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.