Multiculturalism and Its Discontents

Kenan Malik’s small book, Multiculturalism and Its Discontents: Rethinking Diversity After 9/11, is the first book I read from Seagull Publishing’s Manifesto series. I found that it addressed an issue that I’ve been pondering frequently in the last few years, and I’ve since gone on to track down some other books from the series.

I had not really thought about multiculturalism as policy. I’d considered it an attitude: openness to people of other cultures, curiosity about how others do things, different food, dress, customs, of a positive, enriching nature. But when Malik begins by recounting the Anders Brevik murders in Norway and relating them not just to concerns about immigration in Europe, but to the policy of multiculturalism and its implications, I needed to read further.

South African Apartheid might be the ultimate example of vigorous Multiculturalism. Message: we are different, you and I; we have our values, you have yours; we’ll put you in an enclave and let you alone except when we need your labor; and no, by the way, we’re not equal. In Europe, it has played out differently, but the focus on differences is not bringing people together. So you have conservative types who are aggressively trying to remove the different ones from their society, liberal types who think it’s not polite to express concern about denying women full freedom if their “chosen” community restricts it, and tension all around.

As policy, multiculturalism begins by defining groups; we all become “other,” including the group with claims of native status. The problem is that as groups gain status, individuals may lose it. If I am viewed by legal authorities as part of a certain group, where are my rights rooted? Only within my group or with the laws or constitution of the nation. For women, especially, this is a very big deal since women have only recently obtained official recognition of their basic human rights in some communities, but clearly not all.

As they say at the end of every research article, more work is needed. I’ll be reading more on this matter!