The Applicability of Multiculturalism

November 14, 2009

Or, my big freaking paper.

The world is more mobile now than at any other time in human history, and one consequence of this mobility is increased interaction between disparate cultures. In industrialized societies this increased mobility, along with the needs of global economic players, has resulted in a remarkable migration of peoples. Many non-industrialized nations felt the effects of humanity’s increasing skill at travel much earlier than this, as colonialism and imperialism brought the frameworks of the modern nation-state and the European Enlightenment to the far reaches of the globe. In parallel with this was the repression of regional identity in Western states in the face of strongly propagated national identity. Slowly and implacably modern nation-states are being made to face the heterogeneous make-up of their citizens instead of the hoped for homogenous state identity. Many Western states have adopted policies of multiculturalism in order to address the diversity in their societies, but they are finding multicultural ideals difficult to put into practice. Similarly, many non-industrialized nations are facing calls to extend rights and differentiated treatment to minorities in their territories. This strains at the essential makeup of modern states, as they are inherently monocultural in set-up. As Parekh points out, multicultural pushes in liberal societies have had to strain against a tradition which is actively hostile to heterogeneity.

It is my contention that when undertaken in good faith multiculturalism can be a useful tool in promoting understanding and peace between differing cultural groups, but it cannot exist in a vacuum and is not sufficient on its own. In examining this I will use observations from a public forum on security held at East Belfast Mission 12 November, 2009, as well as examples drawn from reading and everyday life in a Western society. My ability to describe life in an industrializing context firsthand is nonexistent, so my discussions on the usefulness of a multicultural approach in that context will be drawn from articles contributed by professionals.

Andreas Wimmer identifies five conditions that must be met for multiculturalism to be effective:
Liberal democracy
Enforcement of human rights
Clear cultural lines
Dominant groups must not fear the results of multiculturalism
The programs supporting multiculturalism must not be seen as colonialist

Clearly the last condition is only applicable in countries outside the Western, previously colonial context. While these conditions are a useful rough guideline, I think they break down in practice. The first condition assumes that a multicultural societal framework could not work outside the bounds of liberal democracy. Given that the author is from a liberal society this seems to reflect ethnocentrism at the very least. Russia, for example, is hardly held up as a paragon of liberal democratic strength, but the nation has twenty six autonomous zones of administration controlled by minority groups. The second is reasonable, and it is hard to imagine multicultural appreciation outside a context in which human rights were paid more than lip service. The third and fourth are very difficult to unpack, and their implications will be discussed below. The final condition seems to presume a lot about both former colonial powers and their former colonies.

The contention that a state must have clearly delineated cultural lines is a weak one, and ignores much of the subtlety evident in world societies. Because of the multiplicity of identities that people carry with them, sometimes it is difficult to identify a group that should be represented in a multicultural discussion. Furthermore, at what level should the distinction be made between a legitimate minority cultural group and a small collection of like-minded people. Church groups in the United States have courted controversy in the face of new marriage equality laws, claiming that they will have to refuse service to gay couples, potentially putting them in violation of pending legislation. In this case do churches constitute a broad enough minority group to warrant appeasement, even though, by and large, church going Americans are very much within the mainstream of American society? Parekh argues that immigrants– particularly, in this case, to Western countries– implicitly accept the cultural values of the states they choose to live in. This sounds good as a rule of thumb, but at what point does an immigrant group become an imported nation?

The contention that dominant groups must be made to see that their interests are not undermined also rings a bit hollow. It sounds obvious enough, but in practice it does not seem possible to see through. Connolly points out that a pluralizing shift often serves to fundamentalize the majority group, at least in the short term. Any culture wishing to extend differentiated rights to minority groups must bear this fact in mind. Tepelman describes an idea of a primordial identity construction which parallels this fundamentalizing shift. He notes that for a primordialist within an emerging multicultural system the survival of the group is the most important thing, and that they define themselves in opposition to other groups they view as absolutely different.

One can see similarities here with the experience of Northern Ireland, particularly Belfast. Tensions in Northern Ireland between Catholics and Protestants had always been fraught, but Catholic pushes for increased civil rights in the 60’s helped ignite The Troubles which raged in the country for thirty years. The rhetoric of Protestant and Catholic leadership after tensions boiled over was remarkably similar, with both sides tarring their opponents. Tepelman also remarks that this primordial conception of identity leads to majority groups attempting to separate themselves from minorities and to evict them from shared cultural space. In Belfast this separation and eviction is embodied by the Peace Walls all throughout the city keeping the two groups apart. Nagle studies the use of the Belfast City Centre, and the findings reinforce this impression. Catholic’s living in Belfast had long felt that the City Centre was not open to them in any meaningful way. The city hall had a statue of Queen Victoria in front, and only Protestant groups were allowed to route their marches through the central square. Once the Belfast government made concessionary moves to the Catholics in the city, allowing them to march and have equal access to services provided in the centre. Predictably, Protestant partizans did not appreciate these gestures, and they led to a further entrenching of rhetoric. The lesson to take from this episode, however, is that decades on the question of equal access to the city centre is much less contentious.

Cultural division has not disappeared altogether in Belfast, though. Thursday, November 12, 2009 East Belfast Mission held a forum entitled “Securing the Future” which was open to the public. The Mission invited two MLA’s, one from Sinn Fein, the other from the DUP, and the PSNI officer overseeing the Newtonards Road area of East Belfast. Tensions ran high at the meeting, as East Belfast Mission made it a point to invite a mixed audience to the proceedings, which took place in a Unionist, Protestant area of town. Each member of the panel was invited to make a statement about ensuring security in East Belfast, the Greater Belfast Area, and Northern Ireland as a whole, and then they answered questions from the audience.

While the SInn Fein and DUP MLA’s predictably disagreed on much concerning specific policy, both stressed that they thought that a one-dimensional solution was not an appropriate answer to the still very real tensions between Protestants and Catholics in Belfast and Northern Ireland. Both agreed that comprehensive solutions must be put in place in order to ensure lasting peace. Neither MLA downplayed the need to keep the citizens of Belfast and Northern Ireland safe and the importance that securing the safety of residence played in ensuring peace, but also emphasized that stopping there did nothing more than securing what Nagle likens to civility based on indifference. While neither of them could come to any kind of consensus during the two and a half hour panel as to what those comprehensive solutions would look like, at the very least they have that bit of agreement on the table.

The member of the police service emphasized that while what was termed a “dissident threat” was still very real, the threat was much less severe than just fifteen years ago. Also covered were some unique challenges the police service faces in the country. Many places in Northern Ireland are not used to getting prompt service from the police, and when they called in the past did not expect a response. In recent years the service has attempted to address these shortcomings, but now face challenges in engaging with previously isolated communities. As an example, the officer noted that the police get calls fairly frequently for assistance that is outside of their officially delineated responsibilities. But if that call comes from a previously neglected area the service faces a decision: If they choose to respond they potentially set an unwelcome precedent for the services they are able to provide, but if they choose not to respond they risk losing the trust of a community that is already suspicious of police motives. Acknowledging the difficulty faced, the officer said that no matter the decision the service needed to do a better job communicating to the public what could and could not be expected of the police.

Most illuminating was the question and answer period. Since the forum was taking place in East Belfast, I expected most of the questions to be directed at the Sinn Fein MLA, and for those questions to be rather accusatory and confrontational. To be sure, he did face this kind of questioning, but the DUP MLA got an earful as well. While the panel members tried to emphasize that public safety was much improved, and stood to improve still more, members of the audience were considerably more skeptical. Questioners were able to cite specific instances in which police response had left something to be desired, and they pressed the police representative about it; they noted that the Sinn Fein MLA was on a police regulatory body and questioned whether or not he really cared whether East Belfast was properly policed; they noted that the DUP MLA was formerly a member of the police service and had family and friends who had served and died in police and paramilitary service and wondered why he wasn’t pushing harder on security issues. At one point a questioner was so agitated that he needed a rebuke from the moderator to stop him from interrupting the speaker. Clearly these people did not feel secure, and the shared mistrust in the room prevents them from engaging with each other on equal terms.

Clearly the challenges of accommodating diverse cultures into a modern state are difficult, and no state can be argued to be doing the job perfectly. Rainier Baubock surveys the scene and assesses three likely scenarios: Multiculturalism as it currently stands in the Western World is as good as it will get; the world may be seeing a backlash against multiculturalism both in the industrialized and non-industrialized nations; or, the theories underpinning multiculturalism may need to be changed. Baubock argues for the third option, and Will Kymlicka agrees, arguing that case-by case interaction on an international scale is what is needed, not whole scale intervention. Kymlicka thinks that the important thing to do in all cases is to lay the foundation for a multicultural society and let things flow from that point adapting to the circumstances each society faces on the ground.

Rowan Williams’ now infamous speech on multiculturalism in the United Kingdom offers an intriguing look into how the process could play out in an industrialized nation. Williams was at pains to emphasize that though the substance of his speech dealt with British society’s relationship with its growing Islamic population, the example was merely the most convenient and timely one for him to use. Williams points out that the vast majority of of Muslim states in the world operate under a similarly separated system of laws, in which a Muslim has to navigate a cultural life with more than one identity in the public sphere. Because this situation is already extant in other countries, it makes no sense to deny those cultural rights to a minority in the United Kingdom, provided of course, that no one else’s rights are impinged. The philosophical ideas underpinning Williams’ arguments are dealt with in further academic detail Parekh’s writings, which make for a good starting point when discussing the usefulness of a multicultural approach.

Parekh notes that shared social life is constituted on at least three increasingly specific levels: constitutional, legislative, and civic. A state’s constitution lays out the framework of the state; the guidelines of what a citizen can expect. The particular laws enacted by the various bodies with jurisdiction over a given area further bring into focus what exactly is permissible and what is not permissible in a legal sense, and the civic culture of societies deals with the day the day customs of a particular location. It is into these circles, moving between the civic and legislative levels, that a multicultural approach must insert itself. The process described here is very different from autocratic decisions one way or another about a particular cultural practice. Instead, conditions must be right, and all parties must come together and participate in a good faith dialogue. In this situation all parties feel safe entering into discussion and negotiation. I realize that I may be describing the unicorn of political science, but the point is that negotiations and dialogue cannot simply start on their own once a conflict is identified. All sides must approach from a position of humility seeking to find the best solution for shared life. And dialogue cannot stop, either; no society is static and it would be a grave error to assume that just because one problem has been ironed out that no others would appear. The lines of cultural communication must stay open.

As part of the attitude of mutual respect necessary to making these kinds of cultural negotiations work, all sides must commit to making positive arguments for their position instead of attacking the other points of view. It is important that each side make a compelling case explaining to the other why keeping things the same or changing them is important. Minority spokespeople must frame the question from the point of view of the majority, while the majority must seek to present its position from a perspective germane to the minority. All parties to the negotiations must admit when they have made mistakes, and must demonstrate that they are working in good faith to correct those errors.

Sometimes these negotiations will be a rousing success and the majority society will reflect upon itself and make a change; sometimes a change may need to be forced upon a majority society; other times the majority society may decide in good faith that no change need be made and no concession granted; and other times a minority may suffer an outright defeat and have to bide its time until public opinion has changed to be more favorable. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a good example of the first, Brown v. Board of Education a superb example of the second. In some Scandinavian countries Jews and Muslims have accepted restrictions to their ability to slaughter meat in halal and kosher fashions due to the prevailing sentiment of the majority. In the United States, some have suggested that eventual nationwide extension of marriage equality is just a matter of time and demographics, meaning that gay right’s advocates should by no means keep quiet, but accept that the time is not just yet for their point to carry the day.

By no means is a multicultural approach a panacea to ethnic conflict; the whole thing is contingent upon so many other factors as to make reliance solely on it impossible. The migration encouraged by the modern economy makes multiculturalism at least one method in which to confront cultural clashes, and perhaps the best one out there. By using this tool, “conflict” is channeled into the sphere of public policy and debated. Baumeister points out that at least in liberal societies all policy is the result of antagonistic forces in the first place, making disputes like this familiar and manageable. Those hoping to solve problems of ethnic conflict within cultures, both in and outside the industrialized nations, have to address several things at once in order to assure that conflict resolution is able to occur. This will involve significant amounts of time spent laying the foundations for peaceful results, and ensuring that all involved will come away from the situation satisfied.


5 Responses to “The Applicability of Multiculturalism”

  1. Katie said

    “The unicorn of political science.” Nice. hahaha

  2. Mom said

    Very well thought-out and written. What did your professsor think about it? I believe that Dr. McKenzie would appreciate your points. Really, when it all comes down to the simplistic point, all people must learn to communicate. I’m not talking about speech class or learning to write effectively; I’m talking about relating to one another on an honest, heart-felt level, where trust may be born and relationships may be formed and nurtured. So, perhaps what I really mean is that all people must learn to nurture relationships. Not something we teach in school —- maybe that’s a start?

  3. Mom said

    Christopher, what is Sinn Fein MLA and DUP MLA and PSNI? As in, “The Mission invited two MLA’s, one from Sinn Fein, the other from the DUP, and the PSNI officer overseeing the Newtonards Road area of East Belfast.”

    Just don’t know what those acronyms mean.

    • christophermahlon said

      Sinn Fein is the Catholic political party.
      DUP stands for Democratic Unionist Party, the Protestant party.
      MLA means Member of the Legislative Assembly.
      PSNI means Police Service of Northern Ireland.

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