A few years ago, around this time of year, I overheard a nice exchange in a charity shop (I was doing my Christmas shopping, I suppose) outside of London, in a middle-England market town. A woman came in, a bit flustered, had a quick rummage through some hangers, and then asked the lady at the till: ‘Have you got anything for a camel? My son’s a camel this year.’
Her meaning was clear, both to the shop assistant and to me: her son was in a nativity play and she needed to cobble together a costume. It gave me a little warm sense of shared meaning, and tradition: something very similar might have happened in these parts 100 years ago – or maybe even 800 years ago. How lovely, to see an ancient festive tradition going strong.
And then a little contrary voice piped up in my head: maybe we should be suspicious of shared cultural traditions that might exclude minorities. Would I have found it so charming if I were a Jew or a Muslim? Or even a certain sort of atheist? Maybe I should be wary of the nostalgic vision of a nation coming together around a shared religious tradition, or folk tradition, or whatever Christmas is. Then the first voice replied: why shouldn’t the majority culture be allowed to express itself? Minority ones are encouraged to express themselves. Well there’s a difference, said Voice Two. The old majority tradition is linked to the bad ghosts of the past – the oppressive demand for conformity, the semi-evil dream of a nation united in one faith.
This is perhaps the most basic political question of our times. To what extent should we affirm cultural unity?
We are not very good at thinking honestly about it. This is hardly surprising – it is a deep and complex topic, full of an ambiguity that we find troubling. It is much easier to cling to this or that side of the divide and pretend the answer to this is obvious.
Let’s put it like this. In the last 50 years or so we have experienced a cultural revolution: the idea of a shared culture has become suspect. Of course, we have lots of shared symbols including the Queen, but we have lost the old sense that such unifying symbols are of certain worth. Yes, we still have national traditions that are more or less unifying, like nativity plays, but they are often surrounded by the question of whether we ought really to affirm them.
What happened? The common answer is the rise of multiculturalism. If all minority traditions should be respected as equal, then the old majority tradition becomes subtly linked with oppression. But I’m not sure that’s the key issue. It’s possible to imagine a world in which minorities are respected, but the majority culture remains full of confidence of its right to flourish. The even bigger issue is that the ideal of unifying national culture is still tainted by the excesses of the mid-twentieth century, meaning the Nazis. We are still haunted – rightly I suppose – by the sense that too much shared meaning leads to the wrong sort of public festivities, the wrong sort of dressing up, the wrong sort of bonfires. We are still performing a sort of balancing act after that political era. For it exposed the potential evil in the ideal of cultural unity.
And yet we cannot reject the ideal of cultural unity, unless we want to be a lot of atomised individuals, served by Amazon and Netflix and UberEats instead of baby Jesus and Christmas pudding. Have a good one.
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