Can Multiculturalism Work?

What is multiculturalism?  Here is something that I am for, and think is a positive thing, but a recent interview I listened to made me wonder if I was perhaps defining it differently than other people.  Not that I am necessarily wrong, but it is perhaps a term that easily lends itself to some interpretation.  Perhaps part of the reason is a definition of what we consider culture likely also varies from person to person.

The argument has come up many times in Europe and North America in response to the Syrian Refugee crisis that multiculturalism doesn’t work.   My father-in-law in Poland has even joined the parade of fear over refugees and said he’s against “multy-culty”.  Many Americans describe the U.S. as a melting pot and promote that as an important part of a successful nation.  But are we really a melting pot?  It’s clear when you look around there are plenty of cultures celebrating events that are important to them.  Whether it’s religious holidays, whether it’s going to the church or temple of their religion.  There are also plenty of restaurants catering to different ethnic cuisines.  We can see the evidence of different cultural norms among African-Americans and among Hispanic groups.

So, what is it that we are actually afraid of changing?  It seems that when most people say multiculturalism won’t work it’s targeting specific values that another culture holds, or is perceived to hold that is different than values held already in the country.  But since there are clearly many diverse cultural practices that go on already that don’t bother anybody is it reasonable to say something so broad like multiculturalism doesn’t work?  I don’t believe so.  That doesn’t mean that bringing in other cultures into your own society won’t have problems.  Part of the reason why the story of immigration keeps repeating itself with one generation of immigrants being criticized by the generations before is that we generally don’t trust what we really don’t know.  But we live in the age of information so there should be a bunch of stuff we do know.   So let’s take a look, and for a little bit, ignore the fact that often in these situations the experiential knowledge goes a lot further than book knowledge.

When it comes to refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan let’s face it, a large majority of these immigrants are going to be Muslims and fear of Islam is at a high today.  While extremism exists in every religion right now, a good portion of it is coming from Islam, so perhaps there is a good reason to have more fear, even if that fear compared to other things we have to fear in this world, are exaggerated.  Once again I don’t want to get into any No True Scotsman arguments, because we can say extremists are not truly followers of Islam, but they claim they are so let’s go with the idea that whatever religion people claim they are affiliated with that’s their religion.  It’s true to say that whatever small percentage of Muslims we bring into this country that are jihadists, the more immigrants we take, the numbers go up.  So I think this is always worth paying attention to since a society should always be aiming to reduce violent crime.  But for now let’s just throw away the extremist views and look at these societies in general.  We have very traditional values.  Women do not have equal rights in Islam.  They are expected to dress modestly because they are a temptation to men.  They try to protect their followers from information that would cast doubt or refute tenets of their religion.  Their governments do not have separation of church and state.  Islam has strong rewards for commitment to the religion and strong punishment for those who are apostates (both on this plane of existence and the other ones).  They have no tolerance for homosexuality.  Do any of these qualities sound familiar?  They should, they are the very similar attitudes held by a large portion of the religion right here in the U.S.  What’s very odd about it, is that the same people who have so much in common with all these potential new immigrants are the most against them coming in, and it’s the left that is happy to important such illiberal values into the U.S.

Now before you fight me on this, let it sink in a bit.  If this is the case, what’s going on.  Are we all very confused?  No, but perhaps we are a little confused.  First of all we shouldn’t expect two very similar religions to coexist happily.  It’s easy to see why to very conservative groups with slight variations on “The Truth” don’t want to share space.   It’s also not hard to see that Islam doesn’t have a high degree of tolerance towards free speech, something that many, if not most on the right, consider to be one of our most important values as an American. It is also isn’t difficult to understand why people on the left would be side with Muslim immigrants.  Certainly, when it comes to the refugees there is going to be a great deal of desire to reduce human suffering.  But let’s say, to a large degree many people, whether they support immigration or not, are moved my human suffering.  From an ideological point of view, we’d expect many people to be sensitive to the oppression they’ve endured at the hands of religious intolerance, racism, and misogyny. It’s not completely irrational, therefore, to be against allowing large groups of people that are experiencing oppression and suffering to be painted with a broad-brush stroke simply for being different.  We’re all too familiar with what happens when such attitudes persist in a society.  We know the harm that stereotyping can play and how it closes doors to meaningful conversations which can lead to an exchange of ideas and mutual understanding.  There is value in diversity and adding some might not be a bad idea.  This at least for me is at the heart of a multicultural society.

My concern is that we seemed to have reached a level of political correctness where it is not okay to criticize Islam, out of fear we will be supporting attitudes on the right.  And I would like to believe that there are many people on the right who might be similarly scared of expressing empathy to humanitarian crisis in the Middle East in case they are seen as supporting the left.  Identity politics is not helping.  We have to have some honest conversations about what we can tolerate in terms of diversity and multiculturalism.  As a liberal there are certain harmful views that I will not tolerate in any culture, and do not want to see them increasingly practiced in my country or any country.  Many of the Syrian refugees are very educated, which is helpful, but harmful cultural practices, particularly attitudes towards gender or sexual orientation are not dependent on the level of education.  It’s not unreasonable to be against importing illiberal values into our society, just as it is not unreasonable to be intolerant to illiberal values here.  It seems clear to me that multiculturalism is not impossible, but it does have limits and if you claim to be a liberal it’s of value for you to recognize that.  And on the right, the level of xenophobia and fear of terrorism is also highly disproportionate, dishonest and is not helpful to meaningful conversation.

I come from Canada and am proud to say that is one the few if not the last country that largely embraces multiculturalism, but this does not mean that we tolerate every cultural practice.  Canada can boast some of the most progressive imams in Islamic society who actively speak out against Islamic extremism.  I wonder if Canada’s inclusive attitude towards different cultures has anything to do with that?  And I am not under any illusions that racism or bigotry is absent in Canada.  It’s still a problem.  It takes time to solve such problems and I think Canada has made some impressive progress.  Growing up in Canada my view of multiculturalism was that you retain the best of your culture and adopt the best of Canada, and the nation simply gets better.  As someone who is biracial I never struggled about whether to consider myself Indian or white, I always just thought of myself as Canadian, because Canada recognized the value that other countries have brought with them to Canada.  To me, this is one of the principal differences between Canada and the U.S.  Canada definitely thinks we have some lessons for other cultures, but we are humble enough to recognize that maybe other cultures have something to teach us as while.  It seems to me that the U.S. has an attitude that it only needs to teach others, but has nothing to learn from them.  Such an attitude seems to be held by many Americans on the left and right because it seems to play out in identity politics as well.   Maybe, in the end, whether or not multiculturalism can work all depends how willing each culture is willing to listen and learn.  This is a value that we all need wherever we may live.

Banning religious practices – a bad idea

In the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis the anti-Muslim propaganda has been coming out strong. And my home country of Canada has been no exception. It is personally sad for me to see this, because one of the things I most value about growing up in Canada is its tolerance towards other cultures and its celebration of diversity. As a result of this tradition I think it is no surprise that Islam in Canada is more progressive than any other countries. This declaration made by the Canadian Council of Imams speaks volumes to what Islam means to Muslims living in Canada. And I am sure you can make arguments about passages in the Koran supporting violence towards non-believers, and I can answer back with as many in the Bible so let’s put that aside and simply say that in the march towards a more humane society religion must evolve even if it doesn’t dissolve.

Of course there is much that is troubling in terms of the practice of Islam worldwide. You can find countries where people are killed for simply expressing dissent against the Islamic government, committing blasphemy, committing adultery, being gay, etc. There are of course the acts of terrorism which seem at times unending and of course have impact European countries and the U.S. and a big way. And of course there is the oppression of women, which is horrible and profoundly sad that we still must contend with such disregard for the rights of 50% of the population in this day and age. Some Islamic apologists will argue that this is not the way of Islam, but that being said it is certainly part of the cultural practice in many Islamic countries and I don’t hear a lot of Muslim clerics or imams in those countries saying “Hey let the women go to school and drive, this isn’t what Islam is about!” There are perhaps a lot of reasons to be worried about extreme Islamic practices, and keep in mind that many of the things that we think are extreme such as the oppression of woman, is common place in some countries.

So the question becomes, what do we do about it? Even though most Muslims are not violent and never will be, they have some very unsettling practices that they think are justified according to their religion. Many of them are just as indoctrinated as any of the evangelical community here in the U.S. when it comes to their views on women, foreigners, homosexuals, blacks, etc. So there are some people everywhere who could use some enlightening and so how do we go about doing that? And can in happen sooner than later?

Let’s start by identifying what doesn’t work and that is the banning of religious practices. Though France has banned the burka or niqab, and Switzerland has banned minarets, these practices have not been shown to impact cultural shifts in Islam and have only served to alienate and discriminate portions of the Muslim population, not only in those countries, but have angered Muslims in other countries as well. Isolating and alienating religious communities only builds resentment and will only increase the danger from Islamic groups that the laws seek to avoid. This blog post does a very good job of laying out the argument and I don’t want to repeat too much of what is said here, but any laws restricting religious practices at best do nothing and at worst, make the conflate the problem with archaic religious practices.

If history has taught us anything it is that oppression of a religion is a bad idea if we want to actually stop it. Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world and Europe. At least some of that may be due to the attempts at suppression of religious practices. Anti-Christian laws during Roman rule shortly after the time of Jesus actually led to an even faster spread of Christianity throughout Europe and Asia. It’s human nature that once you start persecuting somebody or some people for what they believe it causes a lot of people to start to ask questions, especially those who don’t trust the government. What is so dangerous about these ideas?  Why should we fear them? In general we are compassionate people, and when we see people suffer by not having the freedom to practice their beliefs (regardless of whether such beliefs are just) we tend to side with them. The last thing we want is a lot of people being on the same side of some unjust ideas.

I know for many of my readers, you have gotten into some arguments with people who have strong beliefs. How did those discussions go? We often think the more brilliant and final are arguments are the more impactful we’ll be.  As I wrote before this tends to not work so well because of the “backfire effect” and so if it doesn’t work very well on an individual level, such things tend to not work so well at a group level either. If our western society is to have any superior morality it comes from practicing the values that we think our important. If freedom is one of them than freedom of religion must be part of what we embrace. Giving people the freedom to practice their religious beliefs is something we want, because if the state starts making laws to ban religious practices, there is nothing to stop them from banning yours if they see fit. By valuing freedom we set an example that as a society that we respect other people and want them to enjoy the same freedoms that we enjoy. And of course there are other important values we must practice to which is tolerance, equality, compassion, justice, etc, so that if religious practices don’t value you those things we can show them how well it can work. If we want such people to convinced of a better worldview and a better way to live, we need to show that our values leads to a greater empathy, less suffering, and an overall increase in happiness. No words or laws are going to convince people unless they are shown. Part of why they may believe what they believe is that they’ve been indoctrinated against other cultural practices and have never seen any other way of life work.

Racist, and not a particularly helpful solution to terrorism.

I believe if anything is going to erode fundamentalism from any religion it is by showing those people the effectiveness of the values that we hold most dear. It is about embracing those people while at the same time showing them diversity of thought and ideas. It is about offering them a high level of education for their children, to help them think critically about the ideas that have been indoctrinated into their culture. It is about being humble enough to recognize that even if there many values that we do not share, they may even have something to teach us. We say we want these people to respect the laws of our country and yet this seems like much to ask if we exclude and not include. So instead of memes that enhance Islamophobia, why not spread memes that empower those that are oppressed to take advantage of the freedoms they would have in our country? Why not merrily shout out what rights they game by coming here? Why not greet them as friends instead of treating them like the enemy?  It is likely that to truly raise the consciousness of many of those indoctrinated it will take the course of a couple generations as children are born into a freer and more equitable society.  So let’s those children also growing up seeing the compassion and tolerance their parents did not have the freedom to enjoy.

Maybe a more positive meme as a way to empower Muslim women

For my parents

Dear Mom and Dad,

Though you are divorced now, you are still my mom and dad and thus I address you together as the parents who raised me.  Of course with my own child on the way my mind has drifted many times to the type of parent I will be.  There are plenty of people who have advice for you when you tell them you are expecting a baby.  A lot of it is good advice, some of it seems strange.  Some advice I imagine might make more sense once the child is an entity outside the womb.  Ultimately you can never really know exactly how good any set of parents are without seeing them in action, and there are few parents that I have seen  as intimately as I have seen my own.  As I look back on who I was and who I am today, I am proud.  I think I was and still am a good person.  I hope that doesn’t sound egocentric to say, but I also know that I am by no means perfect.  I have made mistakes and still do, but I have learned well from them.   I have strength, compassion, love, and try to be humble (even if this doesn’t sound very humble right now).  It would be foolish to think that any of my qualities that I am most proud of are simply some genetic trait, even though I know that those things do help shape you.  Ultimately I know that it is my upbringing that has had the largest impact on who I am today.  I then ask myself, what is it that you did that made me into someone that I am proud of today, and that for the most part, have always made me feel free to be who I am?  What are the lessons that I must make sure to teach my son so that at the very least he can become the man I am, even though I hope that he will be even more than I can dream.  I am not sure I know the answer to this, because I think a lot of the answer is just working hard to be the person that I want my son to be.  So instead I am writing this letter so I can let you know what things you gave me that I am so thankful for and that I hope my son will also be thankful for.

I first wanted to thank you for the things you both gave me, which was extreme amount of dedication to providing me with a life you could not have.  You wanted better for me, and you worked so hard to get it.  I am probably not even remotely aware of all the things that you denied yourself so that you could give me something that I wanted.  You cut corners everywhere to save money for your brothers and sisters, your parents, and for your children.  You gave me my undergraduate education, you helped me even afterwards when I had unexpected large expenses.  Your kids always came first in some way or another and I am so grateful for that.  You always showed a tremendous amount of confidence in me.  You’ve trusted me.  You have never tried to interfere and make decisions for me and have let me make my own decisions. And if after I made mistakes you’ve always been there though to help pick me up.  Even now with a child on the way, a situation in which many parents become over involved you place so much confidence in me and it is a source of strength. You’ve also taught me great lessons in tolerance.  Through mutual respect of each other’s cultures and other ethnicities you have made me extremely respectful of people’s differences.  More importantly though you showed me that despite the color of skin or particular beliefs there is nothing to fear.  We all just want good company, a good meal, and to learn from one another.  You’ve taught me the value of togetherness.

I also wanted to thank you for valuing education.  Even though both of you did not have a lot of education post high school, you recognized its importance.  More importantly you taught me to love learning.  It would have been very easy to work your jobs knowing nothing more about the world than you already did, but you always enjoyed reading and learning more or watching documentaries, nature shows, playing scrabble, boggle, doing puzzles etc.  You both enjoyed learning more about the world and challenging your minds, and made me feel like it was natural to do so.  This in turn made me value all people a lot more.  Not many in this world have a Ph.D. and it is easy for the educated to turn up their noses at those who aren’t as educated, but you taught me the value of every job in this world and that having a job that doesn’t require much education doesn’t mean that you have to stop learning.  And you exposed me to so many good people from the places you worked and made me appreciate the goodness in people from all walks of life. You always saw the positive in what you did.  You always wanted to do your jobs well even if there was some other job you would have rather had in life.

There were also things unique to each of you that have meant so much to me and so Dad I will start with you.  There are two things that you always said to me that are so important.  “I just want you to be happy”.  It’s simple but so important.  These weren’t just words to you either, because you made them the truth by how you acted.  And I just want you to know that I do have happiness and so if my happiness is the thing you wanted the most for me, then you can say that you have successfully completed that mission.  Also, although I have just mentioned education there is one line that sticks out in my mind, “Don’t get grades for us.  Get good grades for yourself.”  You always reinforced this selfless notion and as a result, ironically, I wanted to make you guys proud of my success in school all the more.  But you made me recognize that letting yourself down is ultimately harder to overcome than letting down others.

I have already mentioned about your jobs, but I just wanted to make a specific mention about your job Dad as a machinist.  I can’t even count all the times you would come home and show Joni and I the new cuts on your fingers from shards of metal that would fly out at you while machining.  You worked your body hard and bled for us to have a better life.  I will always be thankful for that.  I have also already mention your appreciation for other cultures, but the stories of your travels always gave me a bigger sense of the world, and has made me feel like it is natural to go where the world takes you to try and make a better life for yourself.  You came a long way to make a life in Canada from India.  That journey is what made me, and that is wonderful story.  I also appreciate how you always wanted to take us to different ethnic restaurants because you have given me my love for good food.  But really what I value most about that is how you were always interested in experiencing the food of other cultures the way they experienced it, because you recognized that all of it is part of the cultural experience.  And your interest in learning about other cultures not only developed my interest, but seeing how happy you made people when they saw your genuine interest in who they are, made me realize that the world always gives back when you truly care about it.

Finally, the most important thing you gave me was the fact that you were affectionate and emotional.  A lot of fathers are not.  I have many memories of lying in bed with a cold or flu and you sitting at my bedside before going to work, putting your hand on my forehead and cheek and looking at me saying how much you wished your touch could take my sickness and give it to yourself.  That was so wonderful for me.  You also gave me many hugs and I remember many times lying on the couch together watching hockey games or movies together.  I don’t know if this is a lesson you intended on teaching me, but from you I learned tht there is nothing wrong with men showing love through affection regardless of gender.  Touches from men are often seen as sexual in our society and that’s simply not true.  Your feeling free to show your affection is also what let me know that you had a big heart.  Even though you didn’t share deep emotional feelings with me growing up, I knew you felt things intensely and could not help but show those emotions outwardly.  I am emotional too, and I am very proud of that aspect of myself.  So many men are distant towards their sons emotionally and affectionately.  You were never that way and I am a better man for it.

As I start writing the part of this letter to you, Mom, I find myself at a loss of words.  It’s not easy because when I think of you, what you have given me is harder to breakdown.  To say you weren’t also affectionate would be untrue, so I don’t want to minimize your outward displays of love but unlike Dad who I attribute what is outward and obvious about me, you are my inside.  You are my perseverance; you are my humility, and my compassion, you are the glue that holds me together when life throws things at you in an attempt to make you fall apart.  You were a safe harbor in a storm and a rock who kept shape against all the elements.  You were thoughtful, reflective, protective but without ever lying to me.  You were both honest and kind.  Although I don’t believe in the divinity of Christ, I admire who he was as a person, and I know of no one in this world who is more Christ-like than you.   All those things you gave me were not just words, but they were things you lived and still do today.  Even if we don’t share the same faith, you taught the value of faith.  Having faith that everything is going to be alright is because of you.  All of us fight and struggle, but you conquer, and it makes me always believe that I can conquer as well when I need to.   And all these amazing things about you and you still had all the boundless energy that mothers always seem to have.  For all the cleaning, laundry, sewing, cooking, helping with school projects, doing crafts, I mean the list goes on and on.  All this on top of going to job all day that wasn’t particularly stimulating.  You showed me that love is as much a function of space as it is of time.  When it comes to being a parent, I don’t know if I can compare to you.  I don’t know if I can be as amazing as you were and I’m honestly a bit scared, ut everything will work out.  I have faith.

I hope you will forgive me for posting this letter to you both publicly.  I do it in part to let people know where I come from.  I do it also to remember where I come from so that I might better see where I am headed next.  Most importantly I do it because I think you both were wonderful parents and that maybe there is nothing really magical about it all, it’s just hard work.  I wouldn’t trade you for anything in the world.  Nobody is perfect and you weren’t always perfect and that’s okay.  I don’t know if your jobs made you feel ordinary, but you will never be ordinary to me.  You both game me so much love and never asked anything in return.  The best way I know how to repay you is to give my child all the good things that you gave me.  I know you both live far away and won’t have the chance to spend as much time with your grandson as some other grandparents, but I promise you that my child will know you because of what you’ve given me.  I hope that I make you as proud of me as a parent as you’ve been proud of me thus far.  I love you both very much.