In defence of multiculturalism

Submitted by Daniel_Randall on 24 September, 2004 - 12:00

I agree with Paul Flewers that socialists should subject multiculturalism to a thoroughgoing critique. He has started us off with an ugly caricature showing the pitfalls of implementing multiculturalism in a corrupt world of decaying political standards and working class demoralisation.

To get a real critique, however, we must look also at the positive PR for multiculturalism. Is there anything laudable in the multiculturalism ambition? I say there is. Then additionally we might measure how the reality lives up to the ideal.

From the internet I have put together the bare bones of a history of multiculturalism.

And it doesn’t sound half-bad.

Its origins are in the biculturalism that was Canada’s official policy to deal with the tension between the English-speaking majority and French-speaking minority. Later, campaigners for the First Nations and Chinese immigrant communities asserted themselves, and from 1971 Canada adopted multiculturalism.

Here is some typical official Canadian PR for multiculturalism:

“Multiculturalism ensures that all citizens can keep their identities, can take pride in their ancestry and have a sense of belonging. Acceptance gives Canadians a feeling of security and self-confidence, making them more open to, and accepting of diverse cultures. The Canadian experience has shown that multiculturalism encourages racial and ethnic harmony and cross-cultural understanding, and discourages ghettoisation, hatred, discrimination and violence.

“Through multiculturalism, Canada recognises the potential of all Canadians, encouraging them to integrate into their society and take an active part in its social, cultural, economic and political affairs.”

The practice might fall far short of these high ideals, but I think these ideals as a model for societies where people with different “cultures” — what we mean by that, of course, is a huge debate — live together are reasonable.

Paul Flewers criticises multiculturalism from the left. We expect to find criticism from the worked-out ideological right: see what the website of the Ayn Rand Institute has to say, as an example.

The commonest criticism, however, comes in day-to-day life. It’s hard at first to know whether it comes from left or right, since it comes from the confused, unconsulted subjects of arrogant government bureaucrats, from those who almost certainly do have cause to feel aggrieved, even if the fault for this should not be laid at the door of multiculturalism.

Complaints such as: my child’s school no longer celebrates Christmas [usually meaning, privileging it in the school calendar], which is a shame.

People might go on from this, but don’t necessarily, to say in a bemused/hostile tone: and my child’s school celebrates Diwali, Ramadan, etc.

If multiculturalism were about depriving children of fun, dressing up in silly hats, sticking tinsel on everything, etc., then I too would oppose it. But it isn’t that. It is, in its best incarnation, an attempt to help all children of whatever cultural/religious background feel normal. To show that most cultures/religions — of course, there are exceptions — dress up in silly hats, stick tinsel on things, etc.

When I learned about Islam in primary school, that was good; when we prayed to the Christian God in assembly, that was bad.

Of course, one can make fair criticisms of multiculturalism in practice and even of its founding assumptions, but we must look in depth at this, not dismiss multiculturalism sweepingly. Or even dismiss it at all, I would argue.
Vicki Morris

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