Who Needs Multiculturalism? We Do!

The Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday challenged “the doctrine of state multiculturalism”, which he claims to have been misguidedly introduced by the previous British government. In an address to the 47th Munich Security Conference, after taking the utmost care to repeatedly stress the differences between the peacefully practiced faith of Islam and the political ideology of Islamic extremism, the PM proceeded to conclude that the “hands-off” and “passive” tolerance contained within the ideal of multiculturalism in fact seeds tensions between groups by allowing them to live “separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream”. The PM demanded that the Islamic population in Britain begin to adopt British values, a position he named “muscular liberalism”. Unsurprisingly, the attack on multiculturalism has provoked angered responses, not least because it coincides with the anti-Islamic protests of the nationalist English Defence League in Luton this weekend.

The philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, Professor at Princeton University, is perhaps best known for his work on cosmopolitanism, and there seems to be an alternative to Cameron’s call for monoculturalism contained in this work. In Appiah’s own words for The Washington Post in 2006:

“The version of cosmopolitanism that I favor is exactly about balancing universality and difference. Many people who believe (rightly) in universality…want (wrongly, I think) to impose their vision of the world on others. They think not just that there are universal truths but that they already know what they are. And they don’t think they have anything to learn, as a result, from others. They don’t converse, they try to convert.”

Appiah’s position envisages, it seems, a universality among people and their cultures which amounts not to homogenisation but, on the contrary, to a diversity that is shared and understood via tolerant dialogue and understanding. Cameron’s suggestion for overcoming difference and separateness seems to commit the fundamental error of assuming that only by universally sharing values and practices can we avoid the kind of social isolation and stratification that he believes turns members of the Islamic community to extremism. In reality social integration may be achieved in a way modeled on Appiah’s cosmopolitan, that is, by attempting to mutually understand one another’s values and practices so as to bridge the differences in cultures, rather than to remove them. The real risk of multiculturalism, then, would be neglecting to acknowledge the fact that we are multicultural.

It has been claimed recently that attentive understanding of other cultures is also an important move for the future of academic philosophy. Karsten J. Struhl argues in Philosophy Compass that the cultural assumptions contained in the perspective from which any philosophical inquiry is conducted can only be brought to light, as they must, by considering how other cultures have tackled the same problems. For, a method that attempts a criticism of its own assumptions in fact needs to retain these assumptions as part of its critical perspective in a way that is clearly self-defeating, so it is only by reflecting on the spectrum of approaches across different cultures, and actively engaging in an understanding of them, that the assumptions and methods of a given culture can begin to become clear to it. While it is important to note that methodological cross-culturalism in philosophy is an entirely separate issue from social multiculturalism, through the former we may see a supplementary benefit of the mutual understanding required to maintain the latter. That is, in getting to know each other better we might get to know ourselves better too, which might in turn serve, for David Cameron at least, as a much needed exercise in cultural humility.

Related Articles:

No (More) Philosophy Without Cross-Cultural Philosophy

Karsten J. Struhl

Citizenship and The State

M. Victoria Costa

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