Multiculturalism: Is It Racism?

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Special to Clarion Project by Terri Murray, Ph.D.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, Britain’s pro-Europe centre-left appeared to be prepared to sacrifice anything, including popular sovereignty, for their ostensibly anti-racist multiculturalism. Yet their brand of multiculturalism pits left-leaning liberals’ bedrock anti-racist sympathies against liberal democracy’s other core values (freedom of expression, equality, the rule of law, reason, the primacy of the individual and especially tolerance).

The current Trans-Atlantic political climate is one in which group identity outstrips individual choice, and the romantic idealization of vulnerable groups leaves no place for dissenting individuals within them.

In his book The Trojan Horse: a Leftist Critique of Multiculturalism in the West, Swedish sociologist Goran Adamson provides a definitive account of how the ideology of diversity that has shaped the younger generation’s political orientation has numerous similarities with social conservatism and neoliberalism and veers sharply off the traditional course of leftist politics.

No matter how essential reason, freedom and individuality are for democracy and civil rights, the pro-European left has tended to disassociate from these values the instant they come into conflict with the normative values of minority groups.


Sanitizing Troubelsome Aspects of Other Cultures

Troublesome aspects of other cultures are overlooked and sanitized in our enthusiasm to marvel at the beauty of the “other’s” cultural exoticism. With this perspective on other cultures, Adamson perceives a similarity to what George Orwell called “transferred nationalism,” which is a lot like right-wing nationalism, only here the cultural idealization is applied to others, to the extent that they are rendered unrealistically pure and good.

Orwell claimed this was “a way of receiving salvation without changing your conduct.” The word “culture” has always been the nationalist right’s watchword. Now it has been taken up by the left, but Adamson shows that it is nevertheless a reactionary ideology.

Adamson conducted a study for the EU to determine what methods would most effectively increase political participation and voting among immigrant groups in Europe. When a liberal social model was compared with a multicultural one, the empirical data suggested that pluralist multiculturalism’s “separate-but-equal” political organization proved less efficient than a liberal multicultural model where immigrants were invited into the pre-existing liberal political organization on equal terms.

People carry signs and placards during a commemorative march as Belgium marks the first anniversary of the twin Brussels attacks by Islamic extremists. (Photo: EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)

“Wrong” Results

Yet Adamson’s EU report was called into question when it started to produce the “wrong” results.

Adamson sees this as indicative of diversity’s normative ideological bent and cites another expert, Wolfgang Kowalsky, a policy advisor at the European Trade Union Confederation in Brussels (ETUC) and author of numerous books on European right-wing extremism, who claims that the methods and theories of the multicultural agenda setters are similar to the right-wing extremism they are attacking.   (See for instance Kowalsky and Schroeder, Right Wing Extremists and the German Left’s Mistaken Strategy, 1994.)

Experts and research data tend to be used and commissioned selectively and can be instrumental to political ends. The terms “diversity” and “multiculturalism” have been used interchangeably to refer to a regressive political project that is normative by nature: it is not about how things are but about how they ought to be.

From a truly leftist perspective, meritocracy is preferable to group rights, equality between men and women to patriarchy, the rule of law stands above “special interest groups,” empiricism above tradition or superstition and debate is preferable to censorship.


The Fetish of Ethnic Diversity

The multicultural ideology makes a fetish of ethnic diversity, while making intellectual pluralism irrelevant at best and downright verboten at worst, as the reaction to Brexit showed. Intellectual diversity is “color blind” (to use Martin Luther King’s classic phrase) while ethnic diversity obsesses on the color of one’s skin, not the content of one’s character.

Common human traits such as the capacity for abstract thinking, creativity and self-consciousness are excluded from the pluralist multiculturalists’ agenda, while bodily packaging is foregrounded in a way similar to racism.

In his native Sweden, Adamson has watched the unparalleled ideological influence of the diversity agenda in higher education merge with the state. Not surprisingly, the changes implemented at Sweden’s universities were the direct result of the Social Democratic government’s report titled Diversity at the University.


Exclusivity and Ethnicity

Yet, when asked why the report, at this particular juncture in history, required emphasis to be placed exclusively on ethnicity — to the exclusion of other types of diversity like class or gender — the only reason given was that “there are intricate reasons of global as well as national character as to why ethnicity of late has gained such a strong influence but this is nothing we shall discuss any further.”

Adamson argues that the multicultural image of the immigrant is not based on specific individuals and their basic human need for self-determination, but on “the immigrant” as an abstract type, a species or a race.

Thus racist implications loom large under the thin veil of the multiculturalist’s apparent anti-racism.

Diversity flickers between blind enthusiasm for the “other” and suffocating pity; the “other” is either inherently fascinating or a fragile victim. In the cases of both racism and “diversity” politics, we witness Westerners investing their hearts and souls into a caricature – both equally keen to separate “us” from “them.”


Racism and the Stranger as Other

Racism can only come about by making the stranger different from us, explains Adamson. Diversity too rests on the belief that the immigrant is different from us, and that his differences from us, not his human similarities to us, should be objects of celebration and adulation. The multiculturalist has abandoned Martin Luther King’s “color-blind society” and turned the historical civil rights movement’s liberal universalism and inclusivity into embarrassing forms of “cultural imperialism.”

Key planks in the pluralist multiculturalist agenda are value pluralism and moral relativism. This implies that moral beliefs that respect self-determination and authoritarian, theocratic or fundamentalist ideologies that do not are equally legitimate.

Accordingly, pluralist multiculturalists argue that no single belief system must be permitted to dominate. The didactic moral relativists who promote such a subjective understanding of “truth” nevertheless assume that their relativist view on the matter is correct, and objectively morally superior to that of their “Euroocentric” opponents.


The Irony of Moral Relativism and Multiculturalists

There is a deep irony in the multiculturalist’s constant moralizing over colonialism.  Since he believes that nothing is morally wrong except from the biased and insular perspective of one’s own culture, colonialism could only be “wrong” in some parochial, relative sense. The sanctimonious moral relativist claims that all moral judgments are relative or subjective, and then turns that claim into such a rigid orthodoxy that failure to conform to it becomes a mortal “sin.”

Consequently, taking any one political ideology, like liberalism (or indeed multiculturalism), too seriously is to commit some kind an abomination against “the other.” This resulted in the bizarre twist in which we saw pro-Europe, anti-racists accusing other liberal anti-racists of being too “Eurocentric” for failing to adhere to the moral relativist orthodoxy.


Uniqueness of European Liberalism

Yet what makes European liberalism unique, and different to its pre-Enlightenment rivals, is that it explicitly attempts to remove “master moralities” from the political sphere, acknowledging that all do not share common values or ideas about “the good life.”  Liberalism explicitly sets itself up as a neutral framework for the equal co-existence of multiple ideologies, rather than offering its own definition of the good life as a dominant ideology.

Liberalism has worked well to protect progress and inclusion precisely because it is structured as a container for a variety of individual “goals” and values, with the single requirement that all players adhere to rules of reciprocal tolerance and do not encroach upon the equal liberty of others.

This is not a content-laden ideology, so much as it is a rule of fair play governing the relationship between diverse ideologies within a state. This is why liberal multiculturalism protects real diversity so much better than the pluralist multiculturalism that has been foisted on Sweden and other EU countries. And in the economic sphere, where neoliberal regimes have seized power through undemocratic and illegal invasion and conquest, the perpetrators should be denounced not as proof of liberalism’s bankruptcy, but as an example of how it’s vaunted defenders deviated hypocritically from its principles.


British Multiculturalists and French Assimilationists

In their dread fear of fear becoming a tyrannous majority, British multiculturalists pour scorn on French assimilationist policies. Establishment centre-left multiculturalists actively counteract ambitions towards integration, assimilation and inclusion and rush to embrace the burkini or other symbols of cultural exoticism.

One might view their defense of the minority and their critique of a potentially oppressive majority culture as a matter of principle. But it isn’t, claims Adamson. They view “annihilation” of the “other” as an exclusively Western phenomenon, while dissenting minorities within ethnic groups need not be defended from their culture’s majority or from powerful authority figures within the ethnic community.

The multicultural agenda treats ethnic subcultures as homogeneous groups, as though individuals within them uniformly share a common identity defined solely by their common heritage or religion.  Thus, “annihilation” of “the other” is acceptable so long as the majority responsible for doing so is ethnic. We have to protect “their” difference from us, it seems, but never the ethnic dissident’s potential similarities with us when they assert their individuality or “difference” from their own cultural traditions.


How Multiculturalism Fails Ethnic Individuals

An excellent example of how multiculturalism fails ethnic individuals arose earlier this year when many ethnic minority women, survivors of female genital mutilation, expressed outrage at the Economist‘s leading article which suggested that governments should permit a medicalized form of FGM to continue as a concession to cultural traditions.

Ethnic minority women who have long campaigned to end the practice said the Economist‘s line had put their discussions “back by decades.”  Adamson’s book includes other examples, such as Tasleem Begum from Bradford, who after leaving her husband from a forced marriage was shot in the head by her brother-in-law. The brother-in-law’s sentence was commuted (no doubt by a sensitive multiculturalist judge) from murder to manslaughter on the grounds of “provocation” stemming from the shame Ms. Begum had brought on his family’s honor.


Cultural Diversity and Economic Diversity

Cultural diversity spills over into economic diversity, says Adamson, which explains why the idea of diversity has gained such a wide footing amongst neoliberals. Diversity is supposed to be confluent with internationalism but, in their well-meaning sympathy for immigrants, many left-leaning Europeans have forgotten that the very reason millions of refugees fled the Middle East—first Iraq, now Syria— are the invasions and imperial meddling of Britain, the United States, France, the European Union and NATO.

The sensibilities of politically-naïve anti-racists are too easily exploited by neoliberalism’s spin doctors. Millennials tend to combine a jaded cynicism (“yes, politicians are all corrupt. What’s new?”) with a complete lack of skepticism. In this climate, “racism” is a cynical political strategist’s dream concept. It conjures all the right psychological and emotional associations to move the masses in a single direction and, since racism must always be morally wrong, it makes anything associated with it guilty by association.


Fears of Xenophobic Politics

Anti-racists’ fear of far-right xenophobic politics, with its inflammatory tabloid rhetoric of “us” and “them” is legitimate. A principled approach to immigration that is anti-racist and just is needed, and we should not dismiss concerns over foreigners being subjected to bigotry and discrimination.

At the same time, the political and cultural impact of immigration and concerns about lack of integration need to be taken seriously. The Berlin-based expert on Turkey, Ralph Ghadban, warns that the Islam being preached in Turkish-controlled mosques in Europe is a “Sharia Islam with strong Turkish-nationalist overtones” that calls for a “strict separation from Western individualistic values.”

And with Vienna’s schools now filled by a majority of Muslim students while right-wing reactionaries are on the rise in Austria, we are witnessing a model for potential disaster that we have an opportunity to avoid, before the scourge of right-wing nationalism or the Islamist religious-right threaten to tear Europe apart.


Western Liberalism’s Collaborators

It is worth bearing in mind, as journalist John Pilger warned back in a 2012, that in the Middle East, from Nasser’s time to Syria today, western liberalism’s collaborators have been Islamists.  (See Pilger,  New Statesman, 7 – 13 September, 2012, p. 37, “The liberal way to run the world – ‘improve’ or we’ll kill you”)

Those zealous to embrace “the Muslim other” without distinction may unwittingly be facilitating global neoliberalism’s agenda.


Abandoning Traditional Liberal Principles

In their zeal to disassociate themselves from racism, young Britons have abandoned traditionally progressive liberal principles and have unwittingly embraced a form of multiculturalism that is deeply ideological and illiberal in its current form, but which could easily be made respectable with some key adjustments.

Adamson’s book is far more authentic in its anti-racism than the multicultural agenda it critiques. He provides a groundbreaking evaluation of pluralist multiculturalism’s current flaws and a blueprint for fixing them that promotes true diversity.


Dr. Terri Murray is an American educator and essayist. She has taught philosophy, critical reasoning and film studies for over fourteen years in secondary and adult education. A former documentary filmmaker, she is a regular contributor to Philosophy Now magazine and The New Humanist. She is the author of Feminist Film Studies: a Teacher’s Guide (Auteur/Columbia University Press, 2007) and Thinking Straight About Being Gay: Why It Matters If We’re Born That Way (Auteur, 2015).  She presently works at Hampstead College of Fine Arts & Humanities, where she is director of studies.  

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