Human society – everywhere and anywhere almost - is increasingly mixed and diverse. Global trade and production systems are more and more interlinked and human migration has intensified.
Communications beam ‘foreign’ messages and ideas to and from the remotest corners of the world, and every ‘culture’ is tainted and every worldview is challenged.
People can no longer fall back on their warm and safe identities and norms, passed down by their ancestors and recorded history, cultural contents included.
There is a general sense of disorientation among many of us. And those who do not share this experience are almost certainly living on borrowed time for their turn is surely coming.
The balance is gone, as if the rug were pulled from under our feet when we were not looking. Our individual and/or communal identities have gradually evaporated.
Does anyone know what they ‘believe in’ anymore? And those who do, can they honestly claim to belong to a sizeable community of ‘believers’ with no hidden agenda to their beliefs?
Whereas once cultural divisions (on a macro level) were drawn along religious or philosophical worldviews, today a new ‘secular’ divide is thrown in the mix. God, of whatever form, even in the form of atheism, no longer helps as a social unifier.
Even in countries with religiously defined political systems, there is no comfort in the definition made. If anything, segregation and discord are their hallmarks. At best, such countries only barely manage to tolerate minorities or immigrants unless they are of the ‘desired’ type.
A political project to define a religious national identity with such rigour invariably starts from a defensive position in the first place, but ends up building walls around itself and its religion. It therefore becomes exclusive and ‘supremacist’ - that which it was designed to resist.
Similarly, societies that opened their doors to large inflows of migrants with ‘tolerance’ and ‘multiculturalism’ as their mantras, have found themselves in shock once confronted with the growing chasm among discordant cultures after several generations of immigrants.
An economic need for foreign labour and skills has not translated into a happy union despite the hosts’ well intentioned ‘tolerance’ of the foreigners’ otherness.
It turns out that ‘tolerance’ does not really work, for it presupposes cultural superiority by the hosts, and a willingness by the migrants to succumb to the dominant culture, peacefully and dutifully. Apparently, they didn’t want to ‘integrate’ (or even assimilate) as much as expected.
Perhaps it is time to stop focussing on ‘cultures’ and grand ‘identities’ so much? Perhaps there is no need for grand definitions.
After all, it is not clear whose purpose such definitions serve other than divide us.
For sure there is a need for us to share something with our neighbours and fellow citizens - something that gives us a sense of belonging and comfort in our social setting. But why does this have to be so broad or grand as a belief in a religion or no god?
Why does our sense of belonging have to encompass a whole country more than our neighbourhood or town where we actually live? Similar to our genetic makeup, cultural and political differences within a country can be larger than across borders or even continents.
So what is it that can help us relate to each other better? Surely the answer is in our shared values – whatever these may be.
Whether or not god exists, and whether or not we admire country X, and whether or not we were born in the same town, we can certainly respect each other in sharing and agreeing on certain values such as integrity and mutual respect. We can share the value of being non-judgemental and non-interfering, for example.
We do not have to like someone’s religion or dress code - and most of us honestly don’t like most people’s choices in these matters – but we can still like them as people who will respect our rights.
And this is a far simpler effort than many would assume.
Some readers at this point will scream: ‘But this is exactly what multiculturalism is about, and it’s not worked!’
Alas, multiculturalism has not even tried this yet.
For shared values to be identified and adhered to, there has to be no hierarchy of cultures or grand belief systems.
Secularism and religiosity would have to share an equal footing in principle. ‘Tolerance’ would have be treated like an ‘F’ word for its condescension. So would ‘integration’. Society would have to be seen as a mosaic of ever evolving and mutating cultures, rather than ‘multicultural’.
Everyone would have to be allowed to live, and would be expected to let live.
Minorities would not be rejected or targeted. The human right to self-determination would be universally respected or otherwise enforced.
So why have multicultural societies not embarked on such a project in a serious manner? Why aren’t our shared values openly celebrated and used to heal social fissures?
Certainly a society that recognises all its cultural components as equals is a more equal society. Perhaps this was never the aim in the first place?
A culturally harmonious society would in the first place not be structured to use immigrant labour as cheap labour.
It would not place women or immigrants in lower paid jobs, and it would not have any second class citizens.
A culturally egalitarian society would not have privileged ‘representatives’ making decisions on behalf of the people.
Its schools would be governed locally with local citizens involved in the decision-making process, designing curricula, teaching religion and secularism equally, covering all areas of knowledge with fairness and impartiality.
It would not drill racial and cultural superiority into students’ brains.
It would involve all citizens in most votes en masse rather than strip them of that power and responsibility by ‘delegating’ to a ‘representative’.
It is therefore the system of governance itself that glorifies competition over cooperation, and builds its economy on exploitation of easily exploitable groups.
In the final analysis, it is the class system of exploitation that needs and shapes multiculturalism to fail – and with it, our chances of living more harmoniously with each other.