David Cameron, multiculturalism, authoritarianism

Last Saturday, David Cameron gave a speech at a security conference in Germany in which he tried to explain what he believes to be the reasons behind the rise of ‘home-grown’ terrorism, and the steps that should be taken to eradicate it.  The parts of his speech that made headlines were his criticisms of multiculturalism, and in particular his assertion that it has ‘failed’.  Cb, over at Fighting Monsters, has already written a brilliant post dissecting the speech, and pointing out many ways that Cameron is wrong.  You really should go and read it, because compared to that detailed, insightful post, this is really just going to be a quick hit focussing on a couple of things.

So let’s start with the criticisms of multiculturalism.  This is what Mr Cameron has to say about multiculturalism (all quotations are taken from the New Statesman’s text of the speech).

Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream.

So, did you notice the subtle but explicit emphasis?  There are ‘different cultures’, and there is ‘the mainstream’; problems have arisen because these ‘cultures’ have been encouraged to be ‘separate’, but ‘the mainstream’ is not identified as one of those unjustifiably ‘separate’ cultures.  In other words, any and all problems of social integration are the fault of the ‘different cultures’, who have failed to assimilate themselves into ‘the mainstream’.  There is no acknowledgement here (and little more elsewhere in the speech) that ‘the mainstream’ is just another ‘different culture’, and one that, by arrogance and inhospitality, may have contributed to the problems of ‘separation’.  Assimilation and integration are something they (the non-mainstream, the others) have to do in order to fit in with us, so if they don’t fit in it must be their fault.  It’s not partly our fault for being hostile and condescending and aggressive, and creating an environment in which other people, no matter how hard they try to become like us, will always be thought of as the less than us, the not really us. You know, like happens in all those newspaper stories that use the word ‘British’ to mean white (and no matter that some of the people excluded may be multi-generational Britons).*

But now let’s take a look at Mr Cameron’s bold new vision for what should replace ‘failed’ multiculturalism.

I […] believe we should encourage meaningful and active participation in society […].  That way common purpose can be formed, as people come together and work together in their neighbourhoods.  It will also help to build stronger pride in local identity, so people feel free to say yes, I am a Muslim, I am a Hindu, I am a Christian but I am also a Londoner or a Berliner, too.  It’s that identity – that feeling of belonging in our countries that is the key to achieving true cohesion.

[I’ve resisted the urge to correct the punctuation.  Missing speech marks, commas inserted where they’re superfluous  and omitted where they’re necessary, the start of a sub clause marked with a hyphen but no matching hyphen to indicate where it ends: is this what they teach at Eton and Oxford?]

Well, you know what, Prime Minister, there’s actually already a name for the happy state of affairs you’ve described here: it’s called multiculturalism.  Yes, that’s right, the ‘doctrine’ you’ve just accused of failing.

I don’t know where Cameron gets his information about multiculturalism – Richard Littlejohn articles? – but he’s entirely wrong if he thinks multiculturalism is about keeping different cultures separate.  On the contrary, multiculturalism is precisely about combining the strands of different cultures into a single social fabric.  Without multiculturalism, it wouldn’t be possible to say that one was a Muslim and a Londoner, because the two terms would be seen as mutually exclusive; one could be either a Londoner, or a Muslim, but never both.  It’s multiculturalism that enables the creation of hybrid identities, that makes it possible for people to think of themselves as simultaneously English and British, or as a British Asian.  The situation Cameron is decrying – what you might call the ‘you in your small corner and I in mine’ approach to cultural relations – isn’t multiculturalism.  It’s parallel monoculturalism, a situation in which a number of separate cultures exist side by side without ever mingling, or having any but the most superficial contact (“I can’t be racist – I love curry!”).

There are certain times and places when Britain has created the conditions for parallel monoculturalism to prosper at the expense of multiculturalism.  As I’ve already suggested, the attitude of the majority culture is a significant problem, and one that commentators from within the majority culture often tend to underplay, but it’s not the only one.  I tend to agree with Cameron (now there’s some words I never thought I’d type…) when he identifies that well-meaning liberals can unintentionally contribute to the problem when they tolerate words and actions from the presumed ‘representatives’ of minority cultures that would be instantly condemned if they came from a member of the cultural majority.

This is, in fact, one of the things that most winds me up, partly because it’s based on a fairly offensive paternalistic attitude: “Oh, well, we can’t expect them to share our enlightened views; they aren’t really like us”.  I recognise that this attitude (which I guess you could call an aspect of cultural relativism) is motivated by a sincere wish to be tolerant, but it’s actually just another way of underlining and emphasising the differences between them and us, and as such it’s an impediment to the development of a multicultural society.  It’s also wrong-headed because it’s based on the assumption that other cultures are monolithic and homogenous, and that the ultra-conservatives who position themselves as the public representatives of their community speak on behalf of everyone.  Needless to say this is no more accurate than assuming that, because he had the naked effrontery to call his tin-pot pressure group Christian Voice, Stephen Green speaks on behalf of the majority of Christians when he asserts that a man can never be guilty of raping his wife.  In both cases, the presumed ‘representatives’ are representative only of themselves and a small group of like-minded conservatives, while majority opinion is far more liberal.

It’s for this reason that I find myself cautiously in agreement with David Cameron (there’re those words again…) when he suggests that a more nuanced approach to engagement with Muslim communities might be called for.

Some organisations that seek to present themselves as a gateway to the Muslim community […] do little to combat extremism. […] So let’s properly judge these organisations: Do they believe in universal human rights – including for women and people of other faiths?

My agreement is cautious because, while I agree with what Cameron explicitly states here – I share his distaste for the idea that a religiously motivated bigot should be considered a ‘moderate’ because he thinks women who have sex outside marriage should be imprisoned rather than stoned – I think this approach can go awry quite quickly.  For example, elsewhere in his speech Cameron calls for a ‘muscular liberalism’, which to my ears sounds worryingly like a suggestion that our ideas should be imposed by force.  I endorse Cameron’s comments only in the sense that we shouldn’t fall into the trap of assuming that all members of a minority culture share the views expressed on their behalf (and without their consent) by self-appointed ‘representatives’.  Instead, we should take a more sophisticated approach, and identify those elements within a minority culture that profess more liberal views, and work with them to isolate the few in their midst who take extremist positions.

In other words, it’s not a question of us demanding or compelling their agreement with our values.  It’s about people from different cultural backgrounds within our single society recognising that, despite our different cultural backgrounds, we already hold certain values in common.  This is, so far as I can tell from this speech, the vision that David Cameron has for an integrated society, and the great irony is that, whether he realises it or not, he’s dependent on multiculturalism to achieve it.

It seems, then, that when Cameron speaks out against multiculturalism, he may actually contribute to the problems he wants to resolve.  As evidence for this, consider the fact that last Saturday, at more or less the same moment that Mr Cameron was making his speech in Germany, a pair of demonstrations were taking place in the UK, in Luton.  The people who participated in one of those demonstrations are interested in promoting dialogue, peaceful coexistence and a sense of shared identity between people from different cultural backgrounds, while the participants in the other seek the forceful, even violent, domination of one cultural group over another.  From the tenor of Cameron’s speech you’d expect him to be all in favour of one of those demonstrations, and determinedly opposed to the other.  So, all in all, it’s rather a shame that the multiculturalist demonstrators who come closest to Mr Cameron’s views went home with the idea that he had spoken out against them, while the monoculturalist demonstrators who Cameron seems most obviously opposed to went home with the idea that the Prime Minister had endorsed their view.

A shame, but not altogether a surprise.  It’s clear from reading the speech as a whole that David Cameron is actually an advocate of multiculturalism, despite his claims to the contrary.  His wish for people to think of themselves as Muslim or Christian, but also as Londoners, is, as I’ve said, a wish for them to have a multicultural sense of their own identity.  Now it’s just about possible, I suppose, that Cameron is genuinely confused, and lacks the intellectual acuity to recognise that he is arguing for and against the same idea in the same speech, although I tend to think not.  Far more likely, I think, is that Cameron chose to reject the word multiculturalism, even while advocating the principle, for political reasons.  I’d guess that he judged – correctly, as it would appear – that the media would go big on his stated rejection of the word, and wouldn’t get as far as reporting the full substance of his remarks, and that this would provide him with an opportunity to curry favour with the hard right of the Conservative party.

One last thing before I wrap this post up.  In addition to the clandestine support for the principles of multiculturalism, Cameron also used this speech to speak in warmly approving terms of the things that ‘a genuinely liberal country’, such as the UK, believes in.

It believes in certain values and actively promotes them.  Freedom of speech.  Freedom of worship.  Democracy.  The rule of law.  Equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality.

Do you think anyone pointed out to the Prime Minister that there are Conservative MPs (and even more grassroots supporters) who don’t believe in equal rights for gay people, and who would certainly not wish to be involved in ‘actively promoting’ them?  Actually, while we’re on this subject, David Cameron’s own voting record on gay issues suggests he thinks – or certainly thought, as recently as 2008 – that rights open to heterosexuals should be denied to homosexuals, which rather begs the question of whether he, himself, would pass the test he sets ‘extremists’ in this speech: ‘Do they believe in universal human rights […]?’

It’s almost as though – isn’t it? – there’s one rule for those nasty extremists (you know, them), but a different one entirely for him and his friends, colleagues, and supporters.  It’s almost as though David Cameron is happy to use their opposition to gay rights as a means of demonising Muslim extremists, but when it comes to actually implementing gay rights, or speaking up in favour of them, suddenly the clear moral certainties evaporate, and he’s full of equivocation and evasion and talk of ‘issues of conscience’.

Well, you know what?  I resent that.  I resent that the Prime Minister is suddenly professing ‘active support’ for gay rights, not because he sincerely believes in them, but because he’s using the pretence of support as a means of draping himself in a cloak of faux liberalism.  As someone who’s been actively involved in the campaign for gay rights for getting on for 20 years (man, I’m getting old…), I resent the implication by Mr Cameron that my right to live my life openly and the rights of Muslims to express and profess their beliefs are antithetical.  I resent the suggestion that, because I seek equal rights for gay people, I am prepared to acquiesce in the demonisation of other minorities, in the limitation of their rights to freedom of thought and freedom of expression.  I reject the implicit assertion that we are currently engaged in a struggle between ‘Western civilisation’ and ‘Eastern barbarism’, and that we can only preserve our way of life by limiting the rights of others to live and think and speak as they choose.

I resent and reject all this because it’s simply not true.  I see the campaign for human rights as a single, indivisible thing; I believe that I will only be truly free when everyone is free.  Yes, sure, I have more of a personal stake in some parts of the campaign than others, and I focus my attention accordingly – that’s just human nature, I think.  But that’s not to say I think my rights are more important than someone else’s, or that they can only be achieved at the expense of someone else’s.  I just don’t buy into the idea that Muslims, those supposedly evil, scary others, want to kill me or convert me to heterosexuality.

Sure, some Muslims do, but so do some atheists, and some Christians, and some Buddhists, and some Jews, and some Hindus, and some – well, you get the idea.  It’s just wrong headed to think of the struggle for universal human rights as the struggle between rival cultures.  It stands to simple logic that, given a free choice, gay Muslims don’t want gay people to be put to death, and that female Muslims don’t believe women should be kept in ill-educated servitude to men: if they did, they’d be rejecting their own wellbeing.  And it’s also the case, of course, that Muslims who are not directly affected can be opposed to oppression and inequality for reasons of justice and compassion, just as non-Muslims can.

But what about those weasel words in the last paragraph: given a free choice?  Isn’t it the case that theocratic Islamic states frequently (even routinely) deny their subjects a free choice, and even try to prevent them from realising that such a thing as a free choice is possible?  Well, yes, it is.  I have no problem putting on record my profound opposition to theocracy, and that holds true whether it’s Islamic theocracy, or Christian theocracy, or Buddhist theocracy.  It’s an appalling form of government, whatever the religious affiliation of the ruling clerics, but it’s an appalling form of government not primarily because it’s religious, but because it’s ultra-authoritarian.  The problem is with governments that seek to micromanage the lives of their citizens, and particularly with those that try to control personal behaviour and beliefs that have no impact on anyone else.

There are reasons to resist theocratic rule, of course – just as there are reasons to resist any form of authoritarian rule (like all the measures brought in to counter the Islamist ‘threat’) – but that doesn’t translate into a reason to fear Muslims, or to seek to control their freedom of thought and freedom of worship.  The small minority of Muslims who want the establishment of sharia law in the UK, and the small minority of far-right protestors who respond by trying to oppress Muslims, are simply two sides of the same authoritarian coin.  Both, ultimately, want the same thing – not the freedom to live as they choose, but the ‘right’ to tell others how they must live.

It’s for this reason that I’m such a passionate advocate of multiculturalism.  Real multiculturalism – the kind that that encourages dialogue and discussion, that stimulates people to grow together and intermingle, to the point that apparently intractable cultural divides simply evaporate – is the best way there is of fighting authoritarianism, and all the wrong and wasted opportunity that flows from it.

Of course, a system of thought that encourages people to focus on what unites them, not what divides them, is a fundamental threat to the existing order.  If we were ever to recognise that we don’t need authority to keep us safe from an ever-changing but ever-present other, then the case for authoritarianism would crumble.  This would, of course, lead to the collapse of all the opportunities for unfair advantage and inequality that the authoritarian system institutionalises, so, all things considered, it’s perhaps not a surprise that politicians like Mr Cameron have an uncomfortable relationship with multiculturalism.

And on that note, I’m going to go and start humming ‘The Internationale’ (as updated by Billy Bragg) quietly to myself.  Do join in, if you’d like…

* – I should perhaps make it clear that I don’t subscribe to the views I attribute to us; and I don’t anticipate the majority of people reading this will either.  I also recognise that some people reading this will be from one of the groups classed as them.  I’m using both words as generic terms, as a way of engaging with, but not endorsing, the them and us rhetoric that is often used in discussions of cultural identity, and which is evoked in Cameron’s speech.

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3 Responses to David Cameron, multiculturalism, authoritarianism

  1. cb says:

    Unsurprisingly, I agree with you. Cameron has painted a picture of ‘multiculturalism’ which does not fit with the reality that I experience and understand. He seems to be keen, in many ways, of pushing the ‘divide and rule’ agenda beloved of the Daily Mail in many different areas – culture, religion and also people who are dependent on benefits.
    I’m also humming away to The Internationale..

  2. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Hi cb, and thanks for commenting. :o)

  3. Pingback: Michael Gove thinks memorisation is crucial to education, but why? | Aethelread the Unread

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