What’s wrong with multiculturalism

Kenan Malik has yet another brilliant essay on multiculturalism. He says:

Part of the problem in discussions about multiculturalism is that the term has, in recent years, come to have two meanings that are all too rarely distinguished. The first is what I call the lived experience of diversity. The second is multiculturalism as a political process, the aim of which is to manage that diversity. The experience of living in a society that is less insular, more vibrant and more cosmopolitan is something to welcome and cherish. It is a case for cultural diversity, mass immigration, open borders and open minds.

As a political process, however, multiculturalism means something very different. It describes a set of policies, the aim of which is to manage and institutionalize diversity by putting people into ethnic and cultural boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes to shape public policy. It is a case, not for open borders and minds, but for the policing of borders, whether physical, cultural or imaginative.

The conflation of lived experience and political policy has proved highly invidious. On the one hand, it has allowed many on the right – and not just on the right – to blame mass immigration for the failures of social policy and to turn minorities into the problem. On the other hand, it has forced many traditional liberals and radicals to abandon classical notions of liberty, such as an attachment to free speech, in the name of defending diversity. That is why it is critical to separate these two notions of multiculturalism, to defend diversity as lived experience – and all that goes with it, such as mass immigration and cultural openness – but to oppose multiculturalism as a political process.

You must read this now: PART 1 and PART 2.

By the way, have I ever mentioned that I can’t get enough of Kenan’s writings?

 

Comments

  1. brucegee1962 says

    Interesting article. I’ve often felt that many liberals took away the wrong lesson about multiculturalism: “It is wrong to criticize anyone’s culture, because any culture is equal to, and therefor just as good as, any other culture.”

    Really? Naziism is a culture. Some cultures committed acts of human sacrifice. My own culture owned slaves. It’s ridiculous to say that no culture should ever be criticized.

    My formulation is this: “No culture is so exalted that it doesn’t have some area where it can learn from others, and no culture is so debased that it doesn’t have something worthwhile to teach others.

    I mean, the Aztecs threw little children into wells to make it rain — on the other hand, chocolate!

  2. Becky says

    “Institutionalization of diversity”. This is something I haven’t heard before in the conversation about multiculturalism.

  3. Bill Openthalt says

    As a political process, however, multiculturalism means something very different. It describes a set of policies, the aim of which is to manage and institutionalize diversity by putting people into ethnic and cultural boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes to shape public policy. It is a case, not for open borders and minds, but for the policing of borders, whether physical, cultural or imaginative.

    Exactly. Pigeonholing people by ascribing characteristics the individuals often don’t recognise themselves. Once put in such an artificial group, people unconsciously adopt thoughts and beliefs alive in the group, and given that the more radical, motivated individuals are selected (by the authorities and the press) to represent the group, everyone gradually slides into extremism.

    It happens everywhere, all the time, and being a secular rational freethinker doesn’t protect one from this approach.

    This is a truly exceptionally insightful essay, and doesn’t apply to multiculturalism only. I see strong parallels in the evolution of organised labour and its relationship with the political world, for example.

    • nathanaelnerode says

      “Exactly. Pigeonholing people by ascribing characteristics the individuals often don’t recognise themselves. Once put in such an artificial group, people unconsciously adopt thoughts and beliefs alive in the group, and given that the more radical, motivated individuals are selected (by the authorities and the press) to represent the group, everyone gradually slides into extremism.

      It happens everywhere, all the time, and being a secular rational freethinker doesn’t protect one from this approach.

      This is a truly exceptionally insightful essay, and doesn’t apply to multiculturalism only. I see strong parallels in the evolution of organised labour and its relationship with the political world, for example.”

      Being mildly paranoid, I would point out that this scheme is actually used by the 0.1% as a way to divide and conquer the rest of us. Once you have the “Asians” fighting the “blacks”, or the “non-union workers” fighting the “union workers”, the 0.1% has won, because not enough people are fighting them.

  4. F [disappearing] says

    Yup. “Multicultural” is a word that gets used like “faith” to conflate and obfuscate. But now I have a term after reading Malik’s words: Political diversity management and accommodation. “Cosmopolitan” already covers the other use of “multicultural”, perhaps not exactly (at least connotatively), but usefully if you find the need to avoid the other word for sake of clarity.

  5. Fred Salvador - The Public Sucks; Fuck Hope says

    I really wish people would stop saying “Asian” when they mean “Pakistani”. Can’t say I’m aware of multiculturalist policies being responsible for an increasing sense of the importance of Islamic observance in the British Chinese cultural identity, at least not where I’m from.

    Other than that niggling annoyance it’s a good read. This, for me, is the highlight:

    Imagine if the council had set up a ‘White Forum’ to represent the needs of the white community in Birmingham. Could such a group have represented the interests of all white people in the city? Clearly not. Why should we imagine that Bangladeshis or Sikhs or African Caribbeans are any different?

    I sincerely wish this kind of thinking would rear it’s head more often amongst the slovenly, uncritical sections of the British left wing whose facile broad-brush essentialisms are as much a part of Britain’s social problems as the loutish parochialism of the British right wing.

  6. IB says

    Heh, kudus for the link, just filled up my Pocket/readitlater app with about 20 of his articles.

    @Fred Salvador, Its inevitable that in a society (UK) where the majority of people from Asia hail from the sub-continent, that this will colour their perception of ‘Asianness’, most Brits I know will use just plain ‘Chinese’ or even the somewhat dated ‘Oriental’ when dealing with that other bit of Asia. Yes its lazy, but it makes sense given the context.

  7. Fred Salvador - The Public Sucks; Fuck Hope says

    I have to disagree; one of this lecture’s salient points is that broad-brush generalisations do more harm than good when trying to maintain diversity as a lived experience, because they lead to essentialism and intercommunal tension. Resorting to labels of convenience whilst making that point serves to dilute it. The majority of “Asians” in the UK might well be from the subcontinent, but the subcontinent is a big place. Branding everyone “Asian” serves only to gloss over the intercommunal tensions that exist within and between the various communities who we’re describing as “Asian”. Saul Mendez ain’t Iftaq Shoaib ain’t Gurpreet Singh.

  8. nathanaelnerode says

    Thanks for the link. I agree with every word of that essay; the conflation between individual-level diversity experienced on the ground (which promotes tolerance), and a government “multiculturalism” policy defined by picking some specific ethnic groups and giving them entrenched positions (which ends up being a source of bigotry, just as the same policy was in South Africa) is terrible.

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