Flat White

Multiculturalism works; multivaluism doesn’t

10 September 2018

7:49 AM

10 September 2018

7:49 AM

Every sentient being on the surface of the earth is now presumably familiar with the perennial need for more and better multiculturalism. This notion is supported feverishly yet uncritically, like so many modern assertions about what is supposedly in the best interests of civil society.

The intellectual depth of discourse on the topic is, to put it mildly, endlessly disappointing. I won’t waste any time labouring the point – to dare question the objective value of inexorably increasing the cultural diversity of society carries the risk of being called a bigot, a racist, a xenophobe or potentially a supporter of Fraser Anning. Scary stuff, indeed.

However, it’s obvious to nearly anyone with a pulse that a proper treatment of the topic requires a nuance that is not particularly easy to articulate. As such, the whole issue becomes binary and given that it’s often socially or professionally poisonous to hold a strong opinion about anything most of us choose to look away in shame, ignoring the parts that make us feel uncomfortable.

To clarify – no rational person has (or will ever have) an issue with anyone choosing to faithfully follow the many cultural traditions that inform their character and colour their complexity as an individual. This point has only one caveat – to the extent that this culture informs a value system that affects the lives of others. This is suffocatingly obvious – if you privately choose to worship a different God than I do, or undertake any private ritual whatsoever how could that possibly degrade the quality of our social interactions? Assuming of course that you don’t expect that I do the same, which is crucial.

Can we demonstrate via negativa that multiculturalism isn’t generating the universal advantages that we’ve been promised? Sure – take a look at the recent news flowing out of Chemnitz, or indeed any number of other European cities. For a region purportedly experiencing the blessings of increasing multiculturalism the citizens sure seem to be upset. Is this kind of social angst a result of how the new arrivals choose to feed themselves, what they choose to wear on the streets?

Culture is often in an intensely symbiotic relationship with religion, and together these elements combine to reinforce each other and form the very character of a person. Human beings are nearly infinitely malleable, and a culture in which someone is raised remains a critical influencing factor on the beliefs that they come to hold and the types of societies that they wish to create. This is where the current advocates of multiculturalism fall silent – the recognition that culture reliably correlates strongly with deeply held values. They become inseparable in a practical sense and should nearly always be treated as such. A culture is a living, informal constitution of a group of people and should be interpreted without resorting to the kind of lazy tokenism that reduces it to the celebration of obscure religious festivals and exotic food.

Western society is a thing of supreme beauty and fragility. Such is the fate of any social system that allows its citizens to choose (either directly or indirectly) the laws under which they shall be governed. The critical assumption of such a system is that these citizens (in general) believe in some sort of underlying and universal theme to guide political decisions. In Australia, this theme is probably best manifested in the near ubiquitous belief that all humans are equally valuable no matter their gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation, and should be treated accordingly. When Australians support any political idea, it’s typically in the context of this first principle.

Despite the fact that thought experiments can be self-indulgent, pretend that you live in Saudi Arabia. If Saudi Arabia happened to retain its current set of laws but spontaneously decided to become a representative democracy (and allowed foreigners to easily become citizens with voting rights) how would you vote in a referendum on women’s rights? Would you be strongly opposed to gender-based segregation and restricted freedom of association? Would citizens of Saudi cultural heritage have the right to be upset at how you voted?

The infamous Australian same-sex marriage postal plebiscite threw up an interesting (and largely unscrutinised) piece of data – quite a few electorates in western Sydney overwhelmingly voted no. These were the electorates with the highest immigrant population, the very same celebrated as shining examples of integration and cultural assimilation.

No one is suggesting that the residents of these electorates fail to live civil and productive lives or have any less worth than Australian-born citizens. Rather – they live these lives while believing fundamentally different things about the types of laws that Australia should have when compared with Australians in general.

It takes an immense effort in self-deception to refuse to acknowledge this simple truth – culture informs values. Values inform votes – and in a democracy, votes are what make a difference in the long run.

Civil society can tolerate, and indeed requires, a large measure of disagreement as to how people should live and what they should be allowed to do. As we should learn from Europe, this tolerance isn’t infinite. It’s an act of great intellectual cowardice to believe otherwise.

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