Questioning Multiculturalism

By the end of the 1980s, one term had become the magic word in political theory and a mainstay of social politics in many liberal, western states: Multiculturalism. Between the numerous attempts of political, legal and cultural theory to combine the project of state liberalism with a recognition of cultural plurality, even announcements of a  „multicultural turn“ could be heard. At the same time, this multicultural turn could also be traced in policies and politics of liberal states: With Canada as a leading example of the politics of multiculturalism, followed closely by Australia, also various European countries – the UK, the Netherlands, or Germany – endorsed the idea of multiculturalism and made it a flagship project of liberal democracy.

Facing the growing cultural heterogeneity of liberal democracies in the second half of the 20th century, the basic assumption of this project can be briefly described as an acknowledgement of the equal value of cultures, the rejection of hierarchy between cultural groups and the recognition of a plurality of value systems and ideas of the good life. MOST, the UNESCO Management of Social Transformation, defined the ideological-normative level of Multiculturalism as a model for political action, „based on sociological theorizing and ethical-philosophical consideration about the place of those with culturally distinct identities in contemporary society“[1], while the programmatic-political usage of Multiculturalism is set to refer to „specific types of programs and policy initiatives designed to respond to and manage ethnic diversity“. And beside ethnic diversity, also religious, gendered, sexual, or racial minorities were to be accounted for. Just as the theoretical engagement with multiculturalism came from different backgrounds and took different approaches, so did the different state policies regarding the „multicultural situation“. Whether the new multiculturalism became politically implemented through identity politics, affirmative action, or minority rights, the idea of multiculturalism was celebrated widely.

European Multiculturalism – A Failure?

But since the turn of the millennium, things seem to have changed, especially in Europe. Here, the term multiculturalism, former darling of politicians, who loved to adorn their speeches and interviews with it, seems to have turned into some kind of boogie man, the expression „multi-kulti“ is used more and more depreciative, and in places, where multiculturalism was previously esteemed as mainstay of social politics, it is now not only discarded as outdated, but also held responsible for phenomena such as cultural segregation or extremism. In 2006, Tony Blair famously declared the end of the „multicultural experiment“ and his successor David Cameron took it one step further, when he announced at the 2011 Munich Security Conference, the „doctrine“ of state multiculturalism is to be held responsible for „separatism and extremism“. German Angela Merkel cast an unmistakable judgment towards the „multi-kulti“-concept, stating that the approach to build a multicultural society in Germany has „failed, utterly failed“, and her French counterpart Nicholas Sarkozy followed suit. At the same time, claims were made for a strengthening of national identity such as in Camerons Security-Conference-Speech, Gordon Brown’s call for a new „Britishness“ or the discomforting „Leitkulturdebatte“ (Core culture Debate) in Germany, that sought to define (or rather, construct) a national identity and consciousness, not to speak of the sudden invocation to „Judeo-Christian“ values.

What are we to do with this? Is there a rise in nationalism? Is it a reaction to other re-emerging „-isms“ such as religious fundamentalism? And if so, is there a recurrence of „universalisms“ altogether? One can take another stand and read such statements as momentary political stratagems. In an overheated debate on topics like cultural ghettoization and value systems, such rhetoric is an easy way to win over sympathy or at least attention and might just stay plain rhetoric in times when globalization inevitably leads towards a weakening of the nation as cultural entity. Either way, I think it does raise the question of a new cultural sensibility regarding cultural values, a general trend that shifts away from the dominant attitude of the postmodern age. And while I am reluctant to join the group of those crying „failure“ over a project, that I think deserves high esteem for the impact it had on the way societies reflect on place and value of cultural minorities, the idea of state multiculturalism offering an ultimate solution for the challenge of cultural heterogeneity does seem to have reached a point, where it has to face some inherent inconsistencies.

But before dealing with the current developments, I want to take a short look at the general connection of liberalism and multiculturalism, and how they relate to postmodernism.

 Multiculturalism, Liberalism and Postmodernism

While multiculturalism seen as a condition of states and societies historically is nothing new, the politics of multiculturalism that are at stake here, do coincide with postmodernism. Not only in terms of decades (starting from the 1970s), but also in some core assumptions about cultural identity and value systems, which seem to transcend the variety of national discourses. Let us take Jean-François Lyotard’s definition of postmodernism as paradigmatic for a cultural sensibility that shows close connections to multiculturalism. In his „The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge“, Lyotard infamously states, “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives.”[2] Some classic examples for these metanarratives or grand narratives, that define and legitimate themselves in a totalizing and universalizing way over some transcendental truth, are the (modern) „-isms“ such as nationalism, fascism, socialism but also religion, enlightenment or hermeneutics, set to identify a stable, invariant truth of meaning. Metanarratives propagate a fixed truth, that ultimately serves as means of oppression towards minor narratives and heterogeneity of truth and meaning. Postmodern then, on the contrary, stands for just this affirmation of a heterogeneity of truth, a skepticism towards stable encodings of cultural identities – individual and collective likewise.

From here on, it can easily be understood why multiculturalism is in line with postmodern thought: It contains the skepticism towards metanarratives by replacing the idea of a central national cultural identity that serves as a fix point for one normative value system, with the idea of cultural plurality. Where truth is intrinsically heterogeneous and fluid, and identity a construct of ideology, any majority culture that claims their superiority over minorities is exposed as recurring to a metanarrative. The politics of multiculturalism promote cultural diversity and support different strategies to work against ethnic, religious or gender discrimination. At the same time, the pairing of liberalism and multiculturalism in times of postmodernism should be a natural match. Pluralism and tolerance are basic values of liberalism, and it is the recognition of a plurality of ways of the good-life, that lies at the basis of multiculturalism. But at a closer look, this match shows flaws – flaws, that seem to rise to the surface in the current debate across Europe, when formerly fervent supporters of multiculturalism see cultural tolerance getting in conflict with liberal values, or the liberal value of tolerance in conflict with non-liberal cultures. The problem arising seems to be the basic paradox of tolerance, already inherent in John Locke: Tolerance yes, but only as long as those benefiting from it, are tolerant themselves. Menachem Mautner, Professor of Law at Tel Aviv University, discerned the inherent problems of the fusion of liberalism and multiculturalism, discussing politics of state intervention in cultural activities of non-liberal groups[3]: With tolerance as a central liberal value, the liberal state acknowledges the heterogeneity of cultural values and ideas about what counts as „the good life“. It thus might opt for minority rights and refrain from intervention, when members of a minority pursue practices that might not be in accordance with liberal values, but are read as acts that carry a cultural significance for the individual. This seems to be a strand of multicultural politics in line with the postmodern skepticism towards metanarratives.

But while acknowledging the heteronormativity of liberalism itself, such a policy risks to give rise to non-liberal cultural bubbles in the realm of the liberal state, on the basis of the liberal value of tolerance. The problem here is as complex as the term „culture“ itself. Who is the tolerance directed to? What if a state tolerating an ethnic minority, by doing so, allows for intolerant behavior and repressive actions of members of this culture against a minority inside this group, such as the discrimination of women? Is tolerance towards ethnic minorities more valuable than tolerance towards gendered minorities? But then, what is discrimination? Is the liberal majority judging over practices of a minority from the viewpoint of liberal values? Doing so, it runs risk to negate everything that is not liberal, and ends up betraying its own mainstays of pluralism and tolerance.

This double-bind appears to rise to the surface in the current debate, and the union of liberalism and multiculturalism ultimately seems to lead towards a dead-lock situation, which then gives rise to frustrated accusation of cultural imperialism towards those strands of liberalism that might opt – in terms of political action – for intervention in non-liberal practices of minorities. On the opposite side, leaving cultural minorities to themselves or implementing minority rights that protect this culture, might eventually trigger accusations of a betrayal of liberal values such as gender equality. The latter seems to be the dominant tone underlying current attacks on multiculturalism.

But the moment such clashes happen, one thing becomes clear: Liberalism and multiculturalism, while in line with basic postmodern paradigms, cannot escape the postmodern attack on hegemonic value systems themselves. Liberalism is one doctrine as any other and multiculturalism might ultimately have to confront cultures that do not endorse the valuation of cultural heterogeneity. Thus, when Norway’s prime minister Jens Stoltenberg pronounced the dedication of the Norwegian state to multiculturalism in the aftermath of the July 2011 attacks, he self-confidently established the Norwegian culture as a multiculturalist culture, rejecting anti-multiculturalism and combining nationalism with multiculturalism.

A metamodern stand on cultural values?

Against the background of a trend regarding cultural pluralism characterized by postmodern paradigms, one can discern today moments that, with Lyotard, can be called modern. This new appraisal of grand narratives and normative values can be discomforting – didn’t we have enough nationalism and cultural hegemony in the 20th century? This feeling is in my opinion justified and nationalist outcries from politicians or media should never stay unquestioned. But while current developments do somewhat point back to modernist metanarratives, one might also have to acknowledge, that this „modern“ moment of a grand narrative is also inherent in liberalism and multiculturalism themselves, and the clash with non-liberal groups or those against cultural diversity was a matter of time. And it is hard to imagine a social or political project without an overarching idea and an idea that is not challenged by others.

The development we are witnessing today might pose new challenges and does manifest a change after the “multi-kulti“ celebration of cultural diversity and tolerance. These values are not in themselves to be discarded, rather, they have to be acknowledged as what they are: Normative values themselves.

This webzine is dedicated to define a new, metamodern sensibility, whose basic ontology can be described – reductively, not exclusively – as an oscillation between postmodern and modern paradigms, attitudes and positions: „Ontologically, metamodernism oscillates between the modern and the postmodern. It oscillates between a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony, between […] unity and plurality“. The (modern) search for a new metanarrative/the call for values, stands next to a postmodern consciousness about the danger and fallacies of absolutisms: „Each time the metamodern enthusiasm swings toward fanaticism, gravity pulls it back toward irony; the moment its irony sways toward apathy, gravity pulls it back toward enthusiasm.“[4]

In today’s debate, it seems we can recognize just this simultaneity of modern and postmodern paradigms. While the search for stable norms and fixed sets of values can be called, following Lyotard, a modern moment, the achievements of postmodernism are not to be discarded. The challenge seems to be to navigate between both, gaining a self-confident attitude towards cultural values (and Multiculturalism can be one of them!) without letting self-confidence tip over into an ideological arrogance, pairing conviction and beliefs with modesty. I don’t take this basic mode of metamodernism – oscillation – as a blueprint for a stand on cultural values. But it  appears timely to describe current developments and the debate does seem to embody a metamodern moment, emblematic for our contemporary cultural sensibility.


[1] Inglis, Christine: „Multiculturalism: New Policy Responses to Diversity“, Management of Social Transformations (MOST) – UNESCO. Policy Paper No. 4, (1995), http://www.unesco.org/most/pp4.htm, letzter Zugriff: 10.10.2011.

[2] Lyotard: Jean-François: The Postmodern Condition. A Report on Knowledge, Manchester (1984), p. xxiv.

[3] Mautner, Menachem: „From ‚Honor’ to ‚Dignity’: How Should a Liberal State Treat Non-Liberal Groups?“, in: Theoretical Inquiries in Law, 9.2 (2008).

[4] Vermeulen, Timotheus & Van den Akker, Robin: „Notes on Metamodernism“, in Journal of Aesthetics and Culture, 2 (2010).

There is one comment

  1. Zoe Anderson

    Simone, I love this piece- it is great to see a discussion of Multiculturalism (that very fluid and changeable of public policies, within multiple contexts) recognising the problematic associations of ‘tolerance'(who is ‘tolerating’ whom? And is it always appropriate?) within a discourse of cultural pluralism; that it isn’t always just a dissonance between national identity and multiculturalism, per se. Thank you for such a cogent, theorerical piece!

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