Multiculturalism

This is usually taken to mean the coexistence of diverse cultures and their corresponding religions within a single community. Lean Logic argues that, in the future, the central uniting property of a society will be its culture. There is no doubt that, in order to accomplish this, the culture will need to be well-developed and strong, attracting consensus in the public sphere rather than being simply a matter of private preference. It would seem to follow that culture can only do this work of sustaining unity if the culture concerned is a single, common culture, for which there is general consent.

In fact, while it probably is true that a genuinely common culture is best suited to do this, such a consensus is rare. Even in the medieval period—famous for its Catholic consensus—dissidents, aka heretics, persisted in their own interpretations in response to local inspiration, and much of the history of the medieval church consists of the business of what to do about them. For example, in the fifth century, the only reason the existence of Britain was even noticed by recorded European history was that it was influenced by the Pelagian heresy—which emphasised personal responsibility (rather than grace) as the means of salvation—requiring two visits to Britain by the Bishop of Auxerre in unsuccessful attempts to sort the problem out. Pelagius’ tiresome English preference for going his own way—his name is Latin for “the sea”—was a precursor in Europe of some sixteen centuries of differing takes on the received religion and culture. They led to persecutions, inquisitions and wars, but they did not, until the twentieth century, destroy the overarching culture in which Europe’s people coexisted.M41

But there are three circumstances in which the presence of sharply different cultures can have catastrophic consequences for social cohesion:

The first is where there is the fusion of religious differences and material rivalries. Hindus and Muslims, despite tensions and flare-ups over many years, coexisted reasonably successfully in India until events leading up the Partition in 1947 created real conflict in terms of land and politics, and had them fighting for their lives, leaving some 1 million dead.M42 Buddhism and Islam coexisted successfully in the northern Indian region of Ladakh until the arrival of the market economy in the 1970s destroyed confidence in every aspect of their lives.M43 The quality of coexistence of Jews and Christians in Europe through the centuries has been inversely correlated with the presence of stress—not least that brought on by bad harvests. The problem is that stresses which a society might otherwise have been able to endure lead to rupture along what turn out to be the fault lines of ethnic and/or religious difference, especially in a political economy with a dense population. It becomes hard to find the middle ground: resentment matures into deadly extremes and, because it has been so strongly inhibited, the break from coexistence can come with little warning.M44

In this situation, it may not be possible to make decisions on the basis of what “we” think it is best to do. To promote multiculturalism or do the opposite, or indeed to pursue any policy at all—may not be a matter on which choices can still be made. The historian Walter Laqueur observes, with respect to immigration in France at the start of the 21st century, that it could not necessarily be supposed . . .

. . . that the situation was under control. A culture of violence and destruction prevailed that manifested itself, for instance, in torching cars (45,000 in 2005), and in gang warfare in general. It was not just a case of rejecting France and its values but of hating French society and its institutions, as spokesmen of the young generation repeatedly declared.M45

But the situation in the zones around the cities of France does not need to be accepted as typical.

The second kind of stress is the one which occurs when cultures and their religions cannot express themselves because there is not enough cultural uniformity to do so. For example, festival, tradition, carnival, and even daily assured companionship need a quorum—that is, at least sufficient agreement on language, music, idiom, graphics, timing and sheer heartening numbers of people—without which nothing happens. Without a collective existence, culture is reduced to a personal, maybe dissident, statement, with no significance for the community, which accordingly foregoes access to the public sphere and its cultural expression. And, without that, a population’s identity and its existence as a community are at best shadowy, and may turn inwards, towards small groups and gangs defined by mutual hostilities. That retreat to the private sphere—as the public sphere becomes unable to speak with one voice—is in place in the United Kingdom and other nations today.

The communitarian thinker Amitai Etzioni reflects on the difference between pluralism and faction:

The forces that combined all the plurals into one mosaic—one society and one nation—have waned. The notion of a shared community or public interest, which balances but does not replace the plurality of particular interests, has been eroded. . . . an ideology has developed, supported by some social scientists and intellectuals, that claims there is no such thing as communitywide (or “public”) interest, only the give and take of particular interests.M46

The third form of stress is less visible. The individual, or the household, feels isolated, with no set of common memories, pleasures, fears, jokes, sympathies, comforts—no cognitive world to share. A strong local agenda such as the Bromley by Bow enterprise (Presence) can transcend difference, but easy familiarity is less close to the surface when there is nothing particular going on. But this does not register as a social problem; it is considered a private matter (see “Dinner Lady” sidebar).

DINNER LADY
Life and death in Southall

My father worked in a greengrocers’ shop for 35 years; my mother was a housewife before she committed suicide in 1987. They were both lifelong Labour voters. My mother hanged herself in the house she lived in all her life, in Southall, west London, a town that had changed beyond all recognition. It is today the least white place in the whole of Britain.

She wrote in her suicide note, “I hate Southall. I feel so alone.” In case anyone dare accuse of her of any racism, she may have hated Southall, but my mother was incapable of hating people. She worked in the last years of her life as a dinner lady in an all-Asian school, and was much loved. But she was lost. Her world had disappeared.

~ Tim Lott, “White, working class—and threatened with extinction”, Independent on Sunday, 2008.M47

 

It is not inevitable that difference between cultures should mature into conflict between them, but the more stressful the conditions—as in the case of shortages for essential resources such as food, energy or land, for instance—the more likely it is to happen, and that makes it harder for a community to get positive results. Drawing on their experience of community-based water projects around the world, Ton Schouten and Patrick Moriarty write:

A community with serious conflict between classes, castes, ethnic or religious groups will have little chance of successfully managing anything. . . . The key assumption is that “community” is a valid description for a particular group of people. If they do not represent a community, then community management is unlikely to work, particularly because active participation by all sectors of the community is absolutely essential. Opting out by any important group of users will inevitably lead to conflict and eventual failure.M48

Among the many suggested responses, that of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is significant, because it is at least constructive. He suggests that the community could start again, inventing its own synthesis of the traditions it has inherited—its own evolved tradition and narrative—helping its members to adapt the cultures they bring with them. And he proposes a “Social Covenant”—a declaration of, and commitment to, friendly cooperation. There is certainly a case for a meeting point in the arts, which are accomplished at bridging cultural divides. And there is a case too for being as positive as possible about any constructive suggestion and giving it the extended benefit of any doubt: the thought, well-defined intention and effort that such a project would provoke would themselves be constructive and helpful. But there do have to be doubts about whether a synthesis of such diverse narratives is possible, and some suspicions that a Covenant is a form of begging the question: if there were a real prospect of such a Covenant being signed and ensuring mutual tolerance into the future, however difficult conditions become, there would not be a problem.M49

An alternative is to encourage the strengthening of communities with distinct cultures in distinct localities. A precedent, or parallel—far from exact, but which at least refers to a system with a long and proven record—can be found in the form of the “tenurial shell”. The scholars Janis Alcorn and Victor Toledo apply the principle to the coexistence of two or more different systems of property rights, which would be in conflict with each other if not for the recognised boundary between them (Script).M50 The boundary legitimises difference, and reduces the threat of one system seeing the other as a challenge to its own integrity and seeking to dominate or destroy it. But shells need not, of course, be defined only in terms of differences between property rights; a similar legitimising boundary could exist between cultures nested within the wider framework of a nation. In this circumstance, stress can strengthen them both, as Alcorn and Toledo write:

In times of stress, the political units inside different local shells have forged organizational links between themselves to resist the destruction of their shells and their property rights.M51

Stretching the idea even further, it is also conceivable that a ‘protective membrane’ could form round different cultures without there being any implication of boundaries defined in terms of place: that is, without concentration of any one culture in any one location. Some scope for this is undoubtedly possible: Baghdad, for instance, was for many centuries rich with diverse religions, with a famously thriving Jewish community.

But there are limits, because all social order and collective action requires a framework of institutions—local community; places of worship; schools; clubs; neighbourhood associations; the rules and assumptions which guide decision-making. If those institutions themselves differ, then the public sphere fails: collective action becomes hard, or impossible. If no particular collective action is in fact needed because the economy is so prosperous, there may be no problem for a time, but if that should change, then the lack of an agreed set of institutional assumptions—of a grammar underpinning political conversation—will cause trouble. And, even if that trouble is mitigated, that task itself may absorb so much energy that little remains for the positive collective task of making a future. Or, if the way forward is seen to be a common secular culture and ritual with a banal myth—intended to be taken literally and intolerant of different interpretations—that takes us into the dangerous territory of the kind of grandiose ideologies which gave us the regimes of the recent history of Russia, Germany, Cambodia and North Korea.

And yet, the celebration of cultural differences and mutual respect has a natural rightness about it. There can be doubt as to how deeply it penetrates: brave affirmative dialogue between the imam and the rabbi does not necessarily extend among all their followers; nor among all the leaders. But it is a first step (see “Candles for Peace” sidebar).

CANDLES FOR PEACE
Monday, 3rd November 2008

There is a heavy drizzle outside Tooting Broadway station this November evening. I am early, and I stand against the railings, sheltering under my green tweed cap, and wait for something to happen. First, the Vicar comes, carrying some plastic sheeting and a bundle of poles, and with some help from bystanders he fits them together into a blue and white awning. Hanging from the awning are signs inviting us to light a candle for peace. Then some people come with a poster: Balham And Tooting Community Association. Two ladies put up trestle tables and lay out boxes of night-lights and a big baking dish to put them in.

Now there are fifty people there, and the prayers begin. The Vicar prays for peace in our community and in our hearts: “We don’t need your money; we just need your prayer”. Then a leader of the Hindus prays for peace, and sings us a chant. The Muslim leader reminds us that “Shalom” in Hebrew is the same word as “Salam” in Arabic, and that they both mean peace. A Buddhist monk speaks to us, rings a tiny bell which can just be heard above the traffic, beats his drum and chants. A Jewish elder speaks movingly of peace and sings his wild, wailing chant. Then the Sikh, with more chant. Then the Mayor himself, followed by the Vicar again, who reads us the prayer of St. Francis. Then the local chief of police. Then Lucy, from Transition Town Tooting, who makes connections between care for each other and care of the Earth.

We light our scented night-lights. Claudia and I confer about whether they smell of apricots or strawberries. King Edward VII stands above us on his plinth. He does not take part in the proceedings but he clutches his sceptre and looks resolutely into the future. The plinth is dated 1911 and decorated with vigorous bronzes of angels delivering virtues and giving instructions for use. One of the virtues is Charity. The other is Peace.

Tout le monde of Tooting was there”, says Lucy as we go off for a herbal tea in a café, just in time before it closes.

 

Those, then, seem to be the choices. Either a heroic attempt to build a new common culture: a common narrative or Social Covenant; or strong, distinctive, local cultures, sharing mutual respect for their common experience of religious faith and legitimised by their distinctiveness—and, notably, by their arts, which can communicate across boundaries better than plain words. Failing these, the default position is the absence of any culture at all, since each is diluted out of sight. This last is only a realistic option in a rich economy where consumption keeps the peace—and, in fact, all the concerned and urgent suggestions about ways to modify multiculturalism and create a peaceful and collective identity are made on the assumption that energy, food, taxes and jobs will continue in good order. When that no longer holds, difficult revision is likely.

The interim conclusion is: keep alive the cultures that we have. To go quiet about your own culture in an attempt not to insult another is an insult to all cultures and a clean slate on which fundamentalism can have its way. Dan as a Christian can absolutely affirm and support Tejal’s culture and practice as a Hindu. This is more than ‘the dignity of difference’, because they both know what commitment to a culture means; it is the mutual love of loving their diverse traditions in the same ways; two cultures can affirm each other in an encounter from which the sceptic is self-excluded. If you really want to insult the other side’s religion, rubbish the whole idea of cultural and religious affiliation. When the stresses of the climacteric set in with real intensity, people will rediscover strong religious associations which they may have almost forgotten.M52

Bridging is possible: but bridges need firm footings. Dialogue from the strength of living cultures should start while it is still possible.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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