The many meanings of culture

Multiculturalism has become a buzzword for our times, but more lies beneath this ideal of harmonious coexistence.

Diwali celebrations on the streets of Southall, London, 1st November 1984. Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, lasts for five days
Diwali celebrations on the streets of Southall, London, November 1984. Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, lasts for five days. Credit: John Downing/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Among the buzzwords of our time, the intimately linked pair ‘culture’ and ‘identity’ must surely rank very high. Culture seems to explain everything at the moment, the way gender once did, or before that class, or, a long time ago, race, or, even longer ago, destiny. Some say the very future of the world will be determined by a mighty cultural struggle. A decade ago, Samuel Huntington warned that in future, ‘The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural.’ His prophecy was widely cited in the run-up to the Iraq war, although some people thought that the war had more to do with old-fashioned power politics, and oil, than with the clash of civilisations.

In any case, culture has become a great public issue. According to one commentator after another, celebratory or indignant, every European country is multicultural. What is to be done about it? Centrist politicians try to undercut the extreme right by clamping down on immigration, so leaving the multiculturalists to claim the moral high ground: anti-racist, pluralist, egalitarian.

Nor is culture a matter of public policy alone. In this case, the political is very, very personal. This is where identity comes in. Cultural identity connects who you really are, deep down, to your ancestry. It fixes your loyalties and your political destiny. And it guarantees membership of a community of the like-minded. Multiculturalists argue that if you are forced to suspend this true identity in order to enjoy full citizenship, you are being denied a fundamental human right, which is to be different but equal.

In my view, all these propositions are false, and they rest on ultimately racist premises. If we are to understand the lived reality of our societies, the multiculturalist discourse must be an object of analysis, not an analytical tool.

There are many confusions in the current discourse. To begin with, it is necessary to clear up what we mean by culture itself. The words ‘culture’ and ‘civilisation’ date only from the second half of the eighteenth century, but they have come to embody a number of contradictory notions.

In the French tradition, civilisation was represented as a universal human possession, which marked us off from animals. Civilisation was progressive. It had advanced farthest, no doubt, in France, but it was also enjoyed – though in different degrees – by savages, barbarians and other Europeans. The progress of civilisation could be measured by the advance of reason in its cosmic battle against raw nature and instinct. Its greatest, most conclusive victories were in the fields of science and technology. Civilisation not only produced more reliable knowledge about the world, it also delivered a higher morality and a more just political order.

In the Germanic tradition, national culture was contrasted to a global, imperial (French-speaking) civilisation. In contrast to civilisation, this genuine culture was associated with a specific people, and with spiritual not material values. Its highest expression was a national language, and its most characteristic achievements were in the arts rather than the sciences.

The English, as so often, disagreed with both the French and the Germans (although John Stuart Mill tried to persuade them not to). Matthew Arnold taught that culture was the sum of the highest human achievements in the arts and philosophy, ‘the best that has been thought and said’. This culture was universally valid. It did not belong to any one nation. Rather it was the earned capital of a particular social class, a class of the educated and spiritually refined.

Anthropologists tried to transform this vague, multi-referential idea of culture into a scientific tool. The father of British anthropology, E. B. Tylor, Arnold’s contemporary, defined culture to embrace everything a person learned as a member of society. Culture was not the possession of an elite, as Arnold believed, but rather a defining characteristic of humanity. It is what separates us from the apes. At the same time, particular societies could be richer or poorer in culture.

In the first half of the twentieth century, American anthropologists drew on Tylor’s classic definition and defined anthropology as the science of culture. But where nineteenth-century theorists had tended to think of race and culture as two aspects of the same process of evolution – higher races producing higher civilisations, or, alternatively, each race being biologically associated with a specific culture – the students of Franz Boas in America used the notion of culture as the foundation of an argument against racism. Culture had to be distinguished from biology. Race, language and culture are not necessarily connected with each other. Any person, of any race, can acquire any culture. Moreover, the boundaries of both race and culture were constantly shifting, as a result of migrations, intermarriage, borrowing. (This argument, incidentally, was derived very largely from the liberal Berlin anthropology of the 1880s, inspired by Rudolf Virchow and Adolf Bastian, with whom Boas had studied for his habilitation.)

A version of this scientific conception of culture was introduced into official European circles by the 1952 UNESCO declaration on race and culture. This became so much the orthodoxy of what one might call cultural bureaucrats that, when Claude Lévi-Strauss challenged the declaration, he was regarded as a dangerous heretic. He had published a UNESCO pamphlet in 1952, as part of the run-up to the declaration, in which he explained the anthropological view that culture and race were distinct and unrelated. In 1971, asked to update the pamphlet, Lévi-Strauss argued that cultures are often deeply and even necessarily antagonistic to each other. Without going into the merits of either argument, it is evident that in 1952 Lévi-Strauss used the word ‘culture’ in the French tradition, but in 1971 switched to the German sense of the term.

On the other hand, for an influential set of European radical thinkers such as Antonio Gramsci, Theodor Adorno or Raymond Williams, culture was a form of intellectual capital, and it was important because it had to do with the reproduction of social class. Horrified by the rise of fascism in the 1930s, they developed a cultural theory to explain why so many members of the working class had whored after false gods. Those people had been misled by mass culture and poor education. True culture produced true knowledge, even of politics. This inverted Matthew Arnold’s idea that the ruling class required the civilising influence of high culture in order to guide society.

So ‘culture’ is one of those historically variable, loaded words that can mean many things, even contradictory things. What then is meant by ‘culture’ in the discourse of our times? It is not easy to say. Various elements of these different traditions of thought about culture are drawn upon, often promiscuously. Contradictions are left unresolved, embarrassing questions glossed over. Is culture what the ministry of culture promotes – ballet, opera, folk-dance? Does it include football? Marriage rules? The constitution of the state? Is it a matter of collective spirit or does it embrace the market and other mundane institutions? If our culture gives us a particular take on the world, is it right for us, but only for us? Can we escape its grip? Is it impossible to understand another culture, except in its own terms? Must any judgement of another culture be culturally biased, a mere assertion of the superiority of one’s own group over another? Or are there universally valid standards?

Matters are further complicated by the chasm that has opened between European and American preoccupations. Culture does not mean the same thing in Paris as in Washington. Moreover, distinctive forms of cultural analysis tend to be applied to very different situations. From a European point of view, the tone of American writing on culture often seems remarkably idealist. Culture is treated as the symbolic repertoire of a collectivity, which fixes its values and distinguishes it from other collec- tivities.

American scholars writing within the framework of cultural studies often cite Bourdieu or Habermas, but much is lost in translation, not least the context of their writings. But equally, Europeans who draw on the contemporary American discourse on culture and multiculturalism, may fail to recognise that it grew out of a very specific set of experiences.

The term ‘multiculturalism’ emerged in Canada in the mid-1960s. Three quite distinct issues were yoked together under this heading. These were the problematic status and claims of the Inuit, the contested place of Quebec in Canada, and the first surge of what became a large immigration from the Far East. The concept of multiculturalism was inspired by the thought that, if all these issues could be brought under one hat, if they were aspects of a single problem, then perhaps one policy could fit them all.

When American theorists took over the term ‘multiculturalism’, they applied it to a different, local set of issues, and it came to stand for a very particular political orientation. Multiculturalism must be placed in the modern radical tradition of the United States, and understood with reference to a history that runs through the civil rights struggle, the shock of Vietnam, and latterly the women’s and gay rights movements.

For many American radicals, the basic premise of multiculturalism is that the US behaves like an imperial power, not only in its foreign policy but also at home. It is run by a culturally hegemonic community of WASP heterosexual men, who treat any form of difference from themselves as a sign of inferiority. Their remedy is that the US must learn to celebrate difference and to allow a cultural and political space to African Americans, native Americans, Latinos, women, gays, etc, all of whom have something crucial in common – they suffer from the denial of an authentic, creditworthy identity. Difference is the key value, and the slogan is ‘different but equal’. Cultural relativism is taken for granted.

In Europe today, a variety of notions of culture or multiculturalism are applied to very different issues. They are evoked in relation to Brussels, on the one hand, and to the post-war non-European immigration on the other. The very success of the European Union promotes anxieties. Will Europe be ruled by a remote bureaucracy? Will Brussels become an instrument of big business and undermine the social welfare system? Will it trample on national identities, or make room for suppressed local identities of a new kind? These concerns are commonly debated in terms of culture and identity. Brussels itself occasionally attempts to define a European cultural identity, which it hopes will underpin its political and economic policies, perhaps even elevating them to a higher moral plane – though there are always difficulties here, particularly when this European identity is associated with Christianity.

Europe’s economic success has another, more problematic, dimension. This is the large-scale immigration of foreign workers. The post-war immigrant wave has raised varied concerns, which are, again, discussed, largely and increasingly, in terms of culture and cultural identity. Europe’s cities, even its societies, are now often described as ‘multicultural’, and the vague term ‘multiculturalism’ is used to denote policies that foster these developments. Numbers are bandied about in the press and manipulated by politicians, though the statistics are often misleading. Definitions of ‘foreigners’ and ‘immigrants’ vary. In a number of Northern European countries allochtones are distinguished from natives, and one is an allochtone if either of one’s parents were born abroad. Uncertain estimates of illegal immigrants or bogus asylum-seekers further confuse the picture. Nevertheless, OECD reports indicate the scale of what has been happening. In the UK, almost 4 per cent of the population is foreign-born; in France – and also in Sweden – just over 6 per cent; in Germany, nearly 10 per cent. Sometimes a very problematic attempt is made to distinguish European migrants (acceptable) from other, less desirable immigrants. (Where are the Turks to be placed? Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, for one, feels that they are not Europeans. ‘In my opinion’, he told Le Monde, admitting Turkey to the EU ‘would be the end of Europe’. He did not explain why.)

One source of our confusion is that the term ‘culture’ is ambiguous. We import this ambiguity into debates about cultural groups, cultural identity and the politics of multiculturalism. Another problem is that these terms are applied to very heterogeneous situations. However, a common assumption lies beneath these genuine sources of misunderstanding (and perhaps convenient ambiguities).

At one level, we do seem to know what we mean by culture. We mean that we live in societies made up of blocs of peoples with distinctive values and ways of life. The reason this seems so apparent is that this assumption is underpinned by another, less readily admitted assumption: a buried, unavowed belief that culture coincides with descent. It is a matter of race. Walking the streets of our cities, we can see multiculturalism. All the efforts of Franz Boas and his students, all the declarations of international organisations since the UNESCO statement of 1952, seem barely to have shaken this very profound popular belief.

There is a widely shared assumption that people who look alike will have common values, customs and loyalties. Not to conform with this expectation is to excite uneasiness, even contempt. Ien Ang discusses the complicated situation of someone like herself, who looks Chinese but was brought up in Indonesia, migrated as a child with her parents to Holland, then moved as an adult to Australia, where she is a professor of cultural studies. In Holland and Australia Ang is always asked where she comes from, but although she is sometimes tempted to identify herself as Chinese, she has no first-hand knowledge of China and does not speak the language. ‘In Taiwan I was different because I couldn’t speak Chinese; in the West I was different because I looked Chinese.’

As Walter Benn Michaels has ironically remarked, ‘it is only when we know which race we are that we can tell which culture is ours’. Michaels is a literary theorist, and after a persuasive close reading of some characteristic modern American texts he concludes: ‘The modern concept of culture is not … a critique of racism, it is a form of racism. And, in fact, as skepticism about the biology of race has increased, it has become – at least among intellectuals – the dominant form of racism.’

One should always be ready to translate the discourse of culture back into the language of race, since this is very often the best way to grasp what people are getting at. In England, the culture discourse applies most readily to people of colour: West Indians, South Asians, Africans. Minority or immigrant groups are typically assumed to be of a different race, often a different religion, and they are said to be culturally different. The very ambiguity of the term ‘culture’ usefully clouds the underlying reference to race. Not only is culture elided with race. Cultures, certainly the traditional cultures of people of colour, are seen as closed and fixed. They are commonly characterized by a few generally negative traits: gambling, wife-beating, child marriage, drug-running, cliterodectomy, witchcraft. Just as misleading are the positive stereotypes. Political parties in Britain, cosying up to what are called ‘Asian voters’, praise them for industry and family values, and so incidentally imply that all Asians are pretty much alike.

However, these collective identities seldom match the lived experience of the people to whom they are attributed. The classifications, even the names, may be alien and alienating. In Sweden, so-called Turks are often Kurds. In Holland, Turks and Moroccans are redefined as Muslims, which fits the traditional Dutch model of the primacy of religious identities. Differences of language and national origin are treated as secondary. In Britain, Chinese people are not usually included in the category ‘Asian’. The label is applied to Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Indians, regardless of differences of nationality, religion, language, caste or social class. Obviously, religion, national origin, language and customs do not necessarily coincide. This may, of course, provide opportunities for political entrepreneurs. Some Pakistani activists in the UK have chosen to identify themselves as representatives of a wider Islamic community, or even of an international Muslim constituency. Conversely, expressions of prejudice against Islam are more acceptable than simple racist outbursts against Pakistanis, Turks or North Africans.

Traits identified as key indicators of a fixed culture may also be adaptations to the immigrant situation. Obviously, communalism is a natural response to racial discrimination. It can also be stimulated by official initiatives. This is, in fact, the main business of official multiculturalism. Assuming that there are recognisable, distinct, organised minority groups out there, the authorities recognise (and if necessary appoint) spokespeople for them. The careers of these intermediaries then depend on the consolidation of patronage links. Government policies may also have less obvious unintended effects. The rate of cousin marriages among Pakistanis in Britain is greater than in their areas of origin. This is because the only way to circumvent British immigration restrictions may be for someone in England to marry a cousin in Pakistan.

Even when they are self-defined, communal identities are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and they are usually fluid. Particularly among immigrants, the experiences and attitudes of succeeding generations may be very different. What happens when the first language of children is English, and the second Punjabi? If children listen to different kinds of music, hold political views that differ sharply from those of their parents, or react against marriage customs, how does one describe their ‘culture’? The second or third-generation young often find this communalist discourse alienating and oppressive. Talking about religion to school children in West London, the anthropologist Gerd Baumann found that they emphasised convergences, insisting that all religions have the same fundamental message. Novelists like Zadie Smith and Hanif Kureishi write of this integrated, mixed-up London. Kureishi’s novel The Buddha of Suburbia opens with the wonderful self-introduction by the narrator: ‘My name is Karim Amir and I am an Englishman, born and bred almost.’

Large numbers of people from the Indian subcontinent have made their homes in West London since the 1950s. Today it is estimated that around 40 per cent of the students at Brunel University are of South Asian origin. What is their culture? I would not be able to begin to answer that question. Near the university is the suburban town of Southall, which Gerd Baumann studied while he was attached to Brunel.

Southall is sometimes called London’s ‘Little India’. About half the inhabitants of central Southall are Sikhs. There are also large numbers of Hindus originally from India, and Muslims from Pakistan. Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus in London are influenced by the political tensions between communities on the subcontinent. They are also internally divided by class and caste. On the other hand, there are cross-cutting alliances which undermine lines of division imported from their countries of origin, or lines which have emerged within the various diasporas. People who came to the UK from the Asian diaspora in East Africa find much in common with each other, and much less in common with Indians, even though they may share a language, or a religion, or an ancestral village with them.

In this complex and fluid situation, local politicians try to mobilize ‘community’ groups, in part in order to tap the funds offered by multicultural official programmes. Baumann tells the story of a young black activist in Southall who wants to get practice rooms and recording studios for Southall’s young musicians. His best hope of getting money is to campaign for a music centre in the name of Afro-Caribbeans, or Asians. ‘Yet what this musician really wanted was a new kind of music based on a new kind of politics’, Baumann explains, ‘a cross-cultural creative resource centre called Southall Music Fusion. The point, to him, of being a musician in Southall was to fuse the different musics of Southallians into a Southallian music.’

Baumann, and also Pnina Werbner, in her studies of Pakistanis in Manchester, draw attention to the invention of new, eclectic rituals that challenge boundaries. These often suggest a convergence with British customs. Hindu and Sikh temples now hold their main services on Sunday mornings. Birthday parties, even Christmas celebrations, have spread. But these phenomena should be understood as symptoms of creative synthesis rather than assimilation. The ‘Southall sound’, the mixture of Asian, Caribbean and hip-hop music that is becoming popular in the UK indicates what is happening. So does the evolution of language. ‘Two local dialects have evolved’, Baumann reports, ‘one an identifiably West London accent of English, the other a mixture of Punjabi, Urdu and Hindi.’

Perhaps the most interesting and original aspect of Baumann’s analysis is his account of how young Southallians use the discourse on culture. Local politicians are always ready to exploit the official discourse, according to which Southall is made up of distinct communities each with their own culture, deserving of loyalty from the voters and subventions from the authorities. But among themselves, young people talk about ‘culture’ as something they make up, day by day, from the bits and pieces of life around them.

Because of these confusions about culture, the stereotyping of imagined communities, and the tendency to equate culture with race, public policies based on ideas about cultural difference may have disturbing consequences. Consider what happened when Scotland Yard tried its hand at multiculturalism.

In 1993, a young black man named Stephen Lawrence, while waiting at a bus stop in South London, was set upon and murdered by a gang of white youths. It was widely believed that this assault was motivated solely by racism. Scotland Yard made a sorry mess of the investigations, and, after many years, and a well-organised national movement of support for the Lawrence family, the government set up a commission of inquiry under a senior judge. This reached the conclusion that the Metropolitan Police was ‘institutionally racist’. The Yard promised to reform. From now on the police would be good multiculturalists.

Almost immediately, a dramatic case gave them the opportunity to demonstrate this new policy. At 4pm. on Friday 21 September 2001, a man walking across Tower Bridge saw a corpse floating in the Thames. Police were alerted, and about twenty minutes later a police launch took it aboard. Although the head, arms and legs had been severed, the torso was identified as that of an Afro-Caribbean boy of about five years old. The only evidence of identity was a pair of orange shorts labelled Kids and Company. In an early statement, Scotland Yard said that the child might be the victim of domestic violence, or that he might have fallen into the hands of paedophiles, although there was no evidence of sexual abuse. The spokesman added, however, that the child might have been killed in some bizarre ritual. ‘This is one of several lines of inquiry we are looking into’, he said, but ‘we are keeping an open mind’.

The suspicion of ritual killing soon hardened. Commander Andy Baker and Detective Inspector Will O’Reilly of the Serious Crime Group of the Metropolitan Police pursued the case with great energy, and were soon confident that they had identified the type of ritual that was involved. This was apparently an African medicine murder. In Southern Africa, children have occasionally been killed, internal organs and genitals being removed while the victim is alive for use as medicines, called muti. These practices are generally associated with crises in the public lives of very powerful men, typically chiefs. In 2000, three such murders were reported in South Africa. British papers seized on the story, some rejoicing, although the left-wing Guardian insisted that child murders were ‘a perversion of traditional muti medicine’. The newspaper reassured readers that ‘true witchdoctors, or sangomas, use natural remedies such as forest herbs, plants, animal skins and bones’.

In April 2002, Baker and O’Reilly travelled to South Africa, where Nelson Mandela made a public appeal for anyone who could help identify the murderers to come forward. However, the trail went cold. The police admitted that, since no vital organs had been removed, this was unlikely to be a muti murder of the classic Southern African kind. On the other hand, they argued that the severed limbs and skull might have been kept as magical trophies, and they remained convinced that an African ritual murder had been committed.

And now they found another clue. Seven half-burned candles wrapped in a white sheet had washed up on the southern shore of the Thames. The Yoruba name Adekoyejo Fola Adoye was written on the sheet. After a brief period of great excitement, the police discovered that Adoye lived in New York, and that his London-based parents had held a thanksgiving on the banks of the Thames to celebrate the fact that he had not been killed in the terrorist attack in Manhattan on 11 September 2001. The riverside service was a common one of Christian Yoruba churches.

This effectively checked that particular line of speculation, but the police now came up with a brilliant stroke of publicity. They gave the victim a name. ‘Until we can identify him and his family we will act as his family’, Commander Baker said. ‘And to remind everyone that he was a person we have given him a name. That name is Adam.’ Adam, he announced, had been brought to the country as a slave, and sacrificed in a barbaric ritual. In September 2002, in an uncanny repetition of the ritual performed by Adoye’s parents, the Metropolitan Police held a memorial service for Adam on the Thames. Flowers were laid in the river from a police launch. Detective Inspector O’Reilly read from the Bible, and his leader Commander Baker gave the address. O’Reilly told The Observer, ‘Just imagine your worst nightmare and that would be nowhere near.’ ‘The ritual killing of children is an absolute reality’, he added. ‘We do not want this to gain a foothold in this country. That is why, one year on, we are still working flat out to try and solve this case.’

Hot on the trail of exotic rituals, police raided African shops in London, which they claimed were importing ‘bush meat’, including chimpanzee and bush rat, from West Africa. They also announced that some dealers were trading in witchcraft substances that might include body parts. Heathrow Airport’s meat transport director, Clive Lawrence, was sure of it. ‘The intelligence we are receiving suggests human flesh is coming into this country’, he said, adding, with characteristic British understatement: ‘We are dealing with some very nasty people.’ As the hysteria mounted, social workers in Glasgow reported that they had found sinister voodoo objects in the home of an asylum-seeker from West Africa. She was immediately arrested and rushed to London for questioning, but no link could be established to the murder, or indeed to any crime.

The police were now convinced that there was a West African connection. The child was circumcised, and so are many boys in Africa. DNA evidence showed that the child had West African ancestry. According to a statement from the Metropolitan Police in February 2003, ‘Forensic work has established that ‘Adam’ originated from West Africa and in particular three specific regions, the largest of these being in Nigeria.’ In October, O’Reilly travelled to Nigeria accompanied by a forensic scientist and, for the first few days, by the Arsenal and Nigerian footballer Kanu. They claimed organic and mineral samples found in the post-mortem of the torso indicated that the child might have come from a 5,000-square-mile corridor between Ibadan and Benin City. Finally, they realised that they had overlooked a clue. The pathetic trunks found on the victim were orange, and the police claimed (quite wrongly) that a Yoruba river god, Oshun, is associated with the colour orange, and that human sacrifices were made to him, although no such sacrifices have been documented for more than a century.

Even taken together, these various lines of inquiry do not add up to a convincing story. Most victims of the Atlantic slave trade were West Africans, so the DNA of most black people from the Caribbean, North America and Brazil would indicate a West African origin. Moreover, western Nigeria was a major crossroads of the slave trade. The blood-lines of people who live there now connect them to the wider region. Descendants of African slaves may be expected to have similar DNA markers. The rest of the very slight or general evidence is of little value.

There is no evidence of any link between the child’s murder and African ritual practices, although the police continued to hint that Adam was the victim of savage rituals. A Nigerian asylum-seeker told immigration officials that they must admit her to England because she was seeking refuge from her husband, who had killed eleven children, including one of hers. In a police interview, she said that she and her husband had been setting up branches of a new demonic cult in London and Germany. Police raided her husband’s home in Dublin and claimed that they had found evidence of a human trafficking ring linked to demon worship. Later in August 2003, more than 200 Metropolitan Police officers, some in riot gear, raided a number of houses in London and arrested 21 Nigerians, who were accused of trafficking in children. Detective Chief Inspector O’Reilly said: ‘We are pretty convinced we are into the group of individuals who would have trafficked Adam into the country.’

There is always the remote possibility that, like Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau, the men from Scotland Yard will stumble on to something, but the chances are slim. They are now captives of their own publicity, however. Any let-up will be an admission that they followed a false trail. But the real story lies elsewhere: in the evocation of European fantasies about witchcraft, Africans, asylum-seekers and paedophiles. The boy’s torso, pathetically devoid of any signs, has become a Rorschach test on to which any fantasy can be projected. As Commander Baker quite rightly remarked, his horror story brings together all the worst nightmares of the British public today.

‘I think we must maintain that we are not judging the culture’, Commander Baker told Sky News as he winged his way to Nigeria. ‘We are investigating a murder.’ In fact, the police busily reinforce the most bizarre and dangerous delusions about African culture and the asylum-seekers who are bringing it to the UK.

Is this an instance of multiculturalism, or just old-fashioned racism? It is both. The murder and investigation represent multiculturalism, with the signs reversed. A mythical pan-African culture is evoked. Nothing against the culture, Commander Baker assures us – even if a part of that supposed culture, The Guardian might object, not a genuine part, is weird and murderous. But Scotland Yard is applying the same logic as the orthodox multiculturalist who thinks it a good, anti-racist idea to stereotype African culture as all good, at least in its own terms, and who attributes this supposed culture to all DNA-verified Africans. The Yard can feel good about the fantasies they weave around Adam, because they are playing the multiculturalist card, after a fashion.

The comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, a Cambridge-educated Jewish intellectual, created a character, Ali G, who is a British Asian trying to pass as an Afro-Caribbean rapper. Ali interviewed politicians and other public figures, playing up to their expectations of what young black men are like and exploiting their desire to be tolerant of ‘black culture’, at least while they are on camera. He then deliberately goes too far, but when criticized, Ali responds with a challenge: ‘Is it ’cos I is black?’ The whole performance is a wonderful comment on the idiocy of multiculturalism.

The decent argument for multiculturalism is that it promotes tolerance of difference and challenges prejudice. Tolerance, however, comes in many forms. The liberal model of tolerance suggests that what does not hurt others should be permitted, unless common values – often described as ‘civilised values’ – are transgressed. But if we allow our own values privileged status in some domains, which values should be given absolute priority, and how broad should their domain be? In Britain, cases of female circumcision are seldom prosecuted. In France, the state is readier to take action. Which is the better policy?

Another, more radical point of view exists. For out-and-out cultural relativists, talk of common values or civilised standards is simply a ploy of the governing classes, who want to impose their particular prejudices. They argue that people should be allowed to live by the values of what is thought to be their community. The flip side, of course, is that, if tolerance is extended to whole cultures, then it is granted less readily to individual dissidents, to people who will not accept the direction of elders and betters. This threatens not only the Salman Rushdies, or the innovative musicians of Southall, but also young women trying to escape oppressive marriages. Can relativists tolerate a dissident who rejects the religion and ethics of her parents and chooses to become a secular, Westernized liberal? Only if they accept a different and contradictory liberal notion of tolerance, which gives pride of place to individual self-determination.

I believe, however, that the most troubling problem is not so much a lack of tolerance, however defined. Failures of understanding and realism are much more fundamental. We are asked to tolerate imaginary communities with stereotyped customs, but struggling to come to terms with things that do not exist or wrestling with fantastic nightmares, distract us from facing up to more urgent issues: the impact of illiberal immigration policies, chronic discrimination in employment, casual and often violent expressions of hatred in our streets and schools, the institutionalized racism of the police.

These problems are not the sole, straightforward consequence of the presence of a small number of foreigners in our midst. If we are to grasp the lived reality of life in our cities, we must start by abandoning the idea that a rigid, unchanging ‘culture’ is the key to every individual.

This essay originally appeared under the title The culture of discrimination in Cosmopolitanism: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar, Axess, 2005.


Adam Kuper