Multicultures – communities of familiar strangers
Preface: This is a discussion paper, not a researched academic document. In particular, it includes a fair amount of personal comment. Where a topic is of broad general interest comes up with friends, I have adopted the practice of posting discussion starters like the present one on Academia.edu in the hope that others might also find them worth thinking about. The base reference points in this article relate to Australia, but the implications are much wider. The reading list at the end is mostly a collection of contemporary links from the Internet and pretty accidental, not edited for quality.
A Starting Thought
In 1991 I formulated a kind of personal template for dealing with the scary human world. Perhaps I should have had this sorted out by the traditional age of majority, twenty-one. I’m apparently a late developer, so it took until forty-six. Anyway, that guiding leitmotif has seemed particularly useful in dealing with the topic of this essay, multicultures, or sticky clumps of human minds. Therefore I repeat it here, with apologies to any who are allergic to intricate soliloquies.
I don't care what you believe in, so long as you don't believe in it too strongly. A belief is a weapon in the armory of your heart, and its razor edge will murder the innocent. The ice, the fire of your passion will seduce mundane men and women. Your clarity will excite respect. And the first demagogue who comes along with a key to your heart's armory will wrest the weapon from your moral grasp. The first cause which wears the colours of your belief will enlist you as a soldier in ravaging crusades. Peace friend. Keep your passion to doubt with. Our civilization is a simple matter of live and let live, of giving dreams a go, but stepping back with a wry smile when we get it wrong. Let the fundamentalists perish in their own pillars of fire. Spare a dollar for the living, and have a nice day. Doubt well, do what you can, then let it be. Presidents, priests, wage slaves, hustlers, men and women, kids, we all live by the grace of those we love to despise... Leidenschaft ist, was Leiden schafft (passion is what makes you suffer - German Proverb).
1. The state of our multiple identities in a 21st Century world
This is the Wikipedia 2014 explanation (and entire entry) of what pluriculturalism is:
Pluriculturalism is an approach to the self and others as complex rich beings which act and react from the perspective of multiple identifications. In this case, identity or identities are the by-products of experiences in different cultures. As an effect, multiple identifications create a unique personality instead of or more than a static identity. It is based on multiple-identity, wherein people have multiple identities who belong to multiple groups with different degrees of identification. The term pluricultural competence is a consequence of the idea of plurilingualism. There is a distinction between pluriculturalism and multiculturalism.
Although pluriculturalism doesn’t get much shelf-space in the chatter annals of our day, Wikipedia seems to have summed up pretty well where I am at as a 69 year old Australian, though I am by no means a typical Australian, even if such a creature exists. It is not an ideological posture, not an opinion, but simply a description of where I find my identity (or identities) after a lifetime of working and living across cultures in seven countries.
Even if I had not travelled, a quarter of my Australian compatriots were born in other countries, and another quarter have parents who hailed from somewhere else, so avoiding coming to terms with their many patterns of behaviour would have been rather difficult. Nor is it simply a matter of interaction with peoples of various national origins.
I have been a dockyard labourer and an office clerk, a university lecturer, a high school teacher, a salesman, an airport dispatch officer, a writer, an editor, a taxi driver, a poet, a researcher and heaven knows what between (nor in that order). I have been a customer and a reveller, a hospital patient and a consultant … and so it goes on. I have been a rich foreigner in poor countries and the despair of banks in my hometown. When a stranger asks “what do you do”, as he fishes for the right stereotype to pin on my chest as a mark of admiration or secret contempt, I am at a loss to answer. That is, I am a man of my age, a chameleon creature accustomed to slipping amongst a kaleidoscope of roles.
This plurality of role plays does not mean that I am "values free". I have values, but they are not a tribal collection like "watches cricket" (actually I dislike cricket..), or "barracks for the national flag, right or wrong". My values are more in the nature of boundary markers on behaviour that I look for in myself and those I meet. I don't care if you wear a hijab or burn incense in a Buddhist temple. I do care for a marker such as "above all, do no harm" - not always achievable perhaps, but at least a navigation beacon.
It is of central importance to the discussion which follows that my way is not everyone’s way. We all make sense of the world as best we can, then have a habit of projecting our understanding as universal truths. The sense we make of things is partly an accident of experience. It also has a lot to do with the kind of person we are. “Personality types” are a bit hard to pin down with any precision, but for daily survival we have heuristics for fitting people into these mental boxes. The personality type mental boxes I use to sort people seem to more or less work across cultures, though I notice that various cultures give particular personality types more respect, or space to play out their potentials.
In every grouping, there are individuals who cleave to a core identity in their sub-culture and others in a penumbra who are happier moving across boundaries in various roles. From the beginning of time, there have been women who have been sold, traded or just jumped their cultural boundaries. There have been men who left wayward sperm trails.
2. About cultural boundaries and their mutations
Cultural boundaries have sometimes been social or economic, and over the last few centuries the shifting social barriers in England, for example, have caused much abrasion. A part of that change has been that those empowered to enforce what they saw as “core values” (e.g. the divine right of kings, or the divine right of elites to violently oppress any challenge) have come to yield more space to those who seek to move across boundaries. The personality types who insist on “core values” (i.e. theirs) and those personality types more amenable to cultural adaptation still jostle against each other. The arena however has broadened, so that today the competing subcultures in many countries, including England, Australia and the United States, include large numbers of immigrants from hitherto remote ethnic and linguistic groups. Thus, although the contest has sharpened and become more complex, the underlying psychological factors remain much the same as they were in earlier centuries.
There are a few lessons we can learn from history, not that learning from history has ever found much favour. One lesson has been that the more rigid cultural, religious and legal barriers are made, the greater the potential for conflict and persecution, especially in times of stress. In the case of immigrant settlement, that is a recipe for pogroms.
Where a majority in some immigrant groups insist on rigid barriers against outsiders themselves (e.g. against intermarriage), or follow practices which violate national laws (e.g. genital mutilation), there is a case for questioning their best fit in an environment like Australia’s. There will always be more flexible individuals within those groups. Similarly some cultural patterns may entail barriers to education or income achievement. However, regardless of obstacles, particular individuals starting from a low base achieve great things, given opportunity. Sometimes political decisions are made to regulate the influx of whole immigrant groups into a host society. To avoid tragedy and injustice in real personal situations, such criteria need to be applied intelligently, which on past evidence is a big ask for harassed immigration officials. The process will always be imperfect.
3. The transformational effects over time of internal and external migration
The huge internal migrations which occur when nations industrialize force equally dramatic changes in cultural mores. The widely accepted social values (“core values”) found in more or less homogeneous traditional rural and fishing communities are thrown into flux and may take several generations to find any kind of balance. Even then the outcome is likely to be a proliferation of subcultures, some with widely divergent expectations. This is exactly what happened throughout the industrial revolution in Europe, and what is happening in China at the moment as it struggles with the largest rural to urban migration in human history.
As with historical internal migrations, international migration and 2nd language acquisition are processes whose effects evolve over time. There is ample evidence that some individuals in some current immigrant groups have felt sufficiently alienated from new host cultures to reject them violently. This can occur, especially amongst young adults, even when the more visible attributes of a host culture – language, clothing, music etc – seem to have transferred to incomers. In the breaking news of 2014, we see “Islamic State” jihadists wreaking havoc in Iraq. Some grew up in England, sport a London accent and might well score highly on tests for English language competence.
Those seeking a contemporary reason for this kind of violent rejection of an immigrant host nation sometimes attribute it to over-tolerant multicultural policies leaving too much space for cultural differences to fester. The argument seems dubious as a causus belli. There have been numerous historical examples of forceful (even murderous) assimilationist policies in territories of immigration (over most of the planet at various times) which have also resulted in violent reactions from a proportion of the newcomers.
Earlier in this essay I proposed a personal value navigation point of “do no harm”, or more flexibly, “do the least harm”. That is an easier principle for an individual to abide by than for a government which must always cater to numerous constituencies. In the very least its application implies the need to adapt as we learn more and as situations evolve.
When it comes to generational processes like immigration, governments need to be alert for signs of emerging harm, both due to their own actions and from those citizens who are still finding a cultural niche. For immigrants (internal rural to migrant immigrants as well as international immigrants), the first generation always have their hearts in two places. Usually, but not always, the new host culture steals the hearts of their children. Intelligent governance will make that transition as effective as possible, while keeping in mind that prescriptive requirements on human development have a way of backfiring.
4. A little (more or less) monocultural history
If pluriculturalism is matter-of-fact description, political multiculturalism today is a garish neon sign of many possible colours, but frequently powered with the non-speak of politicians and the bland assurances of officials schooled in the bloodless contortions of legal “compliance”. Somewhere in an Australian town hall meeting a generation or so ago, there must have been good intentions to fashion official approval for the Italian fruit shop across the road. There must have been an urgent need to bury memories of Australia’s posture in 1947, when its immigration minister declared in ringing tones: “I can promise the Australian people that we will never have a chocolate coloured Australia”. The Australian public mindset in 1947 was remarkably close to what became institutionalized apartheid in white South Africa, and the Australian population at the time was perhaps 97% Anglo-Celtic. Indeed, Australians did not have their own passport until 1948 (although the country was effectively an independent country from the time of federation in 1901, if not before). So given the more or less monocultural starting point of Australia in 1947, and given the tsunami of peoples from 200 cultures who were about to be integrated in the coming years, it was indeed a fortunate necessity to give official imprimatur to the real situation. Massaging public opinion in a warm and fuzzy propaganda bath of multicultural niceness was especially needed after the wartime blitz of racist propaganda about the invading yellow peril (Japanese et al), and the treacherous huns (Germans) who wanted to destroy the Australian way of life. Yes it was necessary, but it would have been entirely out of character with sardonic Australian humour on the street not to notice the contradictions.
As yesterday’s enemies began turning up on local building sites, in ‘dago’ delicatessens, and played ‘wog’ types of football (soccer), the local pubs reverberated with racist jokes which would have curled the toenails of a race relations commissioner. The tone was sometimes indignant, but usually not vicious. My father, a carpenter, would slander foreigners with relish, but make generous concessions for those he happened to know, Con the Italian labourer, or Bruno who came from somewhere in Russia, or that poor bastard of a German who used a timber cutting tool my father hadn’t seen before, a short adze, with such skill that he could almost shave with it.
5. The multicultural idea becomes embedded in official Australian discourse and laws
All societies go through cycles of action and reaction, not least in what is considered civilized behaviour. This has a lot to do with the revolt of each new generation of teenagers against the dictates and values of their parents. In two party majority democratic states it is influenced by the election cycle as the fortunes of conservative and progressive governments see-saw in the electorate. It is influenced by worldwide social trends (beheading had a ho-hum familiarity about it 200 years ago in Europe, but now elicits shock and horror). It is influenced by the accumulation of legislation and regulations in a society, as well as the enforcement of the same. Not least, the economic fortunes of the day have a marked influence on the broad public tone of social tolerance or intolerance.
The generation who represented the norm in Australia after World War II were marked by short back and sides haircuts for the men, floral knee length dresses for the women. Men in respectable office jobs wore ties & polished shoes. Smoking was fashionable, and claimed by some doctors in advertisements to be healthy. There was an accepted belief that shops should be closed on Sundays (the residual Christian ethic). Visible trends were the mass acquisition of motor cars and washing machines, utilitarian architecture, a sunny belief in progress, and not too much self-doubt about the meaning of life. This was the world of my childhood, though I was always an outsider on its margins.
The Australia I came to maturity in from the 1960s to the 1980s was marked by a general advance of progressive social forces, a reaction to what had preceded. The rude exuberance of rock and roll turned popular music on its head. Long hair, beards, jeans, became de rigueur. To the horror of office managers (and my delight) miniskirts became the daily working norm for city girls. The heroes returned from the last World War were now graying men drinking themselves to oblivion in derided RSL clubs, while the young marched in their thousands against involvement in the Vietnam war, and lambasted the stupidity of shrill warnings from Washington about a communist ‘domino effect’ that would engulf Australia in red revolution if we did not stem the tide in Asian jungles.
The revolution in Australian social norms reached a crescendo with the (brief) arrival of a national Labor government in 1972. Social experiment of all kinds, not least in sex, seemed fresh and exciting. Tertiary education was made free (alas, too brief a window) and the governance of universities increasingly made space for serious input by students themselves (I was directly involved as a founding member, then secretary of a postgraduate association). The embarrassing White Australia Act (circa 1901) had already become a dead letter and was formally consigned to history. Australians looked around and noticed that the place was no longer monocultural. There was for the first time a widely noticed need to make space for people from other cultural traditions, including the indigenous Aboriginals. The dominant Anglo-Irish themselves had fractured across generations, and in a dozen other directions.
As the ‘hippy generation’ of the 1970s themselves matured, then acquired positions of authority, the values and practices they had pioneered as 20-somethings began to be embedded in legal codes and company regulations. That is, official attitudes to national diversity became more formalized in many ways. Banks, hospitals and other public institutions began to publish multilingual material and hire multilingual staff. Regular festivals to celebrate the presence of various cultural groups became an annual feature in the major cities and were generally welcomed as an interesting day’s outing by everybody.
6. The seeds of doubt – should there be hardened boundaries around multicultural differences?
Less widely accepted in Australia was the emergence in the major cities of suburbs which had a very visible presence of particular ethnicities. It was natural for people from similar backgrounds to seek out like company, but there was some worry that such concentrations might be the harbinger of ethnic ghettoes which had caused such grief in Europe, Asia and other parts of the world through pogroms over the centuries.
When the concentration of such a group in one location reached a certain tipping point it might become socially and economically self sustaining, with only limited incentives to mix into the wider society, even linguistically. The establishment of specialized ethnic or religious schools to serve such more or less self sustaining groups would further isolate them across generations. In fact immigrants from some places, notably the Middle East and South Asia, had traditions of communities separated by culture and religion but living side by side, traditions which stretched back centuries. Many such immigrants may have expected the pattern to transplant automatically to New World destinations like Australia. Not surprisingly this was met with wider community resistance.
We can see then that there are at least three contradictory tendencies influencing contemporary Australian attitudes towards multicultural community living. On the one hand most Australian born individuals welcome the diversity of experience which has become available to them in shopping, dining, festivals etc. On the other hand, many are dubious about rigid “compliance” patterns in official regulations, forms and statements, which they often see as hypocritical. Many find “ethnic suburban shopping centres” quite interesting to visit, but feel an underlying unease that some groups, especially those with rules of religious and marriage exclusion, might develop embedded values which diverge seriously from mainstream Australian tolerance.
For example, there seems to have been major alienation among some young men of Middle Eastern ethnic origin, who have grown up in Australia, America or Europe but rejected core values of those societies, even to the point of violence. The obverse of this coin of course is that if group boundaries harden, individuals in the dominant cultural group (Anglo-Celtic in the Australian case) may reject what they see as core values of certain immigrant groups, again to the point of violence. There has been some evidence of this kind of polarization in usual gender contests amongst young men in southern areas of Sydney (for example), and also in some school playgrounds. This kind of sectarian social abrasion is by no means a dominant social or political theme in Australian society, but there is always a potential for it to be inflamed by opportunists.
7. Unity in diversity, or enclaves of difference, or something more hybrid?
When Indonesia achieved independence from the Netherlands in 1947 its new rulers were faced with a dilemma. The new nation had no national identity or national language. Javanese had traditionally controlled the archipelago, but Javanese are widely disliked in Indonesia’s 13,000 other islands, and over 200 languages were spoken. It was realized that to forcibly impose Javanese culture and language on the others would lead to endless conflict. The solution was an ideology of “pancasila” – unity in diversity. The idea was to respect local differences while fostering the idea of belonging to a greater, encompassing family called Indonesia. A widely spoken, low status market language (market Malay) was consciously developed as a national language. It was a wise choice. Indonesia is still more or less whole, and perhaps has lessons for the rest of us.
Absolutist solutions to cultural differences have a long, worldwide history of catastrophe. The worst case is so-called ethnic cleansing, but ascendant religions have an equally shameful history of persecuting those who don’t conform to their view of the world. In most such cases the underlying drive comes from psychopathic individuals or associations in pursuit of power at any cost. They mobilize and sway less critical members of society and create an environment where extremism prevails.
The poles between ideological political multiculturalism and ideological or religious extremism are not binary, they are not simple switches. There is a gradation of tolerance, both legal and popular, within which we find most societies. That gradation fluctuates over time, but usually leaves sufficient space for most cultural diversity to be tolerated. The toleration may be formally expressed, or it may just be common practice. In a country like Australia, still three-quarters Anglo-Celtic in origin (though locally diverse in lifestyle), but with a huge diversity of foreign born immigrants, we need a constant process of adjustment and good judgement. Indeed, the Anglo-Celtic proportion of origins is projected to drop to 62% by 2025 (Wikipedia 2014). The process of change is never entirely seamless, but it need not be antagonistic. In my view, our judgements on diversity will function best on a case by case assessment. It is all too complicated and dynamic to work with simple stereotypes.
8. The gateway to a new Australian life – the immigration policy
The actual mechanism for modulating Australia’s cultural mix over time continues to be its immigration policy. Australia’s immigration intake is a mix of skilled immigrants (skills the country is said to need), with a capped addition of refugees and family reunions. Secondary immigration paths have emerged with some overseas tertiary students being allowed to settle after graduation, and (more controversially) category 457 visa holders obtaining permission for permanent residence. Category 457 visa holders are supposed to be skilled professionals given temporary work access to the country where equivalent local skills are not available (there is evidence, and political disquiet, that the 457 provisions have been abused). Bypassing all of these visa requirements there is also a much smaller group of very wealthy immigrants who are offered so-called business entry by investing a large sum of money in the country. This last category has recently been dominated by wealthy Chinese.
Second guessing the successful adaptation of immigrants into Australia (or any other country) is a very inexact process. For normal skilled immigration, the government employs a points system which covers things like education, employment experience, age, English language skills, and so on. In practice, individuals vary hugely in their energy, openness to new experience, persistence in overcoming difficulties, honesty, and many other metrics. An immigration application or interview can hardly assess or predict such effects consistently. In fact, anyone with an inside knowledge of how the immigration process actually works knows very well that it is often arbitrary and unfair. Some immigration officers are helpful, some are frankly hostile and prejudice comes with the territory.
The bottom line is that the application of immigration rules worldwide is highly inconsistent regardless of elaborate bureaucratic regulations. At ground zero, the interpretation of rules mainly comes from human (and sometimes very unpleasant) immigration officers. Legal provisions are evaded by some applicants who are dishonest, and often interpreted dishonestly by political actors, including in Australia.
In Australia itself, internal immigration departmental processes involve a complex network of compliance requirements, and the ability to navigate these both by applicants and departmental officers varies widely. As with the taxation system, a whole sub-class of agents has emerged to increase the success rate for immigrant applicants, and not infrequently to game the system.
In other words, the actual quality and character of the overall immigrant intake only resembles very approximately what legislators had in mind when they framed the regulations. In many ways, immigrant selection resembles other human selection processes. For example, there seems to be little evidence that fancy selection procedures by HR departments in industry has led to any overall improvement in the quality of the workforce.
9. Living with the Australian realities
Australia is already a salad bowl, and nothing is going to change that, even if there are individuals who wish to return to a pre-1947 “golden age” of relative cultural homogeneity. In the real world, Australia’s diversity today adds greatly to its potential strength and resilience, if we can manage to take a ‘glass half full’ (not half empty) view of our place in the world. Everyone here has links to other cultures and countries, and a quarter of Australians were born overseas. Used wisely, those links are of immense value to all of us. We can get by perfectly well with core pan-human values like "do no harm", which we can insist everyone abide by. You can still go to your favourite Irish pub or mosque.
10. English language as a selector for Australian residence
Since language is my trade, I will take a bit of space at this point to look at the role of language in the immigration process. Quite often English language competence is proposed as an absolute gate-keeping protection against immigrants who “won’t fit in”. Empirically this is a very dubious argument. Including English language competence in a points test for entry is reasonable as one condition amongst a number. However, English language ability is a temporary marker at the entry moment of immigration. Immigration is a long term process over time during which language facility improves, and becomes irrelevant by the second generation, or much sooner for most immigrant children.
Native born Australians tend to be overwhelmingly English monolinguals (like native English speakers worldwide). This narrow linguistic experience does much to explain the view that native speaker competence in English should be an absolute requirement for Australian settlement. The attitude is not as rigid as when I was a child in the 1950s. Then anyone speaking another language in public would be frankly stared at, and sometimes criticized openly. Nowadays it is common enough to hear other voices. There is no doubt that effective survival in most corners of Australian society requires a functional command of spoken English. In practice imperfections (foreign accent, grammatical errors etc) will be noticed but in the end successful communication ensues unless the listener is doggedly hostile. The odd thing is that, as in other ‘advanced’ OECD countries, almost half of Australians are functionally illiterate. Also, as in every language community worldwide, even spoken language competence is hugely variable.
When international students are contemplating study in Australia, especially at tertiary level, it is essential that their English language skills be assessed in some way. For academic environments this kind of assessment is much more predictive than it is for normal life activities. However, even the best language level assessments are very crude instruments. Both amongst officials and the general public, there is a general misunderstanding that language assessment tests like IELTS and TOEFL are precise diagnostic tools as well as accurate predictors of later language accomplishment. The companies behind these tests are multi-million enterprises, and work hard to foster images of white laboratory coat scientific accuracy. Well, I have taught for years on the front line of this stuff and know better. In any teaching environment, a closed curriculum with testing that requires exactly measurable responses might have a fair chance of assessing student learning. Assessments like IELTS have no serious resemblance to such curriculums.
IELTS is an estimation of global language achievement (i.e. ability in uncontrolled and unpredictable environments). The testing personnel have to make subjective assessments of actual language production. That is, multiple choice tests etc. are not effective indicators for language fluency. Assessors try to achieve consistency by moderating each other, but in truth there are so many assessors with so many backgrounds, operating in so many countries, that the outcomes show a good deal of variability (the testing companies will do their best to deny this). Nor is assessment consistent across skill levels in speaking, listening, reading and writing. The closer a candidate is to Level 10 (supposedly educated native speaker level), the flakier the assessment is likely to be. There are complex reasons for this which I won’t go into here.
Open and closed systems: I like to compare cultures to computer operating systems. Cultures, like natural languages, are generally unplanned emergent phenomena, while computer operating systems are mostly consciously designed artefacts. However, conscious attitudes towards changing cultures have some similarities with conscious attitudes towards constructing computer operating systems.
In computing, you can have closed proprietary systems, like the Apple Corporation o/s. At their best, these closed systems can achieve elegant solutions and be very attractive. The other extreme is an Open Access o/s philosophy, like Linux. Linux has endless groups of enthusiasts. Many of the Linux dialects never achieve wide acceptance. Some achieve commercial success and some become semi-proprietary. However, while closed systems like Apple's can make money for a while, they are always at risk of going out of business. The open systems are messy, but they have tremendous strength. In some form, they will continue. The Open movement will never die. The ubiquitous Google is an astounding example of partly open system generosity (together with some canny proprietary algorithms) succeeding where its more closed proprietary competitors have faded.
New world culture: Now let us consider so-called "Western culture". Recently I debated with a Korean friend who was dubious about South Korea's faux Western baubles, and expressed some envy of the Japanese capacity for adapting to external markets without losing the Japanese essence. As Laozi, the ancient Chinese philosopher put it so long ago, water is admirable because it can adapt to the shape of its container, but doesn't change its nature. I was less taken than my friend by this argument for cultural purity. It is true, I put it to him, that the clothes you wear, the fillings in your teeth, the buildings you live in, and even increasingly the food you eat are not 'native Korean'. The water in the Korean container is already laced with other dyes. Is this bad? Imports are often said to be "American", but that is only partly the case (and I think less and less true).
You could think of "American culture" as one particular dialect of a new "world culture", just as Ubuntu is a kind of dialect of Linux. The more others join in with general world culture, the less influence the American form will have.
This world culture crosses the barrier of natural languages. You will find it amongst German speakers and Korean speakers, and Arabic speakers and Hindi speakers. You can now find this 'world culture' from Lagos in Africa, to Moscow, to Sydney, to Buenos Aires, to New Delhi to Bangkok, and of course to Seoul. All of these places have their own dialects of the world culture, but they also have a great deal in common. The local penetration of world culture is also always varied amongst populations (yet another bell curve). It is a more urban than rural phenomenon, but its presence is inescapable.
Those things regions across the world have in common make it possible for a man like me to be a 'citizen of the world', and more or less at home in any of these places. I love the variety that each of the 'cultural dialects' offers me, but I also see great hope for humanity in their shared base.
Like the Open Systems philosophy of computer programming, I think this new world common culture has great strength and dynamism. Better, the very adaptations that enable it to cross old clan and cultural barriers make it less susceptible to the Ape-like patterns of male dominance brutality and sexual aggression (though not of course impervious to them). I think the new paradigm cannot be easily destroyed, although it may sometimes be forced into tactical retreats with the flux of world affairs.