Don’t blame tolerance for this multicultural mess

David Cameron is right to slam multiculturalism, but wrong to blame tolerance for fostering today’s lily-livered non-judgmentalism.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

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British prime minister David Cameron’s rejection of state-sponsored multiculturalism is long overdue. He is right to say that it is divisive and corrosive. However, he shouldn’t blame the problems of multiculturalism on tolerance. Throughout his speech, given on Saturday at a security conference in Munich, he mistakenly argued that tolerance was responsible both for the failure of multiculturalism and for the growth in Islamic terrorism. ‘Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and much more active, muscular liberalism’, he said.

But what is ‘passive tolerance’? Tolerance is anything but passive. Tolerance requires courage, conviction and a commitment to freedom – key characteristics of a confident and active public ethos. Tolerance upholds freedom of conscience and individual autonomy. It affirms the principle of non-interference in people’s inner lives, in their adherence to certain beliefs and opinions. And so long as an act does not harm others or violate their moral autonomy, tolerance also demands no constraints on behaviour that is related to the exercise of individual autonomy. From this perspective, tolerance represents the extent to which people’s beliefs and behaviours are not subject to institutional and political interference or restraint.

One compelling reason why a truly open society should support tolerance is because we recognise that it is through the clash of conflicting views and opinions that truth is gained. Even erroneous views, in the act of their being challenged, can contribute to the overall clarity of public life. It is not easy to be tolerant. It requires a willingness to tolerate views that one considers offensive, and a preparedness to accept that no idea should be beyond question. That is why tolerance shouldn’t simply be seen as an intellectual pursuit – it also requires cultural, societal support. Because the capacity to tolerate requires that society takes freedom seriously. Tolerating beliefs that are hostile to ours demands a degree of confidence in our own convictions and also a disposition to take risks. Tolerance encourages the freedom of individuals to pursue certain beliefs, and it gives society more broadly an opportunity to gain insights into the truth through encouraging a clash of ideas.

So when Cameron complains that, as a result of multicultural policies, mainstream British society has ceased to criticise and condemn the retrograde views and practices of minority communities, he should not point the finger of blame at tolerance – passive or otherwise.

Multiculturalism has nothing to do with true tolerance. Multiculturalism demands not tolerance but indulgent indifference. It relentlessly promotes the idea of ‘acceptance’ and discourages the questioning of other people’s beliefs and lifestyles. Its dominant value is non-judgmentalism. Yet judging, criticising and evaluating are all key attributes of any open-minded, democratic society worth its name. It is crucially important to rescue the concept of tolerance from its confused association with multiculturalism.

Reclaiming tolerance

In contemporary public debate, the important connection between tolerance and judgment is in danger of being lost. The word ‘tolerance’ is now used interchangeably with the term ‘non-judgmental’. While a reluctance to judge other people’s behaviour has some attractive qualities, it is not necessarily a manifestation of social tolerance. All too often, non-judgmentalism is synonymous with not caring about the fate of others. Yet the precondition of a working democratic public sphere is openness to conversation and debate. Reflecting on our differences with other points of views, letting them know where we stand and what we find disagreeable in their opinions… that is the very stuff of vibrant democracy. Without it, tolerance turns into shallow indifference, an excuse for switching off when others talk.

The confusion of the concept of tolerance with the idea of acceptance of all lifestyles is strikingly illustrated by UNESCO’s Declaration on the Principles of Tolerance. It says: ‘Tolerance is respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human.’ UNESCO also claims that tolerance is ‘harmony in difference’. For UNESCO, toleration becomes an expansive, diffuse sensibility that automatically offers unconditional respect for different views and cultures.

The reinterpretation of tolerance as non-judgmentalism or indifference is often seen as a positive thing; apparently, open-minded people are non-judgmental. In truth, the gesture of affirmation and acceptance can be seen as a way of avoiding making difficult moral choices, and a way of disengaging from the challenge of explaining which values are worth upholding. It is far easier to dispense with moral judgment entirely than to explain why a certain way of life is preferable to another way of life that should be tolerated, yes, but not embraced. That is probably why the indulgent indifference of multiculturalism has gained so much traction in recent decades: in Britain and many other European societies, multiculturalism has spared governments the hassle of having to spell out the principles underpinning their way of life.

Evading the problem

To his credit, after noting that state multiculturalism has encouraged the segregation of different cultures, Cameron touched upon an uncomfortable truth – which is that ‘we have failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong’. The absence of such a vision is not accidental, since multiculturalism requires that no system of values be regarded as superior to any other or looked upon as the desirable norm. In the multicultural outlook, the absence of a vision for society is not a failure, but an accomplishment.

In any serious discussion of the problem of cultural integration, the focus should surely be on the failure to outline, and give meaning to, the values that bind society together. It is always tempting to point the finger of blame at professional extremists for radicalising young Muslims, for example. But what is often overlooked is that it is not so much the lure of radicalism that causes these problems as it is society’s own reluctance to engage with and inspire its citizens.

For some time now, many European societies have found it difficult to forge a consensus through which they might affirm their past achievements and the basic values they uphold. Traditional symbols and conventions have lost much of their power to enthuse and inspire; in some cases they have become irrevocably damaged. This is strikingly illustrated in the constant controversy that surrounds the teaching of history. When the leading generation senses that the stories and ideals it was brought up on have ‘lost their relevance’ in our changed world, it finds it very difficult to transmit those stories and ideals with conviction to its children. Bitter disputes about historical rights and wrongs really reflect competing claims about interests and identities.

How to hold an intergenerational conversation in these circumstances is a question that society is unwilling to pose, never mind try to answer. Nevertheless, policymakers and educators intuitively recognise that this question needs to be addressed, somehow, and they are frequently forced to respond to the demand for values and traditions that can be imparted to children. Yet the provision of ‘relevant’ values, on demand, rarely succeeds – because unlike the conventions that were organically linked to the past, these values tend to be artificial, if well-meaning, constructs that are open to challenge. Unlike customs and conventions that are held sacred, constructed values must be regularly justified. The very fact that they were self-consciously invented draws people’s attention to the possibility of constructing alternative histories and traditions.

Back in 2006, the then UK chancellor Gordon Brown announced plans to launch a British Day in order to ‘focus on things that bring us together’. However, spelling out what binds society proved far too challenging a task, and the idea of British Day was dropped in October 2008. The government’s quiet retreat on this issue really represented an acknowledgement of the fact that national traditions that might inspire the public cannot be invented in committee meetings or through consultation with ‘stakeholders’. If society is itself unsure about what it stands for, then it is not surprising that schools lack the ability to talk about the soul of society.

A new curriculum for 11- to 14-year-olds launched in June 2007 said that ‘pupils will learn shared values and study national identity in the UK’. However, in the absence of any clarity about what constitute shared values today, teachers were worried about whether they could handle what they perceived to be a controversial subject. A survey of teachers’ attitudes to the teaching of patriotism found that one reason why they were apprehensive was because of ‘an uncertainty about how appropriate it is to promote patriotic attachment to Britain to immigrant students with existing attachments to their countries of origin’. The survey found that only 13 per cent of teachers interviewed believed that schools should ‘actively promote patriotism’. The reluctance of these educators to promote ‘patriotism’ could be interpreted as evidence of their lack of attachment to British values – but it is far more likely that their attitude expressed anxiety about teaching what they perceive to be a confusing, troublesome and difficult subject.

This confusion about what binds a community together took on a caricatured form in 2008 when the New Labour government quietly shelved a plan to publish a national song-book for primary school children. The government wanted to publish a collection of 30 songs that every 11-year-old should know, but the idea was rejected as ‘too divisive’. Gareth Malone, a leading figure in Sing-Up, the organisation charged with seeing this project through, noted that the experts couldn’t agree on which songs to include in the collection. Malone described it as a ‘hot potato, culturally’ and added that ‘you have to be realistic… you can’t be too culturally imperialist about it’. In the end, officials chose to evade the controversy that publishing a common song-book would have provoked, and opted instead to establish a ‘song bank’ of 600 songs.

If a society is too embarrassed to publish a list of national songs, how can it expect different communities to sing from the same sheet? There is little point in continuing to blame multiculturalism for the profound problems we face today. By all means let’s put an end to state-sponsored multiculturalism, because that would at least allow us to face up to the underlying problem: society’s crisis of values and of meaning. But let’s not diminish our commitment to the pursuit of tolerance. Tolerance remains an important virtue because it takes human beings very seriously. Through encouraging people to voice their beliefs, it helps create the kind of dialogue necessary for shared experiences and meanings.

Frank Furedi’s On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum in June 2011. (Pre-order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his personal website here.

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Topics Politics


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