- 24 November 2012
Panel: ‘Too Arab, Not Arab enough’! Confronting media expectations of Middle Eastern Musicians
Panel speaker as part of the Arab New Trends and Nour Festival of Arts symposium:
‘Middle Eastern and North African Music: Contemporary Contexts, Future Trends’
Ismaili Center, South Kensington
- November 2011
‘The Death of Multiculturalism’
Mona Deeley speaks at the London International Human Rights Congress of the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy and Panel Discussion with British Members of Parliament
Multiculturalism has been blamed by its opponents for integration problems of immigrants and the fragmentation of society. The accusations against it seem particularly harsh considering its definition.
Multiculturalism can be understood as the acceptance, promotion, and appreciation of multiple cultures institutionalised through schools, cultural policies, and anti-discrimination laws. It advocates treating individuals and communities originating from various ethnic and religious backgrounds as equal to one another and to the majority group, and each group is given the space to express its specificities. Multiculturalism is upheld by the UN body UNESCO, as well as enshrined as a human rights principle, such as in the 1992 ‘Declaration on the Rights of Persons belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities’. A UNESCO report on multiculturalism states that ‘in so far as it embodies the ideal of reconciling respect for diversity with concerns for societal cohesion and the promotion of universally shared values and norms’ is in line with UNESCO’s Constitution which ‘stresses the “fruitful diversity of cultures”, its highest principle is “the intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind”.
Multiculturalism, it is not just a factual description of nations comprised of multiple ethnicities, it refers to a political programme designed to respond to and manage this diversity. Opponents of multiculturalism argue that, while there should be regulations that promote equality, there should not be multicultural policies as this pigeon-holes people, and pressures them to keep separate from the mainstream, eroding in the process a sense of commonality. Cultural specificities, it is argued, should remain practised in private behind closed doors.
I believe that the assimiliationist/anti-multiculturalist arguments are misconceived in at least the following respects:
Equality laws alone are not enough and they need to be backed up by a policy context that encourages public articulation of diversity. Statistics on equal pay for women for example have long shown a wide gap between them and their male counterparts despite the long standing existence of legislation to counter this. It is possible that the situation might be similar in relation to non discrimination on the basis of ethnicity and religion. No one will own up to not interviewing, hiring, or promoting somebody due to their prejudices, and this makes breaches of the law hard to detect and enforce. Therefore, cultural policies that encourage diversity remain very important to shaping attitudes beyond the reach of the law, and setting the tone.
Cultural specificities do not just belong to the private sphere, to be exercised behind closed doors. That in itself does not treat people equally, is repressive, and flies in the face of the 1992 human right Declaration. If specificities were to remain private, then individuals from minority communities would meet each other with incomprehension and misapprehension when in the public sphere.
The inability to empathise with those outside one’s own community, a situation that the opponents of multiculturalism blame on multicultural policies. However, this lack of empathy will be exacerbated if the cultural sphere is not structured so to allow those operating within the norms of the dominant culture to understand the diverse elements within it. The mainstream will not be able to start relating to the minority groups unless the latter are able to openly participate in public life and culture through their specificities.
Furthermore, if minority group participation is not encouraged and facilitated through policy and regulations, a dangerously paternalistic and patronising situation ensues whereby the reigns of representation are taken over by others, who are then able to superimpose their own prejudices and views on minorities. This results in frustrations and mutual misunderstandings.
While it is right that the benchmark for supporting cultural projects should ultimately be about the artistic merits of a project, this should not be read according to Eurocentric or ‘high art’ hierarchies. Nor can there be a blanket rejection of projects that have a country specific or geographical focus. Considered on a case by case basis, their focus may provide a legitimate thematic interest, be curatorially innovative, and represent important cultural works. Without it being necessarily a publicly stated objective of a project, from a policy point of view, such projects play a role in giving a cultural presence to diverse communities within the UK, and provides a platform to explore wider international concerns through new perspectives.
The room that multiculturalism creates for expressions of cultural specificities also solves the problem of trying to define a single culture for any one country or society, as culture is not definable by race or religion, but consists of multiple elements that mutate. Multiculturalism should allow people to express who they are within a given society without the pressures and schisms that result from a forced conformity to a British ideal that no one can quite articulate or grasp.
Despite the Arab focus, Zenith Foundation is a London based British organisation and expects support from British and EU institutions. For an organisation like Zenith Foundation, this issue is truly existential. From a policy point of view, it has serious ramifications on support for small independent art platforms that are contributing to a healthy multiplicity in voices and perspectives, and that consistently and continuous represent the diversity within their populations. The stress of economic downturns often impacts negatively on the cohesion of diverse societies, making a focus on cultural projects that are conducive to inter-cultural dialogue and critical thinking all the more important. This need not be an explicitly stated part of any project, but from a policy perspective, is an important consideration.
What is shaping arts and culture state funding are perceived problems relating to immigration and integration, with a focus on the Muslim population, as well as economic considerations. Many of the so called fundamentalists or extremist Muslims are often not first generation immigrants. The fact of being second and third generation and still feeling alienated from wider society runs against the assumption of the integration model that the longer individuals and their descendents are in the country, the better assimilated they will become. Other factors are obviously at play.
We do not just grow aware of our identity, we acquire it as we go along and as we encounter others. Among the determining factors are individual formative influences. Rejection is one of them, and this cannot be captured by crime statistics as it is not a criminal activity. A child being mocked for their skin colour, clothing, or accent will be marked by that, even if it is part of the natural rough and tumble of a playground. So might be kids bullied for wearing glasses or being too fat. They might come to self-identify as a fat-person or a geek by the same mechanism that makes people define themselves as being of a certain ethnicity or religion, and not part of the mainstream. This process applies to adults too. Even without having been personally exposed to rejection, the fact that Muslim migration and identity are such a focus for anti immigration debate might make one feel targeted, and bring to the fore this aspect of identity that might otherwise not have come to dominate certain individual’s public persona or their sense of who they are.
Acceptance also plays a great part. If acceptance is by a sub-group then this might create allegiances to this sub-group. If acceptance is by the mainstream, then this would help level out any overwhelming emphasis on one aspect of identity such as ethnicity or religion, and puts the focus instead on developing one’s personality with all its formative elements. Cultural policies in the arts sector based on multiculturalism play an important role in facilitating such mainstream acceptance. From this perspective, they are more likely to encourage cohesion rather than segregation.
In any event, statistical evidence points to a well integrated (or at least as well integrated as anyone else) British Muslim population. According to statistics, only to 2 to 4% of British Muslims can be described as non conforming to generally accepted cultural norms and views, putting them in an extremist category. This is 60,000 to 12,000 people of an immigrant group that numbers under 3 million people. It is extraordinary that such a small number of people is prompting declarations of a departure from multiculturalism, impacting in the process the rest of the UK population of 59 million. It seems much more effective that there should be, instead, specific measures dealing with the challenges they present as individuals or organised groupings.
People need to believe that any change in multiculturalism policies is driven by a genuine desire to build a strong British society committed to human rights and determined to help its constituent communities, old and new, in a country that respects plurality and diversity. This is very different from what seems to be taking place. Namely, in the context of increasing intolerance and economic turmoil, the Government and policy makers lumping together disconnected issues under the banner of failed multiculturalism.
Cultural projects that lack artistic quality and curatorial vision should not be supported, whether they are multiculturalist in approach or speaking from the hegemonic centre. This is a separate issue from introducing policies that make it harder to hold projects because they are deemed to be multiculturalist in approach. Such policies potentially erode the very diversity that they are seeking to support.
Multiculturalism is paradoxical in inviting us to identify differences while simultaneously acknowledging our similarities. However, there is nothing unusual or irrational about paradox in a complex world. Seeking to understand our multifaceted environment is an ongoing process that can be helped along with the state prioritising support for independent cultural spaces engaged in critical cultural projects.
- 25 August 2011
‘Zenith Foundation: A Perspective on Cultural Policies – The Urgency in Supporting Spaces that Engender Critical Thinking and International Dialogue’
Mona Deeley’s keynote Speech at the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy Conference, Portcullis House, UK Parliament
Cultural diplomacy is rising in importance in a world that is ever more interconnected, and where everywhere is at our doorstep, creating great disincentives to conduct a foreign policy based on conflict. However, cultural diplomacy is more likely to succeed if it was distanced from its traditional notions of soft power, as this can back fire if associated with failed foreign policies, and will be perceived as not genuine and condescending for it. Instead, relations between nations and their peoples would be enhanced if we harness instead the ability of culture to engender critical thinking and international dialogue.
Zenith Foundation, in its aims, is partly seeking cross-cultural dialogue, and the regaining of some control over the reins of cultural representation of the Arab region and its Diaspora. However, Zenith Foundation is primarily there to support culture for its own sake, and has always acted on the basis that cultural production cannot be subordinated to other aims, and should be platformed for its quality and on its own terms. Otherwise, it would be trivialised and misrepresented. It is important for cultural diplomacy initiatives to act with the same respect for the independence and integrity of cultural works.
Societies are multi-layered and ever-evolving, consisting of many perspectives and points of views, making them impossible to try and pin down through examining any one cultural work or body of works, or specialist opinions. Instead, critical practices provide people with direct experiences of other cultures and broaden perspectives without setting out to specifically do so. Cultural works often introduce visions premised in a particular situation – which may or may not in itself be addressing an urgent issue of the time, and which progress can be winding, inconclusive and open ended, leading to fragmented and diverse outcomes, and meanings ascertained by audiences through their own subjectivities.
As cultural products are not straight forward informants of other societies, the value of engaging with them is not ambassadorial or propagandistic, but from a cultural diplomacy point of view, seeking to build and maintain a cultural dialogue across political boundaries. There are similar internal reasons for this related to the multicultural make up of our societies. Another motivation for state institutions to promote critical cultural works is that without them, our societies would have diminished their capacity for aesthetic and intellectual achievement. Although independent cultural production lacks the mass appeal of commercial entertainment, it is part of the matrix of influences on our societies. Without necessarily setting out to be an informant of the spirit of its time, independent culture reflects and feeds into this spirit in unique ways.
In the present climate of rising debt and failing economies, culture may seem like a luxury most can ill afford. Tackling poverty and disease is rightfully the focus of much philanthropic work. But a balance must be struck between the need for survival and the need for societies to develop and prosper. Moments of economic crisis have historically engendered more intolerance of the so called ‘other’ than any far flung conflict. An investment in promoting international cultural dialogue at this time is more important than ever. With the stimulus of crisis, it is time to think differently about what cultural diplomacy could and should entail, or to forge new tools that better deliver on sound existing cultural policies. For cultural diplomacy not to ring hollow, it needs to have a genuine commitment to engendering critical thinking and an international artistic dialogue. Otherwise, we risk diminishing culture to products for economic and ideological exploitation that lack critical value and the markings of a true dialogue.