Multiculturism: Friend or Foe - Archbishop's lecture
Wednesday 16th May 2007The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, delivers an address at London's Toynbee Hall, in which he calls for a widening of the debate on multiculturalism beyond narrow considerations of ethnicity or nationality, and to take in arguments about globalisation and commerce.
Dr Williams addresses the question of the homogenisation of human beings, with the increasing dominance of the global market:
"We live in probably the least multicultural human environment there has ever been. The global market has canonised once and for all certain ways of making: industrialisation is everywhere, the network of global communication is everywhere, the effects of market forces are felt by everyone on the face of the globe....It may be benevolent to some aspects of local cultures; it may learn to speak in local accents for certain purposes, advertising or decoration but it works in one mode of production, employment and marketing, and assumes that everyone is a potential customer. It is as universal as ever Christianity or Islam aspired to be, but the substance of its universality is a set of human functions (producing, selling, consuming) rather than any sense of innate human capacity and of the unsettling mysteriousness that goes with that."
He cites two examples of counter-cultural trends that are beginning to question this world view: the growth of environmental consciousness and ethical consumerism; and the emergence of microfinance schemes, such as those pioneered by Nobel prize winner, Muhammad Yunus.
Dr Williams also argues in his lecture that those who wish to debate multiculturalism should first look critically at what they mean by the term. He suggests that the growth of cultural relativism in the twentieth century has led many to feel unable or reluctant to question the values of their own communities or those of others; and that this risks the development of a secular state, which is unable and unwilling to exercise moral judgement.
Dr Williams stresses that it is not wrong to expect schools in shared cultures to teach the history or traditions of the majority. This, he says, is necessary not because it is arbitrarily right to do so, but because children need to be able to understand how cultures evolve - and what forces, for good or ill, have come together to explain the values and traditions society currently holds.
Multiculturism: Friend or Foe
We seem to be worried about multiculturalism; but we seem to be equally unclear about what the word means. Not too long ago, it could be used relatively neutrally, as a description of a society in which you could no longer take it for granted that there was a dominant or normative 'culture' (whatever exactly 'culture' itself means) – a society which many recognised as that of Britain in the late twentieth century. The level of variety in dress, cuisine, music, language, in the world of literary and visual images, in the heritage of social custom and sexual convention, within the national social unit had become so high, we were told, that we could no longer think of a canon of information or protocol or literary and historical reference that everyone could reasonably be expected to work with. An acute sensitivity grew up to aspects of our educational system and to the visible icons in our public space that seemed to assume that there was indeed one normative story to be told of our society. At its most crass and shallow, it showed itself – and still does with weary predictability – in attempts to excise culture-specific words like 'Christmas' from the public language of bureaucrats. At its most serious, it has been apparent in efforts to challenge an uncritical celebration of the national heritage without recognising its moral shadows, and to draw out the diversity of strands that in fact have made up what we think of as a single national cultural history.
But more recently the word has become for some commentators a way of designating a serious social dysfunction. David Cameron has associated it with the 'Balkanising' of society – with a set of policies, more or less deliberate, which leave culturally diverse communities cocooned in their own frame of reference, in such a way that they never engage honestly with one another and there is no clear focus for social or national loyalty. Talking about this is frequently, of course, a coded way of talking about one kind of perception of Islamic groups in the UK: this perception is of communities indulged by nervous authorities, increasingly isolated in their educational practice, allowed to flaunt symbols of their faith while others are attacked for doing so, virtually encouraged to live in a 'state within a state', where loyalties are not to the 'host' society (a complex idea, as we shall see) but to a nebulous and alarming international network of believers. Thus multiculturalism understandably comes to be defined – as it is by David Cameron in the speech referred to a moment ago - as one of the 'walls of division' that must be torn down for the sake of a secure and just society.
The response to multiculturalism seen as a problem in this way is often to appeal to some sort of integrationist strategy that would provide a clear benchmark for belonging within our society – whether a reaffirmation of our Christian roots, a citizenship test of some kind, or a return to a style of teaching literature and history that stressed a central, definitive story. This is often the point at which discussion of that elusive thing referred to as 'Britishness' enters the field. A lot of this discussion is muddled and unhelpful; but it does focus on a significant question. Is there an identity beyond that of the immediate ethnic or religious group that provides a straightforward link of common interest and common loyalty with the rest of a society? And can such a link be established without reviving an agenda that would override the reality of ethnic difference and diverse religious conviction, without endorsing a model of society in which the only kind of belonging that could be publicly affirmed and supported was a strictly secular citizenship? This latter is on the whole what France has taken as foundational; but it is not obvious that either in theory or in practice this offers a defensible solution.
In considering the current debate about multiculturalism, then, we need to distinguish a number of different questions. Is there such a thing as national identity? Can and should a state recognise the rights and liberties of intermediate groups within it, in addition to the rights of individual citizens? Should our educational system be promoting some ideal of integrated national belonging? But if we are to have any intelligent perspectives on these issues, we must go back a bit further, I believe, and ask a few questions about the language we are using.
What exactly is culture? A little earlier, I referred to the sorts of thing we probably most readily think of when the word is used – costume and custom and cookery. These days, as I have suggested, the word is also quite often and rather confusingly a roundabout way of referring to religious diversity. Vaguely in the background for some will be the sense of a whole intellectual trend in the twentieth century which has emphasised cultural diversity across both geographical and historical gaps and has created an awareness of the cultural relativity of much of what any particular group might take for granted; and this spills over into a sense of the difficulty of defining absolute standards or values once you have noticed this relativity. Hence the phenomenon of cultural relativism, often invoked at some point in these discussions.
The trap in this is the assumption that a culture is both fixed and impermeable. When we encounter a cultural 'other', our first reaction may well be the recognition of sheer difference; and this may lead us to exaggerate the degree to which we think of that other as enclosed in itself. It is the way it is, with no reference to the way things are with me or with us. And whether we are thinking of seventeenth century travellers trying to make sense of East Asian societies or twentieth century anthropologists trying to make sense of pre-modern societies, the natural reaction is to see the object as self-contained, on the other side of a barrier.
The same can apply to studying societies in the past: earlier European (and indeed non-European) societies tended to assume that the past was not at all foreign and that the values held and the arguments going on in the present were the same as those in previous centuries. A massive intellectual revolution, from the late seventeenth century onwards, has produced an increasingly 'anthropological' view of history: 'the past is a foreign country.' And if you think about popular current attitudes to the past as illustrated, for example, by historical dramas on television or film, the problem becomes very clear. People in the past are shown either as having more or less contemporary attitudes and habits, thinly veiled in costume, or else as holding completely incomprehensible and irrational beliefs (especially religious ones). It seems there are things from the past which are almost incapable of being presented in popular entertainment; to take just one fairly harmless example, the recent television adaptation of Mansfield Park, eminently jolly and enjoyable in itself, revealed painfully just how completely it had been assumed that most of the motivation of the novel's characters would have to be written off for televisual purposes. The past is a foreign country and foreigners, as English people have always suspected, are peculiar. Speak to them slowly and loudly enough and you may be able to get them to understand you (since there is no real chance of your understanding them).
Can you really expect to have a conversation with the other, in their historical or geographical distance, in such a world? Combine this problem with a relativist assumption that no-one is really 'right' in an objective sense, and the result is a slightly uneasy intellectual map on which numerous diverse 'cultural' units coexist; the political task is to guarantee that no one of them suffers because of unfair power exercised by another group and that all are respected or tolerated by a state apparatus which seeks to reduce potential conflicts between them. Each takes its own frame of reference for granted and shies away from real challenge at the level of intellectual exchange; what could this be, after all, in a context where there is no common view of what counts as reasonable? In a modern state, this means a very strict separation between what might be called private plurality and public conformity. Public life will inevitably tend to make diversity publicly invisible or at least simply decorative when it becomes visible (celebrations of ethnic diversity as no more than a manifestation of the level of generous tolerance shown by public administrators).
But because that public-private distinction is unsafe and unstable for quite a lot of cultural communities, and because its effect will frequently be to convey to specific groups that their specificity is precisely what isn't wanted in the public square, this can be alienating. Hence the anxiety about a 'Balkanised' society. And since the tendency in this attitude is towards leaving cultures as they are, you can find a problem arising when public relativism ends up reinforcing the most inflexibly conservative elements in a culture by treating it as fixed. You may even have a vicious circle set up whereby an ethnic or religious group will find it in its interest to maintain the unchanging stereotypes held by outside authorities. If their identity as a tolerated group seems to depend on their being seen in a certain way by a benevolent administration, access to that administration may depend on continuing to be seen in the same way. This accounts for some of the frustration felt by those who are regularly spoken for in public by 'community leaders' who fit a certain stereotype but do not represent the diversity or the pressure for change within the actual community.
The point that needs drawing out is that there is something odd about regarding culture as a fixed and given matter. At the most basic level, 'culture' is a word that refers to the particular sort of impact a group of human beings makes on its environment. Its origins lie in the same group of words that includes 'cultivation'; one of the most basic forms of culture is agriculture, since that is near the foundation of the human impact on the environment. And, as Timothy Gorringe traces in his very valuable book, Furthering Humanity. A Theology of Culture, the use of the word predictably diversifies as it is applied to very different ways of affecting the environment, including our imaginative and intellectual work on the environment, creating 'culture' in the modern sense of mental and artistic sophistication. It ceases to be just about negotiating the challenges of a physical environment and becomes something to do with meanings and values, with the patterns of words and pictures through which we make the world around us ours and express our priorities and expectations, identifying what has weight or authority or worth for us and gives shape to our lives.
Words and pictures: as soon as we see culture in these terms, we move away from any assumption that a culture is necessarily static. People use words to reflect on other words, pictures to comment on other pictures. Who you are talking to changes as time passes; cultures meet and trade, literally and metaphorically. The current exhibition of the sacred texts of the Abrahamic faiths at the British Library prompts the question of the common origins of some spectacularly distant 'cultural' phenomena – the so-called carpet pages of decoration in Celtic gospel books and the same sort of pages in manuscripts of the Qur'an. Cultures borrow idioms and conventions equally in methods of producing artefacts and in philosophical speculation. It is a peculiar form of modern snobbery to think that in the premodern world people universally lived more enclosed lives.
If culture is a word for making things and making sense of things, it is never something that can be abstracted from history. The changing potential of technologies and the shifts of populations over centuries create new environmental possibilities and linguistic opportunities. People learn to make different things and say different things. To freeze the frame at any point is to make nonsense of the process – which is why some ways of talking about national identity or the essence of a local cultural world can't be sustained. The historian Jonathan Clark, writing about the uses and misuses of history in respect of Britain's identity, has this to say: 'Britain was not invented; it developed. It was not devised by a small number of cultural entrepreneurs, acting as advertising executives to package and market a new product; it grew, the often unintended result of actions by men and women in many walks of life and often, too, the result of conflicts and cross-purposes' (Our Shadowed Present, p.85). Clark notes, very interestingly, how Britain generally avoided being captured by a crude appeal to racial unity, and how the lack of a race myth enabled it to make the most of its historical diversity (he has helpful things to say too about the overwhelmingly modern and even Enlightenment origins of racial philosophies). The result, he argues, has given Britain a more durable national cohesion than might have been expected, precisely because it has not bound its unity to a tight and inflexible account of race or culture.
In theory, British society ought not to be easily panicked about its identity; it has lived through a history which exemplifies in marked fashion the way in which cultures are shaped by changing populations, languages and technologies. And the salient point for our wider discussion is that there is no useful way of talking about 'Britishness' without telling a specific story – a story which is about how both invasion and foreign adventure created a flexible and hybrid language, how a particular kind of concordat between royal, feudal and ecclesiastical power outlasted a brief experiment with royal absolutism in the early modern period, how the reaction against absolutism moulded a set of legal standards and protocols (habeas corpus, jury trial), how lessons were learned and not learned in the treatment of subject societies through England's relations with its Celtic neighbours... and so on. It is not a story of unbroken success or virtue: the imperial episode is not very edifying in its origins and much of its working out, and the economic effect of rapid industrialisation was wealth for some and a colossal alienation between classes on the other. 'Britishness' still includes a set of tangled class relationships that surprises many other nations. But we can talk about a legal and political 'way of making sense' that remains overall a striking and rather unusual achievement.
The errors that Clark has in his sights are, however, not only racial myths but, importantly, what he calls a 'presentist' mentality which assumes that constructive historical conflict and negotiation are essentially over and that there is now a self-evident state of political rationality prevailing, which lays down clear and universal principles for social stability and equity. Because it obscures the particular story of how current political practices and assumptions came into being, it effectively creates a new dominant and unquestioned culture against which others are to be authoritatively measured; it colludes with the mindset that blithely presumes its own universal mission to civilise with as little self-doubt as High Victorian imperialism. It uses history selectively, with the simple aim of illustrating its own superiority and the inevitability of its triumph. Against this Clark sets the difficult but genuinely transforming task of engaging with a history in which things might have turned out differently and in which apparently clear ideological settlements turn out to have manifold and even contradictory roots. As he argues (in ch.4 of the same book), the automatic modern association of universal suffrage with challenges to landed interest, criticism of the confessional state and support of individual enterprise and a high level of free trade is the product of a long historical story in which theological themes and controversies play a surprisingly large part. In other words, the self-evidence of the modern Western democratic package is put in question by the fact that it represents a gradual and not at all obvious coalescence of various political ideals. It may well be a good and humane outcome, but to understand it, let alone defend it, we need some sense of what made it what it is.
We are beginning to see, I hope, what might be one helpful orienting principle in thinking about multiculturalism. If culture is a mode of making sense of the world, by material and intellectual labour, it is inherently changeable. No such mode is going to be eternal and self-sufficient, and to speak of cultures is not to speak of non-communicating units, whether across time or in space. It is possible to understand each other; it is possible to understand the past. And both understandings are liable to shift and adjust as time goes on and the agenda alters. The changeability of different cultures reinforces the perception of relativity; but paradoxically it works against relativism, because it allows for mutual adjustment in a long process of settling how we corporately frame more adequate and durable strategies for mapping our place in our environment. In short, multiculturalism will indeed be a recipe for Balkanisation or ghettoisation if it ignores history and denies the possibility of cultures affecting each other, changing themselves and the other and sometimes creating new and hybrid forms.
Static pluralism is not a healthy condition for a society; and the well-intentioned eagerness of some in recent decades to compensate for insensitive cultural hegemony by treating all clusters of cultural and religious expression as equally worthy of abstract respect and equally distant from the public square has not delivered quite what was intended. Likewise a 'clash of civilisations' model assumes a spectacularly non-historical view of how cultures work and is easily conscripted into the service of new imperialisms incapable of questioning their own legitimacy or adequacy.
But how does this impact upon our local and practical challenges – on the vexed question of group rights or on the foundations of an educational curriculum? In a finely nuanced discussion of the state's relations with the minority group, Maleiha Malik, a legal and political scholar of Muslim allegiance, seeks a way between, on the one hand, privileging group minority identity in such a way as to offer no intelligible account of the majority's proper interest or of a wider 'belonging to the polity' of a state overall, and, on the other, leaving intact a secular and neutral public sphere in which no form of belonging other than the abstract legal and civil identity of the citizen is of political significance. It should be possible, she argues, to define a common public culture in which the needs and priorities of minorities are openly discussed and negotiated but with a clear sense that it should be possible for the minority to be able to identify with the institutions of society as a whole. 'For the minority', she writes, 'this means that their private identity cannot automatically be reflected in the public sphere without some limited assimilation to the shared values that are the agreed basis for a common public life. For the majority, this re-negotiation carries with it significant costs. These costs will be an inevitable outcome of attempts to transform the public sphere and institutions: from exclusively reflecting the dominant culture, towards a common culture which also seeks to accommodate some of the most urgent needs of minorities' ('Muslims and Participatory Democracy', pp.69-85 in British Muslims. Loyalty and Belonging, ed. Muhammad Siddique Seddon, Dilwar Hussain and Nadeem Malik, p.77). What Malik is trying to clarify in this and other seminal papers is the idea that negotiation over the participation of minority groups in representative political processes is not the same as seeking a situation where those processes are mortgaged to the veto of the minority – a situation which human rights legislation can tacitly encourage, she suggests. The problem is that this model, by continuing to treat the minority as a political 'other' in need of protection gives no path to authentic participation with the possibility of reciprocal influence – that is, of proper political agency.
Thus talk about 'group rights' will not take us beyond the static models we ought to leave behind; but public practice needs conventions for engaging with communities of conviction over its policies, rather than assuming that all choices boil down to individual lifestyle options. And the implications of Malik's discussion for education are interesting. A good education for a shared culture such as she outlines would be one in which students were indeed educated about the history and convictions of the majority. In the case of Britain, that would mean an education that laid out the features I mentioned earlier about the mingled political and religious roots of the British understanding of legality and constitutional balance. It would present the social and political elements of 'Britishness' not as a timeless orthodoxy but as the outcome of a long process in which many factors are involved other than the narrowly political. It would enable a measure of literacy in respect of the language and imagery of the majority. And it would also set out an understanding of the way in which historical processes shape culture that itself becomes an important element in resourcing dialogue between majority and minority culture. Worrying that it presupposes an unquestioned privilege for the majority culture is missing the point and fighting the wrong battle.
So if there is a 'curriculum' implication here, it is about a sensible historical grounding for everyone in what happens to have brought us here. Nothing is served by the kind of half-hearted half-relativism that is unwilling to foreground this. And a good exposition of these processes will say something about the fluidity of cultural identities over long periods. It becomes an education in resisting static ideas about cultures, while at the same time affirming the need for understanding of the roots of a culture and a national identity.
But looming up behind these issues is the larger one hinted at earlier. The processes by which cultures take shape are many-layered, and the engines of development are varied. Some are contingent and pragmatic – a literally changing physical environment; but some are to do with a changing sense of what needs to be secured in order for human beings to be as human as they can be. Christianity, like Islam and Buddhism a faith that began as a reforming an innovating movement, introduced into the Mediterranean world a much enlarged sense of what was 'due' to human beings, a set of convictions about freedom and the unique vocation of each person and a set of expectations about mutual responsibility. Understanding cultural history is emphatically to do with understanding how people decide what is due to persons – how they settle on accounts of minimal regard to human dignity or worth. History once again displays, uncomfortably, just how non-self-evident such minimal accounts are and how easily they are overridden (by religious believers as well as others, it must at once be said).
Gorringe, in the book I quoted earlier, argues, following the magisterial work of Bikkhu Parekh on the subject, that intercultural argument about what may or may not be good for human beings is bound to take account of irreversible moments in global history that make the denial of, say, equality between the sexes indefensible, even on the grounds of respecting diversity. Similar points could be made about the rights and dignity of children; no-one ventures to defend child soldiering or child labour on the grounds of cultural relativity. The argument cannot be settled from a point outside all human cultural specifics; but it is an argument that moves on, nonetheless, and creates areas of consensus that cannot easily be imagined as up for renegotiation. In Gorringe's terms, the 'furthering' of a human agenda shaped by converging and negotiating convictions, offers a moral touchstone for intercultural debate that may not be clearly identifiable in the abstract but emerge in the historical encounter between cultures as a common ground that allows both agreement and further exploration of disagreement. And he very carefully contends that Parekh's own dismissal of 'moral monism', the idea that there is one and only one form of human life that is maximally good for humans still leaves open the possibility of defending the view that there are capacities in all human beings that need development if a properly human life is to be lived and understood (pp.233-7) – that, in Christian terms, there are some things that are unequivocally good news for any imaginable human being because they allow this sort of development.
On this basis, there have to be questions about any picture of cultural diversity that simply regards it as a pattern of chosen private differences that have no place in the neutral space of modern secular society. The supposedly neutral space of secularism, as I have argued in other places, carries its own legacy and its own assumptions about what is due to human beings. To the extent that it deliberately avoids commitment about what human flourishing looks like and contents itself with managing as fairly as possible the resources of a society, it will risk at least two things. The first is the deficit in motivation that results when there is no accepted, conviction-based and widely approved rationale for taking responsibility for others. The second is the reduction of all major moral questions in society to questions about the management of fixed and finite resources, so that issues around what is needed for morally desirable ends are sidelined. The culture – if one has to use the word in this context – of public neutrality is going to be in some degree parasitic on more three-dimensional cultures if it is not to dissolve into functionalist and bureaucratic tyranny.
The strength of an interactive and historically educated multicultural social life – one in which cultural diversity is worked through in active conversation and co-operation between communities of conviction, against the background of a properly understood political and legal tradition – is that it helps to resource us all in the struggle against a managerial and impersonal politics which very few people actively want. If we can distinguish between a multiculturalism that is simply a minimal public tolerance for eccentric or exotic private diversities and a multiculturalism that brings into public democratic debate the most significant motivating elements in people's convictions about human dignity and destiny, we shall have moved on significantly from some of our current deadlocks.
And this brings me to my last consideration. If a culture is a way of making things and making sense, then from one point of view we live in probably the least multicultural human environment there has ever been. The global market has canonised once and for all certain ways of making: industrialisation is everywhere, the network of global communication is everywhere, the effects of market forces are felt by everyone on the face of the globe. To quote Nicholas Boyle's words in his magnificent essay on European cultural identity, Who Are we Now?, 'no human life can now be led in total isolation from the ever denser global network and no organised human intrusion from outside it is now possible...Governments, anxious to reduce imports or to meet some other norm set by international competition, make their presence felt by imposing (de-) population programmes or changes in age-old cultivation practices...The more you have in common the more you have to compete about, and vice versa' (p.314).
There is indeed one dominant culture in the world, and that is the exchange system of the market, which transforms every local history. It isn't surprising that the climate this has produced has led some to speak of the end of history – as if, again, we now had a state of affairs that could forget how it came into existence because it is really the obvious position for human beings to be in and needs no argument, no defence, no ancestry. It may be benevolent to some aspects of local cultures; it may learn to speak in local accents for certain purposes, advertising or decoration (Macdonald's offers some ethnic variation in outlets across the globe), but it works in one mode of production, employment and marketing, and assumes that everyone is a potential customer. It is as universal as ever Christianity or Islam aspired to be, but the substance of its universality is a set of human functions (producing, selling, consuming) rather than any sense of innate human capacity and of the unsettling mysteriousness that goes with that.
The market, as we are repeatedly told, is the major – and inevitable engine for democratisation and economic liberation for the world's societies. Granted, more or less, given rather a lot of qualifications about what is necessary to establish fair trading conditions for the dramatically powerless and marginal economies of the globe. But how do we live with what seems to be universally the result of the dominance of the global market – the erosion of particular identities, local ways of making sense and things which change at a human pace and on a human scale, not as part of a single, increasingly irresistible and rapid process of homogenising human beings? There are at least two signs of a counter-trend that deserve mention in this connection. The first, a very familiar one, is the steadily diffusing impact of various kinds of environmental consciousness. To take a simple example, the growing concern about 'food miles' in relation to what is available in the local supermarket suggests a developing awareness of what the actual capacity and the actual limits of a local economy are. The concern has led to the revival of farmers' markets in some places and to the recognition that the demand for a universal availability of maximal consumer choice has consequences for producers both near at hand and in the developing world. Combined with the similarly growing pressure about 'fair trade' conditions of production, there is a potential here for keeping a marker firmly in place about diverse economies, diverse rhythms of production, diverse seasonal harvests and so on. Alongside the vaunted 'multicultural' sign of varied ethnic cuisine in the streets of Britain, there is a proper concern about the globalisation of food production and distribution which acts as a necessary warning for those who imagine that they can without cost live in a global 'non-locality' where all consumables are equally accessible.
In something like the same way, the growing reach and capacity of microfinance institutions, not only in the poorer parts of the globe, offers an alternative – or at least supplementary - model for economic growth and security. It is worth noting that the most successful of these enterprises, Muhammad Yunus's Grameen Bank, owes something to a Muslim economic tradition, and that some of the major organisers of credit unions in Ireland, Canada and elsewhere have been Catholic clergy and laity. Once again, there is an awareness of the cost of abandoning entirely the various kinds of local loyalty and direct accountability which global economics threatens. Against the monoculturalism of the global market, these affirmations of the local are of real significance.
Others could be cited, but the point is that our discussions of multiculturalism are too often conducted in abstraction from thinking about the economic culture we all inhabit, whether we like it or not. And an appreciation of what is possible to strengthen a sane pluralism and localism in our approaches to local economies and local politics needs to be part of any reflection on what it means to be a multicultural society that goes deeper than slogans. Cosmetic, external variety underpinned by a wholly uncriticised globalism is a very unpromising future. A plurality of cultures that did not involve some real diversity in ways of making, marketing, saving, and organising the conditions of material life would be superficial; we should all still be locked into a basic sense of sameness.
So my conclusion is that for a sensible discussion of multiculturalism we need to leave behind the assumption that what we are talking about is nothing but a world of unbridled and uncritical social plurality which undermines any possible commitment to overall social cohesion in a state. First we need to be as clear as we can be about what culture is. And as we gain greater clarity about this, we ought to see how it is shaped in history and how it is therefore a dangerous fiction to stick with an absolute and timeless account of any cultural unit, modern or pre-modern, eastern or western. We need a strong commitment to interaction between diverse cultures, including the possibility of reasoned criticism. We should not see a problem with an educational curriculum that traces the distinctive lines of a society's development in its arts and products, its legal institutions and its religious imagination; to teach these is not to say, 'This is the only acceptable way of being a human person here' – simply, 'This is how these specific human beings in this place understood their humanity; this is the deposit on which people here are drawing, knowingly or not'. And finally we need to find how such particular traditions of being human help us question the largely unseen forces that flatten the surface of the human world in the name of a universal market that is notably empty of resources for moral motivation, communal loyalty and creativity.
None of this (as we've seen) commits us to relativism, only to a properly mutually engaged discussion in public about what is good for corporate human life. It will have been obvious that I am taking for granted that religious diversity is part of this picture – and that religious communities will play a focal part in resisting the 'flattening' effects of modernity on the human profile. If we are talking about how human beings make sense as well as making things, there is no way in which this dimension can be bypassed. It is true that most of the great faiths set themselves to create a universal 'culture', convinced that they have a truth relevant and transforming for all humans – and that therefore they will experience conflict between themselves. But if that conflict is always approached not with the aim of literally or metaphorically eliminating each other but with the expectation that the mixture of 'civic' collaboration and intellectual and spiritual exchange in the public sphere will ultimately enrich all participants, we need not fear breakdown. Forget 'multiculturalism' as some sort of prescription; begin from the multicultural fact. We are already neighbours and fellow-citizens; what we need is neither the ghetto nor the reassertion of a fictionally unified past, but ordinary intelligence and sympathy and curiosity in the face of difference – which is the basis of all learning and all growing-up, in individuals or societies.
© Rowan Williams 2007