Sunday, January 29, 2006

Is multiculturalism good for anyone?

Veil and a warning

The mysterious death of Samira Munir, a Norwegian politician, in Oslo comes as a chilling deterrent to Muslim women who speak out about the violence against women in their communities in the West

For the past few months I've been working on a project on multiculturalism so I collect articles like this one, describing pressure on assimilated women of Muslim origin in the West from their families and local ethnic communities to behave themselves.

There are usually a number of extraneous issues that muddy the waters--intergenerational conflicts between immigrant parents and their European children, the universal desire of parents to control and protect their children (particularly adolescent girls) and the universal desire of adolescents not to be controlled or protected. In one of the muddiest cases of all in response to the French headscarf ban the poster children of the protest were Lila and Alma Levy, teenage daughters of a Jewish lawyer, who donned the hajib to make a countercultural fashion statement and achieved their 15 minutes of fame on the international stage.

There are certainly people who, like Lila and Alma, can capitalize on multiculturalism. Nevertheless, even if some people can capitalize on multiculturalism I argue that it is a bad thing because it promotes ethnic identities that are ascribed, socially salient and scripted and so restricts individual liberty. First, ethnic identity is ascribed: even where it is invisible, it is unchosen and immutable. It limits people's choice, their ability to choose their affiliations, and when it is visible, as it is for black and brown people, it is all the more restrictive. Visible minorities are not only stuck with an ethnic identity--they are stuck with others identifying them with their assigned group.

Secondly, ethnic identity is socially salient. Ethnic identities are associated with a wide range of personal characteristics--beliefs, character traits, interests, aptitudes and behaviors--in a way that, e.g. handedness, eye color and other traits are not. People who are tagged with an ethnic or racial identity are expected to possess these traits and have to fight their way through these expectations to be seen as the individuals they are.

Finally, racial and ethnic identities are scripted. They are not only associated with a package of personal characteristics that ethnically identified individuals are thought to have--they carry scripts for how such individuals are supposed to behave and impose role obligations. Ethnically identified individuals who are unwilling or unable to act their assigned scripts, or who attempt to opt out of their ascribed ethnic identities, are punished--whether mildly, by being castigated as self-hating oreos, coconuts, bananas or apples (black, brown, yellow or red on the outside--white on the inside) or severely, by being threatened, beaten up or killed.

Liberal societies are in a bind. By accommodating the interests of individuals who want to capitalize on ethnicity they thwart the interests of those who want out. Apart from a few individuals like Lila and Alma who are playing at ethnicity for fun however most who capitalize on ethnicity do so because they can't shed it. I'm a 50 year old immigrant from Algeria. I can't speak decent French and can't get a job here. I live in this cite on public assistance and outside I get treated like dirt: I'm at the bottom of the heap. But in my apartment I'm the paterfamilias: I still have the authority over my wife and children that my culture underwrites so I have an interest in maintaining that culture. I'm his 18 year old son. I speak perfect French but I can't get a legitimate job anyway because I'm brown. But at least I can boss and beat up women because that's my cultural perogative so I have an interest in maintaining that culture. I don't have any future so I don't have anything to lose: might as well have fun now, burn some cars. And when I do I get on TV.

Practically speaking, I don't know how this can be fixed, how you can give that 50 year old immigrant a stake in the dominant culture. I don't even know how you give the lads a stake in the dominant culture--though affirmative action might help. But as an empirical conjecture I am absolutely certain that if assimilation is really feasible for most immigrants in affluent Western countries most will choose it.

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