Multiculturalism has become a catchword in societies which seek ways to ease tensions which are caused by racism and xenophobia. Very little thought, however, has been given to problems connected with the concept. Often the arguments used in multiculturalist discourse come disturbingly close to racist ideas. Kenan Malik has argued that multiculturalism has become a language through which ideas of race and racial difference are being recycled. Here he analyses problems connected with pluralism and multiculturalism. He based the article on a recent lecture.

An equal or a plural society?

By Kenan Malik

There are few beliefs more entrenched in the modern liberal imagination than that of the virtues of pluralism and a multicultural society. Belief in multiculturalism is so much woven into the fabric of our lives that we rarely stand back to question some of its assumptions. Pluralism and multiculturalism are seen as self-evidently good. The celebration of difference, the promotion of a pluralist society, tolerance for a variety of cultural identities — these are seen as the hallmarks of a decent, liberal, democratic, non-racist society.

I want to question that assumption and to challenge the idea that multiculturalism is self-evidently good. I want to show that the notion of pluralism is a deeply ambiguous one. I want to show too that much of our discussion about multiculturalism is result of the failure of equality. Moreover I want show that much of contemporary multicultural and antiracist theory is rooted in the same philosophies that gave rise to racial theory in the first place.

Even a superficial look at the idea of cultural difference reveals how ambiguous a notion it is. Consider the following quote: "Every society, every nation is unique. It has its own past, its own story, its own memories, its own ways, its own languages and ways of speaking, its own culture."  It could have been a quote from any number of multicultural texts. In fact it comes from the pen of Enoch Powell, one of the most notoriously racist postwar British politicians.

Berlin's pluralism

The late Isaiah Berlin is widely regarded as one of foremost philosophers of modern liberalism and pluralism. His key idea was that of 'value pluralism'. Different peoples and cultures, Berlin believed, had different values, beliefs and truths, each of which may be regarded as valid as any other. "Life may be seen through many windows", he wrote, "none of them necessarily clear or opaque, less or more distorting than any of the others."

Shortly before he died, he was interviewed for Prospect magazine by the political philosopher Steven Lukes. Lukes asked whether it was ever possible for peoples of different cultures — such as Arabs and Jews — to live together. "When you have two peoples of different origins and cultures", Berlin replied, "it is difficult for them to live together in peace." He added that "it is quite natural that each side should think that they cannot lead free lives in an integrated society if the others are there in quantity." Such a view, claimed Berlin, "is not sheer bigotry". It is a view, however, not too different from that of many politicians who most would accept are bigots.

"It is because we respect ourselves and others", Pierre Pascal, a leading rightwing thinker in France contends, "that we refuse to see our country transformed into a multiracial society in which each group loses their specificity." For two decades now, the French far right has astutely exploited the right to maintain cultural differences by asserting the right of the French to maintain their cultural identity. Muslims, they maintain, belong to a different culture and tradition, and hence do not belong in France. "I love North Africans', Jean-Marie Le Pen has declared, "but their place is in the Maghreb."

Berlin abhorred the claims of the far right. Yet it is difficult to deny that the logic of his claim that two peoples of different origins cannot live together in peace, and that it is not bigotry to believe this, leads inexorably to the arguments of Powell, Pascal and Le Pen.

Indeed, Berlin himself, in his Prospect interview, observed that "the ferment of the French Canadians, the Flemings in Belgium, Basques in Spain, Corsicans, Bretons, Tamils, Irishmen, Jews and Arabs, Georgians, Armenians, Indians and Pakistanis" had made him question the "nineteenth century [idea] that multicultural societies were desirable". Moreover, he questioned whether black immigrants to the Western nations were "ready for assimilation". Black immigration was "a problem" he said, because "Cultures which have grown up with no contact with one another have now collided."  

These views are not an unfortunate aberration, the illiberal thoughts of a man with otherwise impeccably liberal credentials. They are the inevitable consequence of Berlin's pluralist outlook. The idea that human beings divide into incommensurate cultural groups has always been at the heart, not of the antiracist, but of the racist agenda. Nineteenth century racial thinkers despised what they regarded as the abstract universalism of Enlightenment philosophers which they believed denied, and even undermined, the concrete reality of human differences. Dismissing claims of a universal humanity, they advocated instead  the notion that human groups are in profound ways distinct and should be treated accordingly.

Romantic movement

These notions became an important part of the nineteenth century Romantic movement. Romantics reacted the universalist ideas of the  Enlightenment and championed instead particularist accounts of human difference. They considered every people to be unique, and that such uniqueness was expressed through its volksgeist, the unchanging spirit of a people refined through history. The idea of volksgeist became transformed through the nineteenth century into the concept of racial make-up, an unchanging substance, the foundation of all physical appearance and mental potential and the basis for division and difference within humankind.

Romantic notions of cultural uniqueness, and the idea of racial difference, became central to Western thought as a result of a fundamental contradiction of post-Enlightenment societies: the contradiction between a deep-seated belief in, and respect for, equality and  the reality of societies that remained stubbornly unequal. Racial theory attempted to explain this contradiction by suggesting  that inequality itself was naturally given. Society was unequal because the destiny of every social group was in some way linked to intrinsic qualities that each possessed. For racial theorists, as for Romantics, the nature of a society was explained by the differences it embodied. Today's pluralists are intensely hostile to racial ideology. Yet, like nineteenth century racial theorists, contemporary pluralists are animated by an abhorrence of Enlightenment universalism and by a Romantic vision of human differences. It is no coincidence that Isaiah Berlin's most profound intellectual debt lay with German Romantics such as Herder and Hamman. It is the mutual origins of racism and pluralism in Romanticism that underlies the ambiguities of the pluralist outlook.

In the nineteenth century, group differences were seen largely as biological in nature — as in the ideology of scientific racism. Today, those differences are more often than not seen as cultural. The horrors of Nazism and the Holocaust helped discredit racial science and biological theories of human differences. But if, in the postwar world, racial science was buried, racial thinking was not. The biological arguments for racial superiority were thrown into disrepute and overt expressions of racism were discredited. All the assumptions of racial thinking, however, were maintained intact — in particular the belief that humanity can be divided into discrete groups; that each group should be considered in its own terms; that each is in some way incommensurate with the others; and that the important relationships in society arise not out of commonalties but out of the differences between groups. The form of racial thinking, however, changed. It was cast not in biological terms but in the language of cultural pluralism.

Plural society

The concept of a 'plural society' first emerged, in fact, prior to the War through anthropological analyses of colonial societies in the first decades of this century. In a study of Indonesia and Burma, the anthropologist JS Furnivall wrote that "the first thing that strikes the visitor is the medley of peoples — European, Chinese, Indian and native" that constitute the society. The different groups, Furnivall wrote, "mix but do not combine". Each group "holds by its own religion, its own culture and language, its ideas and ways". The result was a "plural society, with different sections of the society living side by side but separately within the same political unit."

Pluralism quickly moved from being a description of colonial society to an explanation for it. Drawing on Romantic ideas of group differences, anthropologists rationalised the inequalities of colonial society as products of the different cultural outlooks and lifestyles of the various groups that constituted that society. Through this process inequality became reframed as difference. Like racial theory, plural theory provided an apology for social inequalities, portraying them as the inevitable result, not of natural variations as in racial theory, but of cultural differences. In the postwar world, pluralism provided a vocabulary with which to articulate social differences without having to refer to the discredited discourse of race. It provided both a sense of continuity with prewar racial discourse and a means of asserting the aversion to racism that exemplified the postwar years.

It was the impact of mass immigration into Western societies that helped shape the nature of postwar pluralism. Eleven million workers came to Europe in the fifties and sixties, encouraged by an economic boom. In the USA a different kind of mass migration took place — the huge movement of African Americans to the Northern cities in the fifties and  sixties. In both cases the newcomers found themselves on the margins of society, subject to racism and discrimination, and unable to gain access to levers of power. The ideology of pluralism developed as an accommodation to the persistence of inequalities despite the rhetoric of integration, assimilation and equality. As immigrant and black communities remained ghettoised, excluded from mainstream society, subject to discrimination and clinging to old habits and lifestyles as a familiar anchor in a hostile world, so such differences became rationalised not as the negative product of racism or discrimination but as the positive result of a plural society.

In the America of the sixties, for instance, most commentators, both black and white, hoped and expected that African-American migrants to the North would eventually integrate into US society, as fully as had European immigrants. The title of  a 1966 article by  Irving Kristol in the New York Times captured that hope  - 'The Negro Today is like the Immigrant Yesterday'. Three decades later it has become obvious how misplaced were such claims. Virtually every social statistic — from housing segregation to rates of intermarriage, from infant mortality rates to language use — shows that African Americans live very different lives to the rest of America. The experience even of Hispanic Americans is far closer to that of American whites than it is to that of African Americans.

Celebrating difference

As the possibilities of equality seemed more and more constrained, so there was an increasing tendency to celebrate 'difference'. The black American critic bell hooks observes that "civil rights reform reinforced the idea that black liberation should be defined by the degree to which black people gained equal access to material opportunities and privileges to whites — jobs, housing, schooling etc." This strategy could never bring about liberation, argues hooks, because such "ideas of 'freedom' were informed by efforts to imitate the behaviour, lifestyles and most importantly the values and consciousness of white colonisers." The failure of equality has led radical critics like hooks to declare that equality itself is problematic because African Americans are 'different' from whites.

Politicians and policy-makers have responded to such arguments  by reinventing America as a 'plural' or 'multicultural' nation. Pluralism is premised on the idea that America is a nation composed of many different cultural groups and peoples. But in reality it is the product of the continued exclusion of one group: African Americans. The promotion of pluralism is a tacit admission that the barriers that separate blacks and whites cannot be breached and that equality has been abandoned as a social policy goal. "Multiculturalism", Nathan Glazer has written, "is the price America is paying for the inability or unwillingness to incorporate into its society African Americans, in the same way and to the same degree it has incorporated so many other groups." The real price, however, is being paid by African Americans themselves. For in truth America is not plural or multicultural; it is simply unequal. And the promotion of pluralism is an acknowledgement of the inevitability of that inequality. Indeed, in his own way, Glazer himself recognises this. "We must pass through a period in which
we recognise difference, we celebrate difference", he writes, because of "our failure to integrate blacks."

The 'apartness' of black and immigrant communities in Western Europe is probably not so great as that of African Americas in the USA. Nevertheless, here too pluralism has become a means to avoid debate about the failure of equality. Many young people in Marseilles or East London call themselves Muslim, for instance, less because of religious faith or cultural habits, than because in the face of a hostile, anti-Muslim society, calling oneself Muslim is a way of defending the dignity of one's community. Young Muslims are often not religious; they have mores and outlooks and habits little different from that of their white peers. But racism imposes difference upon them and forces them to adopt difference themselves. Their Islam is not the free celebration of an identity, but an attempt to negotiate a difficult relationship with a hostile society as best they can. In celebrating such cultural differences, we are danger of celebrating the differences imposed by a racist society, not identities freely chosen by those communities.

Defence of equality

I am not, of course, objecting to pluralism in the sense of a society in which there exists the right to free and open political, cultural and religious expression. Rather, what I fear is the one-sided embrace of 'difference' and denigration of universalistic concepts. The irony is that the blind pursuit of pluralism undermines our capacity to defend those very rights of free expression. Such rights can only be defended through a defence of equality. In an equal society, our universal capacity to act as political subjects can take a myriad of forms, and hence can become the basis of true difference. Indeed, only in an equal society, can difference have any meaning, because it is only here that difference can be freely chosen. In an unequal society, however, such as the ones in which we live, the pursuit of difference all too often means the entrenching of inequalities. Inequalities simply become reframed through the discourse of difference. In such circumstances, there is little possibility of true freedom to express one's political, cultural or religious identities.
A truly plural society would be one in which citizens have full freedom to pursue their different values or practices in private, while in the public sphere all citizens would be treated as political equals whatever their private beliefs. Today, however, pluralism has come to mean the very opposite. The right to practice a particular religion, speak a particular language, follow a particular cultural practice is seen as a public good rather than a private freedom.  Different interest groups demand to have their 'differences' institutionalised in the public sphere. This has led not to greater equality, but to a rationalisation of inequality. The question we have to ask ourselves, therefore, is: do we want an equal society or a plural society? We cannot have both.

Kenan Malik is a writer and lecturer. He is the author of Man, Beast and Zombie : What Science Can and Cannot Tell Us about Human Nature (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2000) and The Meaning of Race : Race, History and Culture in Western Society (Macmillan 1996).

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