Over the last few months the Brexit debate brought to a head long running arguments about immigration, racism and multiculturalism. It has not been uplifting. People accused each other of being racists, haters, ignorant and lost, as simmering discontents and prejudices all came to the boil. Is it possible to address any of the issues from a different starting place, one that might be less polarised and poisoned? Here is my attempt.
When refugees and immigrants arrive on some foreign shore they are more than just an economic burden or benefit and they come with more than the clothes they stand in. You cannot see it in the photos or videos but they bring with them their culture. It is, apart from those whose hands they are holding on to, their most precious possession. And yet this word ‘culture’ has been too often missing from our debate.
The culture that refugees and immigrants bring with them forms a significant part of who they feel themselves to be, not just individually but collectively. It binds them together and gives them a shared identity. It is the end result of the long and rich history which they all recognise as theirs. Their culture is the storehouse of their history and of their shared assumptions and values. It matters to them.
By exactly the same token, wherever immigrants arrive, they are not arriving in a blank ‘territory’, or ‘place on a map’ where there is work to be had. They are arriving in a culture. A culture which is the result of another long and rich history. A history that has made the shared assumptions and cultural values of those who already live there. And the people who live in that place hold that culture very dear. Their culture matters to them.
This is my starting place. Culture matters. It is a simple statement, but one from which, if you accept it, a great deal unfolds.
If you accept that culture matters, then, for example, English culture matters. There is something which it means to be English or Welsh or Scottish or Irish. These are indigenous cultures and are as valuable as any other.
If this is true then those who arrive in a country need to be sensitive to and respectful of the culture they are entering. Just as they should expect the same for their culture.
I think respect, nebulous as it might be, is important because when there is respect, then cultures can adapt and enrich each other and over time they can change. Culture is not static. It is a living conversation. But a conversation will not happen if there is no feeling of respect and generosity.
Racism, bigotry, ignorance and fear on either side undermines hope of respect and generosity.
Which is all fine and perfect in an idealised world where cultural values do not clash or contradict. But in a world where they do, then saying ‘culture matters’ raises problems that cannot be dodged.
Cultural Differences/Different Cultures.
For me every person is created essentially equal. I believe this. I see dignity in every life. But I do not think this is the same as saying every cultural assumption and value is created equal. I recognise that female genital mutilation (FGM), as it is often called here, is a cultural value in some other cultures. But I am clear that it is not a cultural value I like or want to have as part of my culture.
Yet some of those who arrive here bring it with them as part of their culture. They value it. How should we deal with this?
On what grounds can I tell someone from another culture that part of their culture is wrong or if not wrong then just not acceptable where I live? In their country I should be extremely circumspect about saying so. Else one is half way to missionary conversion and cultural colonisation. Would you feel it right, for example, to go to India and say that allowing naked Babus to stroll around without clothes on in the presence of young children is ‘wrong’? Or would you feel such an attitude was itself verging on the racist? But in this country, in ‘your’ culture, you might feel strongly that men walking around naked in the presence of children is wrong and you might feel you could and indeed ought to say so. But on what grounds?
God as the moral arbiter and authority.
Some cultures and countries solve this problem by invoking God. Their values are paramount because their God says so. That is one answer. But it does invite the problem of different groups, with different Gods who have each declared different laws as paramount, all claiming God is on their side and telling the others they are blasphemers, heretics and sinners. Welcome to sectarian hatred. And of course this problem becomes more incendiary when those who hold such ‘God-ordained cultural values’ immigrate into another religion or into a secular country. Those for whom God’s injunctions have never been questioned – and are told must not be questioned – are going to have a hard time living in a secular nation where God does not rule.
Another solution, if you do not invoke God, is simply to say, this is my house not yours so ultimately my rules apply here not yours. The rules and culture of the immigrating population will have to compromise. This solution relies on a rather robust and confident notion of an indigenous culture having precedence over any immigrating one.
Maybe you are now feeling queasy about the whole idea of an indigenous culture. But to question the existence of indigenous cultures would be to say there is no such thing as Indian or Senegalese culture? Would you want to argue that? Every immigrant culture is an indigenous culture at home.
A refinement of the indigenous culture solution is what we might call the broadly ‘secular and democratic’ solution. The idea of an indigenous culture survives as does the idea that it has some sort of precedence. But now instead of a blanket precedence for the indigenous culture we add in the idea of majority and minority. So we now say the ‘minority’ immigrant culture has to compromise. It is ‘fair’ in some democratic sense but can still come across as rather harsh.
But it’s a solution that raises its own familiar problems. Because we then have the problem of deciding at what point new ideas, some from immigrants, become part of ‘our house’, ‘our culture’, ‘our nation’? Once enough people for whom FGM is a valued part of their culture have settled here, do I have to accept it as part of a multicultural mix of values in my country? Will it have to become legal and respected, perhaps in those areas where the immigrant population are the local majority?
Or are there any grounds upon which I can stand firm and say, not here, not in ‘my’ country? Or will it be a matter of how many are in favour and how many not? Once you confront such questions you can see how for some people it quickly boils down to who outnumbers who, hence fears over immigration rates. Would a concern over the rate of immigration and overall numbers of immigrants be racist if based on such concerns over specific cultural values? You might think the concern overblown perhaps but would it be racist?
You may not like this whole line of reasoning. You may feel it smacks of racism or latent racism. And some racists might well use it to prop up their underlying racism. But, on the other hand, if you want to defend one cultural assumption, that FGM is wrong for example, against another cultural assumption, that FGM is right, and you do not want to invoke your god against theirs, how do you do it? Would it be wrong to appeal to the concept of an indigenous culture as a way?
I do not think there any easy short cuts here.
The Problems of Multiculturalism – England as an Example.
If you accept that culture matters, then indigenous cultures exist as a matter of logic. The question then becomes is there is a real and vital link between culture and place? For me the answer is yes. What links them is history. History unfolds in particular places among particular people. It weaves a fabric between them and the places they live. The link between culture and place is not some mystic nonsense because History Matters.
English culture is today, broadly secular. The English Revolution, the Renaissance, the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, WWI, the Suffragettes and Marxism all played a role in making it so. Of course there are many of the trappings of Christianity in England and many Christians live here. But what I mean by saying England is secular is that, for example, Catholicism may say that abortion is wrong because the Catholic God says so, but in England abortion is legal and available, because secular laws and culture, not the Catholic god, rule supreme. Catholicism and Catholics and indeed all religions, made, or were forced to make (you chose which) an historic settlement with the rising secular nature of this culture. To be Catholic in England, as opposed to in Italy or Eire, is to accept that secular culture takes precedence over God’s laws. Similarly the Jewish god may say working on the sabbath is a sin but it is not in English law and custom. England is a secular culture where people are free to worship but not to presume their gods’ laws have any authority above what this secular culture says they can have.
To enter English culture, therefore, to respect it and the history which produced it and the living conversation which vivifies it, anyone should be acutely and respectfully aware of this. But this will create problems for anyone who immigrates here from, and carries with them, a culture that is still wedded to the notion that their God’s rules are, and must be, paramount. And there is the problem for multiculturalism. Different histories do not always meet in ways and at times in their development, where they can easily mix.
Unless multiculturalism means each person does in their home and in their community what their culture says is OK and no national laws over-ride that, then we inevitably have to face the problem of whose cultural values ultimately take precedence in any given territory. I do not see how this can be dodged.
Do these opinions make me some kind of little Englander? I do not think so.
I do not make any claim that my cultural values are in some absolute or universal sense, ordained as best. Only that I like them and wish to live by them. Now if I stopped there I would be some kind of Libertarian. I would live as I wish and not impose any of my values on anyone else and in return not accept anyone else trying to impose their values on me. Which sounds good but of course immediately conflicts with Gods who insist that everyone must obey, be converted, expelled or killed. So that simple creed doesn’t work for me in practice.
To take another example, I do not think honour killing is acceptable. If someone else did, how would it work if their family and mine became entangled and someone’s honour was felt to have been injured?
Multiculturalism still has to involve some notion of which cultural values take precedence and do so with due reference and respect for the history of each place. And that is what I think we are all going to have to talk about openly and without rancour.
Culture, History and Place.
I could have called this section “Homeland” if I had wanted to be provocative or Fatherland if I really wanted to set alarm bells ringing. The Left has a justifiable allergy to expressions of nationalism. But if you can accept, what seems to me to be undeniable, that the history of the peoples who have existed in a place over centuries gives them not only a culture they share, but a shared and important link to the place in which their history and culture have developed, then there is some concept of a homeland. The fact that such terms are often co-opted by right wing nationalists, xenophobes and warmongers does not mean homelands do not exist.
Is it wrong for someone to desire a homeland? The desire for a Jewish homeland was not a terrible thing I don’t think. It rose from the desire to have a place where their culture was the established indigenous culture. A place where Jews could live as Jews among Jews, rather than as Jew among gentiles. This doesn’t seem to me to be a terrible and certainly not a racist desire. And the same exact argument applies to the desire for a Palestinian homeland.
So would it be wrong for an English person to say I want to live as an english person among english people? There is an element of ‘culture’ which is collective and communal. It has always been the case that immigrant groups, have quite naturally sought each other out and preferred to live together as a community where their culture is locally dominant. Culture is not a strictly private thing. It is not a personal, life-style or fashion choice. To treat it as such is to deny the communal essence of culture. But of course such communal feelings and desires are not really part of our atomised, individualised, “consumer culture”. Where culture as I have been discussing it is replaced by your individual assortment of things you have bought so that you can be an individual and stand out from the crowd. In many ways ‘consumer culture’ with its emphasis on the individual is antithetical to the idea of a culture which gives a definition and collective meaning to a group. And here we come to what I feel is the real root cause of our fears over immigration.
Culture, Nationalism and Globalism.
The concepts of culture and of history now have many enemies on both the left and right of politics.
I suggest Left and right, though they still exist and are important, are no longer the defining political spectrum. Today the defining political spectrum is Global v Local. Global is about trade, and free markets. It is about everyone being an economic entity, a consumer and producer. Local is about valuing and being part of a place, its history and its culture. The problem is the right, the globalist, free market right, does not really recognise culture as having any real value and certainly no rights. While many on the Left are very prone to brand expressions of concern for an indigenous culture as inward looking and parochial, if not racist and xenophobic.
On the Right, globalists do not like or accept the importance of culture, except in its high-culture and consumerist guises. According to the rules of global trade ‘cultural’ barriers to trade – a dislike of GM for example – would be an irrational, non-tariff barrier to free trade, and as such would be illegitimate, illegal and wrong. You can only oppose GM on scientific grounds. You, as a nation of people, simply may not say, I don’t like it and don’t want it. That would be a cultural ‘prejudice’. What once we may have allowed as a cultural choice or preference is, for the Globalist, an irrational and illegal ‘prejudice’.
You might feel to oppose GM is indeed irrational. But that is not the point here. The point is, whether a culture is allowed to have its irrationalities if it wants them, or whether such ‘cultural’ notions are now to be over-ruled and dismissed?
Globalism does not see culture as I do nor value it as I do. Why not? Because Globalism is founded on a trinity of holy beliefs: The free movement of capital, the free movement of goods and the free movement of people. The free movement of capital , in real practical terms, in practice rather than in theory, means nations may not hamper corporations who wish to move their money off-shore to lower tax or no-tax havens. It is the belief which underpins tax havens, tax reduction, tax avoidance, and the race to the bottom where governments compete to offer corporations lower tax rates than their neighbours. I do not agree with it. It may be rational, but I have a cultural dislike of the practice.
The free movement of goods means national governments and peoples should not, must not, impose tariffs on imported goods. It does not matter that imported goods may have been produced with near-slave labour, without any regard for the environment, without any regard for the treatment of indigenous people whose land may have been expropriated from them in the making of those goods. The free movement of goods says tariffs are bad and goods must be free to move. It underpins the off-shoring of jobs to places where wages are lower and conditions are worse. I disagree with it…for cultural reasons.
The free movement of people – and here we come to the crux. The neoliberal globalist creed embraces this freedom as it does the other two. People should be free to move to wherever they can find work. They are economic entities and the places they leave and the places they go to – all places in fact – are just places on a map where jobs are to be found because labour is needed. That those people may have one culture and the people already in the place they are going to, have another does not appear in the neoliberal globalist creed.
For Globalism, people are labour. They are economic entities first and only. If 100 000 people move from one culture to another in short order this is as globalism and its three sacred freedoms of globalism, require. Where does culture and respect come in to this creed? It does not. There is no consideration of cultural differences and any difficulties with mass movement are to be denied and overcome, because culture is largely ignored in the globalist, neoliberal ideology.
Margaret Thatcher once said (although she never quite said it so pithily) “There is no such thing as society”. Neo-liberal, globalism goes further and says “There is no such thing as culture”. No one may have said it so nakedly, but I think we sense that that is what we are being told. People, all of us, immigrants and indigenous alike, are being reduced to economic entities who may be needed here today and elsewhere tomorrow. Our culture must be seen as something private and personal. We must all rub along together under the ONLY shared assumptions allowed, economic ones.
If this was something being forced upon us only by the Globalist Right I think we would find it easier to confront and oppose. But a strange thing has happened on the way to this anti-cultural globalism. The Left have come to embrace its underlying trinity of sacred truths as well. The Left – in its mainstream incarnations at least – has bought in to the Free movement of capital, goods and people. And though the mainstream Left sees the problems Globalism is creating, it has a hard time articulating a coherent opposition to it. The centre-left can admit there are problems with moving money and lament the problems of jobs being off-shored but they are easily shouted down with cries of the need for “efficiency” and “growth”. The Left look and are confused and muddled. So the mainstream Left of the last thirty years has done little to oppose Globalism and has often been its ardent cheerleader.
But is has been with the free movement of People that the Left has been most tied to Globalism. For many on the Left the Free Movement of people is inextricably tied up with being anti-racist. How then could they be anti-globalist and reject such free movement? There is a mindset which declares that any opposition to the Free movement of people is racism. Needless to say I do not agree with this as all the above is witness.
But let me say this – before I am accused either of racism or a lack of humanity when it comes to refugees. Whether people like the influx of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq or not we have a moral obligation to accept them. We cannot be party to bombing their countries into oblivion and reducing them to utter desolation, poverty and lawlessness, and then complain when people do their utmost to escape the hell we have made for them. If we wish fewer refugees perhaps we might do well to stop bombing them.
I believe the politics of the next 20 years will be, already is, defined not by left and right, but by globalism versus something which values and champions the local or national culture and history of people.
This need not mean becoming inward looking parochial or xenophobic. It does not mean the insistence that one’s own culture is better or superior to all others. It does mean recognising that for all people Culture Matters and History Matters – to deny these things is to rob people, both immigrants and the indigenous, of one of the most precious, self affirming, necessary of parts of humanity.
Culture Matters – A conclusion
For a moment let’s return to that beach where we started. There are the people coming ashore, hoping for something better, for themselves and their children, than the war or poverty they left behind. They have little but what they do have, what they cling to, is the culture which connects them to their home, their past and to each other. Facing them what do they see? Another culture? Yes, but one that seems confused about itself, wracked with self doubt and attacked from without and within.
They find a culture which makes great efforts to welcome and respect other cultures but which pours scorn on expressions of its own culture. They find a culture where multiculturalism is talked about but where the engine of economic and legal change seems to be deeply antagonistic towards the indigenous culture and to culture in general.
I suggest immigrants who arrive here with a strong and energetic culture quickly see that what faces them is a culture under relentless attack from without by an economic ideology which has no place for culture, and that at the same time has been infected within, by a kind of cultural auto-immune disease of self loathing. The first comes from the politics of the Right the second from the Left.
If I am in any way right and this is the crisis we are in, then can anyone blame an immigrant for not wanting to join us? Their choice are simple, keep to the culture you brought with you, or join an infected culture which is destroying itself.
It is my belief that people have the right to say no to aspects of other cultures they do not like, but much more importantly they have the right to say no to the idea of no culture. Immigrants are already saying no to the ideology of No Culture. I believe they are right and we must join them. Only if we say no to ‘no culture’ and re-affirm our own, will immigrants be attracted by the culture they find here and tempted to it.
It is my belief that people are able to welcome strangers and other cultures when they feel confident in themselves and their own culture. I believe what has been fuelling concerns about immigration is not a rise in racism but a creeping feeling that English culture is being crushed between globalism from without and self-loathing from within. I do not loath English culture. I am proud of it. Like all cultures it has things of which it should be ashamed, but it also has things of which it can be proud.
For me multiculturalism risks becoming the cultural arm of the economic forces which make every place the same. I prefer a world of differences. A world of different languages not one vast sprawl of english. A world of different cultures, not a spreading multicultural one.
Allow people to have a strong sense of self worth and pride in their own culture. Allow them to say ‘this is my home’ and then they will be able to say ‘welcome’ to strangers at the door. Tell them they have no right to claim this place as theirs or say that ‘this is the culture of this place’, and they will become afraid and prey to the peddler’s of hate.
Celebrating your own culture is not the same as hating others nor does it lead to it. Culture Matters. History Matters. Place Matters. Deny these at your peril.