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Charlotta Oberg

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The failure of multiculturalism. The genius of multiculturalism. Which one is it? And how do we ensure multicultural societies thrive?

In the past weeks, European leaders like Angela Merkel, David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy have claimed multiculturalism a failure. They hold it responsible for segregation and terrorism. This week, Australian Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Chris Bowen, spoke of the genius of multiculturalism.

What do you think is going on here?
And how can our societies ensure that multiculturalism, that is the coexistence of different cultural groups, is successful?

Looking forward to your contributions to these million dollar questions.

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    Feb 18 2011: I think we need another terminology. Multiculturalism isn't what we want. It wouldn't work because how could many cultures live independently together within one society? That's not possible, there are too many areas where cultures are crossing.

    I prefer the term "interculturalism". An intercultural society has one common basis (constitution, basic law, general behaviour). Apart from this basis, everybody might have and live his own culture, as long as it does not restrict the freedom of the others. I think it is possible to achieve this, if we stop to fuel fears. We should teach our children to be curious and open-minded.

    People talk about integration (currently in Germany an important word), but what they want is assimilation. That's the wrong way.

    I personally think that every young person should make the experience of living (and working) abroad. They should see how it feels to live within another culture, how difficult it is to learn another language, how much one misses things that weren't important before. It is not only about learning about the culture of this other country. It is about learning how it feels to be a stranger.
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      Feb 18 2011: Children are born curious and open minded. Interculturalism? Is that a new religion, too? Why "ism"? Does your culture regard this natural phenomenon a man made belief system? It's curious how we strive to define things until they virtually have no objective, applicable, meaning at all. Genius (like it came from us) or failure (because we can do something about it or at least feel responsible) was the initial question with the follow up: Can we make it thrive answering the first in the affrimative. Muddled to begin with, redefining it isn't the answer either. What measures can we take to sustain a balance between the needs of the few (retention of culture) and the needs of the many (the use of limited resources to preserve individual freedom). Inter-Intra-multi-culturalism is a digression from the fundemental questions of how we value "culture" and to the extent we value "culture" what we are willing to sacrifice to preserve it. I'm sure my views are suspsect because some would view me as product of my culture (denying me any free thought, a "product" of a vapid "culture" of personal gratification of course I would advocate personal freedom for my own selfish goals....) and not worthy of multi-inter-intra-culturalism support, but I can live with that because I don't need affirmation of my "culture" or support to sustain it, however small or shrinking it might be..
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        Feb 18 2011: Yes, you are right, I should turn the sentence. We should learn from our children to stay curious and open-minded....

        You see, I also don't like the -ism in interculturalism. But I like the concept interculturalism stands for. I don't need a religion or ideology but sometimes it is useful to have an expression that can be used to explain a certain point of view.

        In my country (Germany) people start realizing that we cannot turn back the time. We now have different cultures living together and it's time to find a way to become one society for all. Why not trying to find a new definition if the one we used to refer to is causing misunderstanding and fear?
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    Feb 19 2011: Well I agree with Syd because in the western world, some ideologists want the local people to adopt to the immigrants. In the old days the new comers will adopt to their new homeland.
    This give a big friction and will end up in a conflict. Special if religious rules are interfering with the local customs.

    But there is one country in the world were multiculturalism works.
    The name is Suriname and there are different races, cultures and religions living next to each other.
    Creoles, Hindus, Chinese, Javanese, Jews, Bush Negroes, indigenous Indians and whites living in peace.
    The Synagogue is next to a Mosque and the Catholic cathedral near a Protestant church and the Hindu temple.

    They were all imported, by slavery or by contract labour or by free enterprise, except the Indians who are now 2% of the 500.000 souls living there under the sun.
  • Feb 19 2011: What great perspectives - thank you everyone so far!

    Mine is from viewpoint of a cultural trainer. I equip people to bridge cultures.

    Often in training people get stuck on the idea that it has to be "your rules" (your cultural values) or "my rules" (ditto), and therefore it's always a struggle and sometimes a war. In fact, as we meet across cultures we most often work out a new ways of doing things - that cultural mosaic that Sebastian aptly named it.

    But yes, sometimes cultures do collide. And they do so also here in Australia, which is the second most multicultural nation in the Western world, and very high in density (200 cultures, 85% of people living in coastal areas). Just to nuance Wes Sonnenreich's contribution (good point about the skills-based nature of immigration though).

    And that is when it helps to know what the "culture" in inter/multi-culturalism can mean. Because we are negotiating things we cannot see;: value systems. The good news, to me, is that once you understand culture, you can manage multiculturalism.

    I guess I am speaking about the "handiwork" in interpersonal interactions and some of you are speaking about how to structure society. Again, great input.
  • Feb 19 2011: What great perspectives - thank you everyone so far!

    Mine is from viewpoint of a cultural trainer. I equip people to bridge cultures.

    Often in training people get stuck on the idea that it has to be "your rules" (your cultural values) or "my rules" (ditto), and therefore it's always a struggle and sometimes a war. In fact, as we meet across cultures we most often work out a new ways of doing things - that cultural mosaic that Sebastian aptly named it.

    But yes, sometimes cultures do collide. And they do so also here in Australia, which is the second most multicultural nation in the Western world, and very high in density (200 cultures, 85% of people living in coastal areas). Just to nuance Wes Sonnenreich's contribution (good point about the skills-based nature of immigration though).

    And that is when it helps to know what the "culture" in inter/multi-culturalism can mean. Because we are negotiating things we cannot see;: value systems. The good news, to me, is that once you understand culture, you can manage multiculturalism.

    I guess I am speaking about the "handiwork" in interpersonal interactions and some of you are speaking about how to structure society. Again, great input.
  • Feb 18 2011: Two points:

    First, there is a significant difference between multiculturalism and state-sponsored multiculturalism. The former is inevitable -- birds of a feather will always flock together -- but the latter is divisive as it uses public money ( = mine) to promote differences with direct funding, with institutions (example: Canada's awful Human Rights kangaroo courts), and with laws.

    Second, "culture" can include a lot of different factors. If I am a transgendered female Muslim geek living in Toronto, which culture am I a part of at any given time?
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      Feb 22 2011: This question of yours reminds me the idea of «mixed identities» that I read for the first time in this article about an Andreas Huyssen's book. He is a mega-specialist on issues of collective memory of people.

      http://www.lanacion.com.ar/220479-memoria-e-industria-de-la-memoria (in Spanish)

      Regarding the «mixed identities» the article asks: (1) what is to be gay Chicano in the border area?, 2) how it feels to be a resident of Manhattan and Hispanic at the same time?, 3) what does it mean to be a woman, lesbian, of Indian origin? and so forth with all all the combinations...

      Related to the different factors affecting culture, and as an answer to these questions I can think of: 1) Richard Rodriguez [Brown, The Last Discovery of America]: «mestizo boast: as a queer Catholic Indian Spaniard at home in a temperate Chinese city in a fading blond state in a post-Protestant nation, I live up to my XVI; 2) Puerto Ricans in New York at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe gave birth to a complete movement (Nuyorican Movement) 3) At TED Global 2010 the gift bag contained a film titled "I can't think straight"; in that movie there's a character named Leyla, a young British Indian woman, who can answer this last question.

      So, a transgendered female Muslim geek living in Toronto has certainly a mixed identity reflecting more than one culture and a different perspective to share with the world as the previous examples I showed...
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    Feb 18 2011: Both the Amazonian and the New Yorker should survive, but it won't be because of "culture". Mozart will "survive" even if Western european "culture" does not, if individual freedom survives.
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    Feb 18 2011: Things are going well on the tower of Babel... if you can't solve the problem, redfine it so that you can at least control the dialogue. In a free society you do not need to consider preserving or accomodating "multiculturalism" (is it a religion?) because free people will express themselves and their personal tastes sufficiently to sustain their "culture".
    Language is culture. When you are free to talk about it, to speak it, it can thrive. Freedom to associate with those of similar "cultural" views is essential to personal freedom. Just don't force others to support it. Your sense of value for multiculturalism should not diminish the resources avaialble to individuals to practise their own culture. If you tax me to pay for the symphony, I can't support hip-hop. If you take my tax doolars to offer classes at public colleges on multiculturalism you have diminshed the resources for math and science. Cultures don't make contributions to society: people do.
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    Feb 18 2011: The EU has many cultures sharing the same landmass. Australia effectively has an monoculture across its geography that dominates the political, economic and social environment (although good luck convincing anyone from Sydney that they share a culture with West Australians). The EU doesn't have physical boundaries between dramatically different cultures and short of building walls (the bad idea that just won't die) there's no way to selectively control the cultural demographics.

    Compare this to Australia, where all external cultures must pass through immigration. For long-term immigration, Australia chooses based on skills. In this situation, being able to attract from a global "multicultural" pool of talented people is great. It also gets a flow of short-term multiculturalism from working-holiday backpackers (under 30's) who come for a year or less. There's no serious issue with illegal immigration because there's no land access from other countries - it's pretty easy to control when everyone comes by plane. And sure, every year a bunch of boats show up from Asia carrying an annual total in the hundreds to low thousands of illegal immigrants, many of whom are refugees. While this occupies the media and politicians here disproportionately, it's really a non-issue and nothing like what's happening in the rest of the world.

    Whenever multiple cultures with incompatible operational parameters are juxtaposed, conflict is inevitable. It's the reason why European history is rife with wars. Too many different viewpoints, not enough space for everyone to to be comfortable and isolated from opposing views (liebenstraum, anyone?). And that's another advantage Australia has - less than 25 million people on a landmass roughly the size of the US - which has over 10x as many people.
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      Feb 18 2011: So, do you believe we have absolutely nothing to learn from peoples that we deem "uncivilized"?

      Also, I'm confused by the syntax of "but by virtue of numbers they will most likely destroy the civilized environment." Are you saying that New York City'c "civilized environment" would be destroyed by this hypothetical tribe?
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    Feb 18 2011: Ensure multicultural societies thrive? Protect the liberties of the individuals. Promote individual choices and leave more resources in the hands of the multiculturals and less in the governements, e.g. uni-culturalists, promoting themselves.
  • Feb 17 2011: As I see it from my point of view (I didn't get to hear their speeches so I don't know much), the problem raises up when members of one group is "respected" more than members of other groups. I don't know if Pat Condell is right on this, but he is not the only one who claims that muslims [no insult intended] are more protected in European countries than members of other ethnic groups for the sake of multiculturalism.

    That's where the problems persists. We don't want to hurt somebody's feelings or beliefs and we let them get away with things that hurt members of their group or other groups. As long as someone claims that his beliefs or acts are more important than someone else's, multiculturalism can't survive.
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      Feb 18 2011: If multiculturalism is paramount, all cultures are reduced to the same value. Equality of culture will bankrupt the treasury and diminish the resources of each culture, drawing them into conflict for resources with every other culture.