Most opposition to multiculturalism today is not grounded in a well-founded critique of prescriptive multiculturalism such as has existed in – patchy – multicultural policy. It is, rather, an attack on what some have described as the lived multiculture that has come to shape the experience of many, if not most, Europeans, whatever their cultural background.
To some extent this is actually true. There are exceptions – and I’ve tried to keep my analysis of both phenomena separate – but a lot of people who believe themselves to be too liberal and tolerant and nice to cast aspersions at a faith or ethnic group, or criticise liberal policies of migration or freedom of association will take careful aim at them, then wheel around and fire their abuse at a strawman named “multiculturalism”. This is silly. Right or wrong, people should say what they mean.
The facile reduction of the political struggles that produced multiculturalism – an imperfect and flawed response to racism – to the straw man of cultural relativism has facilitated the powerful idea, at the core of anti-multiculturalism, that objecting to an-other’s culture is wholly different to a rejection on “racial” grounds. Culture is rhetorically separated from the individuals who practice it, while paradoxically made to stand for everything they are. Care is always taken by the “Eurabianists” to separate between Muslims and “Islamism”, for example. Yet the slippage from generalised cultural critique to the targeting of particular populations associated with unpalatable cultural practices is easy. The effect is to make these practices intrinsic to groups such as Muslims, whom this essentialization and resultant marginalization racializes. Nevertheless, the avoidance – or indeed the outright rejection – of discredited race thinking, expunged from the public discourse of even the most outspoken opponents of multiculturalism, immigration and Islam in Europe, creates a neat separation between sensible resistance to multicultural excess and the irrational racism of a bygone era.
Again, I’ll agree that some people attack the ill-defined phenomenon of “Islamism” when they’re really addressing broad theological and cultural trends. It feels easier to “oppose” a nefarious political movement that some pleasant individual’s sincere beliefs. But, nonetheless, it’s silly. Say what you mean.
The trouble with this column is that it assumes – and, yes, it really does assume; there’s no argument to bolster these points – that if such people were more honest about what and who concerns them they’d be mistaken; comparable to – if not exactly the same as – the age-old racists. This implication is asserted with terms like “essentialization” – something, one infers, that’s common to both racists and today’s cultural critics. But the question is how much someone “essentialis[es]” people by a physical or ideological feature and how much it is, in fact, an essential part of them – a determining factor in their behaviour that seems, for present purposes, inextricable. Observation only becomes “essentialization” when the analysis of that determinism and that inextricability becomes irrational. Judgements based on people’s skin are held to be irrational because a person’s pigmentation isn’t influential. A person’s religious belief, and their allegiance to a cultural heritage, can be a significant factor. You can’t, in other words, essentialise judgements of group characteristics as, er, essentialising – some do; others don’t.