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Multiculturalism policies that expand choices


How do very different groups live together in a single society? Multiculturalism policies that celebrate diversity are often advocated. But these policies are difficult to pin down. They respect ‘diversity’ but seek ‘unity’, almost contradictory ideas.

In a recent New Republic article, Amartya Sen provides a synthesis. He argues we should assess multicultural policy successes not by the extent to which people are ‘left alone’, but by whether they improve abilities to make choices. Tolerance of diversity is not enough – sound policies should promote abilities to choose rather than having decisions imposed. Having different cultures co-existing side-by-side, without the twain meeting, is, to Sen, plural monoculturalism (PM), not multiculturalism. And PM, to Sen, does not yield big social payoffs and can generate sectarianism.

Being born in a particular social background is not an act of choice but the decision to stay within a traditional mode or to move from it is. If multiculturalism is defended in the name of cultural freedom, it is inconsistent to regard it as demanding unwavering support for staying within one’s inherited tradition. As an instance, multiculturalism should not override the right of a person to participate in civil society, or national politics, or, indeed to lead a socially non-conformist life.

Promoting new ‘faith schools’ for religious groups may help provide ethos and values but education is not just about getting children immersed in an inherited ethos. It is also about helping children to reason about new decisions they will have to take. Non-immigrant communities also should need to see the demands of multicultural education. World history need not be ‘parochial recollections’ coupled with ‘packaged religious history’. The priorities of genuine multicultural education differ greatly from the intellectual segmentation of society via PM. With genuine multiculturalism ‘gains-from-exchange’ arise.

If immigrants do see themselves as members of specific religious ethnicities first, and only through that membership as citizens in a ‘federation’ of communities, this leaves them open to the preaching and cultivation of sectarian violence. PM can impose costs.

Sen believes there is a need to re-think multiculturalism, to avoid ‘conceptual disarray’ about social identity and to resist the purposeful exploitation of divisiveness that this disarray encourages. What has to be particularly avoided is the confusion between a multiculturalism that goes with cultural liberty, on the one side, and PM that goes with faith-based separatism, on the other. A nation should not be seen as a collection of sequestered segments, with citizens assigned places in predetermined segments.

Multiculturalism as policy is analyzed generally here (note this wiki wrongly states that PM Howard is opposed to multiculturalism when it is government policy) and Australian policy stated here (not that useful as largely ‘unity in diversity’ clichés).

Reference: Amartya Sen, ‘The Uses and Abuses of Multiculturalism. Chilli and Liberty’, The New Republic Online, 18/2/06. Professor Sen won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1998.

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