Rethinking multiculturalism

The following is an excerpt from Chapter Eight of 'Beyond Right and Left: New Politics and the Culture War', (Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2005).

What do most people mean by multiculturalism?

Before proceeding let's examine what positive motives are behind this concept. What's positive is a deep desire to oppose racism. Support for multiculturalism expresses a desire for a world in which people from different cultural backgrounds will respect each other and in which the inevitable disagreements within any society do not lead to violence based on ethnic or cultural difference. It also represents a rejoicing in diversity and variety. It can represent a rejection of being confined to the narrowness of one's own culture and a desire to share aspects of a culture not one's own. Multiculturalism is also motivated by a desire for equality, expressed as an equality between groups.

On a more abstract level, some people support multiculturalism because they rightly see the limitations of formal civil equality when discrimination based on cultural groups exists. They argue that identical formal treatment can sometimes mean very unequal treatment in practice. These feelings and aspirations are very positive but the concept of multiculturalism which is used to articulate them has problems, some of which undercut these very aspirations and ideals.

One of the main problems is that multiculturalism is a rather fuzzy concept. It is not clear what intellectual roots it has nor what its moral content is. It appears to be a repackaged form of old fashioned liberalism and pluralism, albeit one which extends those concepts. More practically, it is not explicit what ultimate social arrangements it favours. What would a thoroughly multicultural society look like? In their book 'Multicultural Questions, two academics Christian Joppke and Steven Lukes, point out that multiculturalism is easily capable of a spectrum of meanings. They range from what they call 'Hodgepodge multiculturalism' to 'Mosaic multiculturalism'.

'Hodgepodge' multiculturalism is a celebration of the mixing of cultures in which people and cultural practices begin to blend and in which ultimately the boundaries blur and new syntheses emerge. This hybridisation threatens some and is celebrated by others. One of the latter is the writer Salman Rushdie whose life was threatened and who had to live in hiding for many years for supposedly 'offending a culture' in The Satanic Verses. The other version of multiculturalism is one which resembles a celebration of separatism. Instead of blending and hybridisation, there is a mosaic, a richly patterned society but one in which each tile of the mosaic is a sharply defined, definite and self-contained cultural group. It advocates virtually no shared values other than absolute respect for difference.

From a distance 'hodgepodge' and 'mosaic' may look the same but there is a world of difference, to coin a phrase.

Before delving deeper into the implications of this, one crucial consequence must be noted which is not apparent at first but which deeply affects how multiculturalism is defined in both local and national politics. 'Hodgepodge' multiculturalism has no natural political base to mobilise and fight for it. In contrast, 'mosaic' multiculturalism has an immediate base of ethnic groups each of whom will mobilise and fight for its group rights, under the banner of the larger cause, multiculturalism. No political leader that I am aware of has ever publicly championed hybridising multiculturalism and the creation of a new hybrid Australian national identity. But hundreds of minor political leaders have traded on the mobilisation of group loyalty of ethnic minorities in return for favours. Ethnic branch stacking in the ALP is the most notorious and corrupt example of a practice in all parties. In turn such practices strengthen the 'mosaic' version of multiculturalism.

Mosaic multiculturalism has big problems. The most obvious of these is that it encourages what we could call 'group thinking'. Instead of treating individuals as having individual characteristics, we see individuals as representatives of categories or cultures. This is understandable at one level. Ethnic minorities can suffer discrimination as a group and members of that group usually share some common interests. But building a politics based on 'group thinking' can be a dangerous practice. This is because 'group thinking' is not so far removed from the stereotypes in which generalised judgements are made about particular groups (Aborigines are lazy, Jews are greedy, the English are snobs, Asians are hard-working etc). Preserving the authenticity and integrity of a culture is not far removed from notions of racial purity.

Mosaic multiculturalism elevates the rights of the group over the rights of the individual within the group. In the case of women this can be very oppressive since those who define the interests of the group are often older and male. The (rare) practice of female genital mutilation is an issue on which authorities still tread carefully. More common are a series of assumptions and expectations about women, marriage and family honour. Research evidence suggests that murder is more frequent among the overseas-born couples as part of a pattern of domestic violence. The report which found this, Shattered Dreams, (1996) by Patricia Easteal, documents many other indications which suggest a disproportionate amount of domestic violence among overseas-born couples. But Easteal is painfully cautious in revealing this fact because it might fuel racism. But the contrary is also true. Tiptoeing around such issues also fuels opposition to multiculturalism because it is seen to justify a double standard toward the local and overseas born.

Part of its fuzziness is that, in the way it is often publicly articulated, it appears to be a concept without limits. If a little bit of diversity is good, why not a huge amount of it? Multiculturalism is often articulated on the Left as an 'oppositional' concept, undermining the constraints of the dominant culture. Because of this, those espousing a multicultural stance rarely qualify or make conditional the application of the concept. If a group insists on a demand in the name of cultural diversity or respect, who can say whether the limits of acceptable diversity have been reached, and on what basis? Multiculturalism therefore poses but does not answer the highly charged question about how to resolve competing and antagonistic cultural values, particularly in relation to families, marriage and the treatment of women and children. In practice such questions are usually settled by reference to Australian law which favours individual over group rights. But the public debate over the limits of cultural diversity is not 'settled' so easily. The pressure to legitimise group rights over the rights of individual women and children is one little-recognised source of hostility to multiculturalism.

Mosaic multiculturalism also has the problem that emphasising the rights and particularities of groups usually comes at the expense of emphasising what all groups share, whether that's expressed at the level of the national interest, or social cohesion and trust. One high profile supporter of multiculturalism who recognised this some time ago was the West Australian academic Laksiri Jayasuriya. In an article in 1990, he argued for a 'paradigm shift' from what he called 'cultural pluralism to democratic pluralism'. He argued that the official recognition of cultural diversity in the early 1970s rested on a 'largely hidden belief in eventual integration'. One of the critical problems for this approach 'has been to demarcate with any degree of consensus the precise limits of cultural pluralism in relation to policy initiatives such as ethnic media, schools and services'. That is, the idea was fuzzy. Nevertheless, the policy worked especially in catering to the needs of first generation migrants. But other research, he argued showed that in the second and third generations, inter-ethnic marriage meant that ethnic boundaries were becoming more fluid and a 'mixed' cultural society was developing, rather than a multicultural one. In this situation, a more symbolic ethnic identity developed which involved 'a loose nostalgia for one's historic origins but no compelling sense of identification or group loyalty'.

A similar notion is expressed by the secretary of the British Fabian Society, Sunder Katwala, in an article titled 'Why I'm Proud to be a Mongrel Brit'. The son of an Indian father and Irish mother, he argues that 'multiculturalism has not valued integration enough. Retreating to ethnic enclaves - demanding our own share of recognition and resources as Gujeratis, Somalis, Bangladeshis and so on - is a dead end. We need a shared society. Integration is a two-way street. We should demand allegiance and loyalty from citizens - and tackle the racism in employment which prevents the promise of integration from being kept.' Both these writers anticipate the need to promote an evolving, hybridised cultural identity which can accommodate both cultural blending and the persistence of diverse cultures but which should occur within the framework of the values of an evolving common culture.

To read more: see Chapter 8, 'All in the Same Boat' in 'Beyond Right and Left', which can be purchased online here.