Monday, November 27, 2006

Groupies, freedom and diversity

I hope nobody will think any the less of me for saying this, but following my previous post and this discussion that Andrew started at B4L, I thought I might mention it.

I don’t actually celebrate diversity all that much.

I mean, I like having the opportunity to eat all sorts of different food, and I think that it’s definitely a good thing to encounter different ways of doing things and looking at life. But I have to say that, when I’m walking down the road and I pass a couple of people chatting in Farsi or Japanese, I don’t in all honesty stop and dance a little jig about how, even though they and I are different in many ways, it’s great that here we all are, on the same potholed pavement, breathing the same taxi fumes in the same bloody rain.

Let me put it another way. Of the people I know, some are quite like me in terms of demography and/or lifestyle and others are less so. And as a good liberal-minded type, I don’t like any of them any less for being different from me in various ways. But the thing is, I don’t like any of them any more for being different from me, either. I’m not really interested in having a colourful, box-ticked portfolio of acquaintances. To paraphrase the racist-in-denial, many of my best friends are kind, witty, fun, trustworthy and interesting to talk to.

So while I’m glad to live in a diverse society, I don’t so much rate the actual diversity itself as an intrinsic good. What I rate, as a basic political value, is the freedom that we all have to do our own thing – and, on the unarguable assumption that our preferences vary, then the diversity will arise as a product of universal individual liberty.

What annoys me is when people push diversity as a value for its own sake, which in practice boils to thinking that people who can be identified as being from a particular (ethnic/religious/linguistic/whatever) type should be understood in terms of the defining features of that type – and others within that group are quite proper to pressurise them to conform to ‘traditional’ ways, while ‘outsiders’ should stay out.

This gives us a view of society as a diverse collection of groups, each of which is comparatively homogeneous. One may well strive for good relations between the groups, but the differences between them are what the interactions are premised upon. And celebrating these differences for the sake of the group identity can actually harm personal freedom.

The view of multicultural society as a ‘patchwork quilt’, with each of us living within our own patch (bar the occasional ‘cultural experience’ visiting another), stinks. Better to think of cultural diversity as a dynamic tapestry, constantly being woven anew, with each of us having any number of different strands running through our individual identity.

Here’s an utterly depressing comment about the New Generation Network by Soumaya Ghannoushi, reflecting a contempt for human nature and a belief that ordinary people need to be kept in separate groups under a leader who know better:

“This obsession with an absolute notion of citizenship is precisely the manifesto's chief intellectual weakness. Outside the realms of legal doctrine and philosophical theory, the notion simply has no existence. …
“Undermining existing community-based organisations is a risky game to play. The bloody events unfolding in the Muslim world is proof that those who stand to benefit from the religious and institutional vacuum these structures' erosion would generate are the forces of extremism. …these organisations are capable of keeping some form of check on the reactions of uprooted young men, lacking in sound religious understanding or sufficient political experience, daily growing more frustrated at misguided policies at home and abroad. …
“The only way we can achieve an actual and concrete embodiment of the lofty principle of citizenship is through the activation of ethnic and religious minority-based organisations and engagement in a common struggle on the ground bringing together a diverse broad coalition of different forces, ethnic and religious groups, civil liberties and human rights organizations and political currents.”

And here’s the exact opposite from Hari Kunzru:

“Underlying much of the current hot air about ‘respect’ and ‘offence’ we find implicit the idea that as BME's (or whatever the current jargon is for those of us who don't trace our descent back to Nick Griffin), we’re somehow more determined by our culture than our flexible white co-Britons. Certain things have to be excused us. Our views on the usefulness of the clitoris, evolution, ladies fashions or the relative merits of other ethnic minorities are off limits, particularly to white politicians, because such questioning might constitute a form of racist pressure. …
“Instead of asking us as individual British citizens what we think or feel about contentious issues, our views are too often inferred from a dialogue conducted with so-called ‘community leaders’, who are frequently self-appointed, and almost always cultural conservatives, with every incentive to take offence on our behalf in order to preserve their own access to funding and influence. This odd coupling of white liberals and brown conservatives has produced a form of multiculturalism in which culture appears as fixed and fragile as a dried flower, something to be preserved, in danger of being shaken apart by the slightest breath of criticism, rather than something being made and remade every day on British streets…
“This ossified form of multiculturalism creates casualties within the ethnic minority communities its proponents believe they are protecting. Women, homosexuals, religious, social or political dissidents and artists must all contend with a political environment in which their freedoms are considered less important than the ‘representative’ power of community leaders, who will zealously wield the weapon of offence when their authority is challenged.”

(I’ll now be offline for a couple of days on an office team-building jaunt, where my individualism will be drummed out of me until I can conform to management’s ideal of a motivated worker. Or we’ll just get pissed and do some stupid exercises.)

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