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The Survival Manual | Chapter 6.

Cultures and Multi-Cultures.

THE 2016-2017 FORTNIGHTLY REVIEW serial.
Serial Preface and Contents with Publication Schedule

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By ALAN MACFARLANE.

THROUGHOUT HISTORY, THERE has been huge mixture and overlap of peoples – traders, merchants, travellers, migrants, refugees. A multi-cultural world is nothing new. Yet it is also the case that for several reasons we now live in a world where we are having swiftly to come to terms with a situation of mixing and potential confrontations which feels new in scale, if not unprecedented.

When I was growing up in Britain in the 1950’s, I would seldom encounter people of different civilisations and cultures. The restaurants and shops seemed mainly to be English, the faces were familiar white faces. Since then, and particularly in the last twenty years, England has changed. And the same is obviously true of many parts of the world.

Globalisation, meaning that numerous people move temporarily or permanently for economic (labour migration), educational or other reasons is clearly one reason for this. Mass tourism and growing wealth is another. There is also, as we know, a huge refugee crisis which is affecting Europe in particular, but also elsewhere, again not unprecedented in the World Wars or after the Vietnam War, but possibly in the future on a scale hitherto unknown.

As well as the fact that many people are suddenly finding their towns and villages increasingly filled with people from around the world with different customs and cultures, there is a flood of virtual cultural contacts. The immense growth in trade, television, the internet, all present people daily with new minor shocks of unfamiliar places, their styles and assumptions.

How can we think about some of the practical ways in which we can deal with this threat to older identities and the inevitable clashes between the expectations of different cultures? These identity challenges are just part of a shifting world of gender, race, class, and religious changes which leave people confused and sometimes hostile. Living in a multi-cultural world is one of the largest challenges of our times and a few reflections on how to face this are worth noting.


The idea of lower-level identities, which merge at the next level up, is the basis of much of our life, and it is how all complex organisations tend to work.

ONE WAY TO think of it is through the idea that none of us have a single identity, but rather we have multiple identities, nested on top of each other in a kind of pyramid structure, becoming larger and larger in their scope but not conflicting. A resident in a part of London may, depending on the context, define him or her self as belonging to a certain street, a certain borough, a Londoner, English, British, European, Western. Or again they may say they are Jewish, middle-class, a doctor, a football player. We all have multiple roles and statuses.

The idea of lower-level identities, which merge at the next level up, is the basis of much of our life, and it is how all complex organisations tend to work. You are divided by difference at one level, but united at the level above, as in an army or business company.

This is and was the basis for the largest bureaucratic organisation in world history – the Chinese Empire – which through the Confucian education system and Confucian bureaucracy built up from the individual, to the family, to the village, to the county, to the province, to the Empire. A person can be a member of all these levels in different capacities. So this is one of the mechanisms for multiculturalism, and it is epitomised by China.

This partly solves one major problem with multiculturalism, for you can be a Nigerian, a West African, an African, a Muslim, and an American all at the same time. There is no necessary contradiction. You can support India against England in the cricket tests, yet still fight for Queen and Country and feel British.

HERE IS A start, yet it is not as simple as this, and there are many ambiguities and contradictions which complicate the idea of ‘levels’ of identity. It may be that lower-level identities and loyalties are much stronger, and people refuse to forego them in relation to a higher level when there is a conflict between levels. This loyalty to lower levels is in fact normal. In almost all societies your loyalty to your family, clan, and co-villagers outweighs abstract loyalties to a province, county, state or empire.

England was exceptional in basing its law on the assumption that people would come into a court and give true evidence which might incriminate their friends, neighbours or even family. The more normal situation is shown by China, for at the heart of Confucianism there is the idea that if it comes to a conflict between your loyalty to your lowest level relationship, your father, and your highest level, the Emperor, you should betray the Emperor and pay filial duty to your father.

If the state asks you to ‘inform’ on members of your family who are suspected to be criminals, or even potential terrorists, what are you to do? Does abstract citizenship come before the bonds of blood and friendship?

This leads into a further clash, for while I have ended the hierarchy at the highest point on earth – the King, Emperor, President – much of the tension that continues to exist lies in the fact that, certainly in the monotheistic religions, or the international ideologies such as communism, your highest allegiance is to something beyond the state. If God is at the top, what happens when there is a clash of duties between God and the ruler?

This was particularly apparent to those who were invaded by Western religions, for example to the Japanese and Chinese when the missionaries arrived. These missionaries bought a monotheistic God who demanded a person’s ultimate loyalty.

The Protestant movements in Christianity were centrally concerned with trying to make a split between private belief and conscience and public acceptance of the secular power. Yet even there, from very early on, there were clashes – famously in the seventeenth century when Quakers, Baptists, and others were imprisoned for not showing sufficient loyalty to the Crown.

So the idea of ‘levels’ gives us a tool to think with and to accept that the restriction of a person to one level of allegiance to the exclusion of others is a ridiculous oversimplification. Yet it does not eliminate the problem of the conflict of loyalties altogether, especially in relation to fundamentalist, monotheistic, religions, or international political ideologies.

ANOTHER WAY TO think about diversity combined with integration is by another analogy, this time in relation to games. Here we can think of the separation between the rules which bind us – political, economic, and social – which have to be agreed upon and uniform – and the rules concerning expression and communication – culture, style, language, beliefs, which are highly variable and a matter of individual choice. This is the distinction between the rules (‘whom you can marry’, the social, economic, and political laws we must share) and the playing of the game (‘what you wear at your wedding’, the culture and customs by which you live, including material culture and religion).

Such a distinction was essential in huge and diverse Empires and now, when somewhere like Britain or the United States is an internal empire of diversity, it is essential too. Its nature comes out when we compare it to its opposite – Japan and parts of continental Europe – where culture and society have traditionally been merged and hence uniformity of social and culture are essential.

It is possible to turn anyone into a French man or woman but only if they adopt the whole French cultural-social package

The continental European solution is one where culture (what you believe, wear, eat, drink, speak) and society (politics, economics, social relations) are merged. As in the French case, it is possible to turn anyone into a French man or woman but only if they adopt the whole French cultural-social package and become French. Religion, education, language, styles all are part of what is needed to be fully accepted.

In the Anglosphere, at least in theory, the highly atomistic, contractual, and individualistic system allows for similarity and difference. The rules of the game, politics, society, law, economics, are enforced uniformly across the civilisation. People must pay their taxes, obey the laws and accept the political system. Some basic tenets are not negotiable – individual rights, equalities, freedoms. But beyond that, as long as people play by the rules, their culture is their own affair.

YET THERE ARE serious ambiguities here also. It is obvious that there are constant borderline cases. There are many examples, particularly in the treatment of women. For example, if it is your custom to practice foot binding and breaking of girl’s feet, or the immolation of widows (suttee), or keeping women locked away (harem) or female genital mutilation, is this a matter which is cultural or social and should it be allowed? In these extreme cases, it may not be too difficult to drop cultural relativism and to appeal to universal standards. But it is not difficult to find much greyer areas.

For example, what about arranged marriage, or polygamy, or (to some people provocative) religious parades, or certain forms of eating and killing of animals, or clothing in public places? As we face the increasing mix of cultures and traditions, such borderline cases become ever more common and the wonder is how well, on the whole, people have adapted to them – even, in Britain, to the allowing of Sikhs to carry ritual daggers or wear turbans instead of crash helmets on motorbikes. Yet it is good to be reminded that the distinction between social rules and cultural styles is not watertight.

‘Purity’ of race or nation is a fiction, imagined, invented, to make us close or distant from others.

A THIRD STRATEGY which has softened the edges of the contact of peoples lies in the area of memory and the re-writing of the past. For many thousands of years civilisations and smaller groups have not been separated from each other. There has been a huge movement of people, ideas, and things along roads, seas, through the mountains and forests, and nowadays over electronic communications. ‘Purity’ of race or nation is a fiction, imagined, invented, to make us close or distant from others. There is no such thing as a ‘pure’ American. Nor can you have a ‘pure’ Japanese, or a ‘pure’ Han Chinese (my Chinese ‘Han’ friends all have Manchu, Mongol or ethnic minority ancestors).

As for the British, we are one of the most hybrid of all. In my own case, I have only recently discovered that I am not the Englishman (Anglo-Saxon) or Scotsman I thought I was for most of my life, but, on investigating my ancestors in detail, I find I am also Welsh, Scandinavian, German, Dutch, Spanish and perhaps with a touch of Indian, Burmese, and Jamaican.

This hybridity is not just one of race, but also of all our cultural characteristics and is one of the reasons why the Scotsman David Hume commented that there was no such thing as a national character mixture in England. Americans, like all other civilisations, including English or Scots, are a ‘fiction’, as Daniel Defoe put it – we are all mongrels and mixes, bricolages and bundles. Our imagined communities are invented and constructed to make life tolerable and bear little relation to real ‘facts’. It is important to realise this before we essentialise our differences, which leads to a ghetto mentality, a need to wall and fence and repel the threatening ‘Other’ who is, in fact, probably a distant cousin of some kind.

So how do we do this – cover over the trails which lead us to ourselves, learning the ‘Art of Forgetting’. Basically it is about suppressing some memories, re-inventing forgotten traditions, inventing commonalities. Many analysts have shown that our idea of ‘America’ or ‘Britain’ or ‘France’ is a recent invention. Diverse roots, ancient differences, and uncomfortable past events are forgotten, and a mythical genealogy is built up uniting people. This helps absorption, for though large numbers of immigrants may maintain their cultural plurality, they may also very quickly readjust their past to fit their present. So they become British or American, as incoming groups have done over the centuries.

WHEN PEOPLE FROM different civilisations, or even from other cultures within a civilisation (Hungarians and Spanish, or even Scottish and English) interact, there are numerous potential clashes on the border of what liberty each individual has to pursue their own cultural norms. The question of the limits of liberty were partially addressed by John Stuart Mill’s famous suggestion that we are free to do anything we like, as long as it does not infringe another’s freedom. If we examine this, however, we realise that it does not get us very far. It gives Robinson Crusoe on his island absolute freedom before Man Friday turns up, but almost everything the rest of us do (or don’t do) in some way or other impacts on others.

The endless quarrels, between neighbours, within the family, in business, provide numerous examples. Drinking, smoking, what we wear, how we speak, quickly take us into contested areas where I may want to smoke, get drunk, be naked, or utter racist or traitorous words, but this impacts on others.

How can this conflict be resolved beyond a mechanistic cost-benefit, utilitarian, calculus? If I benefit greatly by having my constantly barking dogs, and my neighbours are only inconvenienced when they go outside into their garden, my freedom can be thought to outweigh theirs. Yet it is not always a matter of cost-benefit balancing harms and all rules having fuzzy edges.

Particularly difficult in relation to Mill’s formulation is control of the self. Suicide, over-eating leading to serious obesity, drug abuse, serious sado-masochism, watching child-pornography, and other private behaviour is not purely personal but affects others. When we add in the harm we do to the general environment, pollution and degradation, and to animals and plants, it becomes an almost impossible tangle of contested liberties.

A RELATED MINEFIELD concerns tolerance and intolerance. We start with the premise of tolerating others, their actions and their words. I disagree or even hate what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. Yet there soon comes a point that tolerating what we consider intolerance becomes impossible. Our own tolerance has to turn to intolerance to preserve itself. An extreme form is if someone threatens to kill you. If you tolerate and do not resist, as a pacifist, your own tolerance is extinguished and intolerance triumphs in your death.

So there must be situations where you become intolerant in order to preserve wider tolerance – intolerant of rape, murder, drug dealing, in order to preserve ‘our’ freedoms. Again the lines and interpretation shift in the sand when applied at the international level. Can we tolerate North Korea having a nuclear bomb, or the Islamic state wanting to establish sharia law and the caliphate? Can we tolerate the international arms or drug or human trafficking trades?

AS WITH WAR, it is not conceivable that we will be able to eradicate tensions and misunderstandings. Even between people who love each other and have come to understand the other over many years, there are moments of anger and misunderstanding. How much more so between the huge confusion of fast amalgamating civilisations.

Yet we can mitigate some of the effects through understanding each other a little better and even learning to love each other a little, or at least to admire and be amused by each other. At least that is my hope. Fear and ignorance, at least, can be decreased, and a world in which we are going to have to live for centuries to come in a set of relations which are unprecedented may be made a little more harmonious.

This requires active policies to promote mutual understanding and integration. This is already happening in many nurseries and kindergartens and schools around the world where people of different backgrounds learn to grow with each other. It is important to break other exclusivity in churches, mosques, clubs, and other meeting places. Sport, television, popular culture, tourism, clothes, food, and other mass consumption patterns are already doing this to a huge extent. The goal is not to blend people into one boring uniform mass, but to celebrate but also tolerate and understand difference.


Serial Preface and Contents with Publication Schedule

Alan Macamacfarlane_lect150farlane FBA, FRHistS, is Professor Emeritus of Anthropological Science and Life Fellow of King’s College at the University of Cambridge and co-editor of The Fortnightly Review.

Alan Macfarlane is the author of more than twenty books and numerous articles covering English social history, demography in Nepal and the industrial history of England, China and Japan. His survey text, The Invention of the Modern World, is published by Odd Volumes for the Fortnightly.

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