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Cultural Pluralism, The Challenge of our Time

“Cultural pluralism” is a recent concept in Europe to the extent that many do not know what it means.

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Citizenship means the shared political belonging of those living in the same state and all this belonging involves in terms of rights and duties.

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“Pan-Arabism” is a movement the objective of which is the unification of Arab peoples and nations. This is a modern cultural trend with political finalities, arising as an answer to colonialism and the West’s involvement in the Arab world..

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Islamism is a highly militant mobilizing ideology selectively developed out of Islam’s scriptures, texts, legends, historical precedents, organizational experiences and present-day grievances, all as a defensive reaction against the long-term erosion of Islam’s primacy over the public...

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The process resulting in the definition of one’s own identity – hence an “us” – in an oppositional manner by, explicitly or implicitly comparing ourselves with “others”, is considered a universal movement in every society.

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A month of ideas.
Giancarlo Bosetti Editor-in-chief
Association for dialogue and intercultural understanding
Monday, 13 May 2013

Many Cultures, One Citizenship

Alain Touraine

Two opposite statements must be rejected with the same rigor. First (1) is that a few countries have identified themselves with modernity by their scientific, technical and economic achievement and that the rest of the world, which is lagging behind the ‘advanced countries’, must follow in their footsteps and imitate their example. The article first of all sets out the falsity of such a statement, because there is not one but many western paths of modernization, and indicates that it is nothing but a colonialist ideology, which spread from European and American societies and cultures and destroyed all independent efforts of modernization in other countries, in particular China. The hegemony of the western capitalist model is more than challenged by other ways of modernization, for though the soviet model has failed, other countries are ‘emerging’ or have already emerged. Second (2) the opposite representation defends the idea of a complete multiculturalism including political regimes and human rights. It fights against the previous colonialist model and supports a total relativism. But this view makes impossible the communication between completely different countries and cultures and reciprocal fear leads to an extreme conflict between ‘civilizations’, such as S. Huntington has described. This view leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable if each civilization has a complete internal unity and a complete control on all its activities. But the world is not divided into various theocratic states: no single theocratic state commands the whole or the majority of Muslim population. The central problem remains real and difficult: how to combine unity and diversity, the difference between cultures and the capacity for them to communicate with each other? The most useful idea is to elaborate one general definition of modernity, as a culture which is based on universalistic principles. The western mode of modernization is not the only possible one; nor is it at all sure that the western process of separation of temporal and spiritual powers is the only possibility. We cannot assert that universalism must penetrate social life only through political institutions and citizenship. It is beyond any reasonable doubt that modernity, with its universalistic components, cannot be identified with only one type of social organization and cultural values.

I- Our subject-matter is typically one which makes impossible answers in black or white. It is as impossible to identify one or a few countries with modernity, meaning that the rest of the world is under-developed and follows the example of earlier developed countries as to believe in a complete cultural pluralism which would make communication among cultures impossible. All acceptable answers must be ambivalent. Our really central target should be to propose a combination between the two opposed but may be complementary points of view.

The idea that there is only one way to reach modernity should be totally rejected because it does not correspond at all with observable facts.

First of all because of its naively colonialist or imperialist content. All countries do not form a line in which each country must follow the tracks of the country which is before it. No African, Asian or Latin American countries have entirely followed the patterns of the European or North American modernization. It would be a ridiculous mistake to eliminate the power relations by which rich and powerful countries have imposed on poor and weaker ones their institutions, their religious creeds, their methods of education and even their military needs. A linear view of modernization process is quite erroneous. It is true that many countries after their decolonization have maintained some elements of the social and cultural orientations of the metropolis and especially its language and often its legal institutions. But it should be as unreal to defend the idea of a complete difference among countries as to defend the opposite idea of one and only one rational process of modernization. Long time ago, in industrial management the taylorian‘s idea of the “one best way” has been abandoned. It’s necessary and urgent to do the same in international comparisons. The truth is that today a rather small minority of people in industrialized countries still defend the idea that all countries should follow the old countries’ path.

At a more elementary level we must be reminded that European countries have followed very different paths of modernization. Britain and Holland have followed a capitalist process, fostering the interests of the merchants and the bankers to the point of opening to them the doors of aristocracy. France was modernised by its State which allied itself with the bourgeoisie against the aristocracy which resisted the formation of an absolute monarchy. The nature of the State was different in Germany where it was identified with the German Volk with its cultural and even biological roots.

Should I add that in a period when Europe has almost the lowest rate of growth in the entire world, it seems preposterous to proclaim the absolute superiority of the European economic, social and political processes.

II- Most people easily recognise the existence and the positive value of a soft internal cultural diversity. Most people today recognise that a strong and highly centralized State has negative effects when it tries to impose upon its society a homogenous and concentrated model of social relations and of policy towards incorporating new immigrants. The necessity of respecting the cultural rights of minorities is more and more amply recognised not only for cultural but as well for material reasons. In some cases efforts were even made to combine modern laws and traditional customs. It was the case for example in Mexico, in the San Andres Agreements, but even in that case it was agreed that the equality between men and women, which is part of the universal declaration of rights, should be respected even if it is completely absent from national customs.

But this soft pluralism does not bring solutions to the most burning problems. Racism and discrimination on one side and anti western terrorist actions and theocratic or communitarian models of society on the other can not be combined in a soft tolerant pluralism.

That does not mean that this tolerant multiculturalism is meaningless and useless. Its important stems from the fact that we have abandoned the black or white intellectual judgment, which was part of an evolutionist philosophy of history, which defined cultural or social facts by their relative positions on a scale going from traditionalism to modernism, or, on a different scale, going from conservative to progressive attitude. The second scale is even more arbitrary than the first one because the word progressive has been so widely used by communist dictatorships that it is impossible to use it today. To be short, let’s say that the only advantage of a soft tolerant multiculturalism is that it resists radical multiculturalism which favours coexistence in one territory of various cultures which often contradict each other, not only in religious terms.

We live in a world in which most national societies are multicultural but in which civil or international wars oppose so called “civilizations”, like the Muslim, the Christian, the Jewish or the Hinduist ones. But the conclusion is that we must go beyond too soft answers and look for more real combinations between unity and diversity in all types of societies.

The respect of everybody’s basic liberties is part of what we call democracy and corresponds to “laïcité” itself, which can not be used as a weapon against religions creeds and practices. But the respect of political or religious minorities supposes that minorities and majorities of all kinds accept some institutions and some forms of common social life.

Europeans easily remember that the defense of national minorities often meant a movement for the independence of nations which had been reduced to be components of an imperial power. The so called “movement of nationalities” in the nineteen century Central Europe could not be solved by tolerant measures. In the cases of today’s Catalunya or Quebec, they are examples of half way national movements, which failed in Quebec and up to know has been self restricted in Catalunya, while the bask movement became a military movement multiplying violent actions and others forms of ruptures to obtain its independence. These elementary observations are clear enough to introduce us to the central problem: what should the members of different cultures or religions have in common to make their coexistence in a given territory possible? It is certainly not possible to rely entirely on the market to make possible a multicultural society. But this view, weak as it is, introduces a basic idea: coexistence between various cultures or religions is possible only when so called “civilizations”, defined in a global sense, become fragmented and loose their control on all aspects of social, economic and even cultural life. As long as people believe that economic, social, cultural and religious ideas and practices are completely interrelated and form a coherent system which resists autonomous processes in each sector of social and cultural life, multiculturalism is impossible. The autonomy of economic behaviour has very positive effects, as much as the autonomy of cultural or political behaviours.

Multiculturalism is impossible without the fragmentation and, in a strict sense, the destruction of a civilization as a global system. In western Europe and in North America, secularisation and more precisely “laïcité” mean a separation of the State and the churches or cultural and religious organizations. The Catholic Church must free itself entirely from what we used to call “chrétienté” or chistian society to be compatible with tolerance and cultural or religious freedom.

This separation has taken very different forms in different countries. Totally and even brutally achieved in France, it is only very partial in the US and is, in principle, non existent in lutherian countries or even in Britain, but State Churches have in general lost their real power. As long as we say Gott mit uns, neither democracy nor multiculturalism are possible.

The problem of Islam is today more important and difficult than others. But the conclusion in this particular case must be the same that in all cases: religious pluralism can be respected only when religion is separated from cultural norms and forms of social organization. This is the reason why the Catholic Church looses large part of its influence and authority, in particular in the field of private life, especially on sexual practices, because religion can not be identified with culture as a whole. This kind of conflict is even more direct with Muslim institutions especially about the status of women. To be able to be accepted and protected a religion must abandon its control on cultural life, private and public. That is not a matter of free and open debate. All religions have been political and cultural religions and all of them had to be forced to abandon their control of the whole of social and cultural life to be recognised and even protected. Where traditional social and cultural structures and values remain strong, it is difficult for religions as such to abandon their direct control on political and social life.

In many cases it is true that religion can be identified with national interests and mobilizes its influence, its capacity of mobilization against foreign domination. It was the case in many parts of Europe during the nineteen and the twentieth centuries. But as soon as Nations have recovered their political freedom, the Church which had such a positive role transforms rapidly its influence and fights against multiculturalism. The debate within the Islamic world is lagging behind the situation of various Christian churches. If Kemal Atatürk or Habib Bourguiba, in Turkey and in Tunisia have imposed on their country “laicité”, much more numerous are the cases of political movements which identify themselves with Islam as a religion and a civilization and oppose all kinds of cultural liberties and multiculturalisms. Even in Europe, limited are the Islamic movements which accept “laïcité” and the separation of religion from others aspects of cultural life.

These first conditions for maintaining multiculturalism: the fragmentation of the so called civilizations is actually more a pre-condition for such a real transformation of cultural life. But it is not enough to eliminate obstacles; some positive elements are necessary to make cultural and religious freedom and diversity possible.

The movement of secularisation has convinced many political and intellectual leaders that instrumental rationality, if accepted as a general principle of government, is enough to eliminate all religious creeds and philosophy of history. Is it really necessary to repeat once more that these views have been condemned by historical facts. Religions have not disappeared and religious conflicts and wars are as present today as in any other historical period.

What we need is a really positive aspect of unity. Any type of analysis which relies entirely on the progressive weakening of values or transcendent principles is dramatically inefficient. The only satisfactory answer is that universal human rights exist, beyond all institutional and economic aspects of each society. That is why, against the idea of secularisation, must be defended what we use to call “humanism”, that is the substitution of the creative capacity and the rights of human beings for the projection of this creativity outside the human world, by a religion or philosophy of history which, for example, believe in progress. If we do not accept the idea that human nature includes the capacity and the rights for everybody to mobilize an internal, purely human principle of legitimation of his actions; if we do not accept the idea that modernity exists only is so far as universalistic principles, such as reason and human rights, play a central role in personal and collective life, there is no possibility of building multiculturalism on strong foundations.

III- The main enemy of multiculturalism today is no longer the absolute monarchy which identifies itself with a religion, or with a Nation or a language. It is the globalized mass society which transforms Nations and cultures into markets, especially for mass consumption, mass communication and mass media. Mass society is first of all a society without actors, without moral principles and institutional principles.

Cultural diversity cannot survive if it does not link the defense of specific national local and minority cultures with positive actions against the dominant pattern of social and cultural life today. The diversity of cultures can transform itself into communitarians groups closed, intolerant and obsessed by their purity and homogeneity.

The only way to avoid this negative transformation is not to isolate and protect each national linguistic or religious culture but to attack mass society which destroys subjectivity, traditions, norms and representations. All cultures should have the same interests: not to be destroyed either by world-wide cultural market or by authoritarian and theocratic State. Each culture must defend everybody’s right to create, use and transmit a culture which is defined fist of all by the defense of universal contents, reason and human rights. Only such universalistic arguments are efficient defenders of cultural diversity. It is not the charm of diversity, even if this apparently strange argument is more serious than it seems.

But this counter offensive action can not be based on the positive aspect of cultural pluralism. To be strong enough to resist mass society and culture and a globalized economic system, we must give a priority to cultures which define themselves in universalistic terms. It is the case of the main religions, it is the case of political ecology and it is the case of all forms of feminist movements and of actions for the defense of minorities, either national, sexual, linguistic or religious.

IV- Some people, among them post modernists, can object here that they defend multiculturalism for more simple and non dramatic reasons. They observe that modern societies have no longer a general principle of unity. There is no central agent to control education, leisure time activities and the knowledge of national literature and works of art. Multiculturalism is not good or bad, they say, it is natural, because the State capacity to repress minorities is weaker and weaker. The dominant groups care about economic processes which are more and more global and frightening, but they do not feel frightened by the decline of a national language or by the concentration of top scientific researches in a few laboratories which are, for the majority of them, in the US and, for the others, in five or six countries, even if this situation can change rapidly.

This view should not be judged in value terms. It is neither good nor bad; the only useful argument against it is that it is materially false.

The consciousness of a natural identity is strong in the United States and equally strong in new emergent countries, especially in the biggest among them. Very few Chinese think they will be transformed before the end of the present century into Asian Americans. India, more than any other country, has been constantly interested in combining traditions and innovations. And the same tendency, at a lower level of intensity, can be observed in most countries of the world. The only important exception is Western Europe in which a large majority of people are convinced that their national identity and the universalistic role of their country belong to the past. In very few parts of the world citizens are less interested in the future of their Nation and State than in Western Europe.

V- Only Europeans are giving up their taste for difference and specificity because the younger generations are already ignorant of their national original history.

The cultural orientation which is growing more rapidly in Western Europe is xenophobia, the rejection of foreigners and especially immigrants. Xenophobia is as strong in Northern European countries as in Southern European countries, although at first sight xenophobia seems to be stronger in Northern Europe.

The image of a soft tolerant multiculturalism, free from the former controls of a centralized State, obsessed with the cultural identity of its nation, is nothing but an imaginary concept. Multiculturalism is more often perceived in negative than in positive terms. To give it a positive concept we must underline first of all the capacity of human groups with cultural values and social norms to resist a globalized mass culture and the material and cultural attraction of the main economic superpowers.

The defence of cultural pluralism can not be limited to the protection of a cultural history which has actually already disappeared from young people’s memories. It can be efficiently defended only by a direct attack against a globalized economy and a mass culture which eliminates culture as a reinterpretation of the past which is an important element for the construction of an original future. A strong defense of a national or regional culture is one of the main conditions for the creation of positive attitudes towards a cultural pluralism, at least when cultures beyond their own identity and specificity, defined themselves as expressions of the general human capacity to create symbolic systems and value judgments.

Alain Touraine, Centre d'Analyse et d'Intervantion Sociologiques (CADIS), Ecole des Hautes Etuds en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), Paris, France

A version of this article was presented at the Reset-Dialogues Istanbul Seminars 2010 that took place at Istanbul Bilgi University from May 19-24, 2010.

The final/definitive version of Alain Touraine’s essay was published in Philosophy&Social Criticism, vol 37 number 4 May 2011, SAGE Publications Ltd, (LA, London, New Delhi, Singapore and Washington DC), all rights reserved, p. 393-399, Special Issue: “Realigning Liberalism: Pluralism, Integration, Identities”, Reset-Dialogues on Civilizations Istanbul Seminars 2010, Edited by: Alessandro Ferrara, Volker Kaul and David Rasmussen. Link to the issue http://psc.sagepub.com/content/37/4.toc

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