Tuesday, July 10, 2012

What is Culture?

I recently had a mini debate with a member of the  UK Independence Party (UKIP), David Coburn, on Twitter about the idea of “uniculturalism” – an “ism” that I hadn't heard of before. It turns out that this word is a favourite of UKIP’s and it is in their policy as follows:

“UKIP’s philosophy is based on uniculturalism, not the racial/religious collectivism fostered by generations of politically correct thinking known as multiculturalism…”

18 months ago the Prime Minister made a speech in which he also hammered “Multiculturalism”. here is part of what he said:

"Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream. We have failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong. We have even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values.”

Both UKIP and Cameron fail to define what culture is but they nevertheless suggest strongly that to have different cultures in one Country is somehow problematic. There is a certain amount of euphemistic language being used here – especially by Cameron. But it is easy to cast away the euphemisms and get at what they are really saying.

“Uniculturalism” and Cameron’s “A society to which they they feel they want to belong”  are closely related ideas if not exactly the same. Essentially the root of it is in the United States of America where the “Melting Pot” was the metaphor for the assimilation of immigrants from a variety of mainly European cultures and nations into a single American culture within a generation or so. Under this thesis there were Italian-Americans, Russian-Americnas, Irish-Americans  and many others but whilst some vestige of their roots might have been maintained essentially they all melted into one American type. It is crucial to identify why this happened  - and to point out where it didn't.

The “Melting Pot” worked when there was already a degree of homogeneity about the peoples thrown into it. In America it was relatively easy for the white, Christian immigrants from East, West and South Europe to meld together and also with the Anglo-Saxon origin peoples who had preceded them. The dominant existing American culture was White Anglo-Saxon and Christian and it was a fairly small step for an Irish or a Polish or a Greek or an Italian immigrant family to assimilate. Once they had mastered the English language the task was pretty much done and second generation immigrants, taught in American schools, were not really separated by culture or origins at all. It did mean there were more Roman Catholics than before and it took time for them to be accepted but John Kennedy’s election as President in 1960 put the seal on this.

But where the “Melting Pot” was far more problematic was when the immigrants were of a different race and/or religion. Here the culture clash was and remains far more challenging. For Jewish European immigrants the choice was either to hold onto their religion and its associated lifestyle requirements (which many did) or to secularise and to an extent drop their religious Jewishness. The latter group went into the melting pot and the former group rather less so - but both groups prospered in their different ways. The Chinese assimilated much less easily – indeed they did not necessarily want to nor was there any pressure on them to do so. So the Chinatowns of the big American cities remain to this day – David Cameron would no doubt call them “segregated communities” but their existence is not seen as a problem. And, of course, many Chinese-Americans did throw themselves into the Melting Pot and become to all intents and purposes indistinguishable form the Core American culture, except that they had Chinese faces! (Many of these call themselves unselfconsciously “Bananas” – yellow on the outside but white on the inside). The key point here is that it is any Chinese-American’s choice whether to assimilate completely or to stay in Chinatown and neither choice is seen as better or more commendable. 

The children of the Slaves are to an extent analogous with the Chinese in that their ancestors were brought – mostly unwillingly - to the United States. However, as we know, the presence of slaves and slavery was to be the cause of the most traumatic events in American history, the Civil War. And when that was over a century of discrimination and persecution of African-Americans was to follow. In essence the white majority tried to marginalise and segregate those of their fellow Americans who were black. So they were excluded from the melting pot not just because of their colour but also because of institutionalised prejudice. In response to this a vibrant African-American culture grew up as a counterweight to the mainstream and it exists to this day. As with the Chinese African-Americans can seek to cross over from their quite distinct cultural world and enter the melting pot – although it is generally only those with the financial resources to get a better education and then employment who do so. They are the “Coconuts” – the African American equivalent of the Chinese “Bananas” brown on the outside and white inside.

From the above (and it is necessarily selective and incomplete) it is clear that the United States is unquestionably “Multicultural”. Most of its European immigrants are by now fully assimilated and the only clue to their origins may be in their surnames and to some extent their religion. More recent immigrants – especially those from Central/Latin America – are arguably on the way to following their European predecessors into the Melting pot. However the sheer scale of this immigration has meant that distinct and very large Hispanic communities have grown up in the Southern States.  

With this brief sketch of the situation in the United States in mind now let us turn to the situation in the United Kingdom. What scares UKIP and worries David Cameron is that we undoubtedly have parts of our cities that are dramatically different to the mainstream white, Anglo-Saxon, Christian culture that is overwhelmingly our norm as a Nation. In the main these people differ in colour, religion and lifestyle from that mainstream norm. In some cases they may not even be English language literate – especially older people who were educated in their origin countries rather than here. Is the American style “Melting pot” going in time to assimilate these families so that they become absorbed into a “Unicultural” Britain. Will they all, a darker skin apart, in time be indistinguishable from the mainstream? Is it just about making them, as Cameron suggests, aspire to be  part of our mainstream culture rather rather than the one that they or their parents brought with them? Of course not - and nor is it desirable!

Multiculturalism was never a goal – at no point did any British Government say that they wanted Britain to be a much more pluralistic society. It is a consequence of generations of immigration – mainly since the second world war. As in the United States the extent of assimilation of immigrants and their descendants has been mixed with some having the resources to enable them to become part of the mainstream society (if not culture) and others not having the resources nor wishing to do so. My Indian neighbours live to all intent and purposes mainstream British cultural lives – except that they celebrate Diwali rather than Christmas. But a few miles away there is a large and “segregated” Indian community in the London Borough of Hounslow. Does this community live lives “contrary to our values” as Mr Cameron worries about. Well it rather depends what your values are I suppose! And this is the key point.

I broadly live a life that I was brought up to. The religious observances I occasionally attend are in Churches not in Mosques or Temples. The language I speak is English with a received pronunciation accent. My lifestyle is irredeemably middle-class and to an extent privileged. That is my culture. It is rather different to the culture of only a few streets away from me. Not just different from the Indians of Hounslow but from the white working class of (say) Feltham. This is the rub - and goes back to the  question at the head of this article “What is culture?”. Is there a uniculturalism that unites me with the white working glass community on my doorstep but not with the Indian community a few miles away? I would say emphatically not. And there is no hierarchy of culture which makes me a Londoner better than someone from Edinburgh, or makes me as a white superior to someone who is black, or makes me as comparatively well off better than someone who survives on the minimum wage.

So the question to UKIP and to Mr Cameron is this. If you believe in Uniculturalism, where there is a common “Vision of Society” and to which we all conform or aspire, which of our cultures are you talking about? And if, as is obvious really, that is a white Anglo-Saxon, Christian society  (like Britain in the 1930s perhaps) does that mean that you want to outlaw Islam? And does that mean you only tolerate incomers if they become Bananas or Coconuts? Because if that is what you  mean forget it. It isn't going to happen. The more that you set societal “norms” backed by some specious “vision” the more that you will encourage those who don’t want it to retreat to their  “segregated communities”. Remember how blacks in America developed their separate lifestyle and culture because they had to in response to American Apartheid.

Uniculturalism in Britain is unachievable – even if it was desirable, which for me it isn't. I relish the diversity of our society and don’t want my social and cultural norms to dominate and don't believe that they are preferable to any other norms either. But I would argue that we need greater tolerance of differences and a broader understanding of the world outside our own cultural ghettos. That world is as much about class, region, generation and lifestyle as it is about race or religion.  That we should foster mobility in all these areas is fine – if a British Asian chooses to live a lifestyle that is similar to mine why not – but if he doesn't that’s surely fine as well. Acceptance of these freedoms means that we must accept and manage multiculturalism rather than spouting borderline racist remarks about the desirability of having a single “Uniculture”. Or condemning communities that live separate, but peace-abiding, lives where the only “problem” is that these lives are not like our lives.








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