Sunday, July 27, 2008

Smolin on multiculturalism

Physicist Lee Smolin pens an article for New Scientist on the principles which, he believes, should underlie a multicultural society:

The older notions of liberal democracy grew out of societies where everyone had the same background and history. Today, a citizen of the UK, Sweden, Canada, France or the US may have any ethnic origin, any appearance, and practice any religion – or none. Diversity is increasingly becoming the norm, as unprecedented mobility delivers a planetary society.

But as we move around and mix, our differences move with us and, if anything, deepen as the number of philosophies, religions and life styles combine and multiply in unexpected ways. The challenge is how to have a diverse, multicultural society that is based on reason.

The answer is that we cannot expect to agree about everything. Nor should we: history has shown that a society in complete agreement is impossible, and societies led by religious or political fanatics who attempted to impose agreement, failed - without exception. The success of the pluralistic nations tell us that diversity of views, faiths and styles of living and thinking are good for everyone.

Smolin's answer to the problem of conflict between different cultures in a pluralistic society is that "when reason applied to the publicly-available evidence does not suffice...we must agree to disagree. Clearly, disagreements about religious faith are not in the domain that can be answered [with the application of reason to publicly-available evidence], so here we must allow and even encourage a diversity of views."

Let me, however, pose the following question: if one of the cultures in a pluralistic liberal democracy rejects the principles of liberal democracy, and exercises a capability to engage in acts of violence to undermine that society, how should the liberal democracy respond? Should we merely 'agree to disagree' with such people? It would be labouring the obvious to suggest that this is no longer a hypothetical question, and that there exist Wahhabist, Islamo-fascist sub-cultures in European liberal democracies, which reject the principles of liberal democracy, which aspire to create a world-wide Islamic theocracy, and which have both the will and the capability to engage in acts of violence to further those ends.

Tolerating Islamo-fascism, seems unwise. I would suggest that the definition of multiculturalism needs to be qualified: all races, ethnicities, sexualities, religions, and cultures within a liberal democracy should be tolerated, but within the constraint that they agree with the fundamental principles of liberal democracy. Any sub-cultures which aim to undermine or destroy liberal democracy should not be tolerated.

Exactly what form such intolerance should take is one of the great issues of our time. Legislating against the teaching of Wahhabist beliefs in schools and mosques, and disrupting Saudia Arabian sponsorship of Wahhabism, are obvious options here.


Jonathan said...

Complex stuff, just some thoughts.

Yes, I agree. Tolerance has to have limits. Otherwise it eats out its own heart and becomes its opposite. To tolerate the intolerant is implicitly, by allowing the intolerant to grow, to suport and to promote intolerance, even though, explicitly, you think you are doing the opposite.

We have already dealt with this issue before in our history - although there were obvious differences. As I see it, in the Protestant reformation in England, though the varying Protestant sects had varying degrees of tolerance extended to them, at different times, they were mostly on a trajectory to achieve tolerance by the 1660s - even though they had to then operate outside the Church of England. No offence to Catholics intended, but the Christian community that could not be tolerated until later were the Roman Catholics..and this was becasue they were percceived (with some real justification, I believe) as a threat to the Political, Protestant integrity of the Nation, becasue of the Vatican's temporal ambitions, which, if achieved, would have rolled back the religious liberties already achieved. Am I wrong? When it was perceived that they no longer posed such a threat, they were tolerated. So it was all basically political, and oriented around the instinct for defence.

It is ridiculoys to tolerate people whose ambition is to use the tolerance extended to them to destroy in the future tolerance for people different from themselves. It is like using democracy to destroy democracy, which is what Hitler did, and which certain Islamist groups have already done, and seek to do some more.

Smolin's multicultural model works fine if everyone is invested in the system, and doesnt want, rather, to use it to overthrow it. There has to be a pre-political cultural loyalty, in other words, first. There needs to be a central organic pull or centripetal forcefield binding constituent members, be whatever 'culture' they be, to one loyalty; one that can endure and withstand the centrifugal energies that express each cultures distinctiveness within the policy. A balance between thee forces.

A useful tactic to use in not tolerating the intolerant, which as I see it would have a compelling rational force of equity and justice, is to cast light on the political freedoms in other cultures home countries and use them to justify ones own approach. For example, I live in Kuwait. I know very well what would happen to me if I started publically campaigning for the overthrow of the Emir. So its very easy to say to a hypothetical Kuwaiti Jihadist, for example, living in the UK who wanted to impose sharia in the Uk, and campaigned to that end, for example :hey, face the music, what's up? Why is something ok for you, that is not ok for me? I dont see how he could argue with the objections I would place against his ambitions, given the stance of his home country towards what I might like, hypotetically, to do to his home country. I respect my duty of compliance and gratitude as a guest in a differing culture..why can't he?

Obviously we have to be careful not go overboard and illegalise all forms of opposition to either our Government or culture in a standard state-authoritarian kind of way. The trick is to discriminate between opposition with marshalls a healthy criticism that seeks to remain loyal to the culture and keep the overall culture in place, perhaps even to refine and improve it; and oppositioin which is root and branch and fundamental, and disrespectful towards our fundamntal values, seeking its overthrow.

A real problem, though, is that we ourselves now have a weakend sense of what our own British culture is, of what its identity is, so we are minded less to care either to promote or to defend it. Islam, however, does not feel the same way about its culture. It doesnt do idenity crisis the way we do.

Nature abhors a vacuum, if you see what I mean?

Gordon McCabe said...

Sage stuff, Jonathan, although I can't comment on the Reformation!

On the issue of national identity, to what degree has our notion of identity weakened, and to what degree are we simply displaying our capacity to adapt to, and assimilate other cultures?

Jonathan said...

Yes, well I was unsure about referring to the Reformation in this way, as it's not central to the topic at all. Just an illustration.

But all countries have the right to defend themselves against threats internal and external, one presumes?

'On the issue of national identity, to what degree has our notion of identity weakened, and to what degree are we simply displaying our capacity to adapt to, and assimilate other cultures?'

Great question. May the debate commence. I'd say there are degrees of both.

Yet in the past when we welcomed foreigners, I think both sides, both them and us, recognised and knew - we taking it for granted, they accepting it as an obvious part of the package, that the new arrivals would be guests who would be living here on our terms, not theirs -insofar as those might conflict significantly with ours.

I believe that it is this shared understanding that is now under threat.

On the other hand, the internal loosening of our own affectionate grasp on our own native British, cultural, historical traditons is a part of the problem..and this doesn't concern immigrants at all, it being an issue for the indigenous culture; though it will then influence what we then may or may not expect from them, regarding their coming to live amongst us.

It's facinating to consider the question of why this national self-disenchantment, self-repudiation has arisen. Have you read much Roger Scruton? A man of insight, no less.

(Problem is I suspect some people won't go anywhere near him just becasue he loves fox hunting, etc. What a weird and trivial people we can be.)

We can disagree, perhaps, over the degree to which religion is related to, and necessarily involved in, these traditions, but agree, I hope, that there's alot more involved in them than religion. So patriotic theists and atheists should still be able to find much common ground, I hope.

Why are the British (well, the English especially) expected in such a special, unique way to be ashamed of who they are?

Nobody else seems especially ashamed of who they are (well, one thinks of the Germans of course..though they seem to be recovering from that slowly).

What do you think?

By the way, sorry about my typos when they happen. Personally, I am appalled:)