Friday, November 18, 2005

A wrong turn?

Have you ever read an article which begins well but then takes a disastrously wrong turn?

There’s an article being praised amongst some conservative groups here in Melbourne, written by Augusto Zimmermann. Augusto hails from Brazil but is undertaking his Ph.D in law at Melbourne’s Monash University (he appears to be of German descent). Augusto is an obviously intelligent young man, who appears regularly in the Christian conservative press.

His latest article takes aim at Victoria’s religious vilification legislation. Augusto begins by noting that the legislation contradicts the Western legal tradition by disallowing the truth of a statement as a defence. That’s why two Christian pastors could be prosecuted under the legislation for accurately quoting parts of the Koran to a private church gathering.

Augusto then criticises the idea that the legislation will help to create a “multicultural democracy”. He argues that not all cultures are equally committed to democracy, and that democracy and the rule of law might not be preserved if Australia “eventually decides to reject its own culture on account of multiculturalism”.

Augusto’s article then reaches its high point when he observes that,

the fact is that multiculturalism has been used in Western societies not just as a fair understanding of other cultures. Primarily, it has been used as a powerful weapon by a few social engineers in order to dismember traditional values and replace them by other and more recondite ones ... it is very clear that the real impetus for multiculturalist policies [comes] from the local elite as well as the most powerful elements within ethnic groups.

To this point the article can be read as a defence of the mainstream Anglo culture of Australia against the inroads of the multiculturalists. It is therefore conservative in the sense of contributing to the preservation of a distinct national culture.

But Augusto then steers the argument in the wrong direction. He attacks multiculturalism by rejecting the whole idea of ethnic identity in favour of liberal individualism. He writes,

One interesting aspect of multiculturalism is that ‘diversity’ means the plurality of cultures but not of personal choices. In fact, human beings are seen as organically integrated into their ethnic groups, and incited on account of government policy to always embrace their cultural values, and no matter if they are good or bad for themselves. Thus multiculturalism seems to deny the liberal democratic postulation that human beings should be primarily recognised as free individual citizens ....

In placing the ‘freedom’ of ethnic groups above a person’s own freedom and choice, state-imposed multiculturalism becomes a collectivist ideology flirting with the racist argument that cultural practices are somehow genetically determined, or race-specific. This sort of state-imposed multiculturalism involves a sort of determinism where the human person is regarded as emotionally and psychologically connected with his or her ethnic group. Thus such multiculturalism can be indirectly reinforcing the myth that a person’s moral choices and character are predetermined.

Now, I can see what Augusto is up to here. He doesn’t like traditional Muslim culture and so doesn’t want Muslim immigrants to Australia to be encouraged to stick with this culture. He wants them to choose to jettison it in favour of something else. Hence the argument against ethnic identity in favour of personal choice.

But it’s an argument which throws out the baby with the bathwater. It not only undermines the Muslims’ ethnic identity and traditional culture, it does the same for the mainstream culture which Augusto originally set out to defend.

Australians will not preserve their own traditional culture if they are told that they are not “organically integrated into their ethnic group” nor “emotionally or psychologically connected” to their own ethny, but are, in contrast, “free individual citizens”.

If being free means having no ethnicity, then why should I worry if the culture of my ancestors is lost? I should be happy to see it lost as a final remnant of a burdensome ethnic inheritance. I should welcome the arrival of foreign cultures, and choose to identify with them and with cultural ‘diversity’ in order to show how free I am as an individual from any ethnic loyalty.

What Augusto doesn’t realise is that it is his kind of liberal individualism which paves the way for multiculturalism. Once individual freedom is set against ethnic identity, then multiculturalism and cultural diversity will be seen by many as a positive and progressive development on the road to personal liberty.

A better and more coherent defence against multiculturalism has two parts. First, the positive value of ethnic identity needs to be applied to Westerners and not just to immigrant groups. If this were achieved Western countries would once again be seen as established homelands to distinct peoples (ethnies), rather than as neutral areas to be filled from outside sources.

Second, immigration controls need to be applied to prevent the growth of incompatible cultures within the Western homelands. In other words, if Augusto doesn’t like Muslim culture, he could simply argue for changes to immigration policies, rather than attempting to void all traditional culture in favour of a deracinated individualism.

1 comment:

  1. I have a slightly tangential comment.

    You refer to the Catch The Fire Ministry case, in which the Islamic Council of Victoria sued two pastors using the Victorian racial and religious vilification legislation.

    The ICV did not sue the pastors for accurately quoting the Quran, but rather for ascribing a particular interpretation to all Muslims. In my view, the Pastors did cross the line of decency in some of what they said.

    What I find objectionable about the legislation is that (in this case) it essentially becomes a blasphemy law. Our society has succeeded because it has found ways for secular and religious, Catholic and Protestant, Jew and Christian to live side by side.

    This success is challenged both by deliberate attempts to belittle another faith, and by laws that curtail religous discussion.