Concord and Discord in Multicultural Societies: The Clash of Cultural Values

Clinton Bennett, PhD

[This article Š Clinton Bennett 2002 is based on research conducted during the Summer Scholars' Institute at Baylor University, June 1999 and was presented in an earlier format at a Seminar during the Pruitt Memorial Symposium on 'Cultivating Citizens: Soulcraft and Citizenship in Contemporary America'.]

This paper brings together three areas of interest: my work on Salman Rushdie, about whom I wrote in my In Search of Muhammad, my interest in issues of citizenship, nationality, ethnicity, religion and belonging, and contributions on these themes from the arena of political science and philosophy.

At the end of Democracy's Discontent, Sandel, from the world of political science, invites us to tell stories:

There is a growing danger that, individually and collectively, we will find ourselves slipping into a fragmented, storyless condition. The loss of the capacity for narrative would amount to the ultimate disempowering of the human subject. [351]

Salman Rushdie, from the world of literature, would heartily concur. Kill the novel, he says, and you kill society. Murder the story, and you annihilate the soul. The novel, says Rushdie, is "the stage upon which the great debates of society can be conducted" (Is Nothing Sacred?, 7). He writes, not only to entertain or to amuse but to provoke and to question, as he puts it, "everything in every possible way" (16). "I elevate the novel", he says:

above other forms.... it is the only [form] that takes the 'privileged arena' of conflicting discourse right inside our heads. The interior space of our imagination is a theatre that can never be closed down; the images created there make up a movie that can never be destroyed. [13]

Or, as one of his characters in The Satanic Verses says, "A poet's work is to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep . . . and if rivers of blood flow from the cuts his verses inflict, then they will nourish him" (97). Yet the content of the stories we tell has more than a little bearing on whether they further or hinder the human project; they may empower some while disempowering others. Sandel wrote, "Political community depends on the narratives by which people make sense of their condition, and interpret the common life they share" (350). The danger to which Rushdie points us is that the narratives we tell can deliberately exclude some from having a right to share either the story or the common life. This applies to myths that peoples and nations tell about themselves, myths which privilege some ethnicities over others, or which effectively demonize others as the enemy, onto whom responsibility for all our woes and ills can so easily be displaced. In the days of the British raj, the British told a myth about themselves; they were an imperial race destined to rule others; they had a divine mission to enlighten, civilize and educate the non-Western, non-white, non-Christian world.

Then, once in possession of overseas territory, their superior knowledge and their natural aptitude to rule others for their moral upliftment, meant that they, the British, knew Egyptians and Indians and so on, and their needs, better than they did themselves. Edward Said has argued and explored this thesis extensively in Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism. He analyses fictional narrative as well as scholarly discourse. Of Said, Rushdie says in Imaginary Homelands, "For those of us who see the struggle between Eastern and Western descriptions of the world as both an internal and an external struggle, Edward Said has been for many years an especially important voice" (166). Britain has lost its Empire but many of the Eurocentric attitudes continue to influence race and community relations. Many Britons today regard the black and Asian migrants as inherently inferior. They may have British passports, they may speak English but as Michael Corra puts it, if "whiteness" remains the sine qua non of Englishness "nothing can make up for its absence" (47). The best the black person can hope for is to be "almost the same but not quite ... almost the same but not white" (to cite Homi Bhabba, 87. Rushdie writes:

Four hundred years of conquest and looting, four centuries of being told that you are superior to the Fuzzy-Wuzzies, and the wogs, leave their stain. This stain has steeped into every part of the language and daily life; and nothing much has been done to wash it out. [Imaginary Homelands, 130]

He continues, "the stereotyping goes on. Blacks have rhythm, Asians work hard".

In The Satanic Verses, Rushdie has a scene in which one of his characters, Saladin Chamcha, is arrested as an illegal immigrant despite the fact that he is a UK citizen; we read;

look at yourself. You're a bleep bleep Packy billy. Sally - who? - what kind of name is that for an Englishman. [163]

Not only did the British tell a somewhat self-serving and one sided story about themselves but they also tried to impose stories, and identities, on the conquered. Postcolonial literature, such as Rushdie's, addresses the question of national identity after Empire -- what does it mean to be Indian or Pakistani now that the British have left? In Midnight's Children, one of his characters expresses his annoyance that, while studying medicine in Europe, he had:

learned that India - like radium - had been 'discovered' by the Europeans; even Oskar was filled with admiration for Vasco de Gama, and this was what finally separated Aadam Aziz from his friends, this belief of theirs that he was somehow the invention of their ancestors. [11]

Rushdie's writing is passionately concerned with the fate of the new India, with what sort of nation she is to be for all of her citizens. Yet, educated in Britain and himself a United Kingdom citizen, Rushdie can not but straddle two contexts; the post-colonial India and the post-colonial Britain. Both contexts struggle with a legacy. India struggles with becoming Indian; Britain struggles with what Rushdie calls "The New Empire Within", that is, with the presence of black and South Asian minorities.

Rushdie says that no passport can describe his identity; and that his loyalties are to ideas and not to places. He writes, he says, as a, "secular, pluralist man". He rejoices in eclecticism; "how does newness enter the world", he asks in The Satanic Verses, "How", he asks, "does newness enter the world?" and continues; when "a bit of this and a bit of that" meet and mingle; "Melange, hotpotch ... is how newness enters the world. It is the great possibility that migration has given the world, and I have tried to embrace it" (394).

The Satanic Verses "celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, songs. It rejoices in mongrelization and fears the absolutism of the pure".  Rushdie, it seems, has made, "the ideas of impurity, cultural admixture and melange" closest "to the notion of the Good" (Moor's Last Sigh, 303).

Yet Rushdie's love of pluralism is deeply Indian, rooted in his own understanding of what is most characteristic of the Indian ethos, past, present and future.

For a nation of seven hundred millions to make any kind of sense, it must base itself firmly on the concept of multiplicity, of plurality and tolerance, of devolution and decentralization wherever possible. There can only be one way -- religious, cultural, or linguistic -- of being an Indian; let difference reign. [Imaginary Homelands, 44]

In his novels, he is scathingly critical of the Hindu right wing in India who want to define Indian as being Hindu, and he suggests that they can only promote their concept of Hindutva by re-imagining or re-defining both Hinduism and India.

Point one, in a religion with a thousand and one gods they suddenly decide that only one chap matters. Then what about Calcutta, for example where they do not go in for Ram? And Shiva temples are no longer suitable places of worship? [Moor's Last Sigh, 338]

In his volume of essays, Imaginary Homelands Rushdie clearly draws on Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities, which argues that nations as nations are imaginary entities, thought into being by the corporate storytelling of the people who inhabit them. The British problem, Rushdie suggests, is that their story has not yet found a way of including those whose skin color differs from the majority's. Michael Corra agrees, and concludes his important study of the colonial and post colonial writings of Scott, Naipaul and Rushdie with this sobering comment:

Britain's illusory belief in its own historical homogeneity means that it will probably never become a fully multiracial society. Even if nonwhites can insert themselves into the continuity of English life, the terms of that life will change only in degrees. [174]

Migrants, and children born in Britain of migrant parents or even of migrant grandparents, may be legally British but their citizenship is de facto second class as long as the common assumption is that to be English you have to be white. The Cantle Report (2001) following race-linked riots in several Northern inner cities identified as problematic lack of effort "to develop clear values on what it means to be a citizen of a multi­racial Britain and many still look backwards to some supposedly halcyondays of a mono-cultural society or alternatively look to their country of origin for some form of identity" ( Cantle Report, 10 para 2.6)

In the light of India's own tendency to disintegrate into regionalism and communitarianism, Rusdhie often seems to despair that pluralism can work. Most of his books conclude with some sort of explosion; in The Midnight's Children, the children's conference ends up floundering on the old rock of casteism; Brahmins began to feel uneasy at permitting even their thoughts to touch the thoughts of untouchables ..." (254).

Faced with examples of pluralist societies disintegrating into conflict or into rival claims to be the dominant, or only true national culture, it is not surprising that some thinkers find Roussau's idea of a culturally homogenous society attractive, and advocate legislation to preserve and protect this. In the UK, the former Archbishop of York has argued that the Church of England ought to remain established as the guardian of Britain's historically Christian cultural tradition. Minority cultures, he says, should be tolerated. He sees the British model as that of a "major cultural influence, Christianity, tolerating and affirming sub-cultures" (Habgood). He believes that this arrangement should be legally protected. Lord Tebbit questioned whether British Pakistanišs who support Pakistanšs cricket team were loyal to the British crown.

In the USA, Samuel Huntington similarly argues that no society that lacks a dominant culture can survive. For him, "multiculturalists" in the USA sell their birth-right; "the American multiculturalists ... reject their country's cultural heritage. Instead of attempting to identify the United States with another civilization, however, they wish to create a country of many civilizations, which is to say, a country not belonging to any civilization and lacking a cultural core" (306). Huntington seems to operate with an understanding of what it means to be American, to be a citizen, that excludes many from ever enjoying full citizenship, de facto they may face discrimination and prejudice while de jure holding USA passports. He wants to elevate one understanding of what it means to be American above all others.

These others may soon find themselves facing a rhetoric that, as Sandel puts it, hardens, "the distinction between insiders and outsiders ... a politics that promises to take back our country, to restore our sovereignty with a vengeance" (350). The idea that the American dream, and the values enshrined in the constitution, are for WASPS only, is not new. There is a deep rooted fear of the OTHER, who is not only racially, culturally, religiously different but whose loyalty may also be at issue. In his comments made during campaign for the Reform party 2000 Presidential nomination, Pat Buchanan wants to call a moratorium on immigration in order, as he sees it, "to put the American melting pot to work again." Immigrants already in the US must learn English and "put America first". In the event of conflict between the USA and Muslims (such as the Gulf War, and US action in Afghanistan) American Muslims must support the USA.

Yet America became multi-religious and multi-cultural on the day the pilgrim parents stepped off the Mayflower. And at its noblest, the vision of a land of the free is open to all, not just to Protestant Christians. Yet what about the possibility of conflict between loyalties created by transnational commitments? One solution might be to argue for some sort of world or global system, similar to that considered by Sandel towards the end of Democracy's Discontent, where he writes:

In a world where capital and goods, information and images, pollution and people, flow across national boundaries with unprecedented ease, politics must assume transnational, even global forms [339].

At first sight, Rushdie, with his multi-national identity and his loyalty to ideas not places would seem to be the ideal citizen of such a global system. Indeed, the main characters of The Ground Beneath Her Feet, his 1999 novel, though of Indian origin, become purveyors of transcultural rock and roll. They all but become "deracinated". However, they 'go political, organizing the Rock the World charity concerts, meeting world leaders to demand action on global famine, protesting the cynicism of international oil companies . . . " [425. Rushdie describes Orbus and Vina as 'deracinated' on p 426.]

Sandel, though, thinks world government unworkable at the mega level, given the reality that more local communities claim most of us.

The global media and markets that shape our lives beckon us to a world beyond boundaries and belonging. But the civic resources we need to master these forces, or at least to contend with them, are still to be found in the places and stories, memories and meanings, incidents and identities, that situate us in the world and give our lives their moral particularity (349).

This does not rule out global systems but posits a network of global, national and local. In this system, while we remain encumbered in our local communities we also recognize other loyalties, and negotiate our way intelligently between them, thus:

Self government today requires a politics that plays itself out in a multiplicity of settings, from neighborhoods to nations to the world as a whole ... The civic virtue distinctive to our time is the capacity to negotiate our way among the sometimes overlapping, sometimes conflicting obligations that claim us, and to live with the tension to which multiple loyalties give rise [350].

Rushdie, I think, could live with this; as I read him, he is best described as having multiple loyalties, even multiple belongings (toIndia, to Britain, to the world) rather than as having none at all.

However, what about Habgood and Huntington's thesis?  Perhaps only education can change people's attitudes about who properly belongs to Britain, America, or France. Certainly, as long as a single ethnicity or culture is privileged, some will be excluded. If ability to participate in public life, or to contribute to the economy, or to the general welfare, substitutes for possession of a particular cultural identity as the mark of the true citizen, everyone would be included.   Contributors to Oommen's 1997 volume (Citizenship and National identity: From Colonialiam to Globalism) advocate this understanding of citizenship -- as participation -- as does the more recent Cantle Report in the U.K.  The essays argue that when citizenship and national identity are co-terminous, too many people are excluded, especially minorities. Their solution is to substitute "participation":

Democratic citizenship, then, need not necessarily be rooted in a people's national identity; setting aside the multiplicity of cultural patterns of life, democratic citizenship rather requires the socialization of all citizens into a common political culture. [70]

Oommen argues for a state that is culturally neutral; the state should not privilege any single way of being culturally or religiously human above any other way. This all requires a lot more thought. Vis-à-vis public policy, it suggests that policies ought to aim at creating an atmosphere in which all can hold onto what they most cherish in their own religious and cultural heritage and at the same time subscribe to a common set of values. These values ought to enable participation in a single political and economic system. The problem at present is that in many contexts, people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds rarely meet, leading almost "parallel lives," as noted in Britain by the Cantle Report team:

Whilst the physical separation of housing estates and inner city areas came as no surprise, the team was particularly struck by the depth of polarization of our towns and cities. The extent to which these physical divisions were compounded by so many aspects of our lives Š means that many communities operate on the basis of a series of parallel lives. These lives often do not seem to touch at any point, let alone overlap and promote any meaningful interchanges [10 para 2.1].

In my opinion, then, strategies and policies that enable people of different cultures and ethnicities and faiths to meet on common,shared ground, which "promote cross-cultural contact" will best help foster social cohesion, especially if there are also opportunites to reflect together on what it means to be a citizen, as Cantle recommends.  Also, existing myths ought to be "busted" (12 para 2.18). We may need new stories to tell, new songs to sing. The Cantle Report suggests that this new understanding of citizenship ought to "be based on (a few) common principles" shared by all within the community. Thus, we do not need to sing the same song all the time but we ought to be able to join together in its chorus.

Dr Bennett has worked in various cross-cultural contexts for two decades. He has lived in Australia, Bangladesh, the UK and the USA. He is currently based at Birchfield Community School, a multi-cultural school of 700 pupils in inner-city Birmingham.


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Postcolonial Web Pakinstan OV Rushdie OV