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A few weeks back I picked up on an article by Christina Patterson entitled “The Limits of Multiclturalism”. While I have already said all that needs to be said about the content of the article itself, its title drew upon a a theme that has been fashionable for some time: namely that we were overly gung-ho in our desire to create a multicultural society, and that it is time to talk more about integration and cohesion.
From the mid 2000s this became the mantra of the New Labour establishment, while also being propagated by the right, and a substantial portion of liberal England. A couple of years ago the telegraph released a poll suggesting that most Briton’s thought that muslims needed to do more to “integrate” – sentiments echoed by the C of E establishment. Meanwhile Blair lectured immigrants on the need to adopt British values – even using the phrase “conform or don’t come here”, while the government even considered classes to teach “British values” to young muslims.
The use of the phrase “british values” can often come across as a lazy rhetorical device, considering how politically diverse british society has always been. In this regard, expectations of immigrants seem to greatly exceed our expectations of the “native” population. Get a few thousand WASPs in a room and you would be hard pressed to find man core values that united them all – or even a near absolute majority. Take democracy for instance. Surely I am not alone in noticing how fashionable it has become amongst the educated middle classes to assert – explicitally or otherwise – that democracy doesn’t work because the masses are stupid. Or human rights and habeous corpus – just watch how some of the tabloids sometimes screech when nasty people benefit from the rule of law. While the right to eccentricity is accepted for native brits, immigrants – it appears – are expected to mush around the general consensus.
One comment that particularly struck me in the past was made by Jack Straw when he said he opposed the burka because it was a “visible statement of separation and of difference”, as though it were inherently unreasonable for people to express their sense of difference from others. What this comment reflects is that the idea of integration is often used interchangeably with the idea of assimilation. While the former might represent a reasonable desire for people to coexist well with their neighbours, the latter implies that for this to be possible people must attentuate any differences between themselves and the cultural majority. It ignores that possibility that people genuine and serious differences can coexist with a well functioning community. In reality, most people engage well with others very different to themselves throughout their everyday lives. Meanwhile, tolerance that is premised on the idea of everybody becoming just like us (give or take a few ethnic restraunts) is no tolerance at all.
One thing that got up the nose of Christina Patterson – whom I mentioned at the beginning - and indeed a lot of people, is the propensity of some communities to live in close proximity, and to be primarily interested in associating with one another. Now, being a bit of a red hippie at heart I am obviously attracted to the ideal of a society in which everybody had great affection for everybody else. But I also want to live in a pungent society, in which people have strong ideas and beliefs. And I recognise that the necessary corrollary of this is that individuals will not wish to engage with everybody equally. Take for example the object of Patterson’s annoyance – the hassidim. Their lives are shaped by a powerful, and very detailed set of beliefs – about right and wrong, and about how one should live – that set them apart from london’s majority culture. Is it any surprise if they appear most comfortable with those they percieve as sharing those same cultural and ethical premises. In the same way, I don’t have many friends who are Tories (although Mosely’s dictum from his prefascist days of “vote labour, sleep tory” does seem to appeal to some).
If “integration” relies upon people inocculating themselves against anything that puts them at odd with neighbours, or anything that deviates from those values currently up on the “core British” pedestal, then I don’t want it. By contrast, the idea that genuine and serious difference can coexist with communal harmony is not – as any Londoner with their eyes open will tell you – a fantasy.
To contact Reuben email firstname.lastname@example.org