Friday, 7 December 2007

Failure of Culture

This post by Raphael has had my mind churning for a few days now. I can't reject it outright, because the problems he identifies do exist. However, I think he oversimplifies the cause (or doesn't simplify it enough, you be the judge).

Breaking his core arguments down:

the term "multiculturalism" is an impossibility, an oxymoron which sees repeated failures throughout the world in numerous instances.

Multiculturalism is not an impossibility, it is our reality. There is no such thing as uniculturalism. Any state that has tried to impose it, has failed catastrophically, and quite often violently. You can't force people to all live by the same "cultural" values. It is a myth that the USA (a favorite example) is a successful uniculture; using the same loose definitions you can argue that Russia is an open transparent democracy. Most (if not all) countries are multicultural, just many have trouble accepting it.

Also the author conflates culture with religion (Islam), though I grant the two are often intertwined and hard to distinguish as they influence each other. If we include religious beliefs to distinguish a culture, it expands the definition greatly. For simplicity sake, further references to culture are going to use this broader definition.

Living in peace with multiculturalism may be an impossibility. Any specific identifiable culture changes (a fact many Quebecors cannot reconcile), and new cultures are "created" or introduced on a regular basis. So the interplay between cultures is a continuously shifting mix of relationships, values, beliefs and attitudes. It is not a static interplay. Our own history shows that many new cultures that arrived in Canada had violent consequences (Chinese, Japanese, Ukranian, Irish, Sikhs, etc. etc.).

A "culture" can be described as patterns of human activity in a society and the resultant symbolic and archetypal structures which give significance and importance to them. Insofar as we have different and many "cultures" in Canada, goes against the cohesion of natural human attraction to fundamentally similar bases for understanding our world, and for evaluating those human activities. So while the English have managed a shaky coexistence with the French in Canada these many years, it's difficult to say it has been a multicultural existence. We have lived in harmony, but the battle for cultural dominance has been prominent. English has clearly been dominant throughout Canada.

Right here, Raphael trips over himself trying to define culture. You see, there is no English Canadian culture. If you were to define that culture (and leave citizenship out of it) your definition would be so broad that it would include Americans, the English, Australians etc. English Canada is made up of descendants of pretty much every culture and religion you care to identify. We are all not the same. The definition of English Canadian is so broad it is practically useless as an identifying characteristic. If I were to identify my culture in narrower terms, I would have to go with Rural Southern-Ontarian. I submit there is more of a cultural distinction between urban Ontarians, Rural Ontarians and Northern Ontarians. Most of us speak english as our mother tongue, but that alone does not a culture make.

For several paragraphs Raphael singles out Muslim culture, which I am not going to cover in detail here. Suffice it to say, it ignores the divisions within Islamic based cultures and broadly incorporates all Muslims under one over-arching culture. This is a serious error. Just as Christians and Jews have sub-cultures (and these sub-cultures do occasionally conflict with each other) so do Islamic based cultures.

Multiculturalism is a doomed vision because it relies on the fallacy that cultures do not conflict with one another. It is natural that a certain amount of alchemy exists between cultural mixing, but the larger and more dominant one inevitably and always subverts and then changes the smaller culture. The delaying of the inevitable conversion into English-speaking Canadians [or French in Quebec] is a disservice to most Canadians already born here. Diversity should be promoted by welcoming a variety of immigrants. But multiculturalism as an official policy should be dropped, since it implies that small cultures can survive in Canada without an obvious friction with the host culture. It is one thing to maintain certain traditions and observances, but quite another to assume that the romanticized and idealistic notion of cultural harmony is a natural and facile element of human interaction. It isn't. Canada should develop a policy of assimilation and integration, and drop the pretext that we want migrants to create neighbourhoods and cities devoted to a foreign set of values and archetypal structures.

I am going to counter his conclusion with this statement: Encouraging diversity breeds multiculturalism. That's why cultures are different and somewhat identifiable, diversity in beliefs, attitudes, traditions etc. You can't argue for sameness and encourage diversity in the same breath.

Singling out multiculturalism as the cause of conflict is a serious error. We have conflict because we inherently seek out those like ourselves to build our own mini-cultures. Its a protection mechanism, is gives us a sense of security and belonging. But when we suspect our culture is under attack we lash out. Its part of human life.

Humans are social creatures. We have a need to reach out and relate and build communities. It is the rare individual that can live in total isolation. That being said, we are not willing to include all individuals in our societies. Each of us rejects others based on perceived differences we are not willing to overcome. It affects how we make friendships, business relationships and even the neighborhoods we are willing to live in. We seek out places and people that makes us comfortable, and exclude those that do not.

But we all do have to live together. Its short-sighted (and outright wrong) to prevent others from living in our communities based on differences we do not like. Also, we cannot force people to change to accommodate us. We all have to change to accommodate each other. How we effect this accommodation is and will always be a point of conflict. I'm not denying this is a major problem. But we can't solve it by forcing adaptation either. We are all different, and we conflict with each other, but we are even more capable of working together.

1 comment:

Ken Breadner said...

Whew, lots of meat here.
I respect other cultures to the exact degree other cultures respect mine. When people come to this country, I feel they should assume some sort of Canadian identity--which largely means they shouldn't be carrying ancient tribal hatreds with them. Canadian "culture" means whatever you want it to mean...but at root, I think the fundamentals are expressed admirably in our national motto: "Peace, Order, and Good Government".
(That third thing is up for debate.)