This is a transcript of the first part of the talk I gave last week as part of the Criticise This! seminar in Ulcinj, Montenegro on ‘Rethinking the Question of Difference’. (The second part of the talk overlaps with the Milton K Wong lecture that I am giving in Vancouver next week; I will publish that in full.) The audience comprised mainly of artists, writers and critics, and the aim was to explore more deeply the philosophical and political underpinnings and consequences of contemporary ideas of social difference.
There is a certain irony in being invited to Montenegro to give a lecture on questions of identity, difference and multiculturalism. Not only has the English language appropriated the name of this region of Europe for its description of an intractably fragmented society – ‘balkanized’ – but few events have more shaped our perception of these issues than the conflict that led to the break up of Yugoslavia two decades ago. The messy, bloody, monstrous events that marked that break-up have helped entrench the sense of the contrast between racism and ethnic chauvinism, on the one side, and cultural diversity and multiculturalism, on the other. They have helped entrench the idea that the best, indeed only, antidote to the evils of ethnic nationalism is the embrace of diversity, of multiculturalism. The celebration of difference, respect for pluralism, avowal of identity politics – these have come to be regarded as the hallmarks of a progressive, antiracist outlook and as the foundation of modern liberal democracies. We’re All Multiculturalists Now as the American sociologist Nathan Glazer, and former critic of pluralism, observed, almost wearily, in the title of a book published in 1998.
What I want to do is challenge this received wisdom about difference, diversity and multiculturalism. I want to question what we mean by diversity, why we should value it, and how should we value it. I want to dispute what I regard as the lazy conflation of ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘diversity’ and to suggest that to defend diversity is not the same as promoting multiculturalism. Most of all, I want to contest the claim that racism and multiculturalism are concepts at opposite ends of a pole, and show, rather, that they are two sides of the same coin.
At the heart of my argument is a distinction that is all too rarely made in debates such as this, a distinction between the lived experience of diversity, on the one hand, and multiculturalism as a political process, on the other. The experience of living in a society transformed by, among other things, mass immigration, a society that is less insular, more vibrant and more cosmopolitan, is to be cherished. It is an argument for 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 diversity by putting people into ethnic 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.
To understand better the meaning of modern multiculturalism, I want to begin by looking briefly at the historical and philosophical roots of the concept. Contemporary multiculturalism is a marriage between the Romantic idea of culture and an equally Romantic idea of identity. Romanticism is one of those concepts that cultural historians find invaluable but which is almost impossible to define. It took many political forms – it lies at the roots both of modern conservatism and of many strands of radicalism – and appeared in different national versions. Romanticism was not a specific political or cultural view but rather described a cluster of attitudes and preferences: for the concrete over the abstract; the unique over the universal; nature over culture; the organic over the mechanical; emotion over reason; intuition over intellect; particular communities over abstract humanity.
These attitudes came to the fore towards the end of the eighteenth century largely in reaction to the predominant views of the Enlightenment. Much has been written about the varieties of beliefs and arguments within the eighteenth century and it is no longer fashionable to talk about the Enlightenment. Nevertheless, beneath the differences there were a number of beliefs that most of the philosophes held in common and which distinguished Enlightenment thinkers from those of both the seventeenth and the nineteenth centuries. There was a broad consensus that humans possessed a common nature; that the same institutions and forms of governance would promote human flourishing in all societies; that reason allowed humans to discover these institutions; and that through the development of such institutions social inequalities and hierarchies could be minimised and even erased.
The Romantic counter-Enlightenment challenged all these beliefs. Whereas Enlightenment philosophes saw progress as civilisation overcoming the resistance of traditional cultures with their peculiar superstitions, irrational prejudices and outmoded institutions, for the Romantics the steamroller of progress and modernity was precisely what they feared. Enlightenment philosophes tended to see civilisation in the singular. Romantics understood culture in the plural. Distinct cultures were not aberrant forms to be destroyed but a precious inheritance to be cherished and protected.
The philosopher who perhaps best articulated the Romantic notion of culture was the German Johann Gottfried Herder. Herder rejected the Enlightenment idea that reality was ordered in terms of universal, timeless, objective, unalterable laws that rational investigation could discover. He maintained, rather, that every activity, situation, historical period or civilisation possessed a unique character of its own.
David Hume had suggested that ‘Mankind are so much the same at all times and in all places that history informs us of nothing new or strange.’ Herder, on the contrary, insisted that history (and anthropology) reveals many things new and strange. Mankind was not the same at all times and in all places. What made each people or nation – or volk – unique was its Kultur: its particular language, literature, history and modes of living. The unique nature of each volk was expressed through its volksgeist – the unchanging spirit of a people refined through history. Every culture was authentic in its own terms, each adapted to its local environment. The ‘grand law of nature’, Herder proclaimed was ‘let man be man. Let him mould his condition according to what he himself shall view as best.’
Herder occupies an ambiguous role in modern political thought. In the eighteenth century, Herder saw himself as part of the Enlightenment tradition, but also as someone forced to challenge some of the basic precepts of the philosophes – such as their stress on universal law and on the universal validity of reason – in order to defend the cherished ideals of equality.
In the nineteenth century, Herder’s concept of the volksgeist encouraged, albeit unwittingly, the development of racial science. Volksgeist became transformed into racial make-up, an unchanging substance, the foundation of all physical appearance and mental potential and the basis for division and difference within humankind. By the late nineteenth century, Herder’s cultural pluralism came, paradoxically, also to give succour to the new anthropological notion of culture championed by critics of racial science. Franz Boas, the German American who played a key role in the development of cultural anthropology, sought, in the words of historian George Stocking, to define the Romantic notion of ‘the genius of the people’ in terms other than those of racial heredity. His answer ultimately was the anthropological notion of culture, the notion that underlies modern multicultural ideas. In the twentieth century, Herder’s relativism and particularism came to shape much of antiracist thinking. The roots of barbarism, many came to believe, lay in Western arrogance and the roots of Western arrogance lay in an unquestioning belief in the superiority of Enlightenment rationalism and universalism.
The ambiguity of Herder’s legacy still shapes contemporary multiculturalism. The Herderian idea of group differences gave rise to both racial and pluralist views and there remain, as we shall, common bonds between racial and multicultural notions of human difference.
The second theme in Romantic thinking important to modern multiculturalism is the idea of identity. ‘There is a certain way of being human that is my way’, wrote the distinguished Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor in his celebrated essay on ‘The Politics of Recognition’. ‘I am called upon to live my life in this way… Being true to myself means being true to my own originality’. This sense of being ‘true to myself’ Taylor calls ‘the ideal of authenticity’.
The ideal of the authentic self finds its origins in the Romantic notion of the ‘inner voice’ that spoke uniquely to every individual, guided their moral actions and expressed a person’s true nature. The concept was developed in the 1950s by psychologists such as Erik Erikson and sociologists like Alvin Gouldner who pointed out that identity is not just a private matter but emerges in dialogue with others. The inner self, in other words, finds its home in the outer world by participating in a collective.
But not just any collective. The world is comprised of countless groups – philosophers, truck drivers, football supporters, drinkers, train spotters, conservatives, communists and so on. But in contemporary debates about identity, each person’s sense of who they truly are is seen as intimately linked to only a few special categories – collectives defined by people’s gender, sexuality, religion, race and, in particular, culture.
These comprise, of course, very different kinds of groups and the members of each are bound together by very different characteristics. Nevertheless, what collectives such as gender, sexuality, religion, race and culture all have in common is that each is defined by a set of attributes that, whether rooted in biology, faith or history, is fixed in a certain sense and compels people to act in particular ways. Identity is not something the self creates but something through which the self is created. Identity is that which is given, whether by nature, God or one’s ancestors. ‘I am called upon to live my life in this way’, as Charles Taylor has put it. Unlike, say, politically defined collectives, these collectives are, in British philosopher John Gray’s words, ‘ascriptive, not elective… a matter of fate, not choice.’
The collectives that are important to the contemporary notion of identity are, in other words, the modern equivalents of what Herder defined as volks. For individual identity to be authentic, so too must collective identity. ‘Just like individuals’, Charles Taylor writes, ‘a Volk should be true to itself, that is, its own culture.’ To be true to itself, a culture must faithfully pursue the traditions that mark out that culture as unique and rebuff as far as is possible the advances of modernity and of other cultures.
This view of culture and identity has transformed the way that many people understand the relationship between equality and difference. For much of the past two centuries important strands of both liberal and radical thought drew upon Enlightenment insights to view equality as requiring the state to treat all citizens in the same fashion without regard to their race, religion or culture. Most contemporary multiculturalists, on the other hand, argue that people should be treated not equally despite their differences, but differently because of them. ‘Justice between groups’, as the Canadian political philosopher Will Kymlicka has put it, ‘requires that members of different groups are accorded different rights’.
An individual’s cultural background frames their identity and helps define who they are. If we want to treat individuals with dignity and respect we must also treat with dignity and respect the groups that furnish them with their sense of personal being. ‘The liberal is in theory committed to equal respect for persons’, the political philosopher Bhikhu Parekh argues. ‘Since human beings are culturally embedded, respect for them entails respect for their cultures and ways of life.’ The sociologist 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.’
We cannot, in other words, treat individuals equally unless groups also treated equally. And since, in the words of the American scholar Iris Young, ‘groups cannot be socially equal unless their specific, experience, culture and social contributions are publicly affirmed and recognised’, so society must protect and nurture cultures, ensure their flourishing and indeed their survival. Some go further, requiring the state to ensure the survival of cultures not just in the present but in perpetuity. Charles Taylor, for instance, suggests that the Canadian and Quebec governments should take steps to ensure the survival of the French language in Quebec ‘through indefinite future generations’.
Most multiculturalists would probably consider themselves as standing in the liberal Enlightenment tradition. But the rootedness of their argument in the Romantic counter-Enlightenment often gives a distinctly illiberal sheen to the policies they advocate. Take Tariq Modood’s demand that people be required to give respect to various cultures and that public arrangements be adapted to accommodate them. Does this mean that schools should be forced to teach Creationism because it is part of Christian fundamentalist culture? Or should public arrangements be adapted to reflect the belief of many cultures that homosexuality is a sin? These, of course, are not abstract questions. Creationism, gay marriage, abortion, women’s rights – these issues are at the heart of contemporary cultural conflicts.
‘It is in the interest of every person to be fully integrated in a cultural group’, the moral philosopher Joseph Raz has written. And that has become a common view in many multiculturalist claims. But what is to be fully integrated? If a Muslim woman rejects sharia law, is she demonstrating her lack of integration? What about a Jew who doesn’t believe in the legitimacy of the Jewish State? Or a French Quebecois who speaks only English? Would Galilleo have challenged the authority of the Church if he had been ‘fully integrated’ into his culture? Or Thomas Paine have supported the French Revolution? Or Salman Rushdie written The Satanic Verses?
Part of the problem here is a constant slippage in multiculturalism talk between the idea of humans as culture-bearing creatures and the idea that humans have to bear a particular culture. Clearly no human can live outside of culture. But then no human does. To say that no human can live outside of culture, however, is not to say they have to live inside a particular one. To view humans as culture-bearing is to view them as social beings, and hence as transformative beings. It suggests that humans have the capacity for change, for progress, and for the creation of universal moral and political forms through reason and dialogue.
To view humans as having to bear specific cultures is, on the contrary, to deny such a capacity for transformation. It suggests that every human being is so shaped by a particular culture that to change or undermine that culture would be to undermine the very dignity of that individual. It suggests that the biological fact of, say, Jewish or Bangladeshi ancestry somehow make a human being incapable of living well except as a participant of Jewish or Bangladeshi culture. This would only make sense if Jews or Bangladeshis were biologically distinct – in other words if cultural identity was really about racial difference.
The relationship between cultural identity and racial difference becomes even clearer if we look at the argument made by many multiculturalists that minority cultures under threat must be protected and preserved. Will Kymlicka argues that since cultures are essential to peoples’ lives, so where ‘the survival of a culture is not guaranteed, and, where it is threatened with debasement or decay, we must act to protect it.’ For Charles Taylor, once ‘we’re concerned with identity’, nothing ‘is more legitimate than one’s aspiration that it is never lost’. Hence a culture needs to be protected not just in the here and now but through ‘indefinite future generations’.
But what does it mean for a culture to decay? Or for an identity to be lost? Will Kymlicka draws a distinction between the ‘existence of a culture’ and ‘its “character” at any given moment’. The character of culture can change but such changes are only acceptable if the existence of that culture is not threatened. But how can a culture exist if that existence is not embodied in its character?
By ‘character’ Kymlicka seems to mean the actuality of a culture: what people do, how they live their lives, the rules and regulations and institutions that frame their existence. So, in making the distinction between character and existence, Kymlicka seems to be suggesting that Jewish, Navajo or French culture is not defined by what Jewish, Navajo or French people are actually doing. For if Jewish culture is simply that which Jewish people do or French culture is simply that which French people do, then cultures could never decay or perish – they would always exist in the activities of people.
So, if a culture is not defined by what its members are doing, what does define it? The only answer can be that it is defined by what its members should be doing.
The African American writer Richard Wright described one of his finest creations Bigger Thomas, the hero of his 1940 novel Native Son, as a man ‘bereft of a culture’. The Negro, Wright argued, ‘possessed a rich and complex culture when he was brought to these alien shores’. But that culture was ‘taken from him’. Bigger Thomas’ ancestors had been enslaved. In the process of enslavement they had been torn from their ancestral homes, and forcibly deprived of the practices and institutions that they understood as their culture. Hence Bigger Thomas, and every black American, behaved very differently from his ancestors.
Slavery was an abomination and clearly had a catastrophic impact on black Americans. But however inhuman the treatment of slaves and however deep its impact on black American life, why should this amount to a descendant of slaves being ‘bereft of a culture’? This can only be if we believe that Bigger Thomas should be behaving in certain ways that he isn’t, the ways that his ancestors used to behave. In other words, if we believe that what defines what you should be doing is the fact that your ancestors were doing it. Culture here has become defined by biological descent. And biological descent is a polite way of saying ‘race’. As the American literary critic Walter Benn Michaels puts it, ‘In order for a culture to be lost… it must be separable from one’s actual behaviour, and in order for it to be separable from one’s actual behaviour it must be anchorable in race.’
The logic of the preservationist arguments is that every culture has a pristine form, its original state. It decays when it is not longer in that form. There are echoes here of the concept of ‘type’ that was at the heart of nineteenth century racial science. A racial type was a group of human beings linked by a set of fundamental characteristics that was unique to it. Each type was separated from others by a sharp discontinuity; there was rarely any doubt as to which type an individual belonged. Each type remained constant through time. There were severe limits to how much any member of a type could drift away from the fundamental ground plan by which the type was constituted. These are the very characteristics that constitute a culture in much of today’s multiculturalism talk. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how multicultural policy could conceive of cultures in any other way. How could rights be accorded to cultures, or cultures be recognised or preserved if they did not possess rigid boundaries?
Once membership of cultural types is defined by the possession of certain characteristics, and rights and privileges granted by virtue of possessing those characteristics, then it is but a short step to deny membership of a culture to people who do not possess those characteristics and hence to deny them certain rights and privileges. The language of diversity all too easily slips into the idiom of exclusion.
Shortly before his death, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin was interviewed by the political philosopher Steven Lukes. Was it possible, Lukes asked, 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… 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.’ Similarly, black immigration to Western Europe was ‘a problem’ because ‘cultures which have grown up with no contact with one another have now collided’.
Berlin has been hailed by many as the pre-eminent philosopher of modern pluralism. Freedom, for Berlin, lay in the acceptance of the plurality of society and of the incommensurability of cultural values. Pluralism, he argued, was the best defence against tyranny and against ideologies, such as racism, which treated some human beings as less equal than others. Yet, as his interview with Steven Lukes reveals, Berlin’s liberalism all too easily gave way to a desire to exclude minorities.
Nor is Berlin alone in making a multiculturalist case for ‘keeping them out’. Will Kymlicka has perhaps inherited Berlin’s mantle as the most important and cogent philosopher of multiculturalism, a highly subtle thinker, and an unswerving liberal. In his book Multicultural Politics, Kymlicka makes a case for the right of cultures to protect their unique characters from changes wrought from the outside. ‘It is right and proper’, he argues, ‘that the character of a culture changes as a result of the choices of its members.’ But ‘while it is one thing to learn from the larger world’, he insists, it is quite another ‘to be swamped by it’.
That is a telling phrase. For the fear of being ‘swamped’ has long been a rightwing trope, used to whip up fears about immigration and about the Other. ‘It’s not our country any more’, has become the common cry of those opposed to immigration. ‘There are now substantially growing areas in many of our major cities which are in some important respects rather more like foreign countries than those of the ordinary English domestic scene’, argues the Oxford demographer David Coleman, a leading critic of immigration . ‘They’re not parts of the country where most English people will want to go.’ This has led to the ‘dethronement’ of what ‘the ordinary people of Britain… take to be their national identity and their history.’
The French far right has been particularly assiduous in exploiting the ideas of pluralism and the fear of cultural swamping to promote a reactionary argument against immigration. In the 1970s many antiracists had argued for the ‘right to difference’ (droit à la difference) of minorities to retain their own language, religion and cultural identity. The philosopher Alain de Benoist, one of the founders of the Nouvelle Droite, used that very same concept to defend French national culture against the impact of immigration, to protect it from being ‘swamped’. The mixing of cultures, he argued, would damage the cultural identity of both host and minority communities. The only solution was an apartheid-style separation, justifying the exclusion and repatriation of non-whites. ‘Will the earth be reduced to something homogenous because of the deculturalizing and depersonalizing trends for which American imperialism is now the most arrogant rector?’, he asked, appropriating the rhetoric of contemporary radicalism. ‘Or will people find the means for the necessary resistance in their beliefs, traditions, and ways of seeing the world? This is really the decisive question that has been raised at the beginning of the next millennium.’
Kymlicka is liberal to his bones, resolutely hostile to such reactionary arguments against immigration. But once it becomes a matter of political principle that cultures should not be swamped by outsiders, then it is difficult to know how one could possibly resist anti-immigration arguments.
Herder, the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut observes, has become the cheerleader for both sides of the political spectrum. ‘He reigns supreme inspiring at the same time… unyielding celebrations of ethnic identity and expressions of respect for foreigners, aggressive outbursts by xenophobes and generous pronouncements by xenophiles.’ The two sides have ‘conflicting credos but the same vision of the world’. Both see ‘cultures as all-encompassing entities, distinctly different, one from the other.’ Multiculturalists, like racial theorists, fetishise difference. Both seek to ‘confine individuals to their group of origin’. Both undermine ‘any possibility of natural or cultural community among peoples’. We believe we have discredited the concept of race but, Finkielkraut asks, ‘have we really made any progress?’
Finkielkraut himself infamously accused the French football team, celebrated as a symbol of French multiracial unity after its 1998 World Cup victory, of being not ‘Blanc-Noir-Beur’ (white, black, Arab) but ‘Noir-Noir-Noir’, a team too full of immigrants to truly represent the French nation, a ‘gang of hooligans’ too infused with the spirit of the ghetto. Like many conservative defenders of the republican tradition, Finkielkraut, for al his criticisms of ethnic nationalism and of identity politics, blanches at the idea that blacks and Arabs could truly be of the French nation. The self-proclaimed defender of French cosmopolitanism turns out to have a barbed-wire view of Frenchness, a vision of the French nation as a cultural ghetto protected by ‘Keep Out’ signs. No one better expresses than Finkielkraut himself the way that Herder has become a ‘cheerleader for both sides’, giving vent to both ‘xenophobic outbursts’ and ‘xenophilic pronouncements’.
The images are, from top to bottom, of a Bosnian Muslim mourning among caskets at the Potocari Memorial Cemetery near Srebrenica; a portrait of Johann Gottfried Herder; Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog; Joan Miro’s Bleu 1; the image of the burning book from the cover of the US edition of From Fatwa to Jihad; the Lee Plaza totel in Detroit, from a series of photos in Time magazine on ‘Detroit’s Beautiful, Horrible Decline’ taken by Yves Marchand and Romaine Meffre; Richard Dempsey’s 1940 charcoal and pastel drawing Untitled, from the Kelley collection of African American art; and Lucian Freud’s portrait of Isaiah Berlin.