Much has been said about David Cameron’s recent speech on the failure of multiculturalism. Predictably the left have condemned what was said and rushed to the defence of the multicultural society. Trouble is there is a big difference between the realities of living in a society with various cultures and the concept of multiculturalism.
In the years of the New Labour governments multiculturalism was pushed to the fore along with the twin ideas of equality and diversity. Of course this was all part of the New Labour mantra of ‘everyone is middle class’ that really fooled no-one, especially the working class. The idea of class was subsumed under the banner of multiculturalism and diversity. The industry that sprung up to around these ideas giving workshops and training on ‘equality and diversity’ concentrated on race, gender, sexuality, disability, even religion, but class was left off the list. This is not surprising given that we live under an economic system that is based on inequality and class divisions. To include this would be to question the whole basis of inherent inequality of society and could have thrown up some awkward questions.
Meanwhile with 9/11, the invasion of Afghanistan and then Iraq the Labour Party found it could not depend on the votes of the Muslim community like it once could. Left wing political groups tried to fill the gap and we had the strange collaboration between atheist, Marxist parties and Muslim groups. This was bound to end in tears and it did.
What it did mean though is that the anti-racist and anti-war movements were compromised from the start by trying to accommodate within it those who had no regard for the wider issues of equality especially with regard to sex and sexuality.
The liberal and Marxist left began to be shut down those who raised questions about other cultures. A multicultural society was wanted but one where all cultures had to be respected and any criticisms were regarded as Eurocentric. The Labour Government, in an attempt to win back votes, included religious beliefs in its equality and diversity mantra.
This new orthodoxy argued for accepting that all cultures and ways of life were equally valid and that there is no one impartial or universal viewpoint from which the claims of all particular cultures can be rationally assessed. Different peoples and cultures have different values, beliefs and truths, each of which may be regarded as legitimate.
Yet this approach was logically flawed. If it is true that any perspective we adopt comes from a particular way of life and the historic practices that constitute it, then that must apply to the multiculturalist approach as well.
It is argued that different cultures and ways of life should be treated with equal respect. But how can we? To treat them with equal respect we have to be able to compare one with the other yet to do so, according to the multiculturalists, is to impose our viewpoint. The principle of difference cannot provide any standards that oblige us to respect the 'difference' of others. On what basis can they demand our respect or we demand theirs? It is very difficult to support respect for difference without appealing to some principles of equality or social justice.
The idea of equality arises from fact that humans are political creatures. As such we possess a capacity to create different cultures; but this does not mean that all cultures are equal. To replace the idea of the equality of human beings with the idea of the equality of cultures denies the possibility of any sort of social equality at all. It is a critical feature of human development that we have the capacity for social, moral and technological progress, for making ideas that are not simply different but also often better (though sometimes worse), than those of a previous generation or another culture.
The multiculturalists however want us to ignore the notion of change and development and replace it with the requirement to respect other cultures, no matter what, and to adapt our attitudes and arrangements so that the tradition they represent is encouraged rather than criticised.
So why should I be expected to show respect for any cultures whose views and arguments I consider reactionary and often despicable? Why should arrangements be made to fit in with the backward, misogynistic, homophobic claims that some religions make for example? Why shouldn’t I look towards a time when these cultures have vanished just as I’d look forward to the disappearance of capitalist, fascist and authoritarian societies? How am I supposed to give them my respect, without disrespecting my own views?
There is nothing inherently good in itself about diversity. It can be significant because it lets us compare and contrast different values, beliefs and lifestyles, make judgements upon them, and decide which are better and which worse. It allows us to engage in political dialogue and argue for a more universal set of values and beliefs that would allow true freedom and equality to flourish and so bear a diversity of lifestyles that do not violently contradict each other. The failure of multiculturalism is that it attempts to suppress dialogue and debate, and the making of value judgements, in the name of 'tolerance' and 'respect'. It does not really allow what is valuable about cultural diversity to flourish but encourages people to retreat into hardened positions of intolerance.
This of course brings us to the one overriding fact that the advocates of equality and diversity seem to have conveniently forgotten; we live in a capitalist society, which by its very nature is built and depends upon inequality. Economic equality is not considered relevant and worthy of questioning. Class is ignored as everyone is encouraged to identify with either their interest group, their ‘community’ be that their ethnic background, their sexual orientation or whatever.
Cameron’s attack multiculturalism can be seen as a cynical attempt to win back support from the racist right to cover the attacks being made on our basic services and to try and nullify the economic mess the Tory Government are getting us into. It is the old ‘divide and rule’ card that has worked in the past is able to be played again due to the liberals and the lefts obsession with multiculturalism.
New Labour tried to set up some sort of code of ‘Britishness’ now the Tories and putting forward their, more jingoistic, version. Yet it ignores that we have always have had different cultures in this country. The middle class and the aristocracy have always had different ways of doing things and those, in turn, have been different to the working class cultural experience. Cultures develop and change under pressure from various influences.
A multicultural society is a welcome reality; multiculturalism is an abstract idea that does not work because it denies the political and social reality. Diversity means recognising that we are all different but recognising we need to have certain things in common. Equality means reaffirming those underlying principles that cannot be compromised. We must not accommodate the State’s notion of diversity, capitalism’s bastardisation of equality or the rehashing of the idea of ‘Britishness’. Working class people of whatever cultural background share common problems of exploitation as well as discrimination along the lines of race, gender, disability, sexual orientation.