When Respect Is Not Enough


Since the revelation that the London suicide bombers of 7/7 were homegrown in England’s ‘multicultural suburbs’, the critics of multiculturalism have begun to sharpen their knives.

As usual, for these critics, any excuse to link multiculturalism with ethnic ghettos is a good one. Never mind that the London killers, rather than living within their culture, seemed to live apart from it – even their wives and parents were not aware of their scheming. And never mind that in the history of intercultural relations, racism and attempts to force people to assimilate have been the most powerful forces in creating ghettos places to which people escape to practise their culture, away from the dominant gaze that demands conformity.

Thanks to Alan Moir at The Sydney Morning Herald

Thanks to Alan Moir at The Sydney Morning Herald

This is why to condemn multiculturalism and to argue for assimilation is not merely wrong, it is a destructive argument, bound to create the very conditions it is supposedly condemning.

The Right seems particularly good at this kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. When the idea of a ‘clash of civilisations’ was proposed by Huntington and his imitators, many rightly thought it far-fetched. Today, American usage of the language and imagery of the crusade in its ‘clash’ with the Muslim world has helped to make it less so. We know very well that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with al-Qaeda before US and British forces invaded Iraq, but the neoconservatives confidently theorised Iraq as a flashpoint in the war against terrorism, and once again they have transformed their theory into reality.

When power is on your side, your theory can become reality. So we ought not simply dismiss neoconservative theories about the destructive nature of multiculturalism as incorrect. They can become less so.

Multiculturalism is not a homogeneous reality. It is an arena of struggle, and those who are winning can make multiculturalism whatever they want it to be: a disastrous policy that creates ghettos and allows terrorism to flourish, or the ideal of a society that holds itself together despite the many cultures that constitute it.

I believe that, rather than retreating from the multicultural ideal, now is the time to pursue it with even greater fervour. We have a particularly important role in this struggle because Australia’s multiculturalism is, globally speaking, by far the most complex and far-reaching.

The Multicultural Contract

We do not use such words to define it, but Australia has developed something akin to a multicultural contract defining and involving a relation and an agreement between the state and its citizens. There might be serious problems in the way each party has lived up to its contractual obligations in practice (and I’ve been at the forefront of those who have criticised multiculturalism for these failures) but I have never stopped believing that it defines an ideal worth pursuing as far as relations between the early settlers and newcomers is concerned.

The Australian multicultural contract is first of all a cultural contract. Through it, the state says to its citizens: I am happy to recognise your cultural identity; I am happy to recognise that you have both a sub-national and a supra-national identity. That is, if you are Indian or Irish, I am happy to recognise that you are part of a sub-national Indian-Australian or Irish-Australian community, if you see yourself as belonging to such a community. Also, I am happy to recognise that you are part of an Indian or Irish supra-national diaspora spread around the world, if you see yourself as belonging to such a community. However, you have to give me a commitment and an attachment to Australia in return.

This logic of giving recognition in return for attachment has always been a key part of Australian multiculturalism.

Another important dimension, one that gives Australian multiculturalism a certain uniqueness, is the acceptance of the idea that a migrant’s cultural minority status is often linked to social and economic marginalisation. Here, the state commits itself not just to cultural recognition but to having culturally specific institutions that aim to help people become less marginalised. In a fusion of social, economic and cultural policy, the state commits itself to making its institutions culturally accessible, and socio-economically interventionist in the pursuit of equality. And this time, what the state wants in return is social, cultural and political participation.

Thus, in the first dimension of the multicultural contract the state said to its citizens: ‘I give you cultural recognition and I want attachment to Australia.’ Now, in the second dimension of the contract, it says: ‘I give you social, cultural and economic inclusion and I want participation in Australian society.’

Finally, and perhaps most importantly today, the multicultural contract involves a recognition by the state of the existence of sub-national ‘ethnic’ or other communities with their own cultural and religious institutions in return for the state’s right to govern and promote the interaction of these sub-national communities within a common national institution. This is quite different from the first dimension of cultural recognition which is a contract between the state and the individual.

In this third dimension, Australian multiculturalism has meant that Australian citizens, by virtue of their possible identification with a migrant minority culture, give the state the capacity to legitimise the formation of sub-national communities for whoever wishes to be part of them and to govern the interaction of these sub-national communities on Australian soil.

This does not mean that if you are of Croatian background, for example, you have to be part of the Croatian community. There are many people of migrant background who do not feel part of a migrant community. The state does not force them. But the state does recognise that there are people who do feel part of a ‘migrant community’. It thus commits itself to recognising such sub-national communal formations and to governing the interaction between them.

Interaction Not Coexistence

One cannot emphasise enough the importance of this governance of interaction today. The notion of interaction here stands in opposition to the notion of coexistence. Multiculturalism in Australia has always involved an ideal of intercultural interaction, not an ideal of intercultural coexistence. Yet we increasingly hear worldwide the language of cultural coexistence as opposed to the language of cultural interaction.

For Australians this is a step backward. Coexistence involves one culture existing alongside another culture: this culture A exists here and that culture B exists there. And people from culture A respect culture B and vice versa. They respect each other, but this does not mean they necessarily interact with each other. Coexistence means ‘I respect your right to use whatever aftershave you like but I don’t want to have to smell it’.

This idea of respecting another culture and learning that they too have their ‘Shakespeares’ often emerges in the American campus model of multiculturalism, where it is seen as part of the struggle against euro-centrism. The respect that emerges out of coexistence is highly limited. So we give the culture of the other ‘respect’. And after that, what happens? Nothing.

Cultures can coexist in parallel; they exist alongside each other but they never meet. In such conditions it very easy to ‘respect’ the other culture since you do not have to worry about interacting with people who belong to it. It is no coincidence that racists today increasingly use the language of ‘cultural respect’. I respect Arab culture, they assert, and if you want me to say ‘I love Arab culture,’ I am happy to do so. Just make sure Arabs are not living anywhere near me.

The multiculturalism of interaction is a different story. Respect and recognition can come easily when we are coexisting with others interaction, however, is always hard labour.

Indeed, when we interact with people from other cultures trying to understand them, making sure they understand us, trying to interpret what they are doing, and making sure they do not misinterpret what we are doing the whole thing can be exhausting.

There will be misunderstandings but there will also be increased knowledge and, very importantly, increased intimacy. It means that people from other cultures stop being abstract things to respect or not respect. They become complex human beings who have things about them that we like and things that we dislike.

Who are we most knowingly critical of? It’s our families or those with whom we constantly interact. We really love them and they really, as in really, annoy us more than anybody. What’s more, sometimes we do not recoil from telling them so, for we know that this does not mean that we have stopped loving or respecting them. This is what intimate interaction means.

Those who use the language of respect do not experience intimate interaction and those who experience intimate interaction do not use the language of respect.

If my neighbour is Arab or Vietnamese and I start knowing them intimately, he or she can be a pain one day and great another. I will respect them one day and dislike them the next, and this is a normal part of interaction. The language of respect shields people from, rather than invites them into, a complex interactive reality. I have always taught my students that people who strongly hate people from another culture and people who strongly love people from another culture have something in common: neither must mix much with the people from the culture they are referring to.

So what does it mean when we come across a blanket imperative like ‘respect Muslim culture’? It seems to me a kind of invitation for non-interaction. Or at best, a recipe for condescending interaction: I respect Muslims and I will be polite in the way one is polite to strangers who are destined to remain forever strangers.

I think that political correctness is very much the product of the multiculturalism of coexistence. The multiculturalism of interaction is too vibrant and complex to be constrained by cliches about ‘respect’. This is why it is crucial to maintain the ideal of a multiculturalism of interaction which is at the heart of Australian multiculturalism.

Next week, Ghassan Hage discusses masculine toughness, feminine toughness and the ‘War on Terror’. A previous version of these two pieces appeared in the Australian Financial Review on Friday 22 July, under the title ‘We need interaction, not just coexistence’.

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