Translating difference: a debate about multiculturalism

Martin Rose Caspar Melville
30 June 2004

A joint openDemocracy /       
  British Council debate           

Humans are not the same. But to survive we need to cooperate, to organise, to establish connections that will help us prosper. Humankind has conventionally expressed its alliances in terms of greater or lesser similarity. The cultures, societies, and nations that have emerged in human history rely still on this principle of similarity; people bond together, and implicitly separate themselves from “others” through proximity, physical affinity, shared challenges and threats, and the connective tissue of the customs, rituals and stories they tell each other.

Hugh Brody’s work offers a fresh, utterly “local” yet profoundly universal mapping of the historical and contemporary border between hunter-gatherer and farmer – one that builds into an interpretative vision of a civilisational malaise. See his remarkable openDemocracy column “From the edge”.

One way of describing these groupings, and the symbolic ways in which they are articulated is the word “culture”. In making our culture, we simultaneously make others strange, alien, potentially threatening: we make others the Other. This forming of alliances, the creation of units from the gang to the state, carries always the potential for different forms of conflict and recognition.

The strange career of a word

One tendency of cultures, especially dominant ones, has been to claim a homogeneity, coherence and uniformity that on closer inspection often proves to be more imagined than real. At one time, such a claim could cast itself as trans-generational fact. “We” – that complex, coded, layered, sometimes comforting but often toxic little word – have lived here for centuries, “we” are of this soil; over there, well, “there be monsters”.

In the flux of arriving modernity – as travel, transport, communications and education got cultures on the move, and people began to throng the cities - the fiction became harder to sustain. People made the entire globe their horizon of possibility, moving outward – in imperial conquest and the search for a new (world) life – and eventually inward, back into the urban centres of former empires. The “we” and the “others” can no longer be separated.

These processes of movement – of “people flow” in the formulation that openDemocracy has used and explored over the past year – has led to shifts of language and sensibility too. Amidst the complexities of sameness and difference in the new urban space – where membership of a given group offers no necessary sense of belonging, where the stranger is as much a promise as a threat, where the prospect of liberation from compulsory group membership became one of the most powerful forces of contemporary life – arose a new vocabulary.

How is migration changing Europe? How do fears of asylum-seekers work? Is “managed migration” or open borders the answer? openDemocracy, in collaboration with Demos, explores Europe’s next fifty years in our People Flow debate.

At the same time, many of those seeking a new life in the city found themselves enmeshed again in the rigidities of belonging, and confined (through racism and ethnic prejudice) in representation. It is into this world – the world of the cosmopolitan city, the place of threat and promise, of liberation and entrapment – that the word “multiculturalism” emerges.

Multiculturalism emerged as an idea and a policy in the 1960s, predominantly in the post-colonial “Anglo” world – Canada, Australia, Britain and America. The initial focus was on rewriting the national narrative to include the formerly excluded – those people, like the Aborigines and native Americans, who were so clearly “of” the nation (as land mass, and – however suppressed or evaded – as history) but whose presence had been ignored or actively expunged from the living national culture.

In Canada and Australia the emphasis of multicultural policy of this period is on language education, restitutive history and “rights” (including land rights). The term had a different inflection in Europe, and in particular in Britain, where the “children of the empire” had since 1948 been “returning” to the “mother country”, and thus – subtly and profoundly – altering the racial, ethnic and religious make-up of the city.

London had always been heterogeneous but the slow, inexorable work of integration, and the workings of a strong national narrative which asserted a common white European heritage in Greek antiquity conspired to make the more obvious racial difference of Indians, Afro-Caribbeans and Africans stand out and become a spark for political conflict.

In the “United Kingdom”, then – itself always a multinational state – multiculturalism came to describe both the problems and the promises of living in a post-colonial mix.

The experience of the multinational, multicultural state of the United Kingdom generates distinct perspectives on migration, asylum, and “difference”; see openDemocracy’s combative debate between David Blunkett, Trevor Phillips, Bob Rowthorn and Ben Page.

This is one version of multiculturalism that we live with – a policy by which the state affects political accommodation of minority cultures. In this definition multicultural policy seeks to address the legacy of colonialism and conquest, its is a rethinking by the state of the composition of its nation, a concession that national institutions and narratives need to reckon with the populations until then excluded from national stories.

But another, more assertive form of multiculturalism emerged within radical academia and in political discourse of the 1960s and 1970s. Emboldened and supported by the rise and success of “identity politics” – black power feminism, gay pride – multicultural politics launched a sustained critique of the supposedly colour-blind, culture-neutral universal concepts on which especially western cultures based their sense of superiority.

Equality, citizenship, truth and beauty far from universal standards, it was argued, are in fact deeply ethnocentric; enfolded in ideologies of cultural and racial superiority that underpinned the expansion of empire as a civilising project. This form of multiculturalism is intimately linked with anti-racism and with the emergence of a sophisticated, if often arcane, “politics of difference” which takes as its target the way that certain particularisms of race and culture have been taken up and promoted as trans-historical universal values.

The stakes in this debate have been sharply raised with the fall of the communist world and the attacks of 9/11. In Europe, a slew of ethnic and religious particularisms, long repressed, rose up – often with disastrous consequences. In the United States, Samuel Huntington’s characterisation of the post-cold war era as a “clash of civilisations”, one hovering between prescience and prejudice, gained popular credence. As France bans the wearing of the hijab in schools, racialised violence breaks out in several northern English towns, Denmark tightens its rules on immigration, and as suspicion of Muslims grows across “the west”, multiculturalism appears in retreat.

Why did France decide to ban the wearing of religious apparel in schools? Patrick Weil, a member of the presidential commission that made the recommendation, explains its thinking in openDemocracy; Svend White, an American Muslim, and Johannes Willms offer other perspectives.

The far right, with its message of racial and national purity, was already on the march across Europe before 9/11; but now it seems the fears it lives by exploiting are spreading, and that multiculturalism is part of the collateral damage. The emergence of religious terrorism has contributed to a sense that multiculturalism is to blame – for weakening the self-confidence of the west, allowing the enemy to emerge within, fragmenting the nation.

From different sides of the political spectrum comes a message: “we” need to reunify “our” nations, reassert belief in “our” national cultures, protect “our” welfare states from the overstretch that supposedly comes with immigration, and renew “our” battle with other cultures that are intent on “our” destruction.

Multiculturalism so the argument runs, was a failed experiment, what are needed now are new, or redefined, universals.

The recent debate in the United Kingdom triggered by Prospect editor David Goodhart, a leading figure among New Labour intellectuals who argues that multiculturalism has failed, is just one stream in this growing current. The ideologies of assimilation and integration, once thought to have been effectively undermined by the critiques of the 1970s and 1980s, are returning in new guise. The liberal left in Britain can be pardoned for echoing a bemused comment once attributed to the editor of New York’s Partisan Review: these ideas are so old that I’ve forgotten the arguments against them.

In Holland, another post-imperial country, but one more self-consciously proud of its liberal, welcoming attitude to immigrants, voices call for migrants to be grateful, and to assimilate to Dutch culture, are drowning out the voices of cultural diversity. Simultaneously new strains of “militant multiculturalism”, such as that espoused by the charismatic leader of the Arab European League in Antwerp, Dyad Abou Jahjah, who asserts his right to be both Arab and European, are further polarising the debate.

openDemocracy writers from Denmark, the Netherlands, Australia, Italy, Belgium, Romania and Hungary examine how shifting attitudes to outsiders are impacting on politics; see our Rise of the new right debate.

It is into this contested terrain that our new debate on multiculturalism walks, with - we hope - our eyes wide open.

What kind of debate?

After more than thirty years of discussion, controversy, policy initiatives and national crises of identity, how can we debate this issue today?

We could approach the issue from a philosophical perspective – the particular against the universal. Does multiculturalism lead inevitably to cultural relativism; what about the universal standards of human rights, dignity, justice; what might an emphasis on what humanity shares – something Paul Gilroy has called “planetary humanism” – look like?

Or we might take a political route – investigating versions of multicultural policy, programmes and guidelines, staging an argument between versions of the multicultural, in search of a new workable model. openDemocracy’s “people flow” debate, initiated with the London-based think-tank Demos with a pamphlet written by the Dutch civil servant Theo Veenkamp, pursued this approach.

We have chosen another starting-point. Multiculturalism is also a global phenomenon, and taking any solely national view, or colection of national views, can miss this dimension.

The work of Amy Chua, Richard Rorty, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Charles Taylor, Paul Gilroy, Will Kymlicka, Steven Lukes, Iris Marion Young, and Brian Barry is among the large body of scholarship investigating questions of citizenship, nationality, race, community, and coexistence raised in the age of global multiculturalism.

Multiculturalism exists between and beyond as well as within states. It’s the world, not just the nation, that’s multicultural. This debate asks what can we learn about multiculturalism from a global perspective; and from the “difference” that comes with different treatments of the subject – from academia, research, but above all from experience. We will seek to give a sense of the range and span of ways of being different, the proliferation of borders, frontiers, gates and fences around and through which we police difference, and across which people move – physically, psychologically, imaginatively – everyday.

The layers of difference

Many of the issues here have been discussed and debated in openDemocracy over the past two years: from the relationship between Europe and Islam, to the evolution of the European idea, to debates over the emergence of the far right and how to manage migration. This new debate builds on these and we hope you, the reader (and potential contributor, not least to our forums) use what we have published previously as a springboard into our debate.

openDemocracy’s Arts & Cultures theme combines imagination, polyphony, a distinct angle of vision, and international voices humming with life – from the stunning Hair and Shorelines features to poetry, film, short stories, and music. Multiculturalism, welcome!

“Translating difference” places experience, writing, arts and ideas at its centre. Though we will be publishing some pieces that are polemical, and everything we run will have a political dimension, we are interested in opening up this complex area in all its richness and complexity.

The debate, which will run for four months, will be three-dimensional: mapping the experience of being “at the borders”,

presenting articles on “the strange career of multiculturalism”, and a series of short pieces on language.

In all three strands, our intention is to open minds. We hope you will be stimulated to join us on this journey, tell us what you think, add your voice and experience, and join our growing community of global, democratic debate.

A time for collaboration

This debate is jointly hosted by openDemocracy and the British Council, organisations which share three vital qualities: we live by exploring the shifting territories of human experience in the 21st century, we are alike rooted in and committed to sustaining networks of imagination that span the world, and we do these through the global, multifarious medium of the English language(s) – that great, ambivalent contribution of an earlier era of “globalisation” to the world.

The British Council, celebrating its seventieth anniversary in 2004, has a long history of working at the borders of difference, articulating the changing relationships between the British state and its own multiple “home” territories, and the interests of the 110 countries where it has offices. From Kuala Lumpur to Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town to Rotterdam, the British Council is negotiating its own passage towards a new mutual model of independent cultural relations.

The Council observes and hosts passionate, illuminating discussions in Pristina, Rabat and Kano, Washington, Kiev and Copenhagen; everywhere – in an astounding range of voices and accents – we hear arguments about coexistence, harmony, intolerance and personal habits. Here and elsewhere, the Council is brokering dialogues where multiculturalism is neither problem nor answer but the very ground on which people around the world are learning to walk.

openDemocracy “stimulates creative international dialogue and builds understanding through access to free thought and informed debate”. Who says so? Well…we do. But see for yourself; access the site, register for our weekly emails, and – if you can afford to – subscribe and help us grow!

openDemocracy, the online global magazine of politics and culture in its fourth year of life is still inventing its own distinctive engagement with a world in transformation. With over 45,000 members from 155 countries, a core website hosts articles, debates, discussions and dialogues from across the spectrum of “left” and “right” that use new media as a vehicle for a global conversation among equals – one which actively seeks voices interested in crossing borders of geography and mind.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData