The Many Meanings of Multiculturalism

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron speaks out against a concept with a hundred definitions

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Everyone's up in arms about multiculturalism all of a sudden. But what actually is it? British Prime Minister David Cameron seems to think it's when a government takes a "whatever" attitude toward its citizens' values. During remarks at a security conference in Munich this Saturday, Cameron talked about the cultural roots of terrorism, saying that radical, violence-friendly strains of Islam are allowed to gain traction in England because the country lacks a strong sense of national identity. "Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream," Cameron said. "We've failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong."

"MULTICULTURALISM HAS FAILED," was the quote the papers ran with, even though that sequence of words doesn't appear anywhere in the transcript of Cameron's remarks. (German Chancellor Angela Merkel did say something very similar back in October, though.) But when Cameron says "multiculturalism," he doesn't necessarily mean what everyone means when they use that word. Here's a look at a few different usages we've seen in recent days.

Multiculturalism = When the State Plays It Hands-Off  "Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and a much more active, muscular liberalism," David Cameron said in Munich. "A passively tolerant society says to its citizens, as long as you obey the law we will just leave you alone. It stands neutral between different values. But I believe a genuinely liberal country does much more; it believes in certain values and actively promotes them. Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, democracy, the rule of law, equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality."

Multiculturalism = Letting Scary Muslims Run Amok in England  For the English Defence League, a far-right citizens' group that likes to protest the spread of Islamism in the U.K., Cameron's remarks couldn't have been better timed. The conference in Munich happened to fall on the same day thousands of members of the EDL demonstrated in Luton to show that, as one put it, "We feel strongly that people should not be allowed to come to our country and blow up our towns." And apparently some of them felt validated by what Cameron said. The Guardian quotes one EDL protester who crowed that Cameron "had come round to our way of thinking." A 16-year-old marching at the protest said of Cameron, "He believes what we believe to some extent."

Multiculturalism = Maybe a Big Deal, Maybe Not  Cameron's remarks have produced a flurry of emotionally charged Guardian columns. Some of them worry that his comments might be the opening shots in a culture war. Some of them try to parse the confused messaging of a conservative politician apparently calling for greater government intervention in private life. One piece, by Tariq Modood, points out that "notices of the death of multiculturalism began in Britain as far back as 1989, with the Salman Rushdie/Satanic Verses affair ... multiculturalism does not die despite having its last rites continually read out." Another, by Madeleine Bunting, argues that it's not just a phenomenon of the U.K.--"after a generation of individualism and globalisation," national identities are weak the world over.

Multiculturalism = A Country's Identity Crisis  Across the pond, a staff editorial in National Review blames multiculturalism for "the vacuum where British patriotism should be," adding that when Cameron "came to propose ways of restoring that sense of nationhood, they turned out to be perfectly nice but essentially liberal nostrums detached from any specific British context -- freedom of speech, etc. -- that an American, Frenchman, or Italian could subscribe to with equal fidelity." Multiculturalism, they suggest, is what keeps England from defining itself as certain things and not others.

Multiculturalism = Forced Marriages, Straight Up  In The Wall Street Journal, Douglas Murray equates multiculturalism with over-eagerness to please, saying it's a principle that causes societies to "bend over backwards to accommodate the demands of immigrants." Here's how Murray memorably illustrates this idea:

In Britain, for instance, this meant that if you were a white English girl born into a white English family and your family decided to marry you against your will to a randy old pervert, the state would intervene. But if you had the misfortune to be born into an "Asian-background" family and the same happened, then the state would look the other way.

Multiculturalism = That Which Pulls Societies Apart  At the conservative magazine Commentary, Peter Wehner suggests that whatever multiculturalism is, it's the enemy of good old American-style pot-melting. "E pluribus unum is more than a motto; it is a fundamental part of citizenship in a free society. If a nation loses that, it has lost something precious," writes Wehner. "This is what David Cameron was saying in so many words."

Hmm--it kind of sounds like "multiculturalism" means whatever you want it to mean, especially if you're the Prime Minister of Britain and want to make a David Brooks-style call for a shift in social attitudes. OK, good to know.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.