis, multiculturalism is the realistic approach. It acknowledges that when humans move and mix, they are unlikely (and maybe unable) to change their culture overnight. It is surely unreasonable for a migrant to announce Year Zero on their arrival, and simply abandon their old culture in favour of the new one. Change will come, cultures will evolve, but slowly. To demand that new additions to our society simply equalise their values to our own is illiberal, unworkable, ignorant of human nature, and ultimately counter-productive.
The first critique of this idea is that some of the cultures we are asked to mix with are fundamentalist in nature. They may not change at all, and are the polar opposite of any Politics of Doubt. This may be true for a few people (and it is relatively few), and to give them the bulk of the attention is to willfully ignore the wider truth. As we see in the UK, the reality for most people is that the cultures do change, and the change is slow – often spanning generations. They achieve this precisely because, however annoyingly insular they appear to be, they are not fundamentalists. Liberal democracy is as much a part of their culture as it is of ours. In such cases I see no problem in respecting and actively celebrating their culture, its history, and its traditions. When this is done by the British it is often labelled ‘conservative’ or ‘Conservative’. It seems logical to give the same label to the act of celebrating other cultures too.

4 Replies to “Is multiculturalism conservative?”

  1. I think connservatives are inherently suspicious of and resistant to social change – the very name implies a maintenence of the status quo – and would rather not have immigration at all whether it is accomodated through multiculturalism or integration.
    I would also question your claim that liberal democracy is a part of “their” ie. migrant cultures – unless the migrant is from a post industrial, western society. Much as it likes to pretend otherwise, Liberalism is a social construction, it is in no sense a societal default.

  2. and would rather not have immigration at all whether it is accomodated through multiculturalism or integration.
    True, although if one is realistic and accepts that migration will take place (both ‘aliens’ coming in, and ‘natives’ going out), then surely multiculturalism would seem more sensible to the conservative eye? If not, then they’re asking others to behave differently from how they themselves would behave.
    I would also question your claim that liberal democracy is a part of “their” ie. migrant cultures – unless the migrant is from a post industrial, western society.
    Two points to mention here. The first is to ask at what point ‘Liberal Democracy’ ceases to become the sole preserve of the West. For example, India has a pluralistic society that is democratic and becoming increasingly tolerant. I would say that this has been a part of Indian culture, at least since Independence, and probably before. Likewise with the Far East, Africa and the America – indeed, pretty much much everywhere except places like Saudi – where the concept of tolerance and democracy are political ideals in good standing (even if in practice, their governments might not live up to this ideal). In such cases, the immigrants already have the cultural tools they need to exist in Western Democracies, even if they choose to wear a sari and associate mainly with other Indians.
    Second – Yes, many immigrants are from post-industrial Western societies. This is increasingly true since the restrictions on EU immigration were dropped. Multiculturalism is as much about celebrating Spanish or Polish culture, as it is addressing the complaints of hardline Islamic Fundamentalists. Maybe more so, since there are more EU immigrants in the UK, than members of Hizb ut-Tahrir.

  3. I would agree with most of that except that – and I’m only judging by mainstream media reporting here – many parts of Africa in particular seem to be agricultural economies run by a quasi feudal system of tribal overlords. I’m not sure that tolerance, in the accepted western sense, is a hugely resonant concept in many people lives there.
    I’m not sure about the cultural tool argument – the phrase normally implies cuturally specific tools . Perhaps what you are describing is the spread of western cuture through globalisation rather than any pre existing ability to become “liberal”.

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