On identity beyond ethnicity, cont’d: Where multiculturalism goes wrong

I’ve been meaning to link to this article in Eurozine about the flaws and limits of multiculturalism in Europe; it’s interesting to compare and contrast how the debates about diversity, free speech, and equality unfold in America and elsewhere. Science writer, lecturer, and free speech advocate Kenan Malik and Slovak politician Fero Sebej discuss “where multiculturalism went wrong” in the European Union, and I have to say that I find Malik’s argument resonant; the distinction he makes between diversity as a cherished value and multiculturalism as a political process is key. And, pushing back against critics who say that opposing multiculturalism automatically means being in favor of racism or xenophobia, he contends that both views are mistaken:

[W]hat I’m attacking is not simply multiculturalism, but also anti-immigrant sentiment, which are two sides of the same coin. Both sides of the debate confuse peoples and values. The fact that you have people from different parts of the world in one country does not create a problem in and of itself, either in terms of social relations, ideology or values. On the one side you have those who wish to restrict immigration on the grounds that it is impossible to have a common set of values without having a broadly ethnically homogenous nation. On the other side you have multiculturalists who say that because we have an ethnically diverse society, it impossible to have a common set of values. Both sides are wrong.

Using the far-Right movement in Sweden as an example, Malik makes the case that hard-line racists are actually enabled by the “language of difference” that multiculturalism promotes:

Supporters of the far-Right often argue, “Muslims or blacks or Hindus are able to celebrate their identity, their history, their heritage, why can’t we? We want to celebrate white history. We want to promote white heritage.” In a sense, that is the biggest indictment of multiculturalism: it turns racism into another form of cultural identity. If you look at the language of the far-Right, it is the language of difference. It is the language of multiculturalism.

Some other passages that I found particularly salient and provocative (boldface emphases mine):

It’s one of the ironies of the multicultural viewpoint that diversity somehow ends at the edges of minority communities. A multicultural view sees societies as diverse because they contain many different cultures, but within those cultures there is apparently no diversity. Yet every minority community is as diverse, as divided — be it by class, age, gender, nationality and so on — as any other community. The consequence of the multicultural stance is that instead of treating people as citizens, we’ve come to treat them as members of ethnic boxes.

There are two ways over the past half-century in which we’ve stopped treating people as citizens. One is through racism. The racist says “you’re not a citizen, you don’t have full rights in this society because you have a different skin colour, you are foreign”, etc. The second is multiculturalism. The multiculturalist says: “we treat you not as an individual citizen, but as a Muslim or a Hindu or a Sikh or a black”. The irony is that multiculturalism developed as an attempt to combat the problems created by racism. But it has recreated many of the problems by treating people not as citizens but as members of groups, and by formulating public policy in relation to those groups and not in relation to the needs of individual citizens.


As for the relationship between multiculturalism and constraints on free speech, an argument has developed that runs something like this: we live in a society where there are lots of different peoples and cultures, each with deeply set, often irreconcilable, views and beliefs. In such a society we need to restrict what people say or do in order to minimize friction between cultures and to guarantee respect for people embedded in different cultures. Hence the arguments for hate-speech legislation, for censorship against the giving of offence and so on.

I take almost exactly the opposite view: namely that it is precisely because we live in a plural society that we need the most robust defence of free speech possible. It seems to me that in a plural society, the giving of offence is both inevitable and necessary. It is inevitable because we do have societies with deep-seated, conflicting views. But it’s far better to have those conflicts out in the open than to suppress them in the name of respect and tolerance. But most importantly, the giving of offence is necessary because no kind of social change or social progress is possible without offending some group of other. When people say, “you are offending me”, what they are really saying is, “you can’t say that because I don’t want my beliefs to be questioned or ridiculed or abused.” That seems to me deeply problematic.


The real issue is not actually the threat of violence from Islamists. It is something much more internal to western societies, the sense that it is morally wrong to give offence to other groups and cultures. People are frightened of doing things because they fear the repercussions, but they are also frightened of doing things because they think it is morally wrong to offend other people and other cultures. And I think that is a much greater problem. We should say it is morally right to offend people. That is what a plural society is. If we want to live in a plural society, the price of a plural society — though I don’t see it as a price, I think it is the value of the plural society — is that we confront each other. That is what is good about plural society.


[T]he rise of multicultural policies did not primarily come from below. Or only to certain extent, with the rise of identity politics, which is a different issue. It was not because there was a great demand from minority communities for official recognition to be given to our identities, our cultures, our values and lifestyles. What we wanted was official recognition for ourselves as individuals, we did not want to be treated differently by the police, by the immigration authorities, by the housing authorities and so on. What has happened is that the very notion of equality has transformed over the last twenty years. Equality used to mean that everybody was treated the same despite their differences. Now it’s come to me that everybody is treated differently because of those differences.


The point about free speech is this: who is it that benefits from censorship? Is it those in power, or is it those without power? It seems to me that the only people to benefit from censorship are those with the power to enforce that censorship and the need to do so. Those who have no power are much better served by as little censorship as possible. Free speech is always the weapon in the hands of those who want to challenge power and censorship is always a weapon in those who want to preserve their power. That’s why I think anyone who wants to challenge racism should support of the greatest extension of free speech possible.

Much more here. (And a brief rebuttal here.)

I haven’t really encountered Malik’s views or writings before, but he seems to be bravely questioning the orthodoxies of both the Right and the Left: in favor of equal rights and secularism on one hand, but opposed to multiculturalism, animal rights (!), and restrictions on hate speech on the other. I’ll have to check out his archive and current blog, and add his books to my list…

(via The Daily Dish)


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One response to “On identity beyond ethnicity, cont’d: Where multiculturalism goes wrong

  1. Pingback: A propos du #multiculturalisme (dont le tueur d’Oslo ne veut pas, soit dit en passant) « Blogueuse sur le Net pour un Monde Meilleur

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