Them is Us: More Thoughts on Oslo and Multiculturalism

July 26, 2011

by Roger Koppl

An editorial in yesterday’s New York Times rightly notes, “A disturbing, and growing, intolerance across Europe for Muslims and other immigrants from Africa, Asia and the Middle East.  Inflammatory political rhetoric is increasingly tolerated. And anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic parties are getting stronger notably in northern European countries that have long had liberal immigration policies.”  Right.  The trends are real and bad.  But the next paragraph goes off the rails by equating multiculturalism with tolerance and (relatively) open borders.

Individuals are responsible for their actions. But they are influenced by public debate and the extent to which that debate makes ideas acceptable — or not. Even mainstream politicians in Europe, including Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France have sown doubts about the ability or willingness of Europe to absorb newcomers. Multiculturalism “has failed, utterly failed,” Mrs. Merkel said last October.

There you have it.  You accept “multiculturalism” or you have blood on your hands.  Well I won’t be intimidated by the editors of the New York Times, thank you very much.  I mean, haven’t these guys read “Romeo and Juliet”?  Two individuals love each other in spite of their separate origins and the mutual hatred of their respective groups.  We are for the two lovers and against the group thinking that tears them apart.  

Multiculturalism puts us all in the position of Romeo and Juliet.  You are crossing some sort of Great Divide if you have a friendly exchange with Someone From Another Culture.  It is insufferable.  Breivik thinks “they” have a different “culture” from “us,” and he thinks that cultural divide cannot be crossed.  Multiculturalists have the same view!  The difference is whether you want to cast “them” out or piously accept “them” in “our” midst.  

Is it so hard to understand that “them” is “us”?  Once you reject that equation, it is a fragile choice between peaceful co-existence and war.  Tragically, Breivik made the wrong choice.  It is a testament to human decency that so many choose peace and so few choose war.

Multiculturalism is not tolerance, openness, and pluralism.  It is a form of collectivism that questions whether distinct “cultures” can even understand one another.  I am for humans, not “cultures.”  I am for every individual human being on earth, even my enemies.  I pick people over power, humans over culture.

10 Responses to “Them is Us: More Thoughts on Oslo and Multiculturalism”

  1. Lee Kelly Says:

    Brilliant. This and your last post on the same subject.


  2. Roger is on a roll. I hope he works his postings into an op ed.

  3. erik Says:

    This is an interesting opinion piece, though I think there is missing context from this piece. First, Brevik was likely severely mental ill. This does not inherently distract from the arguments made in his manifesto (similar to the Unibomber), but it does call into question the relationship between the two.

    Second, it is probably right to destroy the false dichotomy between acceptance and rejection of multiculturalism, but I don’t know why you then descend into an amorphous, metaphysical statement such as ‘ I am for humans, not “cultures.” I am for every individual human being on earth, even my enemies. I pick people over power, humans over culture.’ This is an interesting statement; but I have no idea what it means in a practical sense, particularly because you have said humans are “decent” when a fair amount of history would question this statement- not only among those that perpetuate evil, but among those who simply sit back and watch it happen to other people.

    would be interested to hear what tangible policy recommendations you would have for societies dealing with problems related to multiculturalism. It is certainly true that not all countries face the same problems regarding multiculturalism: for instance, immigrants in Norway do not necessarily take away jobs from locals, although they are given citizenship quite easily which entitle them to robust pensions. At the end of the day, although I might be inclined to agree with your preference for humans over cultures (dependent on further exposition), I am not really sure what that means.

  4. Current Says:

    Hmm…

    You’ve got to understand where the debate is coming from in Europe (well in Britain and Ireland anyway, that’s what I’m familiar with). As has been pointed out, on the one hand we have “multi-culturalists”. This is a vague label. It encompasses some who tolerate differences, and some who embrace group differences. Roger is criticising the latter.

    Those against multi-culturalism have various views. There are those who are taking the position Roger has taken, they’re critical of embracing group differences. I think the far larger group are those who wish to prevent group differences arising, either through limiting immigration or through sending immigrants on integration courses and so on.

    I think that in Europe Roger’s position would be seen as far closer to multi-culturalism than he sees it himself. Because he isn’t advocating any active integration. In Europe multi-culturalism is the default that happens if there is nothing to stop it. People from far away countries will not immigrate and integrate, they will immigrate and live in particular regions of particular cities with their own people. They will continue to speak their own language.

    There is also the question of whether enforcing the law of the land constituents an active sort of integration. In terms of rarified libertarian theory it may not, but in practical terms it isn’t like that. Many Sharia courts have been set up in Britain to administrate justice privately amongst muslims normally for minor issues. These courts don’t have any official force behind them, and as a result those who do any enforcing may be seen as guilty of crimes under British law. If they are actually prosecuted then how should this be seen, is it normal application of the law or is it anti-multi-culturalism. Many see it as the latter.

  5. Pietro M. Says:

    Amartya Sen’s opinion on multiculturalism is based on his experience in London, and he is against it because of a series of factors:

    1. too much reliance on a single source of individual identity, the community
    2. too much weight given to community leaders which obtain their (possibly unrepresentative) position thanks to their political role as consultant for governments (I don’t have his book at hand and I’m not sure he raises this point in these terms)
    3. impossibility of integration because of almost waterproof segregation of cultural universes.

    Maybe there is some meaning of “multiculturalism” that makes sense. It is important however to refute the interpretations of the label that don’t from the discussion in order to solve these problems of the stricter forms of multiculturalism.

    It is likely that there are some who call themself multiculturalists but don’t draw the previous inferences from their position. In this case, I would have nothing to object, except for the imprecision in the use of words which makes understanding more difficult.

    It is like moral relativism: in its pure form, it’s philosophical rubbish, but as an antidote to fundamentalism and moral foundationism (à la Rothbard) it can be of value. But it is important to highlight that the standard relativistic “anything goes” idea doesn’t make any sense.

    I must admit that being Italian sucks so much that I have no problems refusing multiculturalism. I will probably outlive my country, so I can’t rely too much on it for my personal identity.🙂

  6. Erik Says:

    @ current, @ pietro, I thank you both for your comments; they helped me to understand the context behind the article. I think “multiculturalism” has largely been a failure, because there is no authoritative meaning and different countries face different problems.

    The main litmus issue for “multiculturalism” seems to be immigration policy and that divides into many camps- those that want to cut all immigration , those that will allow immigrants who “integrate”, those who will allow all immigrants (etc). I think one of the ironic results of Brevik’s actions will be, at least at the margin, a more robust discussion about what this policy actually is. At the end of the day, however, there seems to be immense conflict between anyone wanting to restrict immigrant’s choices once they arrive and the kernel values of liberal democracy.

  7. Rage Says:

    Nice post there . Multicultural activities are good which are helping to come closer with other communities.

  8. K Sralla Says:

    I would like to comment on some of your “multi-culturalism” posts, and ask a question. First my observation:

    If economists have learned anything over the last 30 years, it is that institutions matter. Voluntary associations between individuals do constitute institutions, and these institutions carry with them informal rules of the game. This is culture. Forget the very muddled definition of “multi-culturalism”. It has become almost meaningless, and is a distraction from the real issue.

    An important area of inquiry involves analyzing the informal rules and norms which compliment formal rules, that allow for the functioning of peaceful trade and voluntary exchange between individuals. To look at different angles on this issue, it may also involve studying how migrations of human beings forced by changing formal legal structures perturb the evolution of societal order. Are there certain formal legal structures that are better than others in allowing a natural evolution of social order in a peaceful manner?

    Now those who have read my comments before might think this is the same song, 10th verse of the same theme. It is, but it is no less relevant.

    The sort of nonsense where we can’t even talk about these types of things is a very sad state, but unfortunately, I’m not surprised that few people even dare to bring these things up, since as we have just witnessed, there is open season for persons of bad will to falsely bash one as a racist.

    However Roger, while I find your comments are well intentioned and represent some of the highest aspirations of man which I happen to strongly concur with, I’m afraid they may leave the impression that economists should not touch the study of informal rules among voluntary groups of individuals, since they are something to be shunned. Or perhaps, I am way off base, and miss some of your meaning.

    Question: Do you agree that these informal rules that define “culture” are real, and would you also agree that the way they evolve, and thus their effect on the development of social order is relevant?

  9. Roger Koppl Says:

    K Sralla: I would hate to think that I said anything against the study of informal rules. I think that is both legitimate and valuable. The rules are in how we really behave. Fully formal rules are a relatively small part of the story. Greg Ransom would rightly cites Wittgenstein here.

    But the sort of “multiculturalism” that has been rejected by Merkel, Sarkozy, and Cameron tends to efface the individual and make each “culture” some sort of pure form that shapes you without being shaped by you at the same time. It tends to see “culture” as rigid and unchanging. And it tends to encourage the view that any two different cultures are separated by an unbridgeable chasm. You cannot understand it unless you are of it; one or zero. These are tendencies, not explicit doctrines. As far as I can tell, however, it is fair to say all that.

    Philosophically, I think these bad tendencies of “multiculturalism” reflect the notion that Wittgensteinian language games are incommensurable. I think, instead, that all humans are cut from the same cloth and that we can, therefore, compare language games. We can generally translate from one “culture” to another.

    In any event, while “cultures” do influence human actions, they also arise from the actions of many individuals. Thus, it is a dynamic, open-ended, evolving thing that always involves humans who have been shaped by Darwinian evolution for mutual understanding. I think that vision is not fully consistent with the sort of “multiculturalism” at issue in this discussion.

  10. Jim Leis Says:

    Beautifully written Roger. Thank you.


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