Oslo and Multiculturalism

by Roger Koppl

The terrible Oslo killings by Anders Breivik have appropriately prompted discussion of the political implications of his act and his manifesto.  Multiculturalism is an important theme in the discussion around Breivik’s crimes and ideology.  A story in yesterday’s NYTimes links Breivik to the repudiation of multiculturalism by three European political leaders.

“Yet some of the primary motivations cited by the suspect in Norway, Anders Behring Breivik, are now mainstream issues.  Mrs. Merkel, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Prime Minister David Cameron in Britain all recently declared an end to multiculturalism.”  The article links Breivik’s actions to a supposed “climate” created by “right-wing” discourse.  “[S]ome experts say a climate of hatred in the political discourse has encouraged violent individuals.”  This remark resembles some things said about Jared Loughner, who shot Congressional Representative Gabriella Giffords: The “climate” promotes violence.  And in the New York Times article, the “climate” is somehow linked to the political status of multiculturism.

Liberals and libertarians need to be forthright in repudiating the sort links drawn in the New York Times article.  They should be just as forthright in rejecting multiculturalism, which is sometimes falsely equated with tolerance and pluralism.  The article “Multiculturalism” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes that multiculturalists often presume that different cultures are “distinct self-contained wholes.”  It notes that multiculturalism is mostly about group rights, not individual rights, and that in its support of group rights, “multiculturalism is closely allied with nationalism.”

Multiculturalism of this sort is clearly quite distant from the “true individualism” of liberals such as Adam Smith and F. A. Hayek.  Multiculturalism reifies “culture” and reduces living, breathing, thinking, individual human beings to mere avatars of the cultures from which they descent, and perfect cyphers to the avatars of distinct “cultures.”  David Cameron’s speech on multiculturalism got some things wrong, in my view, including a worrisome reference to “our values” and the paradoxical requirement that “to belong here” one must “believe in”  the “[f]reedom of speech, freedom of worship, democracy, the rule of law, [and] equal rights.”  Apparently, Cameron’s “muscular liberalism” will not tolerate speech that questions the freedom of speech.  But he got one important thing just right: multiculturalism has promoted “segregated communities,” which is a bad thing, unnecessary, and in no wise implied by the values of tolerance, good will to men, and peaceful cooperation.

It hardly seems possible to doubt that multiculturalists wish to be open, tolerant, accepting.  Multiculturalism may nevertheless bolster the view that different cultures are alien, even hostile.  Multiculturists generally miss the role of trade in turning enemies into friends and, generally, promoting peaceful social cooperation.  Breivik might better represent the consequences of multiculturalism than the consequences of rejecting multiculturalism.  Peaceful social cooperation requires tolerance, acceptance, and pluralism, not “multiculturalism” of the sort rightly repudiated by Merkel, Sarkozy, and Cameron.

10 thoughts on “Oslo and Multiculturalism

  1. Besides, a well known “commie” like Amartya Sen is as against multiculturalism as a standard right-oriented libertarian can be.

    Things are much more complex than the NYT in its political propaganda assumes to be.

    In my opinion, multiculturalism is a way for the central government to neglect real social interaction and focus on “community leaders” which are assumed to be representative of their minority, are easy to talk with, and have a huge political interest in being considered as such. It’s the same reason why the prefer large companies and large trade unions: fewer people to discuss with, concentration of sociale power reduces political transaction costs and increases the leverage of political ruling elites.

    In this way, it creates the very fence of communitarian identities that most righ-wing extremists around the world normally uphold very strongly, at least when it comes to their communities at least.

    I don’t usually like Sen. But his book on “identity and violence” is a very interesting essay, a light-year beyond the standard politically correct chattering.

  2. Well said, Roger.

    Multiculturalism is just one of the more recent terms to focus on tribal identity and group rights.

    It is alien to the (classical) liberal ideal of the “open society” of individuals determining their own or multi-identifications in the voluntary associations of civil society.

    Richard Ebeling

  3. Mark Pennington’s book Robust Political Economy discusses some of this.

    The privileging of ‘official’ spokespersons and political representatives for various (increasingly bureaucratized and instrumentalized) religious and ethnic groups necessarily overlooks the multitude of ways in which subsections of said group define what it means to be a member. Even on its own terms, multiculturalism falls apart in the face of a panoply of interpretations.

  4. I’m more sympathetic to David Cameron’s argument about the pre-requisites for belonging. In order to live together as a society there are basic ground-rules that have to be agreed upon. Agreeing not to commit violence against one another is one of them (I bet Rawls noted this kind of stuff in “Political Liberalism”, but I’ve never read it). There are even fairly arbitrary ones, like agreeing to drive on the left side of the road in England and the right side in the civilized word (just kidding!). The stuff Cameron listed constitutes some pretty basic fundamentals of their society, and I think people who reject them really belong somewhere else.

  5. I’m under the impression that European States have created more small clusters of monoculturalism than they’ve constructed “multiculturalism”. Or maybe you those monocultural clusters should be thought of as being atoms of a multicultural superstructure? I’m not sure how to think about this.

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