Multiculturalism now part of tradition

Multiculturalism is sometimes portrayed as a threat to liberal democracy, but a new book by a Flinders academic argues that such antagonism is unwarranted.

In Theories of Multiculturalism: An Introduction, Professor George Crowder (pictured) of the School of Social and Policy Studies examines the political and theoretical underpinnings of the international variants of modern multicultural policy. The book is intended as a guide to the subject for students of politics, philosophy, sociology, and political and social theory.

“Multiculturalism is often confused with cultural relativism, the idea that every culture possesses a unique moral authority and can never be mistaken. But cultural relativism is itself mistaken. Multiculturalism is a logical development of mainstream forms of liberal thinking that place a universal value on individual liberty and equality,” Professor Crowder said.

“Liberal political thinkers have always argued that people should be free to choose their own way of life, although of course here are limits, including the rights of other people.”

Professor Crowder identifies multiculturalism “proper” as a set of official policies that recognise and actively support minority cultures, including indigenous peoples and immigrant groups. Since the 1970s, Australia, with Canada, has been one of the world’s most prominent long-term exponents of this brand of multiculturalism.

It contrasts with assimilationist approaches that discourage alternative cultures and which, Professor Crowder said, “seek, at least informally, to eliminate them”. He said Australia, for much of its history, sought to absorb migrant cultures into the Anglo-Celtic “mother” culture.

Between these two approaches sits a more muted policy that hinges on toleration, or “benign neglect” of minority cultures: “You don’t celebrate them or say there’s anything valuable about them – you leave them to go their own way.”

Professor Crowder said that the late 1980s were a high-water mark for multiculturalism internationally; since then it has been the subject of widespread criticism.

“In Australia, under the Howard government, there was explicit rhetoric that multiculturalism was not a desirable thing, and that we’d be better off talking in terms of national unity, national identity and integration.”

But although the rhetoric tended to “denigrate and deflate” the ideas behind multiculturalism, Professor Crowder said so far there has been little actual change to the relevant policies in Australia.

Professor Crowder argues that multiculturalism does need to exist within the framework of liberal democratic society and politics.

“Radical forms of multiculturalism that place equal value on all cultural practices are not justifiable and would effectively undermine multiculturalism itself, as some cultural traditions deny the liberty and equality of women, for example.”

Professor Crowder also maintains that multiculturalism is consistent with a unifying national identity that connects with “traditional” Australian values.

“Consistent with that, you can still recognise the traditions of cultural minorities,” he said.

Professor Crowder argues that multiculturalism is itself now part of Australia’s shared identity.

“After 40 years, it has become part of the way many Australians tend to think about Australia: as a country that welcomes and accommodates immigrants from multiple cultural backgrounds, and that respects the special place of its Indigenous peoples,” he said.

“To say we must return to some national identity that devalues all of those things is to turn back the clock.”

Theories of Multiculturalism: An Introduction is published by Polity Press.

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