The MercatorNet IdeaFest Burying multiculturalism

To be tolerant of others is admirable, but in our “post-virtue” era tolerance has become an end in itself. Ever since the ideals of our Judeao-Christian heritage were first enunciated we have repeatedly fallen short in how we have treated the “other”. We have compounded this failure more recently by re-interpreting those ideals in ways which make it difficult for many to fully appreciate our shared humanity.

Many are the deficiencies and inconsistencies of the West. By the 19th century, rationalisations of Western racial superiority were common. Peoples from radically different cultures like Australian aborigines were sometimes viewed as sub-human. In some instances, this even stemmed from a distorted interpretation of Christian teaching, resulting in institutionalised forms of racism such as the “White Australia” policy, South Africa’s apartheid regime and the horrors of Nazi Germany. In fact, most societies had their marginalised “other” communities which were treated as second-class citizens, despite high-minded constitutional aspirations “to cherish our children equally”. More recently the challenge of not diminishing our humanity by not diminishing the inalienable rights of others has arisen particularly in relation to immigration.

By 2006 much progress had been made on the basis of “multiculturalism”, an approach which aspires to allow for some flowering of cultural differences within countries with large immigrant populations. Multiculturalism took over from the “assimilationism” of an earlier period, which sought cultural uniformity between immigrants and their adopted countries.

In 2006, however, multiculturalism is in crisis. This is partly because it is a policy constructed on weak post-modern, relativistic pillars which emphasise tolerance as an end in itself. In practice this means standing for everyone’s right to be different in fairly petty ways, without specifying how they should be the same in very important ways. Girls’ right to wear head scarves is affirmed, and girls’ right to marry whom they choose is ignored.

In a recent speech to the Australian Parliament, Tony Blair spoke of humanity’s common ownership of universal values such as justice and fairness and noted the growing threat of Islamist extremism. But we also face the more insidious undermining of long-cherished values by intellectuals who have developed a strange loathing of their own heritage. Under the umbrella of “multiculturalism” also shelter supporters of formerly objectionable lifestyles, notably gays and lesbians. The dogma of multiculturalism has shown itself to be incapable of distinguishing between social norms and social customs to the exasperation of many voters. It seems absurd to equate the right to serve chicken tikka masala with the right to teach school children about contraceptives and gay lifestyles.

So, despite apparent progress, multiculturalism is unlikely to provide a solid basis for constructing a more just society in 2036. The strain is already showing in growing racial and cultural tensions in the larger European cities. My prediction is that government-endorsed multiculturalism will be extinct in 30 years’ time. What will replace it as the political cement for increasingly diverse Western societies is harder to pick. Growing hostility towards Muslims does not auger well. At the worst, it could be a resurgence of 19th century racial discrimination and disenfranchisement.

But we can hope for better than this, thanks to growing levels of interconnectivity through media like the internet, growing literacy and so on. The world in 2036 is likely to be more urbanised and more globally integrated, with significant clusters of highly skilled people from many different countries making significant contributions to the older and more established core regions of the world. This greater mixing of peoples will also foster a greater homogenisation of society.

While there are many reasons to encourage the preservation of humanity's varied cultures, it is vital also to create a society which emphasises our common humanity. The multicultural model, while being well-intentioned, has not been particularly successful in creating a coherent approach towards solidifying the common good. Much can be gained from building social policy on the foundations of the best of our Judaeo-Christian background which emphasises the fundamental values of fairness, justice and respect.

Seamus Grimes is a professor of geography at the National University of Ireland in Galway.


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  • Seamus Grimes