Thursday, 8 January 2015


It seems certain that at some point in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris discussion will turn to multiculturalism, and that the discussion will be fairly polarized - some will argue it is fundamental to our aspiration to be a decent and tolerant society, others will argue it is a dangerous and naive abandonment of important democratic values.

My own sense is that we have to work towards a functioning pluralistic society, if only so that we can all live decent and peaceful lives. Acknowledging the difficulty of this aim in no way diminishes its validity and rightness. Of course it will be difficult getting people of different religions, cultures, nations, and ethnicities to live together peaceably - to hold otherwise would require a dismissal or ignorance of most of human history.

Unwillingness to admit this difficulty is also motivated - particularly among those on the left - by a fear of guilt by resemblance. Expressing anything circumspect about multiculturalism could see you misidentified as one of those right-wing enemies who express similar sentiments - it might even somehow put you on a slippery slope towards holding the same opinions. Best, then, to avoid circumspection.

But this is nonsense. The most worthwhile prizes, a pluralistic society being one of them, are often difficult to achieve, and achieving them involves being circumspect and facing the hard questions. 

So here's what I think are some hard questions. Muslim clerics have been vocal in their denunciation of the killings - as e.g. here. Is it, however, the right sort of denunciation, and is it right for us to ask the clerics for more? They agree that the killing of the journalists was wrong, but the wrongness of murder is a fairly easily achieved piece of common ground, and falls short of a trickier and more important confrontation (and hopefully, ultimately, reconciliation) between the religious and the secular: 

we can all agree the murders violated the sanctity of human life, but do the clerics agree that freedom of speech enjoys a similar sanctity and that its violation is a large part of the wrong committed by the murderers?  
Do the clerics agree that the murderers' right to act on their indignation, however justified, was always curtailed by the need to protect the free speech of others (indeed, of all) and not just the lives of others?  
Do they accept the reason for this curtailment, which is that protecting freedom of speech is a greater and/or more necessary virtue than religious observance?

These are not leading questions - 'if they say "no" to any of them then let's deport them' - and I do not think they are a means of identifying deviancy or 'enemy' thinking - the last one would probably prove tricky across our entire society, not just for followers of Islam. But it's hugely important right now that we see eye-to-eye with the Muslim community, and work out where we all stand, and what sort of understanding we can come to. So let's have at it.


  1. Among the many difficulties here is the definition of “multiculturalism”. If it is to mean that we get to know and share and absorb what we think is the best of each other’s cultures, I can’t imagine any reasonable person objecting. But the way it has bene implemented in the UK is questionable, to say the least. It identifies “communities” based on a single cultural characteristic – almost invariably religion – and effectively builds walls around them, protecting them from interaction with other cultures. Far from being “multi-culturalism”, I’d characterize this as “multiple mono-culturalism”, or, if you like, “multi-ghettoism”. And this I find objectionable for many reasons.

    First of all, identity is a multi-faceted thing. I am, without any contradiction at all, a family man, a lover of Shakespeare, a statistician, a supporter of Glasgow Celtic, agnostic, a commuter, Bengali Hindu by birth, keen on malt whisky, heterosexual, male, of advancing middle age, wearer of Size 8 shoes, politically liberal, a “person of colour” (as they say), secularist, partial to and nostalgic about Scotland (having grown up there), left-leaning, opera-loving, bearded, etc. etc. And it is entirely up to me what importance I give to each of these features in order to define my identity. I may put my Hindu background unambiguously at the top – i.e. “I am first and foremost a Hindu”; or I may prefer not even to consider myself a Hindu at all. It is entirely up to me. (In this particular dichotomy, by the way, I go for the latter option.)

    Now, many of these things are contingent. I choose not to see my identity in terms of my skin colour, but if I am being racially abused, say, I don’t at that time have a choice in the matter. Similarly, I don’t see my identity in terms of my wearing Size 8 shoes, but if I were living in some Godforsaken dictatorship such as North Korea, say, and the Beloved Leader chooses on a whim to persecute people wearing Size 8 shoes, then, once again, I’d have no choice on the matter. But in most cases, we do have a choice: our identity is not pre-destined – it is, to a very large extent, chosen. (The choice is within limits, of course, but all choices are within limits: I cannot, for instance, choose, given my wages, to buy a country mansion.)

    The problem with the current practice of multi-culturalism is that it labels entire subsets of the population(often quite large subsets) by a pre-determined facet of identity – a facet that the individuals within that subset may or may not choose to value highly. (This facet is almost invariably religion.) As a consequence, those within the community who do define their identity primarily in terms of this single facet become empowered, while those who choose not to accord much importance (if any) to this facet are effectively alienated; and the rest are encouraged, sometimes even pressurised, to view their identity primarily in terms of this single facet. And in all cases, the various facets that the individuals of this community may happen to share with individuals in other “communities” (defined along similar lines) become less strong as binding forces. In all respects, the current definition and practice of “multi-culturalism” is an unmitigated disaster.

    This is why talk of the “Muslim community” worries me: it worries me that an entire people should be seen purely in terms of a single facet of their identity. It may be objected that many Muslims see themselves in precisely such terms, but that is no reason why we should encourage their doing so; and that is certainly not a good reason for ignoring those Muslims who *don’t* see themselves in such terms (there are a great many secular-minded Muslims as well). I personally would resent it – and, indeed, be very alarmed – were I to be labelled as a member of a “Hindu community”: it is imperative, I think, that we stop seeing people in such reductive terms. In short, we need entirely to redefine what we mean by "multiculturalism", and review and revoke various policy decisions that have been made in its name.

    1. I wholly agree Himadri - of all the things we are able to think, say, and do as human beings, our capacity to have an ethnic identity is surely one of our least interesting faculties. As you point out, it's not even something we *do* as such, and we diminish ourselves or others as thinking and doing beings even further when identity is imposed from without.

      I agree too that the reasonable and desirable objective we both agree on – sharing and absorbing the best of a varied mix of cultures – is made more difficult to achieve by ‘multiple mono-culturalism’ (that’s a term I may well borrow N.B.). I’m not sure what I think drives or motivates this – I suppose one reason for insisting on the incommensurateness of cultures might be a timidity in establishing common grounds and shared assumptions: in doing so we fear we might be advancing merely one cultural way of doing things, *our* way of doing things, as some shared, universal default. Come to think of it, this timidity is pretty much the entire basis of postmodern thought – well-intentioned, as our culture like all others has erred in the past by understanding other cultures merely by subsuming them, but pusillanimous and shallow in the face of problems that need to be confronted.

      Above the individual level, we need common grounds so we can talk to other, and the fact we once went wrong in establishing a conversation of equals is exactly why we need to try again – ‘if you get it wrong you’ll get it right next time,’ in the words of Gerry Rafferty. Ghettoization is one convenient way of ducking this difficult task.

  2. I would not argue that freedom of speech is necessarily a virtue, just that freedom of speech should be considered a right. Islam in practice seems to clearly make a distinction between what is virtuous and what is permissible, so I think that Muslims would probably understand this point more easily than some other people.
    However, in my view, active participation in the protection of rights, such as the right to freedom of speech, should be considered a virtue.
    For those who don't like talk of rights and consider them to be philosophically dubious, then let me point out one practical advantage of freedom of speech for social cohesion: If you know what is festering in the minds of your fellow citizens then you can confront it, and you may need to confront it because beliefs lead to actions. If you don't know what people are thinking due to constraints on speech then you only find out when something bad happens, or at the next election - I think of the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, a pressure cooker society.
    The practical problems of allowing free speech are well known and laws limit it: 'no one has a right to shout FIRE! in a crowded theatre', also no one wants their mother to be racially abused in the street. However, this leads to another important distinction to made: we should protect people, not protect religious ideologies - criticising a belief is not assaulting the person, so in my view there should be no restrictions on criticising beliefs. When a criticism of a belief is expressed in print there should be no constraints, it is not as if you are provoking somebody in a public place with the likely outcome of producing disorder.
    Freedom of speech is a necessary precondition for freedom of conscience, something England fought a religious civil war to establish. As I understand it, according to Sharia law, leaving the religion of Islam, apostasy, should be punishable by death. Some years ago I read a poll that suggested that at least a quarter of young Muslim men in the UK agreed with that feature of Sharia law. If true then this is not a tiny minority, but a large minority, and therefore it is a belief that needs to be criticised in public and counteracted as a priority.

    1. Hi Alan – thanks for the reply, much appreciated. Apologies if this reply turns out over-long – here goes.

      I think you’re right that I fumbled a bit in saying that freedom of speech is a ‘virtue’ rather than a ‘right’. But the problem is that, like you, I take freedom of speech and freedom of religion to be interlinked rights – I’m not sure it makes sense to say that Charlie Hebdo’s right to freedom of speech outweighs or trumps the Islamists’ freedom of worship, because the former seems in some way to include the latter. Protecting freedom of speech by limiting freedom of religion is robbing Peter to pay Paul – freedom of expression as a whole doesn’t end up enriched in any way.

      So I weaselled and avoided the question of rights entirely. When I try to approach the question, I end up, almost inadvertently, committed to a more confrontational secularism than I at first intended – just as the final paragraph of your reply sees you almost inevitably led to directly challenge certain tenets of Islam (inevitably and justifiably, imo).

      The problem seems to be this – in a given well-founded society, freedom of religion will be prior to religious practice, in that the right to worship in such-and-such a way is a condition of doing so. Of course, it doesn’t *have* to be a condition – one can freely follow a religion in many societies that ban freedom of expression and religion, you’ve just got to make sure it’s the right religion. Hence my ‘well-founded society’ qualification – this probably wouldn’t be a society I would want to live in.

      But this is inevitably antagonistic to the religionist – it says there is a higher or greater truth than that of God, Allah, or Jehovah, namely a legal truth which relativizes all religions as equally deserving of freedom, and thus no more valid than one another. This directly contradicts many flavours of religion, particularly that of militant Islamists. The starting premises of the committed religionist and the secularist are incompatible – the latter says that the practice of religion follows from, is founded in, the recognition of a plurality of relative truths; the Islamist says his starting point of his religion is the revelation of one single truth.

      I could have it wrong – maybe we should conceive of the secular state as absenting itself entirely from questions of truth, and being merely a framework. Therefore it makes no sense to talk of competing premises or incompatibilities – freedom of speech is just the space for arguments to happen, not an argument in itself.

      But then, I’m not sure I buy this. There are certain points of similarity where it is clear the secular state and religion are in direct competition. E.g. the mistake the Islamist makes is to judge people by moral codes they themselves do not subscribe to – I can’t be an apostate to a religion I never followed in the first place. I never undertook not to portray Mohammed, or to avoid pork, and so I can’t be held to either. The Islamists seem to think the rest of us cannot opt out of the Islamic beliefs that they themselves follow, and this is clearly wrong.

      The reason it’s wrong, though, is not because we think universal, no opt-out clause rules are wrong – we can’t opt out of the secular laws of the land, or decide not to subscribe to them, and we seem happy enough with this. The Islamist and secularist agree on the need for universally applicable laws (within a certain jurisdiction), but are in competition as to who can offer the best, most well-founded laws to apply universally. i.e. the notion of the secular state standing above, not getting involved in the fray is not true – in this instance it competes with religion for the same turf, the same authority.

    2. I believe laws made by open and elected parliaments are better and better-founded than ones made by prophets, visionaries, and clerics. And again, it seems difficult to hold this belief, or the belief above that holding non-Muslims to Islamic rules is wrong, without setting myself on a collision course. Is this what we want? Going back to where I started – societies that have worked their way towards freedom of religious expression have generally done so by becoming as a whole less religious, more secular, more reformed. I wonder if this backs up my misgiving that freedoms of expression and religion are essentially antagonistic to religion – i.e. religion simply has to make room and accommodate.

      Seems to me inevitable that both sides of the debate cannot be true to themselves without having a pretty fundamental argument – and seems also that we won’t properly establish common ground until we have it. Probably the more important question is how we conduct it peacefully, rationally, civilly.

      Anyway, back to some of the more specific points you make, which I entirely agree with:

      *‘we should protect people, not protect religious ideologies – criticising a belief is not assaulting the person, so in my view there should be no restrictions on criticising beliefs.’ *

      That’s very well put. Seems to me to be a specific problem with the Charlie Hebdo case – if it’s wrong for a Muslim to eat pork, but not wrong for a non-believer, then why shouldn’t the same apply for portraying the Prophet – wrong for the believer, but no restriction on the non-believer? The answer, I suppose, is to some extent that eating pork is a private matter of sensation (I’m the only one that gets to taste the bacon sandwich) whereas the picture of Mohammed is there for all to see. What is being punished is the fact and spectacle of an offence against Islam, even though it’s impossible to say that the person who committed it is, as a non-believer, culpable. It cannot possibly be right for non-culpable people to be punished, unless we neglect your advice and prioritize ideologies over people.

      * ‘active participation in the protection of rights, such as the right to freedom of speech, should be considered a virtue’*

      Agreed, and it should be encouraged as such across society. The law, after all, won’t do anything on its own, and the strictest legal protection of free speech will achieve nothing unless accompanied by a culture that values and practises it. I sometimes wonder if America’s legalistic fixation on the First Amendment leads to a complacent habit of under-valuing the role of culture, which is equally important.

      *‘If you don't know what people are thinking due to constraints on speech then you only find out when something bad happens.'*

      Interesting idea – my main thought on the matter was the more obvious notion that, because we cannot prejudge what a good idea will look like, we need to trial out as many ideas as possible to see which ones work, and to do this requires freedom of thought and speech. But you’re right that it’s important that we be just as assiduous in rooting out and counter-arguing fallacies, bigoted thinking, etc. as in mining good ideas.

      Thanks for the thought-provoking stuff!

  3. A lot of the cognitive dissonance surrounding this atrocity's relationship to free speech may owe itself to, like so many other things, power relationships.

    I am willing to bet there are a large number of people who consider that speech is "free" so long as one is able to criticise the local secular and ecclesiastical powers without fear of censure or imprisonment. In Britain, I can call David Cameron and Justin Welby twats and no one is going to put me in jail. As long as the targets of my critique have more power than I do, I should be free to say whatever I like without fear of legal or extralegal retribution. And since we can do this in Britain, those same people would say that we enjoy "free speech". It's been a long time since fanatical C of Es murdered atheists in this country.

    But if the targets of my critique are the powerless, ah! then it is very different. To criticise those with less power or influence than I have (minorities, the disadvantaged, the defenceless) is to help support and entrench unfair and discriminatory social practices and institutional structures which we, as a community, are trying to eradicate. Our aim is laudable; any expression which damages the ability to achieve that aim is therefore dangerous and unwanted, and should be punished to stop it from being seen as "normal", "acceptable," or from proliferating. Ergo the kind of self-censorship we saw this week where UK newspapers didn't reprint the Charlie Hebdo cartoons believed to have caused the offence that led to the murders. Also ergo the convictions, suspended sentences, and prison terms meted out to UK citizens who publicly make racist remarks (e.g. Nick Griffin), or the petitions to have arrested UK citizens who offend against a community (e.g. Katie Hopkins calling the Scots "sweaty Jocks").

    The conclusion to be drawn is that in Britain, one is free to speak anything one likes, unless it is offensive to the powerless and defenceless, in which case the twin hammers of public opinion and law will pound you mercilessly to put a stop to your exercise of privilege.

    That only leaves two questions, really:

    (1) If offending the powerless can ruin my life, are they really powerless?

    (2) If the powerless can achieve the silencing of offensive speech through non-violent means, is this better for society or worse than if they were obliged to murder people to get them to shut the fuck up?

    1. Hi Nora – interesting!

      ‘(1) If offending the powerless can ruin my life, are they really powerless?’

      Good question. My feeling is that the problem (and I agree that what you describe is very much a problem) lies not so much in the powerless assuming disproportionate power, or doing too good a job of turning the tables, as in the interests of the powerless being ‘looked after’ by self-appointed guardians and bien pensant proxies.

      The guardians’ mistake, as I see it, is in making socio-economic status a criterion for moral judgement. This is flaming, billowing madness – the result being the idea that we can remedy socio-economic divisions by creating further, corresponding divisions in morality and even law.

      ‘Seeing as we’ve excluded you from the benefits of wealth-generation, why should we only include you when it comes to the sharp end of our legal and moral codes (i.e. harsh judgement)?’

      Seems sensible in its way – but only inasmuch as two wrongs make a right, which is of course a stupid idea. If exclusion of minority ethnic and religious groups from privilege and wealth etc. was a bad idea, then exclusion of them from our moral reasoning can only propagate that bad idea, creating a vitiating double standard that leaves marginal groups divided from other citizens not just economically but also morally and legally.

      ‘2) If the powerless can achieve the silencing of offensive speech through non-violent means, is this better for society or worse than if they were obliged to murder people to get them to shut the fuck up?’

      And that’s an excellent question! Yes, it would be better if defence of the freedom of speech were so strong that only violence could overcome it.

      The obvious point I want to make is that the suppression of free speech you are talking about is not carried out by the powerless, but is really a form of self-censorship and group-think among the powerful. Suppression of free speech by violence on the other hand is a case of one party (the powerless, say) forcibly trying to censor the other, and so the two can’t quite be considered as two choices, either / or, in how far we would go to defend free speech – they are not quite commensurate.

      So we can have a situation like that in France (and potentially Britain) – non-violent self-censorship takes place but that isn’t enough to preclude or disoblige the gunmen’s violence because they want to do the censoring themselves.

      We could end up possibly with what is absolutely worse for society – we self-censor but still get killed by those for whom it is not enough.