My book, Multiculturalism and its Discontents, has just been published in Finland by the Eurooppalaisen filosofian seura (Society for European philosophy). I did a short interview with the Society’s journal Niin & Näin to introduce the themes of the book, which I am republishing here.
Q: Multiculturalism and its Discontents is a very concise and to-the-point exposé of multiculturalism. What inspired you to publish a book of this kind?
KM: Multiculturalism has become one of the most used and abused political terms today. I have been critical of the multicultural approach from long before it was fashionable to be so. But I have also been critical of many critiques of multiculturalism, which are often as problematic as multiculturalism itself. What the book aims to do is to challenge both multiculturalism and much of the discontent with it.
Q: In Multiculturalism and its Discontents you point out that ‘multiculturalism’ means both a lived experience and a public policy of governing existing diversity. You also point out that it is very easy for liberals as well to start thinking about cultures as monolithic, unchanging entities. How much damage do you think these two things have done to public debate in Great Britain and in Europe in general?
KM: The distinction to which you refer, that between the lived experience of diversity and the policies designed to manage that diversity, is crucial in understanding multiculturalism, but all too rarely made. Many people see the diversity created by immigration as itself the problem. My view is that the real problems are created not by diversity but by the policies enacted to manage that diversity.
Diversity is important, not in and of itself, but because it allows us to expand our horizons, to compare and contrast different values, beliefs and lifestyles, make judgments upon them, and decide which may be better and which may be worse. It is important, in other words, because it allows us to engage in political dialogue and debate that can help create a more universal language of citizenship.
But it is precisely such dialogue and debate that multiculturalism as a political process makes much more difficult. Multicultural policies attempt to manage 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 an approach that encourages not social engagement but social fragmentation. It also, as you suggest in your question, tends to treat minority communities as if each was a distinct, singular, homogenous, authentic whole, each composed of people all speaking with a single voice, each defined primarily by a singular view of culture and faith. In so doing, it often ignores conflicts within those communities.
There is no single ‘Muslim community’ or ‘African Caribbean community’ any more than there is a single ‘Christian community’ or ‘white community’. Muslim communities are as varied and conflicted as every other kind of community. What often happens, though, is that the most progressive voices within minority communities get silenced as not being truly of that community, while the most conservative voices get celebrated as community leaders, the authentic voices of minority groups. This is where liberal multiculturalism meets rightwing anti-Muslim bigotry. Anti-Muslim bigots often portray all Muslims as reactionaries. Multiculturalists all too often take the reactionaries to be the authentic voice of Muslim communities.
Q: Whether we think of different kinds of anti-immigrant sentiment or Islamic fundamentalism, what kind of things do different fundamentalisms have in common? Do you think there is fundamentalist thinking in the public sphere that isn’t usually recognized as such?
KM: I think it is wrong to think of all hostility to immigration as ‘fundamentalist’. The roots of anti-immigrant sentiment are complex, and we should not simply dismiss it as ‘racist’ or ‘fundamentalist’. Many of those hostile to immigration are out-and-out racists. But many are not. We need to engage with them, and their arguments, not to write them off.
The biggest problem with public debate today is a growing unwillingness of people to engage with, or debate, ideas with which they disagree, or which makes them feel uncomfortable. There is an increasing tendency to want to censor or ban that which people find offensive. Increasingly we seem to want simply to sit in our own separate silos shouting at each other. It’s the opposite of what public discourse should be.
Q: Next September we are going to publish a Finnish translation of your The Quest for a Moral Compass. What was your main idea behind writing the book?
KM: At the heart of book is the question: What can the history of morality tell us about the nature of morality, and about us as human beings? There is a widespread perception of morality as occupying a sphere of its own, that morality can, and should, be understood in its own terms. It’s striking that there are thousands of books about the history of ideas, hundreds of histories of philosophy, but only a handful of histories of moral thought.
What I wanted to do was to historicise morality, to tell the story of morality in the same way that you can tell other historical stories, to relate it to other histories, economic, social, political, intellectual. I also wanted to tell a global story, one not confined to the West, but one that shows the interrelationships between European, Islamic, Indian, Chinese and other cultures.
To look upon morality as a historical product is to understand it as a human creation, to recognize it not as a fixed monument but as an evolving story. History becomes a tool through which to discover how values have changed, and why, and what it tells us about our moral lives today.
Many people worry that to view morality through the lens of history is to destroy morality. To understand notions of good and bad, of right and wrong, in historical terms, to view them as having transformed over time, and as having been shaped by a myriad social needs, political desires and material constraints, would appear to undermine the very idea of morality. I wanted to challenge that idea. The fact that moral norms are humanly created does not necessarily make them subjective or arbitrary. Moral questions may not have objective answers, whether revealed by God or by science, but they do have rational ones, answers rooted in a rationality that emerges out of social need.