Following Scotts recent post in the mailbox we have Amitai Etzioni drawing our attention to a piece he wrote on the same topic in the International Herald Tribune. His key point seems to be that it is important to “utterly reject the multicultural notion that we should abolish societal identities to accommodate the sensibilities of the newcomers”.
I appreciate the thrust of what Amitai is saying here, but I still think he is mistaken. Identities are not static, but fluid: they are processes. Our identities as much as the cells which compose our bodies are changing everyday. We do not need to abolish anything, but we do need to accept both the fact of and the need for change. To do otherwise would seem not to be living in Europe, but rather to be living in Denial. So in this context I would prefer to go down another road, that opened up by the French Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas: one of the measures of our degree of civilisation as a community is our open-ness to the other. This would be my main point of departure from the US notion of diversity, which for all its sophistocation and its appeal, is still feel IMHO far too structured by a US, non-US dichotomy: one that we here in Europe are in danger of assimilating. The limitations of such a failure to grasp the radical difference presented by ‘otherness’ can be found, for example, in the attitude to Japan (why can’t these Japanese just set up a normal capitalist system like everyone else does), in China (why don’t the Chinese simply rebel against all this centralised communist dictatorship stuff), or – dare I say it – in Iraq (why the hell don’t these guys just accept democracy).
What Levinas suggests is that we are setting up the problem in the wrong way. The other is just ‘other’. Our challenge is to accept this. To take the marriage (or co-habitation) model: love is not consuming the partner and turning them into a figment of your own desire. Love is accepting your partner as they are, warts and all, and loving them for what they are.
Ok this is strange stuff for an economist I know, but there it is. I have pasted an extract from Amitai’s piece below. There are lots of other arguments worthy of consideration, about schools about common language, about you name it. This discussion is important, say what you feel like saying, maybe he will join in.
The recent fuss about headscarves that pupils may not wear (in France), and that teachers (in Germany) and court clerks (in Holland) – after years of deliberations – may finally wear, reminds me of a tale divorce lawyers are fond of repeating. Often, when a couple has reached an agreement after long and painful negotiations, all hell breaks loose over who will get some item of limited importance, like a tea kettle. It becomes the vessel in which all the festering resentment is invested. Similarly, headscarves are chiefly the vessel of a profound struggle over the future character of Europe, as well as similar struggles in many other societies, from Japan to Canada.
What is revealed in the conflict over the headscarves is the feeling among Europeans that the essence of their identity, moral culture and tradition is assailed by immigrants.
A group of academics, public officials and others from across Europe, in discussions where I served as chairman, formulated a new approach to this problem. We called it diversity within unity. It is best illustrated by the image of a mosaic, which has pieces of different shapes and colors but also a shared framework that may itself be reordered. There are some basics that should be viewed as sacrosanct, but other cultural and social differences should be not just tolerated but welcomed as enriching.
The nervousness of European majorities is not hard to understand. When several families from a faraway land move in next door, they give the neighbors pause. There is no sense in denying that many immigrants treat women and children, the law, and much else in ways we find troubling. Some of that conduct is not just different, but wrong.
Under the framework of diversity within unity, immigrants who wish to become members of European national communities (or the European Union, for that matter) must accept certain basics. They must be willing to respect human rights, the democratic form of government and the law; learn the prevailing languages; and accept both the glory and the burdens of existing national histories.
But assimilation in its pure form, demanding that immigrants become indistinguishable from the rest of society, is unnecessarily homogenizing. If immigrants buy into the basics, there is no reason to protest if they eat and dance differently or pray to different gods. In reality, as anybody benefiting from the much improved cuisine in London over the last generation will tell you, these differences can make for improvement.
At the same time, we supporters of diversity within unity utterly reject the multicultural notion that we should abolish societal identities to accommodate the sensibilities of the newcomers.
No society can flourish unless it has some shared values; nor is there any reason to hold that the human rights that we insist must be respected by people all over the world could be ignored in our inner cities, or that the democratic way of life could be treated as one option among many.
Ideally, all children should attend public schools, to ensure that they all will be introduced to the same core of shared values and that children of different backgrounds will mingle. At the same time, children should be allowed electives – amounting to, say, 15 percent of the curriculum – in which they could learn more about their cultures of origin, the languages of their parents and even their religion, as long as the teachers are fully qualified and chosen by educational authorities, not by fundamentalists.
However, since in several countries there are many private schools, as well as Catholic and Jewish schools (to which Muslim schools have now been added), a second-best approach must be considered. This requires that children of such schools regularly participate in activities with children of other schools, for instance, in sporting events or community service. And, above all, the state must maintain close supervision of curricula to verify that shared values are taught and that such schools are not turned into seedbeds of hatred against society.
Immigrants should not be given citizenship automatically, but should be expected to complete tests that determine whether they have acquired a reasonable command of the host society’s language or languages, knowledge of its core culture and familiarity with its institutions………….
Ah, I almost forgot about the headscarves. Unity within schools could be easily provided if all children wore uniforms with a small national – or European Union – emblem, in addition to any article of religious symbolism, if the children choose one. The notion that such token expressions would offend others will exist only as long as the underlying issues remain unresolved.