The Chief Rabbi of Britain (also recognised as the Chief Rabbi by most of the British Commonwealth), Sir Jonathan Sacks, has published in The Times a brilliantly-reasoned, and to my mind unanswerable, intellectual demolition of the sort of multiculturalism which, with the leadership or at least the connivance of various governments has been a major feature of the Great British Culture War over the last decade or so.
Sir Jonathan’s piece, I believe, just possibly may come to be seen as standing among those great pieces of journalism which every once in a while, by saying what many know but which nobody respectable has previously dared to say, signal a real turning-point in the cultural weather. Sir Jonathan’s article is extracted from his new book: The Home We Build Together: Recreating Society. It commenced:
“Multiculturalism has run its course, and it is time to move on. It was a fine, even noble idea in its time. It was designed to make ethnic and religious minorities feel more at home, more appreciated and respected, and therefore better able to mesh with the larger society.
It affirmed their culture. It gave dignity to difference. And in many ways it achieved its aims. Britain is a more open, diverse, energising, cosmopolitan environment than it was when I was growing up.
“But there has been a price to pay, and it grows year by year. Multiculturalism has led not to integration but to segregation. It has allowed groups to live separately, with no incentive to integrate and every incentive not to.
It was intended to promote tolerance. Instead the result has been, in countries where it has been tried, societies more abrasive, fractured and intolerant than they once were.
“Liberal democracy is in danger. Britain is becoming a place where free speech is at risk, non-political institutions are becoming politicised, and a combination of political correctness and ethnic-religious separatism is eroding the graciousness of civil society.
Religious groups are becoming pressure groups. Boycotts and political campaigns are infecting professional bodies. Culture is fragmenting into systems of belief in which civil discourse ends and reasoned argument becomes impossible.
The political process is in danger of being abandoned in favour of the media-attention-grabbing gesture.
The politics of freedom risks descending into the politics of fear.”
Sir Jonathan continued that, in the 1970s, when multiculturalism emerged in strength in Britain, the idea of one nation, one culture, had come to seem dangerous and wrong.
But at the same time something else was happening: in the 1960’s the idea that society had, or was entitled to have, a moral consensus, came under sustained attack. Multiculturalism really got into its stride just after the cultural consensus had become that there were no moral truths holding society together.
“If there is no agreed moral truth, we cannot reason together. All truth becomes subjective or relative, no more than a construction, a narrative, one way among many of telling the story. Each represents a point of view, and each point of view is the expression of a group.
“On this account, Western civilisation is not truth but the hegemony of the ruling elite. Therefore, it must be exposed and opposed. Western civilisation becomes the rule of dead white males. There are other truths: Marxist, feminist … and so on. Which prevails will depend not on reason but on power. Force must be met by force. Lacking a shared language, we attack the arguer, not the argument. …
“Political correctness, created to avoid stigmatising speech, becomes the supreme example of stigmatising speech …Right or wrong, one thing is clear: the new tolerance is far less permissive than the old intolerance.”
Sir Jonathan said that a series of events from the 1960s fundamentally changed the terms of society and moral debate.
“Until recently, serious thinkers argued that society depends on moral consensus. Without that, there is no such thing as society, merely the clamour of competing voices and the clash of conflicting wills.
“The pursuit of truth mutates into the will to power. Instead of being refuted by rational argument, dissenting views are stigmatised as guilty of postmodernism’s cardinal sin: racism in any of its myriad, multiplying variants. So moral consensus disappears and moral conversation dies. Opponents are demonised. Ever-new ‘isms’ are invented to exclude ever more opinions.
New forms of intimidation begin to appear: protests, threats of violence, sometimes actual violence.
For when there are no shared standards, there can be no conversation, and where conversation ends, violence begins …
“Identity politics is deeply and inexorably divisive. If the withholding of recognition is a form of oppression, then one way of achieving recognition is to show that I have been oppressed. The logic is as follows: the group to which I belong is a victim; it has been wronged; therefore we are entitled to special treatment. This gives rise to an endlessly proliferating list of the aggrieved.”
Thus, he argues, Multiculturalism has become not an acceptance of different customs, costumes and cuisines but a culture of victimhood which sets group against group, each claiming that its pain, injury, oppression, humiliation, is greater than that of others.
Further, in this situation the new information technologies help disintegrate the idea of an autonomous national culture.
“Until recently, national cultures were predicated on the idea of a canon, a set of texts that everyone knew. In the case of Britain they included the Bible, Shakespeare and the great novels. The existence of a canon is essential to a culture.
It means that people share a set of references and resonances, a public vocabulary of narratives and discourse. Until the early 1950s a politician could quote the Bible and expect people to know what he was alluding to.”
Sir Jonathan argues that the Internet and the proliferation of television channels has not resulted in a population with access to a wider variety of sources of information but on the contrary, and, by inference, given the vested interests of the multiculturalism industry, a population able to be more selective and parochial that before in the sources information they receive. The article concludes:
“The nation state was brought into being by one form of communications technology – printing. It is today endangered by another. Whether the media, or politicians, or we, will recognise the danger in time, no one can be sure. Without a national culture, there is no nation.
There are merely people-in-proximity.
Whether this is sufficient to generate loyalty, belonging and a sense of the common good is an open question. National cultures make nations. Global cultures may yet break them.”