Handling Diversity
by Paul Hazelden


How should a society handle diversity? It's a difficult question – possibly one of the most difficult we need to face – but a vital one.

There are two basic answers people tend to give: integrationism, and multi-culturalism. One is favoured by the political right, the other by the political left. But neither works, and neither can possibly work.


The first option is to insist that everyone adopts the host culture. This is, in general, the French approach: if people want to come and live in France, then they should become French – they should adopt not just the nationality, but the culture too.

The advantages of this approach are clear. It is simple and efficient; you know where you stand; you know what to expect of strangers; you waste very little time and energy discussing the issues raised by cultural clashes; and so on.

The disadvantages are also clear. Anyone who does not wish to conform culturally automatically becomes excluded from the society; anyone who cannot conform finds themselves fighting a battle they cannot win. Life is very uncomfortable for the minority groups that wish to retain some individuality, and it must remain uncomfortable until the society abandons multiculturalism.

It is also a fiction. Within France are many sub-cultures, all claiming to be authentically French. Even within a single region there will be multiple conflicting cultures: “The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends” is not just a problem in America. In the UK, the situation is many times worse – not only do we have several national identities, but the different regions within our nations are just as diverse as in France, and we also have a legacy of trade and empire that makes a mockery of any claim to a single culture. What is the national dish of England? Is it Fish and Chips, Chow Mein or Chicken Tikka Masala?


The second option is to become multi-cultural. There are two main features of this approach. Firstly, you must allow everyone to retain their own cultural identity. Secondly, you must allow people to gather in cultural groups where they can express that identity.

Minority groups like this approach – at the outset, at least. When relatives arrive, they can find a home away from home. This combines the best of both worlds: they have whatever brought them to the new country in the first place, but they also have many (if not most) of the traditions, rituals, foods, social structures and norms of their home.

The disadvantages of this approach are evident. The new cultural groups sooner of later find themselves in conflict with the host culture. English people advocating freedom of religion are usually thinking about questions of liturgy and tradition in a sort of Anglican context. Of course you must have freedom of religion! People should be able to decide for themselves whether to sing Hymns or Choruses, whether the minister dresses up in a frock, or looks more like a salesman or a student. So it comes as a bit of a shock when you discover freedom of religion means you have to allow people to cut the throat of live animals as part of their worship.

And some cultures really are incompatible. Even if we could persuade Jews and Muslims to be nice to each other, worse difficulties would still remain. Even the most broad-minded Christian church does not usually want to allow the local Satanist coven use of its building. The sad reality is that almost any religious or cultural group will find activities and beliefs of many other groups to be deeply offensive. Being offended is just part of the price you pay for living in a multicultural society.

And these are only the problems you get when the system is working well. When the system fails to work, things get even nastier. Minority groups can easily feel they are being discriminated against even if this is not the case – we have all heard unjustified complaints. There are not enough left-handed paraplegic mixed-race lesbians in the TV Soaps, or the Police, or Parliament, or on the board of FT100 companies. We may ignore such unjustified complaints but, sadly, there are far too many justified complaints still being made – not only is there rampant discrimination within society, both individual and institutional, but it seems this will always be the case.

I have sometimes heard people say that the English are inherently xenophobic. I don't believe this to be true, at least, not in any meaningful sense. In my experience, the English are far less xenophobic than most nations. The trouble is, everyone is xenophobic to an extent.

Every culture has its own values and expectations. They must seem right to the people within that culture. Anyone who behaves differently must be considered to be acting wrongly, even if you don't think it is wrong enough to be illegal. People only complain about cultural imperialism when it is not their own culture being imperial. When it is your culture, you just don't recognise it – that is the way culture works. You only experience something as a 'cultural experience' when it is not your own culture being experienced.

So Where Do We Go From Here?

Neither of the standard positions have any hope of succeeding. I would like to suggest the only real answer to these failed positions is to hold an open debate in which we discuss and describe the kind of society in which we want to live. The aim of the discussion is to arrive at a statement of principles, values, freedoms and limitations that has the support of the vast majority of the population. I am not attempting in this paper to describe such a statement in full, merely indicating the sort of issues that need to be covered, and the kind of decisions that need to be made. Once this statement is in place, I would make agreement with it an explicit part of the process of entering the society.

To start the debate, here are some suggestions of things to be included and excluded from the statement.

Include democracy. We are a democracy, and this is a central and necessary part of our cultural identity. I do not want people migrating to this country who cannot endorse this value.

Exclude royalism. We are also a Kingdom, and I would not want to see that change. But I would not want to prevent a republican from taking up UK nationality: we already have a strong republican tradition, and this is part of the rich cultural diversity we enjoy.

Include capitalism. The freedom to earn money and choose how to spend it is fundamental to the whole economy.

Include taxation. It is right that people pay taxes to support the various necessary state functions and activities.

Include our Christian heritage. I do not believe we are (or ever have been) a 'Christian country' but many of our values and practices assume a Christian heritage, and we should not imagine you can replace this by a different religion without making fundamental changes. For example, we could not have invented the welfare state in the context of a Buddhist world view.

Similarly, we need to include marriage as an exclusive relationship between two people. While we are debating whether the legal contract called 'marriage' can be extended from the traditional joining of a man and a woman to include the joining of two men or two women, we are not debating whether it can be extended to include three, four or five people of any sex.

Exclude a state church. The establishment or non-establishment of the Church of England should not be addressed in this context.

Include freedom of religion. Every individual should be free to choose their own beliefs, whichever tradition, faith or non-faith they were brought up within.

Include freedom to choose your own marriage partner... and other relationships. This prevents sending children to another country to get married against their will, but it does not exclude the acceptance of advice or the use of marriage-brokers.

Include the acceptance of reasonable responsibility for your own health. You are free to smoke or eat nothing but hamburgers, but the NHS should be free to refuse to treat you if you persist in ignoring medical advice.

The Place of Civil Disobedience

If there is a clear cultural position you are expected to comply with, the question still remains: what happens when people can not accept the agreed position?

Civil disobedience is fine as long as you are prepared to suffer the legal penalty. If it is civil disobedience (and not just simple criminality) then you commit the crime and hand yourself in.

The alternative is to campaign to get the law changed.

The Place of Prejudice

Slightly more difficult is the question of what we should do with prejudice. How do you distinguish between a valid cultural expression and an invalid demonstration of prejudice? When does an expression of your culture become an attack on someone else's culture? The Protestant marches in Northern Ireland are a prime example. You cannot justify racism on the ground that we have been acting this way for centuries and thus it is part of our culture. On the other hand, “I do not want to see or be reminded of a different culture to my own” is not a viable position either.

I think in these situations, you need to look behind the scene at what is really going on. Expressing your culture is fine, but doing so in a way that deliberately makes life for someone else so difficult that they are forced (or strongly encouraged) to move away is not acceptable.

We need to balance freedom of belief against honesty – you cannot legislate to make people nice and non-discriminatory, but we can provide a balance that is hard to argue against. We cannot stop people from being prejudiced, but we can stop them from acting on their prejudice in certain contexts.

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Copyright © 2004 Paul Hazelden
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