Multiculturalism

In a controversial Munich Multiculturalism speech, UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, called for a “muscular liberalism” in the face of what he refers to as state-supported multiculturalism.

According to the Prime Minister, multiculturalism, as it exists in what he considers to be its segregated form, is the disease; complete assimilation, of course, is the cure.

I can only assume that the Prime Minister is advocating a kind of tossed-salad-of-a-society where different cultures and ethnic groups integrate into the same neighborhoods now occupied exclusively by the Caucasian-English dominant culture. Or work in the same factories and offices. Or send their children to the same schools. Or make the same incomes. Or, at the minimum, speak English.

The Prime Minister also made it clear that English culture (its language, its history, its democratic values of free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of association) ought to be the dominant culture into which all immigrants and ethnic groups should assimilate. English culture, as the Prime Minister put it, is what the “collective identity” of UK is all about.

Unfortunately, the Prime Minister only gave the “assimilationalist” side of the entire immigration issue. Assimilation assumes that a minority culture must absorb the dominant culture, that it must assimilate or “take in” and “practice” the values, the language, the customs of the dominant culture.

There is, however, another side: accommodation.

Accommodation places some of the burden of immigration on the host, the “dominant culture.” Just as an ethnic minority learns to absorb the values and practices of the controlling culture, the dominant culture must also learn to accommodate, to expand the limits of its own homogeneity, both intellectually and practically.

Large homogenous cultures seldom, if ever, question their own national or cultural identities. They accept their core society as the grounding, the mooring, the final-end product of all cultures. The fact that they have no linguistic competition, of course, always gives them the edge on just about everything in society.

Members of the dominant culture see road signs in their own language. They study their nation’s history. They read newspapers in a common language. They watch television shows and see films with no subtitles. The share jokes. They fill out job applications.

It is through all of these activities that the cultural mainstream tends to universalize. It assumes everyone around them is, or ought to be, on the same linguistic page. When a foreign-speaking immigrant is not, members of the dominant culture get embarrassed, they fumble, they get angry, they start to build resentments.

Intellectual accommodation sounds easy on paper. But it is very difficult when it has to be practiced face-to-face or on the telephone with a tech support person with a heavy or incomprehensible accent.

Intellectual accommodation also means that we have to be “open” to looking at the many variables of the immigration narrative. Not every narrative is the same.

Some immigrants come to a country or a region because they have been persecuted. Some come because of economic opportunity. Some come because they have content-specific skills needed by the dominant culture. Some come because their relatives are here. Some come because of the colonial rule of the host country. Some have been transferred by their companies. Some are transient. And some are encouraged to bring their millions, like the wealthy Chinese who left Hong Kong and were welcomed with open arms to Western Canada.

A quick study of diasporas throughout history would indicate that, when a culture, nationality, or ethnic group “spreads out” to many areas of the world or to another nearby country or region, they tend to congregate, to segregate themselves in small, tight-knit communities.

David Cameron’s criticism of immigrants for segregating themselves—and his speech, by the way, targets Muslims— is a classic example of someone who failed to do his homework on the history of diasporas.

Immigrants have always segregated themselves in small communities. If one looks at the immigration/emigration patterns in US, for example,there are countless segregated urban sections of Chinese, Italian, Jewish, Polish, Latino, and now Muslim and Hindu throughout US cities. And I have been in enough ethnic neighborhoods in Canadian cities, Toronto and Vancouver, in particular, in which ethnic neighborhoods are a welcomed tourist attraction.

Of course, David Cameron would probably say that he wasn’t talking about geographical/neighborhood segregation as much as he was social, linguistic, and educational segregation. However, one has to tackle the complicated nature of diaspora and immigration patterns before one can address the broader issue of assimilation into a common culture.

And, again, I come back to the need for the dominant culture to accommodate itself to the immigrant. If immigrants are going to be let in, it is the obligation of the host government to work out the practical details of the transition for those immigrants.

That, of course, doesn’t just mean an instant language course for immigrants or prep courses for citizenship; it also means training the host country’s civil service in the many levels of cultural diversity and internationalism.

Does the host government hire part-time translators? Does it have an active foreign-language friendly department staff that can keep track of immigrants, make house calls, communicate with immigrants on a regular basis?

Does the government have an active diversity program for its civil-service employees? Are police/hospital/fire employees given any training seminars in diversity? Does the government hire university faculty with specialties in targeted foreign languages and/or content-specific curricula (Arabic studies, Indian culture, Far Eastern Studies, Latino Studies)?

What about employment possibilities? What is the host government doing to employ employable immigrants? Does the government actively target certain industries and businesses and offer them tax-breaks for hiring immigrants?

How are immigrants being mainstreamed into school systems? A neighborhood school model doesn’t always accommodate immigrants very well. Is there a conscious effort by the government to offer immigrants a variety of school choices?

Does the government hire diversity specialists to run seminars for faculty in high schools and elementary schools?

In the end, David Cameron’s Munich multiculturalism speech may appeal to those on the right who are “fed up” with what Cameron sees as state pandering to minorities. But make no mistake about it, when Cameron talks about multiculturalism these days, it is always within the context of terrorism. And, of course, terrorism has now become the buzz word to justify Cameron’s “muscular liberalism,” a tough, testosterone-driven approach to multiculturalism that places most of the burden of immigration on the immigrant (read Muslim community here).

It is a monolithic approach that denies the social reality that communication is relational; it is not unilateral. The dominant culture can’t be screaming to immigrants, “You better shape up,” without taking some moral responsibility for integrating immigrants into the mainstream.

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