Avoiding objective fetishisation of cultures. “On Fences and Fractures” @Kenanmalik @NIESRorg

Kenan Malik gave the Stephen Lissenberg Memorial Lecture at the NIESR in London last week (23rd Sept). The full transcript is here on his Pandaemonium web pages: “On Fences and Fractures – or what’s wrong with multiculturalism” so no need for a detailed summary here.

His critique of multiculturalism is not new, but he was able to relate the issues to the topical “Syrian refugee crisis” we are seeing from our European perspective today. My takeaways were as follows:

Firstly we need to be clear what we we’re talking about with Multiculturalism – to recognise the distinction between:

  • The reality of lived experience in a society with multi-cultural diversity.
  • The idea of a policy to police multiple cultures in that society.

The former is reality, concerned with diversity of our cultural experience. The main thesis however is that the latter has (in general) been a policy failure, though one audience reaction reminded us that even those practitioners enacting multiple local aspects of multiculturalism have their own meta-processes for ensuring policy itself is flexible and avoids a simplistic one-size-fits-all policy mentality. (This was largely an audience of policy makers and practitioners.)

Malik’s is largely a historical perspective, particularly the former giving the illusion that things are more multicultural in recent times – right up to recent Muslim vs Islamist and topical refugee crisis issues. In fact culture is much more flattened in recent times. Groups with some distinct difference; ethnic, religious, whatever are generally much more aligned on mass-cultural axes thanks to growth of media, travel and communications. (Many examples of reactions to earlier “incomprehensible” groups of immigrants not forgetting the Briton, Roman, Saxon, Viking ancestry of our UK perspective, but also other colonial, European and French examples.)

“Our” culture has always morphed – and always will – by accretion and evolution, and there has always been fear of novelty and change. Perception and fear may be amplified but the reality is less diversity.

The thesis is that policing culture is no more than an aspect governing society with its values and institutions, evolving with its diversity of cultural inputs, but not in any sense defining or preserving diverse and distinct original cultures. It should not be a policy in itself. Policy aimed at directing cultural groups to given cultural ends falls foul of the problem of classifying groups and issues perceived as related to those groups. Which aspect of an identifiable group or which relationship to wider society is often subtle and nuanced, and anyway, these evolve themselves as society and policy evolve. Convenient cultural labels are rarely meaningful classes for policy purposes.

For me, more generally, taxonomies & classifications of groups are always purpose driven, rarely based on immediate objective “properties” of individual members. The colour of skin or religious affiliation or ethnic self-identification may be the most obvious classifying characteristics, but often the least relevant to the issues being policed and the outcomes desired.

The point I made: It is in fact a fetishisation to hope and seek for simple clear objective basis for classifying groups – in all aspects of life in the real world. In fact the exclusive evidence-based scientistic dogma of our time appears to demand it, but it will only ever be a reductionist simplistication. Useful classifications always depend on purposes and contexts, not on treating the subjects as objects. Attaching ourselves to that dogma despite our better judgement, is a fetish.

Harking back to Malik’s title, in the sphere of general taxonomy an adage oft quoted by a colleague of mine is that “good fences make good neighbours”. The emphases being on good and on mutuality. A solid fence that simply reifies a fracture – a difference – is only ever a short-term defensive measure. Fences at state and EU borders are a different matter, they’re not taxonomic but rather a pragmatic matter of policing values and rule of law of existing states. Divide and rule may be a tactical measure, colonially, imperially and, if and when applied to cultural “groups” within a society, it should only ever be recognised for the tactical management tool that it is.

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