Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A balanced view of multiculturalism

Here's a great post by Kenan Malik that explains why both sides in the debate about multiculturalism are wrong:
What is striking about multiculturalism and the clash of civilizations thesis is how much the two approaches have in common. It is true that there is little love lost between multiculturalists and clash of civilization warriors. The former accuse the latter of pandering to racism and Islamophobia, while the latter talk of the former as appeasing Islamism. Beneath the hostility, however, the two sides share basic assumptions about the nature of culture, identity and difference.  For at the heart of both arguments is a confusion of peoples and values. Multiculturalists claim that the presence in a society of a diversity of peoples limits the possibility of common values. Clash of civilization warriors insist that such values are impossible within an ethnically diverse society. Neither is right.

And that is because both assume that minority communities are homogenous wholes whose members will forever be attached to the cultures, faiths, beliefs and values of their forebears. Being born to European parents is not a passport to Enlightenment beliefs. So why should we imagine that having Bangladeshi or Moroccan ancestry makes one automatically believe in sharia? Multiculturalists and the clash of civilization warriors have different views about the nature of Islam. Both, however, look upon Muslims as constituting a distinct population, defined almost solely by its faith, and whose difference must dictate the way that wider society deals with it. In viewing cultural differences in this fashion, both sides have been led to betray basic liberal principles.

In reality, of course, there are more than two sides to this complex issue. And certainly we're all likely to disagree on the details. But Malik's thinking is much like mine.

Oddly, Malik is a determined foe of multiculturalism, while I tend to focus my opposition on their right-wing opponents. But this, I think, is mainly because Malik is British, while I'm American. "Multiculturalism" in Europe tends to be a far different thing than in America. And here, the greatest danger, overwhelmingly, is from extremists on the right, not the left.

Well, this is a problem when arguing generalities anyway. That's still what we must do sometimes, but it's frequently misleading. I tend to avoid the label "multiculturalism" - partly because it tends to result in a knee-jerk response, and partly because it sounds more benign than it is, at least in Europe. So why not just talk about "diversity," which really should be the key issue for progressives?

As Malik also understands, it's individual freedom that's the important thing. You should not gain or lose any rights just because of your religion, your ethnic identity, or your cultural community. A woman from a patriarchal culture still has the exact same rights as any other woman - indeed, any other person. And although your religion may demand certain behavior, (1) it must always be voluntary and (2) it can't infringe on the rights of anyone else, member or not.

Now I have absolutely no interest in cultural preservation and no concern about "cultural imperialism." Cultures should change with the times. But a culture doesn't change as a unit. It's always a matter of individuals. Those individuals have the right to choose for themselves - not just in choosing a particular culture, but in continuing to make their own decisions, whether they consider themselves to be part of a particular culture or not.

At the same time, diversity - including cultural diversity - is a very good thing. "Multiculturalism" in that respect is great. It makes us all richer, as it leads to a vibrant, creative society. But it's the individuals who are important, not the cultures. It's the individuals who have rights, the individuals who make choices, the individuals who matter. Cultures don't have rights. It's the individual within a culture who has rights, and those rights are neither more nor less than what anyone else has.

Given the freedom to make choices, many people will make bad ones. That's a fact. It's the downside of freedom. But there are far too many upsides for that to dissuade us. And besides, you will never get all of us to agree on what really is a bad choice. You may think you know, but you could be wrong. And what gives you the right to decide for everyone else?

That's the essence of a diverse, pluralistic, democratic society. In this, America led the way, with our strict separation of church and state. Above all else, that was our gift to the world. Now we just need to live up to our own ideals.

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