Boxes Without Doors

More on Sen on multiculturalism. It’s a terrific article; don’t miss it.

Being born in a particular social background is not in itself an exercise of cultural liberty, since it is not an act of choice. In contrast, the decision to stay firmly within the traditional mode would be an exercise of freedom, if the choice were made after considering other altenatives. In the same way, a decision to move away – by a little or a lot – from the standard behavior pattern, arrived at after reflection and reasoning, would also qualify as such an exercise. Indeed, cultural freedom can frequently clash with cultural conservatism, and if multiculturalism is defended in the name of cultural freedom, then it can hardly be seen as demanding unwavering and unqualified support for staying steadfastly within one’s inherited cultural tradition.

No, it can’t – but in practice multiculturalism is defended sometimes in the name of cultural freedom, but other times in the name of other things – anti-racism, or identity, or authenticity, or (undefined) diversity, or all those patched together as needed. So these terrible stultifying confining effects are overlooked, as so often happens when definitions change at convenience. That’s the work definition-changing does – it promotes confusion in the service of obscuring important problems.

there is another momentous issue here, which concerns the role of religion in categorizing people, rather than other bases of classification. People’s priorities and actions are influenced by all of their affiliations and associations, not merely by religion. The separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan was based on reasons of language and literature, along with political priorities, and not on religion, which both wings of undivided Pakistan shared. To ignore everything other than faith is to obliterate the reality of concerns that have moved people to assert identities that go well beyond religion.

Exactly. That is exactly why all this ‘the Muslim community’ crap drives me straight up the wall – it simply assumes that all Muslims (and even ex-Muslims) are Muslims before they are anything else, and that’s an absurd thing to assume. It’s not respectful or sensitive, it’s confining and coercive – it seals off all the exits.

The people of the world cannot be seen merely in terms of their religious affiliations – as a global federation of religions. For much the same reasons, a multi-ethnic Britain can hardly be seen as a collection of ethnic communities. Yet the “federational” view has gained much support in contemporary Britain. Indeed, despite the tyrannical implications of putting persons into rigid boxes of given “communities,” that view is frequently interpreted, rather bafflingly, as an ally of individual freedom.

Guardian please note; Madeleine Bunting please note; BBC producers who keep booking Iqbal Sacranie to speak for ‘the Muslim community’ please note.

But must a person’s relation to Britain be mediated through the culture of the family in which he or she was born? A person may decide to seek closeness with more than one of these pre-defined cultures or, just as plausibly, with none. Also, a person may well decide that her ethnic or cultural identity is less important to her than, say, her political convictions, or her professional commitments, or her literary persuasions. It is a choice for her to make, no matter what her place is in the strangely imagined “federation of cultures.” There would be serious problems with the moral and social claims of multiculturalism if it were taken to insist that a person’s identity must be defined by his or her community or religion, overlooking all the other affiliations a person has, and giving automatic priority to inherited religion or tradition over reflection and choice. And yet that approach to multiculturalism has assumed a pre-eminent role in some of the official British policies in recent years.

Home Office please note; student unions please note; everyone everywhere please note.

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