The Question of Multiculturalism: should we strive towards it?

In 2010, German chancellor Angela Merkel held a speech in which she declared that ‘multikulti’ is dead, it has failed. With that, she refers to the idea of multiculturalism, according to which people of different cultural backgrounds live together in one society. In other words, it is the institutionalization of diversity. So, what she is talking about, is that instead of having migrants live their lives according to their own norms, traditions and beliefs, they should be ‘forced’ to assimilate, to what she calls the German ‘Leitkultur’. Leitkultur is essentially the ‘national culture’ of the country, which locals naturally adapt, and migrants should consequently adapt as their new culture.

The reason why Merkel is saying this, is that minorities in Germany are often perceived as not very integrated. They often live in areas that are  mostly populated by other migrants, do not speak the language and only interact with locals to a very limited extent. Now, that is a fact which can’t be denied. However, we have to ask ourselves one question: is this because multiculturalism doesn’t work in general, or is it because of the way  the German government, and the German society itself handles migration? Answering this question has proven difficult. Scholarly opinions on this subject are divided, and so we will come back to this question over and over again throughout the lifetime of this blog. But for now, let’s have a look at one of the core assumptions of multiculturalism:

It is central to an individual’s self-esteem, and self-worth, that his or her identity is accepted by the wider society

Society needs to accept cultural diversity, specifically the culture of the individual in question, otherwise migrants will never feel comfortable in their host society. In Germany, as well as in many other countries, this is a major problem for migrants with a Muslim background. Their identity is often stigmatized, and even if they do not experience this themselves, then can hear it from the experiences of their community members, or through the media. And because we identify with the group we belong to, this is the equal of a personal attack towards ourselves. In the end, all this leads to is a distancing of the migrant towards the host society, and a hostile environment develops.

We all perceive ourselves as members of our ethnic communities, because it fulfills three of our most basic human needs. One of which is self-esteem. The other two are:

Grip: this is about the philosophical questions of life: what is our purpose, why are we here, where do we come from and what is our destiny? Our group memberships help us answer these questions. Humans, by nature, do not like uncertainty. Our ethnic heritage helps reduce uncertainty. It  fives us the feeling that we are not left to chances, that we are not victims of the environments we live in, by providing us with with a belief system. That’s why the ideas of people who challenge the  common worldview of the community tend  to get rejected, or those people get excluded from the community altogether. People do not want their core beliefs challenged, all it does it to create uncertainty. And that is also why living in a foreign environment often creates a feeling of loss. Your life literally looses it’s meaning.

and

Belonging: people need warmth and support. Being a member of a group provides exactly that. But also gives you something you can identify with. Just like a soccer-fan sees the victory of her team, as her win, a member of an ethnic community identifies with the characteristics of the group. He or she has a sense of connectedness, a sense of belonging. Again, moving to a foreign country can be painful, because that sense of belonging is missing. The migrant simply doesn’t feel like he is part of the community. At least not in the very beginning.

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Being a member of an ethnic community, becomes part of the story we tell ourselves about who we are…

… and it’s a powerful story. There are certain qualities, norms, beliefs and behaviours which are commonly associated with a certain ethnicity, and, as members of the community, we identify with these qualities. In the end, we act or behave according to these qualities, which means that we act much less as individual agents as we would like to believe in the western society. However, that is the case only if the identity in question is central to who you are, or rather, who you perceive yourself to be. And this is where it gets interesting. A foreigner can have a shift in identity. He or she can start identifying more and more with the host culture, if he or she starts to get a feeling of belonging. But that requires him or her to be accepted, to be recognized by the local people. In other words, whether or not a person is willing to integrate is, paradoxically, dependent on how accepting their new society is towards diversity. When members of the society are more accepting of differences, or diversity, it can lead to migrants integrating better into their host culture.

Ethnic identity vs. national identity

Let’s come back to Germany for a moment. In the case of Germany, there is one big problem: the society defines itself through their ethnic identity, their shared ancestry and heritage. Now, obviously it is impossible to accept a foreigner as ‘one of them’, because it is simply impossible for him or her to change where he or she comes from. National identity, however, is something different. It derives from shared national symbols, a shared, language, shared culture,  and so on. And these are all aspects a foreigner can make her own, albeit slowly. In other words: it is not only the fault of the individual if he or she isn’t able to ‘integrate’. It is as much the fault of the society he or she migrates to.

Tim

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