Multiculturalism vs. “multiculturalism”

I’m not alone in thinking that our last debate about multiculturalism was marred by the fact that nobody seemed to agree on what the word actually meant. The following bit from a Christian Science Monitor opinion piece caught be eye:

Supposedly [European authorities] were enlightened “multiculturalists” who respected differences; for many, the real reason was a profound discomfort with the idea of “them” becoming “us.” Naively, they imagined they could preserve their nations’ cultural homogeneity while letting in millions of foreigners and smiling on their preservation and perpetuation of values drastically different from their own.

Perhaps we need to distinguish between “multiculturalism” and multiculturalism?

It’s a wish-washy word whichever way you cut it, but if I were to make a simple distinction I’d put it this way: “Multiculturalism” is the dumb idea that everybody should be able to live as they please, ignoring (under the flimsy pretense of tolerance) the potential harmfulness of some behavior. True multiculturalism, I think, simply means a recognition that “culture” (in this case, national or European culture) is not something that’s fixed, essential or immutable, nor even homogenous, but rather contains a variety of different influences — sometimes competing ones, even — and changes over time.

This discussion really shouldn’t get bogged down in isms. My point is that Europe is going to have an “immigration problem” as long as it doesn’t accept the fact that “Europe,” for better and for worse — net better, I say, provided basic political rights are preserved — will be quite a different creature in a hundred years’ time due to the massive immigration of today.

Or course the ball is not squarely in European Europe’s court. Over time, I expect to see a compromise with Immigrant Europe. Now calm down. Compromise does not mean chopping off your foreskins and living under Sharia law. In fact, I’m not sure what such a Europe would really look like…. It’s an amusing and slightly thrilling idea, though.

25 thoughts on “Multiculturalism vs. “multiculturalism”

  1. “True multiculturalism, I think, simply means a recognition that “culture” (in this case, national or European culture) is not something that’s fixed, essential or immutable, nor even homogenous,”

    Some people, Scott, use the terminology interculturalism for what you describe, reserving the term multiculturalism for what you call “multiculturalism”. They then use the term ‘assimilationism’ for what seems to have characterised the Republican ideal in France before the riots.

    You could ask the question in a US context “whatever happened to WASP America”. Didn’t you move from something like the hegemony of one group to a loose form of multiculturalism to what you now call diversity?

    Basically isn’t the key question the shared ‘common core’, and that this has to be implicitly negotiated and not imposed. Once you have a consensual common core, then the question is one of getting the distances of each group from this core not too far, nor too near, but just right. My guess is that this takes a lot of learning by doing.

    Britain has made some progress in this direction, France I think is about to start in earnest, and Germany had yet to put it seriously on the agenda (or at least that is my impression). Meanwhile here in Spain my guess is Zapatero would seriously like to queue jump.

  2. “True multiculturalism, I think, simply means a recognition that “culture” (in this case, national or European culture) is not something that’s fixed, essential or immutable, nor even homogenous, but rather contains a variety of different influences — sometimes competing ones, even — and changes over time.”

    If you like, Scott. But how does this reassignment of labels matter? Wouldn’t you agree that people only care about issues? Reality seems only concerned about one simple rule: something works when it works and doesn’t when it doesn’t.

    How would labels or even parallels matter?

  3. But how does this reassignment of labels matter?

    Dunno, guess it matters because I hear a lot of horseshit around here about how France is France and will never be multiculturalist or interculturalist or whateverist. And btw don’t be calling it a “reassignment” of labels!

    Didn’t you move from something like the hegemony of one group to a loose form of multiculturalism to what you now call diversity?

    And T.F.G. for that.

  4. The English have long been a melting pot of successive disparate cultures and languages – I suggest an urgent reading of that deliciously satirical poem by Daniel Defoe: A True-Born Englishman (1701): http://www.blackmask.com/books63c/trueborneng.htm

    Some observers are inclined to remind us that the last English monarch with definite English ancestry was Richard III – notorious for allegedly ordering the murder of the princes in the Tower – who was killed in the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 by the forces of Henry Tudor, whose ancestry was Welsh and who went on to establish one of the most illustrious dynasties in British history.

    The Tudors were followed by the Stuarts from Scotland, who were succeeded by the Hanoverians. Disraeli, one of the most illustrious of our prime ministers in 1868 and 1874-80, was the grandson of immigrants. In 1847, he wrote: London is the modern Babylon. Metropolitan London is now the biggest and most affluent city in Europe.

  5. “Dunno, guess it matters because I hear a lot of horseshit around here about how France is France and will never be multiculturalist or interculturalist or whateverist.”

    Indeed. Yet, these are nothing but strawmen. The whole issue depends on willingness. On vision and leadership.
    If respective leaders want to make it work, make it a win-win situation, and succeed in achieving practical goals, then it will work. It won’t if they don’t, fail, or happen to be excused from existence.

    “And btw don’t be calling it a “reassignment” of labels!”

    My apologies. Your attempt to secure this moving billboard then. But please, let us not confuse the billboard with the goalpost, or the beacon.

  6. I like your definition.

    People attacking multiculturalism typically use “multiculturalism” as a convenient straw man.

    There is no reason why specific practices cannot be criticized even without mandating complete assimilation into the majority culture.

    Also I think those who see immigrants as hordes of scary jihadis, just waiting for a chance to impose Sharia law through out the land are simply nuts.

    I am reasonably sure that most care more about getting a better job and being more accepted in their societies.

    Most would probably be more excited if an immigrant won the European version of American Idol (Eurovision?)(for example) than if a law was passed making hijab mandatory or whatever.

    The real multiculturalism would make things like this possible and is arguably what has happened to some extent in the US over the past 40 years.

    It will be interesting to see how Europe decides to deal with this issue and if it is willing to make some changes or if it will follow the “Dhimmi threat” school of thought and attempt to batten down the hatches.

  7. Well, whatever the turnout, I think it’s a huge gamble, not neccessarily an amusing or thrilling one either.

    Cultures are ideas, formulated by people as to how life should be lived. Just as some people have words that simply don’t translate into other languages, so people have ideas that don’t translate either. I think the average Westerner, given his cultural tendency towards ‘creative’ destruction, doesn’t have too many problems with a changing culture. Even during the European Middle Ages of Christian rule( a rather immutable period), Europe could always draw upon its dynamic Greek and Roman past. But Muslims? The core of Islamic culture is the concept of immutability, of submission. Mixing of the two, European and Muslim, is rather like oil and water, not the American melting pot, which many are prone to compare.

    Ultimately, I think the Muslim world will change, simply because it has no choice. Science, slowly but surely, chips away at religion. But to assume that Europe will be the better for it is foolhardy, imo. Europe, it seems, has no conviction for anything anymore. Certainly not it’s past, which may be shameful in some respects, but shines in so many others. And if you don’t respect your past, how can you preserve your culture?

    How, Scott, do you preserve those ‘basic politcal rights’, that you implicitly assume will be there 100 years in the future, for they are uniquely Western.

    And Edward, I’m confused. Don’t you want people as close to the common core as possible? Are you saying that some groups need to be closer/farther than others? And what is that core with regards to Europe?

  8. “Even during the European Middle Ages of Christian rule( a rather immutable period), Europe could always draw upon its dynamic Greek and Roman past.”

    Although interestingly Rupert, we only became aware of this hertitage through ‘Muslim’ conservation of the texts. Plato and Aristotle arrived in Europe either through Florence via Constantinople or through Spain via 500 or so years of ‘Moorish’ occupation. We ourselves forgot about them completely.

  9. Edward, come on. That’s clearly false. Roman and Greek learning was preserved not only by the Muslims, but in monastaries across Europe and in Byzantium. It was never completely forgotton nor soley preserved by Muslims.

    But my point was, while preserved by Muslims, it’s roots are in Europe. A strong argument can be made that the resulting Western culture that we know today is drawn from those sources. It’s alien to the Islamic mind and therefore so are our cherished Western concepts.

  10. The roots of Greek learning are in eastern Mideterranean with an original tendency to spread eastwards. Its Latin offshot was independently remarkable mainly for statecraft. As long as both Latin and Perso-Arabic lines tapped it in similar ways, the Muslim line of succession was thoroughly dominant. Even if direct translations from Greek were ultimately preferred to retranslations from Arabic (surprise!), many of the originals had to be unearthed from oblivion, while the Arabic versions were in circulation and hence translated first. Irrespective of that, Muslim commentary continued to cast a long shadow over European interpretations, as did translations of Muslim works on natural science.

    The main difference in the use of the Greek heritage was in the belle lettres. Perso-Arabic literature flourished spectacularly without much contact with the Greek tradition, while Europeans for a long time neither developed autochtonous literatures nor really came to grips with the Latin imitations of Greek literature that they could read. It was mostly the Renaissance obsession with classical Latin together with the flight of Byzantines into Europe that made European belle lettres into another, belated offspring of Greek literature, of which the umblilical cord was cut barely a hundred years ago.

    As for experimental science, the contrasts had less to do with Greek learning than with the penchant of European mystics for alchemy and astrology. Muslim mystics tended to prefer poetry.

  11. Suffice it to say that true multiculturalism requires recognition and more importantly respect for all cultures by Everyone.

  12. “That’s clearly false……..but in monastaries across Europe.”

    Well Byzantium is clearly valid which is why I mention Constantinople, but monastries across Europe? I’m not saying there wasn’t the odd copy of something or other knocking around at the bottom of a dusty stack, I’m not enough of a historian for that, but the thing is these texts were “Pagan” and as such frowned on. This was what the Renaissance was all about, a ‘rediscovery’, and this is why the period from the 5th to the 13th century is often called the ‘dark ages’ – although I will readily accept that they probably weren’t as universally ‘dark’ as the tradition normally suggests.

  13. “Or course the ball is not squarely in European Europe’s court. Over time, I expect to see a compromise with Immigrant Europe. Now calm down. Compromise does not mean chopping off your foreskins and living under Sharia law. In fact, I’m not sure what such a Europe would really look like…. It’s an amusing and slightly thrilling idea, though.”

    Edward, this leaves it rather puzzling as to why any current European should care about this future Europe any more than they should care about, say, the future South America, or Thailand, or any other part of the planet. After all, how much does it have to do with what they care about? And what can they know about it? The mere fact that it will exist in the same geographical space is hardly sufficient.

    Anyway, I’m sure you have answers…

  14. why any current European should care about this future Europe any more than they should care about, say, the future South America, or Thailand, or any other part of the planet

    Your children live there?

  15. the thing is these texts were “Pagan” and as such frowned on. This was what the Renaissance was all about, a ’rediscovery’

    Frowning was not quite the main problem, and there was much variation in attitudes. It’s just that the reaction to these texts until the Renaissance would be quite uniform in another respect: Graecum est; non potest legi. It was all Greek to them.

    It is what the author of that pholosophy course link misses thoroughly, as is typical in today’s academic philosophy. The reason for much of what happened during the Renaissance was the fact that a significant number of people in Latin Christendom were able to read Greek again after a millenium-long hiatus. With that, studia humanitatis became an emulation of paideia, which is what the Greeks called their learning and what Cicero himself meant in coining the word humanitas.

    For a starter one could do worse than to read HUMANISM IN ITALY from the old Dictionary of the History of Ideas and some related entries from the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, including Translators and Islamic philosophy: transmission into Western Europe.

    All off topic, but much more interesting than essentialist nonsense about the “Islamic mind”, wouldn’t you say?

  16. “Edward, this leaves it rather puzzling as to why any current European should care about this future Europe”

    Ian, I think this goes to Scott, not to me, since this is not my post, and these are not my words :).

    “Anyway, I’m sure you have answers…”

    Normally I do, but that doesn’t mean to say they are either right, or adequate to the occasion :).

  17. On the historical point concerning transmission, I broadly agree with Michael. The ancient texts were continuously studied in the Byzantine Empire; in the West, pre-15th Century, practically nobody could read Greek, indeed more people could understand Arabic than Greek.

    The idea of the Arab world as the basis of the preservation of classical learning is often overstated. Can anyone cite which actual texts we derive from Arab sources? The list is very small, I believe. The fall of Toledo and access to its libraries was culturally important, early on, but not, I think, on a par with access to Byzantine materials a few centuries later..

    As Michael suggests, it was the fall of Constantinople, with the attendant influx of Greek scholars to Rome, that gave the real boost to Italian humanism. Apart from one or two texts of Aristotle, our modern access to the classical corpus is based on the Byzantine tradition. When and how particular Greek manuscripts emerged to supercede Latin or Arabic translations is a complex study, but post-Renaissance culture was far more the heir of Byzantium than of the Arab Golden Age.

    As for dismissing talk of the Muslim mind as ‘essentialism’, that straw man should not confuse the real issue. There has been a longstanding pattern of decline in Arab civilization, as in other civilizations dominated by the Ottomans. Rote-learning and acceptance of received authority replaced investigation and interpretation. This is still a problem in modern day Algeria and Tunisia; the struggle over the role of the ulema in education and perhaps over the very meaning of education continues, and will become an issue in Europe unless we work out for ourselves what the meaning of education is. As far as I’m concerned, that process is inseparable from a re-assertion of that European tradition that enables a few of us to wield terms like essentialism meaningfully, let alone critically.

    The real problem is how to provide a satisfactory self-image to the children of immigrants within that tradition.

  18. John,

    Certainly, generalizations have an important role to play, although I have a strong bias for considering Muslim minds in the plural.

    As a development of my cartoon-styled narrative, your version of later history is not unreasonable. However, as an aid for understanding the current state of affairs, it makes me uneasy. In the cases of Algeria and Tunisia, provincial stagnation under the Ottomans was followed by a lasting cultural intervention from France, by a rebirth of Arabic letters, and then by tortuous interplay of politics and religion. The controversy regarding the role of the ulema in education doesn’t ring a bell (I’d be curious to know more), though I suspect it will sound rather less dramatic on closer inspection, at least in the case of Maghreb.

    All of that said, the relevance of this level of cultural history to the problems of integration in France is, to me, far from clear. I’ve grown to be humble about understanding, much less altering mechanisms of immigrant assimilation while watching its successes and failures in the US. Hence, I’m quite happy to be able to leave the daunting task of addressing the failures of assimilation in France for the French. Which, of course, doesn’t make observation less fascinating.

  19. Michael, I think you’ll find that the situation in the Maghreb is actually rather grimmer than you expect.

    A very good book on the whole topic of the obstacles to a contemporary Arab conceptualisation of democracy is Mohammed Charfi’s Islam and Liberty.(Zed Books, just published) The author was Tunisian Minister of Education from 1989 to 1994. He makes it abundantly clear that it is Islam itself that needs extensive reform, that the ideas of Abdoh and Haddad from the Arab renaissance of over 100 years ago have been allowed to fall by the wayside, and that the Ulema, who increasingly have a stranglehold over Maghrebi education, pose a real threat to any hopes of movement towards what we would consider enlightenment based on Koranic values.. The situation in Algeria is far worse than in Tunisia.

    Due prudence about sweeping generalizations is all very well, and certainly Islamism has a multiplicity of forms, each corresponding to a different social implantation. But I feel that on the whole theocratic and secular-democratic approaches are defined precisely by their opposition to each other rather than being divergent paths. Even Rorty might find himself reaching for the pistol of universal values when faced with little girls having their throats slit in the street for being improperly dressed.

    In any case, I think we probably agree that France’s problems are not about Islam or multiculturalism but about the growth of a criminally inclined underclass, a social problem that governments have sought to remedy by liberal dispensation of dosh since the days of the Roman Emperors and before.

    As for ‘diversity’ I fear it’s a slippery slope to relativism and should not be confused with tolerance of difference by firmly rooted national institutions. I’ve come to think that it is bad enough that capitalism itself tends to suck the soul out of western cultural institutions without humanists joining in too.

  20. Thanks for that pointer, John. Charfi seems like a very interesting writer, at least looking at this review.

    Reformist religious ideas of this and similar sort seem to be getting fairly wide circulation lately, both among Western Muslim scholars, and in the Middle East, where they are most prominently aired on al-Jazeera by al-Qaradawi — who is, of course, not everyone’s darling. In the Maghreb, Nadia Yassine may seem, perhaps, like a cuddlier type of Islamist (see this essay, for instance; I’m afraid only in French).

    As for theocracy and secular democracy being defined by their opposition, does that leave secular dictatorship… undefined? I’m having trouble getting my head around this notion. And, in fact, I have a special soapbox for that. I think withdrawal to categorical extremes and of grievance enumerations makes it difficult to listen to the voices of concrete people with concrete (and less concrete) ideas about the role of religion in public life.

    That is, of course, if listening is the goal. As societies are being continually reshaped through competition of conflicting viewpoints, sometimes polemical edge may be of more relevance than fairness. One thinks of this reading some of the exchanges on education between Charfi and Tunisian Islamist writers.

    As for ‘diversity’ being a slippery slope to relativism, I don’t see at all why that should be the case, except under the most caricaturesque parody of the term. Middle-Eastern immigrants are not the only source of diversity in my country, as elsewhere, and sharing a nation with strangers is messy business.

    I do feel, though, that the humanist tradition suggests particular ways of dealing with cross-cultural interaction that are clearly not equally well suited for all occasion in life, but are nevertheless very valuable. The choice within that tradition is likewise very broad. I happen to think that Goethe still has much to teach us.

  21. I should temper my initial rosy take on circulation of these ideas. It seems that the “Tunisian school”, which I was happy to discover from John’s tip and the review I linked to above, has yet to get its words heard far beyond francophone intellectual circles. The most interesting book discussed in the review, Islam Between Message and History by Abdelmajid Charfi (a different Charfi) is readily available in a recent French translation, but not in the original. That’s disappointing.

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