Too many words and not enough understanding. That’s my assessment. And words can surely divide us. “I’m for this and against that…” sprinked with a dash of integration, assimilation, multiculturalism, and discrimination. And where does that leave us? Forget the debate for a moment, where does that leave us as people? Arguing, and ever more bitter it seems. There needs to be more agreement, and less getting bogged down in definitions, hypotheticals, generalizations, and population statistics. Still, that IS the world of politics for you.
One argument that tends to define the debate centres on who should change when it comes to immigrants living a new life in a new country. There are those that say immigrants should become as much like the original inhabitants as possible (assimilation), and those that say they should be allowed to hold onto their own cultural identity (multiculturalism).
An argument put up against multiculturalism is that it leads to segregation, with the historical Chinatowns being augmented by new Pakistantowns, Somalitowns, Afghanistantowns, Romatowns etc. The problem is then perceived to be that the immigrants’ descendents may not even make the effort to learn the national language, which is probably seen as one of the most publicly tangible manifestations of non-integration. Some forget perhaps though that we have lived with this kind of phenomenon for millennia – is it not time that we made ourselves more comfortable with the idea? Also, Chinatowns can be very productive economically.
Multiculturalism openly invites communities to establish their own institutions which reflect their cultural heritage, their faith, and their cultural preferences. In a weakly multicultural society, that might entail multifaith schools, culture-sensitive public institutions, culture-specific civic organizations, and culture-specific political advocacy.
The new communities operate like communities within communities, with civic engagement geared to developing and protecting the specific interests of the minority community. As multiculturalism becomes more established, stronger forms show up in the form of faith-specific schools and new places of worship being built that better reflect the new demographics as individuals practice their freedom of religion.
One known effect of this changing diversity is that people of ALL groups can start to feel ‘lost’. Visible differences can make people feel defensive, more specifically, on the outside of their society. That is an uncomfortable feeling that is seen to drive people more towards the inside. For that reason, it’s unsurprising that studies therefore show that people living in the early stages of diverse communities can withdraw from society in general, including from their own communities.
Nevertheless, this is only part of the picture. A lack of complete trust does not mean that there is no trust, nor does mistrust towards a community mean that there is the same level of mistrust towards known individuals from that community. In fact, this is intuitively observable: one can have a negative view of a group but a positive view of individuals from within that group. Contradiction? That’s human beings for you. For that reason, a community-level analysis (see Robert Putnam) is likely to give an overly pessimistic picture. It really ain’t that black and white, figuritively or literally.
For integration (whichever form, multicultural or assimilation) to be successful it requires that there would be no obstacles to immigrants acquiring an education and occupations, that they are free to live where they want without fear of discrimination, that they are able to speak the language of the natives, and ultimately that they are able to intermarry without fear of excommunication or stigma, from any of the communities affected.
The reality can sometimes be quite far from this, though. Locals who witness this diversification but do not feel part of it can be most affected, as the roots of their own identity disappear in front of their eyes: a particular area may have had a very different recent and ancient history. Nevertheless, the incessant march of history can leave any one of us feeling that we have been left behind, and one should be sensitive to that. But really, there are meaningful opportunities in the ‘new world’, and people should be encouraged to reach out to others who are entering the community, who may also feel disorientated by the whole thing.
Of course, we cannot ignore that there are problems with immigration. Two solutions have been put forward by those somewhat to the right of the Maypole. The first is simply to avoid immigration: Close the doors and baton down the hatches! Some might go so far as to say “let’s make the place as unpleasant as possible and then maybe they will all go home!”
This solution will clearly fail. For a start, it’s giving in to a kind of superstitious fear of that which lurks beyond the horizon. And second, arguing that one is skeptical towards immigration is about as sensible as arguing that one is skeptical towards childbirth. It’s a fundamental feature of human populations that we move and that we intermingle and intermarry. How much that happens has depended on many factors: economic, cultural, geographical. But it happens. Likewise, adopting this ‘bunker approach’ when a community is already diverse and has significant 1st, 2nd, 3rd …. and 20th generation immigrants is rather like closing the barn door after the horse has long bolted. It is a fundamental misperception of the current state of reality. No wonder it leads to so much anger.
The other solution put forward has been assimilation, as already mentioned. Usually it is meant in the strong sense, though I will refer to both a strong and weak form. The thinking goes that immigrants are like visitors, i.e. guests or tourists. They are expected to behave as such and not let the ‘team’ down. Also, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. In the weaker sense, assimilation is expected to bring new aspects to the native culture, and so the final culture will be some kind of amalgamation of the two (e.g. the national food of the UK could easily be said to be a good old curry! ..and notice that ‘good old…’ doesn’t even sound out of place!).
More effects of weak assimilation are that notions of justice, social participation, the role of the family, free speech, etc will become more nuanced and diverse, while public institutions will also have learnt to take account of the greater diversity of the citizens that they serve.
In the strong sense, assimilation means that descendents of immigrants are indistinguishable from the old inhabitants, but this ignores that cultural effects work in many directions. Neither the descendents of the original population or the immigrant population will be exactly the same as their parents, and many of the reasons for this will have absolutely nothing to do with immigration (think Facebook, The Bold and the Beautiful, Ipad etc.).
Following a maturing of the process of assimilation, a new and more diverse identity emerges that is able to bring together the majority of the inhabitants in a strong and shared identity, regardless of their origins. Looking at the UK, which is further down this path that many countries, this is absolutely the case for very many natives, immigrants and descendents of immigrants. It is more obviously the case in the cosmopolitan cities and to a larger extent too in the rural areas close to those cities. In other areas, where contacts have been more sporadic or where immigrants are yet to achieve equality, then the effects of the early stages of ‘diversification’ still hold true, i.e. a degree of mistrust, some withdrawal, and as Putnam would probably predict, higher levels of political engagement (as we see in Finland currently with the rise of PS).
So of all these possible directions for the future, which would be best? Strong assimilation, weak assimilation, weak multiculturalism, segregation? What should be our expectations or even our aims?
The answer in my view is both obvious and yet overlooked. Why do we expect or desire only one kind of outcome?
It seems perfectly reasonable to me that we should expect degrees of all these things, as part of an ongoing processes that individuals react to differently and at different speeds. Not only that, but there really is space in our society for a little of everything!
So what can we expect? We can expect more new immigrants who are likely to set up in the cities and then gradually progress from the cities to the regions, though this is complicated by existing problems of regionalisation, with high rural unemployment, especially among the young, and so a slower process of assimilation would be expected to that found in the cities.
We can expect multicultural threads in our society, where people identify through their faith and their community. In that sense, they are expressing their freedoms and these are not generally speaking incompatible with those of natives. We can expect 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants to identify both with their parents ethnic identity and the national identity, to varying degrees and not necessarily with any great conflict, though sometimes there will be.
We can expect areas of some cities to become segregated areas, simply because this has always happened, and in many ways, it can be one of the charms of city life or larger towns – they allow the world to come to you rather than you having to travel to meet the world. We must avoid ghettos (deprivation) and ensure that segregation doesn’t mean isolation. Chinatowns are really a very good model for how those who choose to retain stronger links with their ethnic culture can engage economically with the surrounding economy.
We can expect to see more diversity in what is seen to constitute justice, what our roles are in society and our relationship to the rest of the world. But this diversity will not be a completely new thing, because the fact is there already exists a vast diversity within cultures, so that diversity between cultures is all too easily overemphasized, sometimes purely on the basis of a different colour of skin. Bear in mind that when put in new words, old ideas may indeed seem very foreign. It is always a good idea to ask whether new customs are related somehow to existing customs.
So in sum, we can expect something of each of the ‘solutions’ put forward in the debate on immigration. Immigrants or their descendents will be steered in different directions: some towards strong assimilation, some towards weak assimilation, some towards multiculturalism, and some towards cultural self-defence, some towards completely new identies that unite around the greater diversity. Those living out this integration are as diverse as those looking for the best method of integration. But a little less ‘this way, folks’ and a recognition that there are several ways ahead that can and will exist together would go a long way to taking some of the heat out of the situation: Unless it was never really about integration in the first place!? That’s a challenge to those that say it’s not about racism….
In that sense, what might appear like a broken society to many of those looking for a single solution is not actually broken. It might be a truism to say that the biggest enemy in all of this is not diversity, but that old enemy of all good civilisations – poverty!
Finally, a note of caution. The history of every single nation on Earth reveals that ‘groups’ have come to blows over what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ about how we should organize our society. Politics has the power to truly divide, to literally split our heads open. Finland is no stranger to this kind of conflict. So, when considering how to deal with the extremes within and without our communities, the important thing is to maintain a policy of tolerant engagement with those who seek moderation – i.e. always pull towards the middle and we will all be safer and closer, for sure.