Multiculturalism is under pressure. That’s an understatement. A very vague one to boot. Everybody ‘knows’ what multiculturalism is, and that it’s somehow under pressure. But it all depends on what you mean by ‘is’. Right-wing ideologues and self-proclaimed yet increasingly abashed progressives differ on many things, including but not limited to the meaning of the most common of verbs. We, the common people, who care about the price of tomatoes and grudgingly hum along to the latest Lady Gaga, are left to our devices.To understand what multiculturalism is we must first understand what culture is. According to anthropologists culture is the evolved human capacity to classify and represent experience with symbols, and to act imaginatively and creatively. Or something along the lines. Without delving into a million alternative definitions and nuances, to a layman culture more or less determines the way people eat, talk, sing, dress, and worship. In short, everything aside putting food on the table.
So, multiculturalism means there is more than one way of going about those things. People are endlessly inventive, bound only by the laws of physics. Most of the time anyway. Take clothing for instance. Within the entire scope of human experience the motto seems to be, if you can weave it, you can wear it. Tastes can change, evolve and, judging Paris catwalks, escape gravity altogether. Yet for groups of regular folks living within a certain geographic or social frame, conformity is the norm. Hence, for instance, headscarves. Give or take the religious or, according to some, patriarchal connotation.
The twenty-first century is a scary place. Many who previously would never encounter other tastes and opinions have been thrown in the maelstrom of a shrinking planet and upheavals, economic and political, scattering folks hither and tither. Suddenly your neighbor doesn’t eat pork, sports a moustache, and thinks America’s global policing efforts seriously fraught, its most wanted enemy a cool dude. These newcomers consider women mere lust objects. In stead of stripping females every which way marketing dictates, like progressive locals, they opt to cloak their desires and sexual insecurities by means of burkas, veils and sundry trappings of desert etiquette.
Should newcomers adapt? A moot question, probably. How much should they adapt though? Obey the law, pay taxes and mind your own business. It’s probably a good idea to speak the local language as well. Job-wise, that is. How about apparel? Whom should a Somali refugee look to as an example? The H&M monolithic crowd? Goth kids? Skinheads? Rich bitches in fur coats? Moroccan teens with the hats uneasily perched atop crew-cropped heads, mp3 buds dangling from ears like old ladies’ earrings? The orthodox Jewess with the shaven head and wig?
For a long time Westerners, whatever the term entails, seemed quite relaxed about these ‘others’, circumcising livestock and butchering boys without anesthesia. Or the other way around. The natives never quite understood nor cared what the newbies got up to. But those days are gone now. ‘They’ get the magnifying glass, debates in parliament, garment bans, scrutiny, to use the parlance of our time. Multiculturalism has gone too far, according to populist politicians and, increasingly, the populace and actual politicians, ever fickle. “The concept that we are now living side by side and are happy about it does not work. Immigrants should integrate and adopt Germany’s culture and values,” said Angela Merkel.
To demand immigrants assimilate to European culture is to change European culture itself beyond all recognition, to give up an aspiration that’s lasted all but 60 years: European integration and pluralism, a.k.a. the pinch of humility instilled after the foreplay of nineteenth century nationalism that climaxed in the necrophiliac orgy called WWII. In a way the current debate is tantamount to unlearning the lessons of history’s worst century. Are we confident the age of enlightenment has seeped deep enough into the cracks of our behavioral patterns to avoid another cataclysm? After all, assimiliation did not save the German Jews from annihilation. Fifty years of crowbar homogenisation couldn’t rescue the Muslims of Screbrenica.
Multiculturalism is under pressure indeed. Very recent history teaches us we have not moved quite beyond group think. Multiculturalism has never really taken root beyond the odd ethnic nibble enjoyed by middle class festival goers. The first sign of trouble has us scampering back to a mode of thinking that built, and spectacularly destroyed Europe’s nation states. Twice. Today, those are labeled wishy-washy who as much as dare hint at a symmetrical relationship between lack of integration and discrimination. The woolen-socked somehow fail to relegate the latter to footnote status. We have to be realistic, they are told.
Ask yourself, realistically: have we really “molly-coddled” our immigrants? The answer is likely to differ from the response of a certain Muhammad, who’s CV is scarcely glanced at, and who’s jaywalking, drugdealing, antisemitism, gaybashing, sexual harassment is group-categorized, not to mention punished more severely. A Frenchman man who beats his wife is called a wife beater: a word ironically humorized, rendered less-ominous through a like-named article of clothing. A man of Moroccan descent who does the same is part of an inferior culture whose basic tenets are incompatible with the progressive Leitkultur, with the Gaga-like matriarchal nirvana of love, cooperation, and secular self-realization that ought never change or be exposed to external influences good or bad to challenge and improve. Our society is perfect. Our burden is to make everyone else comprehend and adapt to it.