Pandaemonium

MYTHS OF ASSIMILATIONISM AND MULTICULTURALISM

Here is my introduction to the discussion on ‘immigration and citizenship’ at last week’s Trudeau Foundation conference on ‘The Making of Citizenship’, about which I have already written. I was part of a double act with Ruben Zaiotti, whose job it was to talk about the Canadian experience. Mine was just to be provocative.


The debate about immigration and citizenship in Europe is often presented as a debate between multiculturalism and assimilation. Not only does this oversimplify the debate, but the similarities between the two sides are often more important than the differences.  Both sides have broadly bought into a series of common myths about immigration and citizenship:

1. The starting point for both multiculturalists and assimilationists is the need to manage the pluralism created by immigration. But Europe is today perhaps less plural than ever before.

Both multiculturalists and assimilationists begin with the presumption that European nations used to be homogenous but have become diverse, though clearly they advocate different policies in response to this diversity. Both sides, however, are suffering from a collective memory loss. The homogeneity of Europe in the era before mass immigration is a myth.

Take, for instance, Britain in the nineteenth century. Here’s a view of the urban poor in the Saturday Review, a well-read liberal magazine of the mid-Victorian era:

The Bethnal Green poor… are a caste apart, a race of whom we know nothing, whose lives are of quite different complexion from ours, persons with whom we have no point of contact… The slaves are separated from the whites by more glaring… marks of distinction; but still distinctions and separations, like those of English classes which always endure, which last from the cradle to the grave, which prevent anything like association or companionship, produce a general effect on the life of the extreme poor, and subject them to isolation, which offer a very fair parallel to the separation of the slaves from the whites.

The working class and the rural poor are not simply culturally distinct, they are the racial other.  As the historian of empire David Canadine has shown in his book Ornamentalism, the English ruling class viewed East End costermongers as alien as they did Jamaican peasants but saw Indian princes and West African tribal chiefs as ‘one of us’.

Similarly in France.  Here is Christian Buchez, a Christian socialist, addressing the Medico-Psychological Society of Paris in 1857, about social differentiation in France:

Our task now… is to find out how it can happen that within a population such as ours, races may form – not merely one but several races – so miserable, inferior and bastardised that they may be classes below the most inferior savage races, for their inferiority is sometimes beyond cure.

We are so used to seeing difference, particularly racial difference, as between Europe and the Other, that we forget that for the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, the Other lived inside the borders.

It was not simply a question of perception. The social and cultural differences between a Victorian factory owner and a machinist were probably greater than those between a native white Briton and a second generation British Asian or Afro-Caribbean today.  Unlike the factory owner and the machinist, a 16-yr old white boy born in Bradford and 16-yr of from Bradford of Pakistani origin probably wear the same kinds of clothes, listen to the same kind of music, support the same football teams.

The current narrative about immigration and citizenship has been created by erasing the history of difference with European societies, including the history of past immigration. In the 1930s, for instance, nearly a third of the French population were immigrants, mostly from Southern Europe. Today we think of Italian or Portuguese migrants as culturally similar to their French hosts. Seventy years ago they were viewed as alien as Muslims are today, given to crime and violence, and unlikely to assimilate into French society. ‘The notion of the easy assimilation of past European immigrants’, the historian Max Silverman has written, ‘is a myth’.

What all this suggests is that there is nothing new in plural societies. What is different today is the perception that we are living in a particularly plural society, and the perception of such pluralism in largely cultural terms. For both multiculturalists and assimilationists, certain differences (culture, ethnicity, faith) have come to be regarded as particularly significant and others (such as class, say, or generational) as less relevant. The combination of historical amnesia and a one-eyed view of what constitutes ‘difference’ has come to shape the arguments of both multiculturalists and assimilationists.

2. The real debate is not between multiculturalism and assimilationism. It is between two distinct conceptions of multiculturalism and two distinct conceptions of assimilation.

Part of the problem in discussing multiculturalism is a confusion between two different meanings of the term. The first is the lived experience of diversity, the experience of societies enriched by mass immigration. The second is the set of political policies, the aim of which is to manage diversity by putting people into ethnic boxes, defining needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes to shape public policy. Or, to put it another way, multiculturalism has come to define both a society made diverse by immigration, and the policies necessary to manage such a society. It has come to embody, in other words, both a description of society and a prescription for managing it.

There are similarly two notions of assimilation. On the one hand, assimilationism has come to mean the resolve to treat everyone as citizens, not as bearers of specific racial or cultural histories. On the other it has come to mean an insistence that equality requires a certain degree of cultural homogeneity, and hence requires  immigrants to give up some of their differences, because too great a degree of cultural diversity would undermine social cohesion and national unity. This was one of the arguments underlying the various bans on the burqa. ‘The wearing of the burqa’, French immigration minister, Eric Besson,  claimed in 2009 should  ‘be systematically considered as proof of insufficient integration into French society, creating an obstacle to gaining  nationality.” A year earlier Mme M, a Moroccan immigrant married to a French citizen with whom she had had four French-born children, was refused French citizenship on the grounds that because she wore a burqa, her practice of her religion was incompatible with the essential values of the French nation. Assimilationism is this sense is a means not of enforcing equality but of pointing up differences, of tolerating, indeed institutionalising racism.

If I were to construct an ideal immigration/citizenship policy, it would be to marry multiculturalism, in the sense of enhancing the lived experience of diversity, with assimilationism, in the sense of the resolve to treat everyone as citizens, rather than as bearers of specific racial or cultural histories. In practice what European nations have done is the very opposite. Different countries have institutionalised either multiculturalism, in the sense of policies to place minorities in boxes, or assimilationism, in the sense of equality as meaning the giving up of cultural or religious differences. Both, in other words, have rejected the best aspects of their outlook, and institutionalized the most wretched parts.

3. Both sides in the debate confuse the idea of peoples with that of values

‘Can Europe be the same with different people in it?’ asks the writer Christopher Caldwell in his controversial book, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe. His answer is a clear ‘No’. Caldwell is a columnist for the Financial Times and an editor of the conservative American magazine the Weekly Standard. Reflections on the Revolution in Europe is the latest in a succession of books by authors such as Mark Steyn, Oriana Fallaci, Bruce Bawer and Melanie Phillips warning of how immigration, and in particular Muslim immigration, is threatening the very foundations of European civilization. All immigrants, they argue, but most especially Muslim ones, bring with them a different set of values, incompatible with those of Western nations. The only solution is to stop immigration.

It is not difficult to see the problems with Caldwell’s line of reasoning. Not only does he erase the history of the ‘Other’ in Europe in which, as I’ve suggested, Europeans themselves were viewed as Muslims are today, but he confuses peoples and values. Being born to European parents is no passport to Enlightenment beliefs. So why should we imagine that having Bangladeshi or Moroccan ancestry makes one automatically believe in sharia?

What is striking is that both multiculturalists and assimilationists, in their different ways, express the same confusion. Multiculturalists argue that the presence in a society of diversity of peoples erodes the possibility of common values. Assimilationists suggest that such values are possible only within a more culturally, and indeed ethnically, homogenous society.

Multiculturalists insist that different groups have their own given values and lifestyles which should be respected. ‘Justice between groups’, as the Canadian political philosopher Will Kymlicka has put it, ‘requires that members of different groups are accorded different rights’. The British sciologist Tariq Madood takes this line of argument to make a distinction between what he calls the ‘equality of individualism’ and ‘equality encompassing public ethnicity: equality as not having to hide or apologise for one’s origins, family or community, but requiring others to show respect for them, and adapt public attitudes and arrangements so that the heritage they represent is encouraged rather than contemptuously expect them to wither away.’ So society must protect and nurture cultures, ensure their flourishing and indeed their survival.

For assimilationists diversity is the very problem. Europe, Christopher Caldwell bemoans, has been turned into a ‘bazaar of world cultures’. Muslim immigration must be stopped because Muslims are ‘not enhancing or validating European culture’ but  ‘supplanting it.’ The melodramatic title of Caldwell’s book is a nod to Irish philosopher Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, his polemic against the 1789 Revolution, and reflects Caldwell’s belief that the impact on European of postwar immigration has been as dramatic as the fall of the ancien regime in 1789. There is, he suggests, no ‘fundamental difference between colonization and labor migration’, when such migration involves people who are not like us.

The result of both multiculturalism and assimilationism are policies supposedly designed foster integration but whose consequences are to define minority communities as being distinct from the rest of society and, in so doing, fostering division and disengagement: Consider, for instance, some of the consequences of multicultural policies:

    • The tendency to treat individuals from minority communities more as members of a group than as individual citizens, and to shape public policy according to group membership rather than to individual needs. As, Joy Warmington, director of the equalities organization Birmingham Race Action Partnership has put it, ‘Rather than thinking of meeting people’s needs or about distributing resources more equitably,, organizations are forced to think about the distribution of ethnicity.’
    • The tendency of politicians to subcontract out their responsibility to so-called community leaders, who effectively become the voice of those communities and the mediation between the state and those communities.
    • The failure to acknowledge the diversity of minority communities and conflicts within them. One of the ironies is that multiculturalists appear to believe that nations are diverse, but that such diversity stops at the edge of minority communities. Differences and conflicts of class, gender, nationality and generation that exist within minority communities  often get ignored in multicultural policies.

Similar points can be made with respect to the impact of assimilationist policies, too. So long as both sides confuse the diversity of peoples and the diversity of values, so there can be no rational discussion of immigration and citizenship.

4. Immigration does not create a problem of citizenship. The fraying of citizenship creates the perception that immigration is the problem.

The starting point of virtually all discussions about immigration and citizenship is the belief that immigration creates a problem of integration and of citizenship. Indeed, without such a belief there would probably be no debate about immigration and citizenship. The problem is usually seen as a failure of immigrants to integrate into civil society, or to identify with the nation, or to act like citizens. And the demand is for policies to address that failure.

The trouble is, the evidence for the failure is at best mixed. There have been polls that have revealed that, for instance, almost 40% of British Asians do not feel British. But others show that, on both sides of the Atlantic, immigrants and those of immigrant background, including Muslims, are often more likely to identify with the nation than many sections of so-called indigenous population. The 2010 Ethnic Minority British Election Study (EMBES), the results of which have not been fully published yet, has revealed that Asian communities tend to be more satisfied with democracy, and more likely to identify with Britain, than the white population. In other words, insofar as there is a problem of integration and of citizenship, it is not simply a problem of immigrants, and those of immigrant background, but also of the indigenous population. And what needs to be addressed is less the specific failure of immigrants to integrate than the broader sense of social disengagement, afflicting many communities, including migrant communities.

One of the key characteristics of our era is that of political disenchantment, a sense of being rendered voiceless, of political institutions as remote and corrupt. There is a crisis of political representation.  It is true that many within migrant and minority communities have given vent to that sense of alienation. And, yet, the sense of political detachment has probably been most acute, not within migrant communities, but within the traditional working class, particularly as social democratic parties have sought new constituencies. And because the myths and assumptions about immigration and citizenship have not been challenged, but rather have been reinforced, so such alienation has often taken the form of scapegoating migrants for the fragmentation of society. Hence the success of many populist, reactionary movements across Europe.

Not only does the belief that immigration creates a problem of integration and of citizenship misunderstand the real issue, but in fostering hostility against immigrants, whom many come to believe are incapable of integrating, or unwilling to, such belief also establishes new tensions. In so doing it not only makes life harder, and often more violent and dangerous, for immigrants and minorities, it also constructs new barriers to integration.  The very belief that there is a problem of immigration and citizenship helps create the problem of immigration and citizenship.

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11 comments

  1. tweet @BlackLoveGuru

    Interesting article, and of course in the daily lives of black people and other minorities, in the workplace and in daily contact with wider society cultural differences have largely been put to one side by minorities in an attempt to simply get on. But often the reminders of otherness prevent assimilation to the extent that assimilation is possible.
    Check the novel “Angry People Smiling” based on the racist murders of Stephen Lawrence, Rolan Adams, Imran Khan, Rohit Duggal, Michael Menson, Ali Ibrahim, Riki Reel, Manish Patel, Donna O’Dwyer, Liam Harrison, Joy Gardner and countless others. Get it from Amazon or anywhere else, but you need to get it because it is thought provoking on so many levels as regards bigotry, racism, multiculuralism and assimilation.

  2. As always Kenan, a fantastic read.

    Glad to see you visited Canada and contributed to the ongoing discussion of citizenship, culture and immigration. It is a hot topic here in Canada and one which lacks a more visible thinker from our country with a viewpoint as nuanced as yours.

    • Thanks. I found many who who sceptical about the Canadian consensus, but it is striking that there appears (from the outside at least) to be little real debate about the issues.

  3. Hi Kenan, this is very well done. It is not often Canadian multiculturalism is challenged from the left– so far, its critique has been left up to the cranky far right, and reflexively defended by leftists and liberals.

    Canada’s current Conservative federal government has made a move to attract immigrant votes (by appealing to their “traditional values”) while simultaneously shutting the door on their elderly relatives or less fortunate relations. Often this pitch to immigrants has taken on a patronizing manner, as you’d expect. See their invitation to Arabs to act as props in “ethnic costume” during the last election campaign: http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/politics/article/974447–ethnic-costumes-sought-for-conservative-photo-op

    There is also the problem of “Africentric” schools, the second of which was just approved. Toronto has had schools that are majority-minority for a long time, and has had separate alternative schools (one for aboriginals, one for homosexual youth) but this particular development has created a lot of new opposition. The schools are meant to address the high drop out rate among black youth, but they seem to me more of a pet project for certain middle class black parents and their radical pedagogue allies at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. It’s worth pointing out that students of Portugese descent have a similarly high drop-out rate, and the idea of giving them their own school has been talked about, if not entirely seriously. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/story/2011/11/17/toronto-africentric-school-approved.html

    Finally there is the issue of segregated Muslim prayer in public schools, which has created tensions between Muslims and right-wing Jews and Hindus, whose tiny advocacy groups have led the charge against the lunchtime prayers. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/story/2011/09/18/toronto-prayer-protest.html

  4. Very convincing article. I am a long time follower and admirer of your blog but I have a few objections. First, you often conflate multiculturalism with communalism. There is a difference between multicultural policies and multiculturalism as a lived experience (in your own words). It would be more unambiguous if we term multicultural policies as communal policies and multiculturalism as pluralism.

    Second, it’s not just Europe which is less plural than ever before, the whole world is becoming more Westernized and hence homogenized. Thanks to the mainstream channels of information and communication, dominated mostly by the corporate media of the West. I am not sure whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing? It’s good in regard to social harmony but it’s bad in regard to Mill’s marketplace of ideas / cultures and diversity as a lived experience.

    I agree that class differences are more important than cultural differences and a 16 year old white boy from Bradford will have more in common with a 16 year old Pakistani British. But what about the differences in the mental and cultural makeup of a 16 year old British and a 16 year old boy who is raised in Pakistan? And what if the latter migrates to Britain and lives there as a first generation immigrant? Will it be easy for him to cope with a completely different culture and surroundings? Secondly, is it not a fallacy to negate one kind of social and cultural differences by highlighting the significance of another kind of class differences? If the class differences exist between the natives, it doesnot negates the social and cultural differences between the natives and the immigrants at a social and cultural level.

    The question of a difference between modern and traditional values is an important one which I have dealt with in one of my blogpost which you might like to read:

    http://naumanpk.blogspot.com/2011/11/meaning-of-life-social-and-moral.html

    I fully sympathize with your point of view. Immigrants and minorities do have a right to equal citizenship and non-discrimination in all nation-states. But it cannot be done by denying the truth. We must first accept the truth that some differences exist between different ethno-linguistic and religio-cultural groups and then seek to remedy them. In today’s world we live in fractured societies which are stratified on multiple levels: class, language, religion, culture, sub-cultures within majority cultures etc. But it’s not the religious or cultural differences that are wreaking havoc all over the world. It’s the political and economic interests who are sowing these seeds of dissension and discord to manage their constituents and to subjugate their consumers.

    • I agree with you that what often passes for multiculturalism is a form of communalism – or ‘plural monoculturalism’ as Amartya Sen has called it. I agree also that it is not just Europe that is less plural than before. However, I don’t see this as something necessarily negative. I don’t have a romantic attachment to difference for its own sake. As for a marketplace of ideas / cultures, you need a common marketplace to begin with. Finally, I’m not arguing that there are no cultural differences. I’m simply arguing against the politicization of such differences.

  5. Thanks for a great piece.

    I wonder: are there any cogent arguments for the opposing view? For instance, in the case of African emigration, one might argue that immigration is a net bad for the country of origin, and a net good for the country of destination, since emigrants tend to be more highly skilled than the folks who stay at home:

    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/editorials/foreign-trained-mds-benefit-canada-but-cost-africa/article2253986/

    “A new study in the British Medical Journal estimates that the actual cost of doctors’ out-migration from nine sub-Saharan African countries to Canada, the U.K., the U.S. and Australia is at least $2.2-billion and could be as high as $13.5-billion. This doesn’t even take into account those who emigrate but are unable to get licensed to practise. Not only do countries such as South Africa, Kenya and Uganda face an acute shortage of doctors, nurses and midwives, but they also bear the greatest burden of global diseases such as HIV/AIDS. ‘The loss of these vital members of society undermines both health and social stability in African communities,’ notes the study.”

    As an African, I take the out-migration of highly skilled individuals very seriously. It is no joke when one’s teachers, nurses, engineers, doctors and accountants emigrate en masse.

    On the other hand, Nigerians in particular have been very good at creating a global trading network, much like the caravans of antiquity. Their international trade networks have been, and will increasingly be, extremely important for the country’s rapid economic growth. So maybe there can also be pluses to out-migration, or at least, international mobility. But it’s a tricky balance for us, I think.

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