Monday, August 20, 2007

Bigots, building bridges and multiculturalism

According to the recently published ‘Human Beliefs and Values Survey’, Northern Ireland has the highest proportion of bigoted people in the Western world. The study of nearly 32 000 people across 19 European countries, as well as Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand, asked if people would like to have persons from different groups as neighbours. These groups included those of a different race, immigrants or foreign workers, Muslims, Jews and homosexuals. In Northern Ireland, 44% of the 1 000 respondents did not want at least one of the five groups as neighbour. Specifically, 35,9% of people would not like a homosexual living next door, 18,9% immigrants or foreign workers, 16% Muslims, 11,6% Jews, and people of a different race 11,1%. This was significantly higher than the average percentage across the countries surveyed, that were 19,6%, 10,1%, 14,5%, 9,5% and 8,5% for the same groups respectively.

The findings are startling. It is hard to imagine that nearly 20% of people across the Western world would be unhappy about a homosexual living next door, or, given Europe’s history, that nearly 10% would still be unhappy with a Jew living in their neighbourhood. Of course, one could see the glass half-full. After all, 90% of people have no problems with someone of a different race living next door. Arguably, holding a prejudiced view may also not be a problem, if you keep it to yourself and do not harm others. But, sadly, hate crimes have been increasing in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as the number of immigrants has grown. Racist attacks in Northern Ireland have a surged by 60% in the last year, while assaults on gays and lesbians have doubled.

One answer given to these problems is that we need to move towards multiculturalism. Multi-culturalism implies a world where we respect differences, tolerate one another and allow different cultures to flourish on their own terms. Proponents of multiculturalism argue that this is the best option in a world where it is difficult to reconcile different values and beliefs. But is multiculturalism enough, given the astonishing statistics quoted above? And why is the term barely used in South Africa? Given South Africa’s history of segregation and ongoing problems with racism, it seems one knows intuitively that more needs to be done. If one wanted to be crude, multiculturalism that does not seek to bring people together in some way, or socioeconomic inequality that exists between groups, could end up akin to the perverse apartheid delusion of separate development. Some proponents of multiculturalism argue that groups will learn to coexist over time, if they have equal power and status. But this seldom happens. Immigrant communities generally remain socially excluded and the result is, in the words of sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, ghetto communities. Perhaps what is needed is interculturalism, where we move towards learning about different cultures and views, and engage with these in robust dialogue. This requires a recognition of interdependence that is neither assimilation nor simply coexistence. Granted coexistence might be a step along the way to interculturalism, but to seek a society that is multicultural, rather than intercultural, seems limiting.

That said, an intercultural approach can be threatening to those who see themselves as belonging to a specific community or ethnic group. But, as Bauman points out, the need for community, no matter how understandable in a world where society is so fractured, creates a double bind. As much as it provides the security of being with your own kind, the more you immerse yourself in your so-called community, the more you feel threatened by the other. Security and insecurity become intertwined, feeding “mutual derision, contempt and hatred” and making multiculturalism impossible. In short, we need to shatter the myth of the community, and, although it sounds rather schmaltzy, searching for our common humanity and celebrating interdependence while vigorously ‘dialoguing’ about our differences, seem a much better option.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, February 2007. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 23 February 2007.