Not more of the same
To appreciate the value of diversity you have to learn to relate to what is different. That means, for instance, not attaching cultural characteristics to a person's outward appearance or skin colour, but it also means addressing the traditional concept of ethnicity in a different way from that currently embraced by many academics.
Ethnicity - whose dark side takes the form of racism and whose more generally accepted side is nationalism - has in recent years been an emotive subject in many countries and for many thinkers. Why is this?
It is partially bound up with the intellectual laziness of academics and changing political agendas. When Marxism still had hegemony in many circles over political parlance, terms such as ethnicity were absolutely taboo. Modern antitheses had to be explained in terms of social classes. But marxist and other related discourses on social progress and emancipation have given way to other, less structured collective dreams. They go hand-in-hand with new social conflicts which are less inspired by the principle of progress than by the idea of `zero-sum-games' - competition now only exists between various pressure groups; progress in one group is always at the cost of another, with the result that progress in the absolute sense does not exist.
The received view was that this process of secularization and individualization would soon result in the concept of ethnicity being relegated to the archaeology of social phenomena. The opposite, however, seems to be the case. Modern thinkers talk about the `quest for identity' (Daniel Bell, 1980), the `search for community' (Turner 1983) and `the birth of identity politics'. In short, as a reaction to the loss of cultural individuality, ethnicity has, in fact, been given a new lease of life. And this in turn is the outcome of a series of interrelated factors which, for simplicity's sake, I shall here call globalization.
Globalization enables the worldwide dissemination of symbols which are associated with a number of local identities and individual characteristics. Symbols which suggest that it is worthwhile to be ethnically different (Hannerz, 1992). This has the paradoxical consequence that, in terms of identity, these symbols lead to a marked heterogeneity, but in the cultural domain they create a stronger degree of homogeneity (Vermeulen, 1994). For while this presents increasing opportunities to manifest oneself as `different', the ways in which this is expressed are remarkably similar. As Wallerstein (1990) has pointed out, it is not for nothing that most (new) forms of nationalism resemble one another, with rebel groups from Chechnia to the Ivory Coast and Mexico all dressing and behaving like local Rambos. This is because they have increasing recourse to the same symbol-bank - what Pieterse called global memory (1995) - which provides worldwide access to a combination of youth subcultures, musical styles and spectacular forms of nationalism. One can therefore speak of an ethnic identity without a separate, recognizable ethnic culture, whereby nowadays the separate black, Muslim and Indian identities can no longer be perceived independently of globalization.
Globalization and the attendant recognition of the value of ethnicity not only have an effect on immigrants and their descendants, particularly in Western or Western-orientated cities, they also precipitate changes in allochthonous societies. This is because autochthonous people come into contact with foreign cultures through direct or indirect contact and mass tourism, which bring about a massive change in the cultural landscape. Today we have an enormous variety of restaurants; the consumption of world music is no longer the exclusive domain of intellectuals; and leisure facilities like discotheques, clubs and sports clubs also exhibit increasing ethnic diversity or have incorporated specific ethnic aspects.
This in turn creates new boundaries and conditions for the development of ethnic identity and ethnically based survival strategies. All in all globalization produces both multicultural ideologies and new forms of racism. We appear to be moving towards new, less transparent and less romantic conflicts. Nevertheless, they are usually presented and interpreted under the simple blanket term: ethnicity.
It is not surprising that the media, which increasingly presents the world as an unbroken series of spectacular events, should play a decisive role in this. It is easier for a journalist or photographer to sell a story which takes ethnicity as its subject than one which addresses social differences.
It is vital, however, to look further than the concept of ethnicity. Many conflicts, which at first sight appear to be of an ethnic nature (viz. Bosnia with `the Muslims' and `the Serbs'), on closer examination turn out to be much more complex social conflicts. Moreover, it is salutary to recognize that, fortunately, many people can live quite happily without such things as ethnicity. These people are mainly found in modern cities, where increasing numbers of inhabitants form part of more than one subculture, thereby creating a multi-layered social identity of which ethnicity is just one of many components. Even a Hutu is never simply just a Hutu.
Unfortunately even the dossier arising from this symposium - a dossier that has to be succinct and at the same time moral, circumspect and diplomatic - reveals a tendency to associate culture with one (particular) ethnic and/or religious group. Culture is thus presented as virtually the equivalent of ethnicity. This approach perceives cultural production as a static whole, whereas, in fact, it is a perpetually changing process.
The social sciences also reflect this emphasis on ethnicity, in this instance the result of a general desire for sharp lines, for apollonian clarity. This naturally makes it easier to pigeonhole social phenomena into separate categories. The reality, however, is that the world is steadily becoming more ethnically and culturally intermingled, more Creole. But as yet academics are still bound by a narrow-mindedness that dismisses the elliptic, the dionysian, syncretism and mestizoic as the cause and result of ambiguity, hypocrisy, even schizophrenia. Despite widespread confusion among academics the motto always remains: everything in its place, and a place for everything.
In the Netherlands - in common with many other countries - the image of multi-culturalism is strongly influence by the thinking developed in the United States and other English speaking countries like Australia and Canada. The typical North American vision of ethnicity and cultural diversity presupposes that ethnic distinctions are being increasingly sharply defined and immutably fixed. Creolization is seen as the result of white domination, ultimately leading to white supremacy.
But our vision of multiculturalism might also take the situation in the Netherlands as its inspiration. This could have a liberating effect because this country's greatness is partly derived precisely from the respect that in various stages of its history has been accorded to dissidents and, to a lesser extent, to people who look different.
Although the Netherlands can certainly serve as an example on several scores, it should not see itself as a model. Firstly, the Netherlands is an affluent, literally overinsured country, thereby occupying a decidedly unrepresentative position in the world. And secondly, the Netherlands also harbours taboos, as underscored by any infringement of freedom within a particular sociopolitical group. The golden particularism thus finds its obverse expression in education, particularly in the disturbing proliferation of the phenomenon of special schools for black people and people with learning difficulties (LOM). In discussing these matters with parents of autochthonous and educationally `normal' children, one comes to realize just how `fundamental', `ethnic' and even egotistical the average Dutch person's thoughts and feelings can be when it comes down to protecting their individual freedom.
But is there such a thing as a model country, a country with ideal interethnic relations, a truly multicultural country? No, we must give up searching for existing paradigms and accept that there is no model country. The utopia of a country where ethnic origin forms only one of the many differences - no more nor less - can only be realized by the interactive combination of specific aspects of different types of interethnic relations. We must, as it were, create this ideal country in our imagination, even though our fantasy, as already said, is in danger of becoming over-reliant on English-speaking ecumenicalism.
It might perhaps be helpful to focus on the less polarized ethnic systems, such as the mixed societies in Latin America. Surely it is time to make a closer study of the mestizos, a rapidly expanding demographic category, rather than dismissing them as a residual group? Surely syncretism, that forms an element of so much religious experience, language, and material culture, should be celebrated rather than dismissed as a threat to traditions and cultural identity? Syncretism is what breathes new life into cultural expression. Up to now this has only been generally recognized in relation to popular music, even though that world also exhibits an almost inexorable tendency towards classification, which has institutionalized so-called world music as the syncretic music.
A positive contribution to the quest for less constricted interethnic relations could be made by paying tribute to the people who, in this era of forceful (ethnic) language, opt for compromise, negotiation and the middle course; who use weapons other than ethnicity to distinguish themselves or to inspire different peoples.
What we need is more ethnic interfusion. More surrealism.
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