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The term "multiculturalism" covers a number of current
political trends in North America and elsewhere which, although
they are quite different in their aims and ideological content (see
Goldberg 1994 for an overview), share a positive evaluation of cultural
traditions and, particularly, the cultural or ethnic identities
of minorities. Multiculturalism is evident in literature and the
arts as well as in politics, and it seeks to revalorise the artistic
and intellectual contributions of hitherto silent minorities as
well as supporting their quest for equity in greater society. Related
to the critical Hegelianism of the early Frankfurt school, feminist
critiques of epistemology and to postmodernist trends inspired directly
or indirectly by Derrida, multiculturalist thought is often accused
of inspiring nihilism (see e.g. Bloom 1987) since it seems to relativise
absolute value judgements.
This chapter is restricted to a discussion of one particular political
aspect of multiculturalism, and investigates under which circumstances
multiculturalist ideas may be at odds with individual human rights
(as depicted in the original UN charter). As a consequence, it is
necessary to review the concept of "culture" invoked in
multiculturalist thought. This conceptual discussion (which has
practical ramifications) forms the head and tail of the article,
the main body of which is devoted to a critical presentation of
multiculturalist practices and debates in Mauritius, which is used
here as an exemplar of multiculturalist dilemmas and opportunities.
variation as a political challenge
For many years, it was commonplace within post-evolutionist comparative
cultural research -- cultural and social anthropology -- to assume
that cultures were generally sharply delineated and distinct, relatively
homogeneous and stable. The world was thus depicted as a vast archipelago
of cultures, each possessing its own internal logic and its own
values, and which could exclusively be understood in its own unique
terms. Variations in morality, custom and tradition were thus regarded
as evidence of man's ability to adapt to the most variable environments
and to shape his existence in a multitude of ways, and it was emphasised
that there was no "objective" standard available for the
evolutionary ranking of cultures or the moral evaluation of actions.
Value was defined from within. This line of thought, which is historically
associated with the great German-American anthropologist Franz Boas
(18581942), is usually spoken of as cultural relativism or
Recently the classic perspectives from cultural relativism have
become increasingly problematic (cf. also Wilson's Introduction
to this volume), and cultural theory from the eighties and nineties
tends to emphasise (now approaching the point of irritating reiteration)
that "cultures" are neither clearly bounded, tightly integrated
nor unchanging. An important contributing cause, or at least a major
catalyst, in bringing this change about, is the intensiication of
the globalisation of culture since the Second World War. The globalisation
of capitalism and the modern state, along with innovations in communication
technology (jet planes, TV satellites and various wireless telecommunications
are key innovations), have been crucial for these changes to come
about. When former tribals now apply for mortgages, follow North
American TV series, take their Higher School Certificates, elect
local governments and are imprisoned for criticising the government,
it becomes intellectually and morally indefensible to seek refuge
in the fiction assuming that cultures are isolated and committed
to their "proper logic": Political discourse has, to a
great extent, become globalised.
The situation may be even more problematic to handle intellectually
for persons steeped in Boasian relativism when very tangible expressions
of global cultural variation suddenly appear at our doorstep, which
indeed is happening in most industrialised societies due to labour
migration and to the ongoing influx of political refugees. This
new polyethnic situation has, especially in European countries,
provoked discrimination as well as a revitalised cultural nationalism
and chauvinism in segments of the majority, but many -- "indigenes"
as well as new arrivals -- have also responded by developing ideological
and practical models for polyethnic coexistence. Original alloys
mixing anthropological cultural relativism, nationalism, modern
individualism and human rights thought have thus, in the course
of the past twenty years, created ideologies and theories dealing
with "multicultural society". In this milieu of social
and political thought, difference is seen not only as politically
legitimate, but is also frequently invoked as justification for
specific political rights. In this regard, multiculturalist thought
could be seen as post-nationalist, since it acknowledges the existence
of several "cultures" within one and the same political
system. At the same time, multiculturalism may easily conflict with
values seen as universal in modern liberal states, especially those
to do with human rights and the rights and duties associated with
equal participation in the institutions of society.
The basic dilemma of polyethnic societies can be phrased like this:
On the one hand all members of a liberal democracy are (in principle
if not in practice) entitled to the same rights and opportunities.
On the other hand, they also have the right to be different -- and
in our day and age, the rights of minorities to maintain and promote
their cultural specificity, and to be visible in the public sphere,
in cluding the media, school curricula and so on, are increasingly
insisted on. A crucial challenge for multiethnic societies therefore
consists in allowing cultural differences without violating common,
societally defined rights; in other words, the challenge consists
in finding a viable compromise, for the state as well as for the
citizens (representing power and agency, respectively, in the framework
proposed in Wilson's Introduction), between equal rights and the
right to be different.
This contradiction is as old as nationalism itself. Nationalism,
the ideology holding that states ought to be culturally homogeneous
(Gellner 1983, Anderson 1983), has a double origin in German romanticism
and French enlightenment thought, which emphasise, respectively,
cultural (in many cases ethnic as well) uniformity, and shared territory
and citizenship, as the basis for national integration and as the
source of political legitimation. According to classic Enlightenment
thought, there existed a universal human civilization, which was
in principle accessible to all humans. According to German romanticism,
represented in the works of Herder above all, every people (Volk)
had its proper linguistic and cultural character and the right to
defend it. This view of culture, incidentally, was developed largely
as a defensive response to French universalism, which was locally
perceived as a form of cultural imperialism (probably not without
a certain justification). This perspective and its derivates (including
cultural relativism in its "strong" variants) are currently
expressed through ideologies arguing the importance of cultural
homogeneity for political identity. This applies whether they are
nationalist and champion the idea of homogeneous states, or ethnopolitical
and insist on ethnically based rights for minorities within existing
states. However, the difference between "German" and "French"
nationalism, so often stressed in the literature (see Kohn 1945
for a classic statement), is not absolute: in actually existing
nations, the two principles are generally mixed, and even in principle,
French territorialism is far from being culturally innocent. Insofar
as the French universalist civilisation insists on speaking French,
it has certainly not been perceived as culturally neutral among
non-French speakers in Brittany, in Côte-d'Ivoire and elsewhere.
Modern human rights thinking is no more neutral either, incidentally,
as it assumes global sharing of a specified set of societal values.
The contradiction between the demands for equal rights and for the
right to be different is accentuated at present by two principle
tendencies. Firstly, it has finally become clear in public discourse
-- nearly eighty years after Woodrow Wilson famously announced the
right to self-determination of peoples -- that hardly any ethnic
group has its territory by itself. States are poly-ethnic, and any
ideology stating that only people "of the same kind" should
live in a country is potentially dangerous. This problem was recognised
already by Renan (1992 ), but it has acquired unprecedented
importance since the 1960s. Secondly, the current processes of cultural
globalisation break down cultural boundaries and make it difficult
to defend the idea that a "people" is culturally homogeneous
and unique. Cultural creolisation (or "hybridisation",
or again "bastardisation" if one prefers), migration and
increased transnational communication are important factors in this
A widespread counterreaction against the perceived threat of boundary
dissolution through globalisation consists in ideological emphases
on "cultural uniqueness". In this sense, cultural homogenisation
and ethnic fragmentation take place simultaneously; they are consequences
of each other and feed on each other in dynamic interplay (cf. Friedman
In other words, societies are "multicultural" -- or so
it may seem. I shall nevertheless argue that "multiculturalist
politics" have to be universalistic in their very nature. The
position to be defended below argues that culture is not a legitimating
basis for political claims, and that cultural singularities among
minorities and majorities in modern societies can only be defended
to the extent that they do not interfere with individual human rights.
All societies are indeed "multicultural", whether they
contain diverse ethnic groups or not, since different citizens hold
different values and different world views. "Multiculturalism",
a term describing doctrines which argue the importance and equivalence
of cultural heritages and the decentralisation of defining
power as to what is to count as one, may in practice be either a
disguised form of hegemonic individualistic thinking about personhood
(the world seen as a smorgasbord of identities to be chosen among
by free individuals) and human rights, or else it is liable to regress
into nihilism, apartheid and the enforced ascription of cultural
identities. As the empirical discussion below will make clear, the
former alternative has many virtues in relation to human rights,
which the latter does not.
concept of culture
Culture, Raymond Williams has written (1976: 87) in a much quoted
passage, is one of the two or three most complex words of the English
language. The meaning of the word, Williams shows, has gone through
many changes since the original Latin colere, which referred
to the cultivation of the soil. Today, the word has several, if
One of the most common meanings of culture posits it as synonymous
with the way of life and world view the members of a particular
group or community have in common, and which distinguishes them
from other groups. This definition may at first seem plausible,
but it does not survive closer scrutiny. Within nearly every "group"
or "people" there are varying ways of life and world views;
the rich differ from the poor, the men from the women, the highly
educated from the illiterates, the urban from the rural and so on.
Additionally, it is often extremely difficult to draw boundaries
between "cultures". If one argues that a Norwegian culture
exists and is by default different from Danish culture, one will
need to show what it is that all Norwegians share with each other
but not with a single Dane. That is not an easy thing to do. Finally,
culture is naturally not a solid object, even if the word unhappily
is a noun. Culture is something which happens, not something that
merely exists; it unfolds through social process and therefore also
Problems of this kind have made such a conceptualisation of culture
difficult to manage, and many scholars have ceased to use it, while
others insist on using culture in the singular sense, as that which
all humans have in common, defining them as a species as opposed
to nature in general and other species in particular.
However, ideologists and political entrepreneurs of many shades
have embraced this Romantic concept of culture. In recent years,
"culture" and "cultural identity" have become
important tools for the achievement of political legitimacy and
influence in many otherwise very different societies -- from Bolivia
to Siberia. It is used by political leaders of hegemonic majorities
as well as by the spokesmen of weak minorities.
Indigenous peoples all over the world demand territorial rights
from the states in which they live, emphasising their unique cultural
heritage and way of life as a crucial element in their plea. Immigrant
leaders in Europe occasionally present themselves as the representatives
of cultural minorities, demanding, inter alia, special linguistic
and religious rights. The hegemonic elites of many countries also
refer to their "national culture" in justification of
warfare or oppression of ethnic minorities. "Cultural pleas"
are, in other words, put to very different political uses.
A frequently mentioned "paradox" concerning the breakup
of Yugoslavia and subsequent war is the fact that the fighting parties,
Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims, are culturally very similar,
yet justify their mutual hatred by claiming that they are actually
profoundly different. This kind of situation, where ethnic relations
between groups which are culturally close take on a bitter and antagonistic
character, is more common than widely assumed. In Trinidad, in the
southern Caribbean, the following development has taken place in
recent years (Eriksen 1992a). The two largest ethnic groups, Africans
and Indians (originally from India; they are not American Indians),
have gradually acquired more and more in common, culturally speaking;
in terms of language, way of life, ambitions and general outlook.
At the same time, they have become ever more concerned to express
how utterly different they are; culture and cultural differences
are spoken about more often, and cultural differences are brought
to bear on daily life, public rituals and political organisation
to a greater extent than what was earlier the case. Partly, this
is because the groups are in closer contact than earlier and compete
for the same scarce resources; but it is also partly because members
of the two groups feel that their cultural boundaries are threatened
by tendencies towards creolisation and therefore feel an acute need
to advertise their cultural differences. The groups have simultaneously
become more similar and more different. This paradox is characteristic
of globalisation processes, whereby differences between peoples
are made comparable and therefore come to resemble each other, and
where "small" differences are "enlarged". It
could, in line with this, be said that the entire discourse over
"multiculturalism" is embedded in a shared cultural framework
encompassing, and bringing out the contradictions between, the Romantic
notion of culture and the Enlightenment notion of individual rights.
To put it somewhat more crudely: To make demands on behalf of a
self-professed "culture" indicates that one subscribes
to a shared global political culture. The logic of multiculturalism
and ethnopolitics shares its dual origins with the logic of nationalism
in the Enlightenment and Romantic thought of early modern Europe.
In order to illustrate and further illuminate the preceding points,
I shall now turn to an extended empirical example, which brings
out many of the tensions and contradictions inherent in ideas of
Since Mauritius was permanently settled by French planters and their
African and Malagasy slaves in 1715, this island in the south-western
Indian Ocean has been a polyethnic society, and it still is very
much so, as is witnessed in official symbolism as well as many aspects
of everyday life (Eriksen 1988, Bowman 1990). The currency is the
rupee, and the text on the banknotes is in English, Hindi and Tamil.
However, Mauritian newspapers tend to be in French, but the video
shops offer mostly Indian and East Asian films. A leisurely walk
through the capital, Port-Louis, may bring one past, within half
an hour or so, a Buddhist pagoda, a Sunni mosque, an Anglican church
and a Catholic one, and two Hindu temples -- one North Indian, one
Tamil. And it is by no means uncommon that Mauritians have names
like Françoise Yaw Tang Mootoosamy.
Contemporary Mauritius, with a surface of some 2,000 square kilometres,
has about a million inhabitants. Their ancestors came from four
continents, and they belong to four different "world religions".
According to official categories, the largest ethnic groups are
Hindus from North India ("Hindi-speaking", 42%), "Creoles"
of largely African descent (27%), Muslims of Indian origin (16%),
Tamils and Telugus of South Indian descent (9%), Chinese (3%), gens
de couleur (2%) and Mauritians of French descent (2%). Mauritius,
independent since 1968 and a republic since 1992, is a liberal multi-party
democracy and a capitalist society (meaning, in this context, that
both labour and consumption are mediated by money) which was impoverished,
relatively overpopulated and dilapidated, with a vulnerable monocrop
economy (sugar cane) and a high level of unemployment during the
first decades after the Second World War. Mauritius has undergone
an astonishing economic transformation since the early 1980s, and
is now a relatively prosperous society with a dynamic economy based
on sugar, textiles and tourism.
Mauritius is one among many peaceful polyethnic societies in the
world. Although many of the country's inhabitants are concerned
with their cultural identity, their "roots" and the maintenance
of local ethnic boundaries, compromise and tolerance are important
ingredients in the shared Mauritian political culture. Notions which
form part of a shared cultural repertoire include the admission
that it would have been impossible to win a civil war, that secessionism
would have been absurd, and that the country's political stability
rests on a precarious balance between ethnic group interests. Therefore
Mauritians have developed many more or less formalised methods for
the maintenance of this balance (see Eriksen 1992b for details).
Ever since France lost Mauritius (then Ile-de-France) to Great Britain
during the Napoleonic wars, the recognition of difference has been
an explicit tendency in its politics; first vis-a-vis the French
settlers, since the "niggers and coolies" were not initially
endowed with rights. When the French capitulated in 1814, the Britons
guaranteed the settlers that they would be allowed to retain their
religion, their language, their customs and their civil rights.
That the British kept their promise is evident today, as Mauritius
is still much more Frenchified than Anglified. Even the legislative
system appears as a unique blend of British law and the Code
During the twentieth century, and particularly since the extension
of the franchise after the Second World War and the accession to
full independence in 1968, policies relating to interethnic tolerance
have been extended so as to include the entire population. There
is a continuous search for common denominators (cf. Eriksen
1988) in legislation and in everyday social life, which are necessary
for societal and national integration to be at all possible ("multicultural"
or not, people need to have something in common if they are to have
a society), and those universalist principles are balanced against
the alleged conventions and culturally specific rights claimed by
certain members of each constituent group.
The electoral system in Mauritius is more or less a carbon copy
of the British Westminster system, with simple majorities rather
than proportional representation. The parties are largely organised
along ethnic lines, and very many Mauritians vote for politicians
who they feel represent their ethnic (sectional) interests. Attempts
at creating interethnic alliances or supraethnic alternatives (based
on, for example, class) have generally been short-lived.
Although ethnic competition is in this way thematised in politics,
there is nevertheless wide agreement over the political rules, and
electoral results are respected. The Creoles, who are Christians,
and the Muslims accept being governed by Hindus, who are politically
dominant by virtue of numbers. At this point, there is no "multiculturalism".
There is a shared discourse through which cultural variation may
An important element in the Mauritian political system is the so-called
Best Loser arrangement, which guarantees the representation
of all ethnic groups through allotting a limited number of parliamentary
seats to runners-up at General Elections. The "best losers"
are selected so as to ensure the representation of all ethnic groups
in the Legislative Assembly. In this way, the importance of ethnic
differences is made an integral part of the electoral system.
Like in many other multiethnic societies, questions concerning schooling,
religion and language are among the most complicated and controversial
ones in Mauritius. It is perhaps here that the dilemma of equal
rights and cultural differences is most evident. In all three fields,
compromises of various kinds have been developed.
Regarding religion, the popular idiom Sakenn pé prié
dan so fason ("Everyone prays in his/her own way")
has nearly achieved legal status. As mentioned, four "world
religions" are represented in the island, and three of them
(Christianity, Islam and Hinduism) are divided into a large number
of sects and congregations. Religious groups receive state funding
according to the size of their membership. In this field, a consistent
compromise has been established, where no religion is given priority
by the state.
The Mauritian schooling system represents a different kind of compromise.
Here, equality is emphasised rather than differences. Thus, core
curricula are uniform island-wide, as are exams. However, classes
in "ancestral languages" are offered as optional subjects.
As a matter of fact, a growing majority of Mauritians speak Kreol,
a French-lexicon Creole, as their first language, and scarcely know
the language of their ancestors, but Kreol is rarely written. It
could be said, therefore, that Mauritian school stresses equal opportunities
yet allows for the expression of symbolic differences. It represents
a compromise not only between ethnic groups, but also between a
Romantic and an Enlightenment view of society.
A third kind of compromise is expressed in language policies. Officially,
as many as fifteen languages are spoken in Mauritius; in practice,
at least four or five are the mother-tongues of various groups.
When Mauritius was to become independent from Britain in the late
1960s, one was in practice faced with four possibilities. First,
one could have opted for Hindi, which is the ancestral language
of the largest ethnic group (although many Mauritian Hindus do not
understand it). Second, one could have chosen Kreol, which, in spite
of its being held in low esteem, is by far the most widely spoken
language. Third, French could have been an alternative, having been
the dominant written language throughout the history of Mauritius.
However, in the end it was the fourth alternative, English, which
was to win. English is an international language, and is learnt
by Mauritians in the same way as non-native speakers elsewhere in
the world learn English as a foreign language. This means that most
Mauritians master it only partially. More importantly, perhaps,
English was nobody's ethnic language, the few Anglo-Mauritians (most
of them colonial civil servants) having either returned or become
assimilated into the Franco-Mauritian group. By choosing English,
an ethnically neutral language, as the language of the state, Mauritians
avoided turning nation-building into a particularistic ethnic project
at the beginning.
The other languages are nevertheless also supported through the
state and its agencies. Public radio and TV broadcasting alternates
between the major languages of Mauritius, and French still dominates
in the written mass media. North American films are dubbed in French.
There is in other words a clear, but negotiable division of labour
between the non-ethnic language English, the supraethnic languages
Kreol and, to some extent, French, and the ethnic languages, chiefly
Bhojpuri/Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, Mandarin and Telegu.
This will have to do as a general introduction to public policies
relating to ethnic differences and national cohesion in Mauritius.
I now turn to some of the problems, controversies, paradoxes and
contradictions which inevitably arise during this kind of ongoing
balancing act between demands for similarity and claims of difference.
The Catholic priest and ecumenic Henri Souchon became famous domestically
when, at the height of the legendary "race riots" of 1968,
he admonished his congregation to visit the nearby mosque in order
to familiarise themselves with a Muslim way of thought and thereby
mitigate the mutual suspicion between Christians and Muslims. He
called for contact and a possible "merging of horizons",
to use Gadamer's term, between the antagonistists.
More than two decades after the riots, Souchon sees two possible
scenarios for Mauritius regarding the relationship between ethnic
boundaries and the formation of identity categories oblivious to
ethnicity. He calls them the fruit salad and the fruit compote,
respectively. In the fruit salad, the components are clearly distinct;
ethnic boundaries are intact, and reflexively "rooted"
identites are secure and stable. In the fruit compote, on the other
hand, the different fruits are squashed and mixed together with
substantial use of force. (This metaphor, it may be noted, is a
variant of the American melting pot metaphor.) The result of the
compote de fruit, in père Souchon's view, would
be uprootedness, nihilism and confusion. He himself therefore supports
the fruit salad variety, although he goes further than most in expanding
the compass of the common denominators or, to stretch the fruit
salad metaphor a bit, thickening the syrup. In order to have a dialogue,
Souchon argues, one needs a firm position to conduct it from.
Some kind of fruit salad metaphor, or a rainbow metaphor which politicians
are fond of invoking, is hegemonic in Mauritius. Yet conflicts between
equality and difference are inevitable since the tension between
sharing and difference is endemic to the island. Allow me to outline
a few examples.
Most Mauritian schools are public, but private schools also exist,
many of them run by religious organisations. There are anti-discrimination
laws. It is nevertheless well known that Catholic schools have tended
to prefer Catholic applicants for teaching positions, although they
have also occasionally hired Muslims and Hindus. This policy was
tried in court when an unsuccessful applicant filed a suit against
a Catholic school in 1989 because she suspected having been bypassed
on religious grounds. In court the following year, the defence argued
that it was necessary to have faithful Catholics in certain teaching
jobs because a part of their job consisted in turning the pupils
into good Catholics. The prosecutor asked whether this was also
relevant with respect to subjects such as French, English and mathematics,
which the school's lawyer admitted was not the case. In his testimony,
the Archbishop, Mgr. Jean Margéot, argued that the colours
of the Mauritian rainbow had to be kept separate "for the arc-en-ciel
to remain beautiful". The Catholic school won the case, and
succeeded in this way in creating precedence for differential treatment
on religious grounds in a limited part of the labour market. The
principle of difference here won over the principle of equality.
Another nationally famous case from the same period concerned the
controversial Muslim Personal Law, introduced during British
rule, which allowed Muslims to follow customary Muslim law in family
matters. A characteristic consequence of this law was that it became
nearly impossible for women, but relatively easy for men, to obtain
a divorce. In the course of the investigations of a Commission of
Enquiry set up in the mid-eighties, it became clear that the opposition
to the MPL was significant even among Mauritius' Muslims. Not unexpectedly,
many women and young Muslims were against it, arguing that they
were entitled to the same rights as other Mauritian citizens. In
the end, the law was abolished, and universalist (Enlightenment)
principles won over multiculturalist (Romantic) ones.
This second example is the most interesting one in this context.
Here, the fundamental paradox of multiculturalist ideology becomes
highly visible: it presupposes that the "cultures" are
homogeneous and "have values and interests". The mere
fact that the formal leaders of an ethnic group invoke particular
values and traditions does not imply that all members of the group
support them. This is why it can be dangerous to accord special
rights to groups, for groups inevitably consist of persons
with often highly discrepant values and interests.
A third example highlights the relationship between particularist
identities and universalist principles in a somewhat different way.
Some intellectual Mauritians, tending towards a "fruit compote"
as an ideal, have experimented with mixing religions and cultural
conventions in novel way, such as the radical music group Grup Latanier,
which performs an essentially Creole séga music with
strong Indian elements. One leading Mauritian intellectual decided,
some time during the 1980s, to challenge the rigid boundaries between
different religions, reasoning that the island needed a "shared
culture" for a proper national identity to come about. On Christmas
day, therefore, he went solemnly to church, bringing bananas and
incense as a sacrifice to the Hindu gods. This act was, naturally,
frowned upon by Hindus as well as Christians, who both felt insulted
by the blasphemous syncretism implied. If anything, they felt further
apart after the experiment than before it. The ideal of the "fruit
compote" thus cannot be enforced against people's wishes. It
should nevertheless be noted that universalist principles have been
adopted by the Mauritian population with respect to political culture.
In so far as discrepant religious or otherwise cultural practices
do not interfere with the universalism guaranteeing individuals
equal rights, there is no good reason to chastise them.
of similarity and difference
The Mauritian attempt at creating a synthesis between liberal principles
of individual equality and a cultural relativist principle is remarkable
and unusual, and it certainly deserves international attention.
The examples sketched in the previous section suggest that both
equal rights and the right to be different may in particular situations
lead to discrimination and the violation of commonly agreed upon
individual human rights. If one insists on shared civil rights as
the basis of citizenship and nationality, as the French revolutionaries
did, one will tend to oppress minorities by forcing them to assimilate
to a public culture (language, rules, hierarchies and conventions)
which they perceive as alien and intrusive. If, on the other hand,
one opts for differential treatment on the basis of religion or
ethnicity, the risk is the opposite: those afflicted may lose their
equal rights. South African apartheid policies are a good example
of this; South Africans were encouraged to use their vernacular
languages at all levels, and the majority of blacks were thereby
in practice excluded from national and international political discourse.
The hidden variable in this puzzle is, naturally, power discrepancies.
Additionally, it should be pointed out that political leaders and
others are frequently prone to exploiting notions about cultural
uniqueness strategically to strengthen their positions. In a critical
study of ethnopolitics in the USA, Steinberg (1981) concludes that
persons and organisations generally invoke principles of cultural
relativism when they themselves have something to gain from differential
treatment, and that they will otherwise support equality principles.
"Tradition", "rooted culture" and similar catchwords
are positively evaluated in the political discourse of our time,
and are often used rhetorically to justify privileges and political
positions. On the other hand, this warning should not be taken to
mean that there are never legitimate reasons for wishing to protect
oneself against cultural domination! We just need to be careful
to distinguish, and to draw a boundary, between the right to a cultural
heritage and particularistic politics.
Another, related point, which is also relevant for all polyethnic
societies, concerns identification with collectivities in general.
As a matter of fact, many of my Mauritian informants generally feel
quite at ease as members of what they see as an emerging "fruit
compote", and who do not long for roots and purity. They would
prefer to be cultural hybrids to the extent they wish, to be recognised
as individuals and not as the representatives of a particular group.
The legitimacy of this kind of strategy was tried out by members
of the small radical socialist party Lalit ("The Struggle")
before the General Elections of 1991. The militants on the list
first refused to register their ethnic identity (which is compulsory,
partly because of the Best Loser system), arguing it was irrelevant,
and then proceeded to draw lots deciding their ethnic identity.
The result was not devoid of Theatre of the Absurd qualities. For
example, one of their leaders, at all appearances a white Mauritian
of foreign birth, turned out to be a Hindu on the election rolls.
The neo-Romantic ideological climate influencing many parts of the
world today -- either viciously nationalist or equally viciously
multiculturalist -- is such that persons may virtually be forced
to take on an ethnic identity whether they want to or not. Indeed,
authoritarian culturalism may be just as oppressive in an ostensibly
multiethnic and tolerant "rainbow society" as in an ethnically
hegemonic nation. The right to have an ethnic identity must also
include the right not to have one. Here, perhaps, lies the greatest
paradox of multiculturalism: in its apparently benevolent focus
on "the wealth of cultures and traditions" present in
society, it neglects the Salman Rushdies of the world, so to speak;
those persons who spend their entire lives midway between Bombay
and London without wishing to, or indeed being able to, land. It
excludes the "mongrels", anomalies and idiosyncratic individuals
who are numerous and necessary as interethnic brokers and in the
forging of cross-cutting or non-ethnic alignments, and who represent
the possible future of many societies.
Finally, cultural relativism gives no moral advice. To make it the
source of public morality would imply that any practice would be
acceptable as long as it can be justified by reference to "a
culture". This kind of position is tantamount to no position
as a key factor
It has often been asked why Mauritius is such a stable democracy,
incorporating, as it does, a vast number of religious groupings
and people originating from different continents. The question is
wrongly asked, and it reveals an inadequate understanding of culture.
At the level of everyday representations and practices, Mauritian
culture can actually be described as quite uniform in the sense
that there is a wide field of shared premises for communication
encompassing most of the population: There is a shared political
culture and a standardised and standardising educational system,
there is considerable linguistic uniformity, and the recruitment
to the labour market is increasingly based on individual skills.
It is generally not difficult to argue the virtues of individual
human rights among Mauritians; they tend to share similar, Western-derived
notions of justice. It is, in other words, only superficially (if
noisily) multicultural even if it may be profoundly multiethnic.
It should be noted that the "multiculturalist" model of
coexistence, as practiced in Mauritius and elsewhere, collapses
unless the constituent groups share basic values of individualism
and, in all likelihood, a shared lingua franca. For instance,
it is widely believed, not least in that country itself, that the
USA has been capable of absorbing a great number of different nationalities
without homogenising them culturally. This is wrong, and generally,
migrants to the USA have changed their language within two generations.
One could perhaps say that immigrants to the USA have been assimilated
to a degree of 99 per cent, and have been allowed to use the remaining
one per cent to advertise their cultural uniqueness, which exists
largely as a set of symbolic identity markers. As a Norwegian, I
have often met Americans who identify themselves as "Norwegians"
but who seem to betray, in their verbal and nonverbal language,
lifestyle and values, a strong attachment to the moral discourses
of US society.
If political multiculturalists favour equal individual rights, the
"culture" in their rhetoric is but a thin cosmetic film.
If, on the other hand, they seriously defend the right of ethnic
minorities to run their own political affairs according to a cultural
logic of their own, they run the risk of defending practices which
conflict with the human rights of individual group members.
The solution, or rather, the "good multiculturalism",
must arrive at a blend of sharing and difference. It requires common
denominators in key sectors, including politics, education and the
labour market, and it must institutionalise a dialogic principle
(see Giddens 1994 on "dialogic democracy") enabling a
variety of voices to be heard on an equal footing. This is not relativism,
but rather the recognition and democratisation of different value
orientations in society, in the manner acknowledged as necessary
and non-relativistic by Bauman (1993) when he notes the ill effects
of the attempts at extending the Western "ethical code over
populations which abide by different codes () in the name
of one all-human ethics bound to evict and supplant all local distortions"
(Bauman 1993: 12). It is a question of striking a proper balance
between the demands for equality and the quest for heritage, including
the right not to acknowledge a heritage.
on similarities and differences
In the foregoing discussion, I have argued the importance of universalist
human rights in modern state settings, and have alleged that political
multiculturalism is a very fuzzy concept as it presupposes, yet
explicitly and self-contradictorily resists, the presence of powerful
processes of cultural integration. The very statement "I have
a culture worthy of protection" betrays a considerable degree
of integration into a modern, reflexive way of thinking about the
individual, human rights and politics. At the end, I would like
to reflect on the question, tangential to the foregoing discussion,
of whether the promotion and spreading of individual rights is morally
objectionable in the case of societies which are multicultural in
the sense that they contain people who are not integrated into a
capitalist mode of production, have not been exposed to individualism
and modern education and so on.
Debates about indigenous notions of personhood in anthropology have
frequently oscillated between positions stating, on the one hand,
that remote peoples are "just like ourselves"; and, on
the other hand, that they are qualitatively and fundamentally different.
Naturally, both positions can be defended convincingly, given the
appropriate selection and interpretation of empirical material.
Regarding human rights issues, it is an often debated question whether
or not they are or ought to be universal, and if so, whether they
should be "adapted" to local circumstances because of
socioculturally conditioned differences in the constitution of the
person. Be this as it may, the situation in societies where there
are still groups which have been spared the mixed blessings of individualism,
is not similar or directly comparable to the situation in Mauritius,
the USA or other thoroughly modern "multicultural" societies
where personal autonomy is considered an absolute value. As many
anthropologists have shown (see e.g. Dumont 1980, Strathern 1992,
Morris 1994), concepts of personhood vary dramatically cross-culturally.
In India and Melanesia, for example, a dominant view on the individual
emphasises that he or she is a product of social relations and far
from that self-sustaining, independent and inviolable "monad"
the Western individual is seen as. In such societies, the community
rather than the individual is accorded rights, and the individual
has duties rather than rights. In such societies, individual human
rights can be seen as truly alien, even if they are often promoted
and adopted by some segments of society, usually educated middle-class
In his very beautiful and very melancholic book Danubio (Magris
1986, Eng. tr. 1989), Claudio Magris writes that a fascist is a
person who has best friends but cannot understand that others may
be just as good friends; who feels love for his homestead but cannot
understand that others may feel the same kind of love for theirs;
and so on. It may therefore be proposed, as a general principle,
that "human rights missionaries" have an obligation to
gain some understanding of the world views and value systems current
among their target groups. They would then discover that virtually
all "peoples" are, like Mauritian Muslims, divided on
important issues. Some of their members would have gone to school
and acquired individualist categories; some would have learnt about
women's rights in remote countries; some might see a solution in
a Marxist revolution or a liberal multi-party system, and yet others
might refuse to question tradition. As Samir Amin has written (Amin
1989), individualist thinking and social criticism is just as "rooted"
in Islamic history as fundamentalism. And as Salman Rushdie (1991)
and others have reminded us of, one scarcely does southern or eastern
peoples a favour by continuously telling them that individual human
rights are really a "Western" invention and far from an
aspect of their culture. This kind of attitude essentialises "other
cultures" and alienates the growing numbers in those societies
which hold positive views of individual human rights at the same
time as they resist cultural neo-colonialism.
Integration in a modern state with a liberal constitution may create
a dialogical situation where human rights principles become a common
denominator for the many groups and individuals which make up the
state. If this sounds like blunt cultural imperialism, it should
be noted that the most likely alternative, in my view, consists
in a form of segregation whereby the exertion of power is left to
persons such as the old men who are the formal leaders of Mauritian
Muslims, and where there is a mounting risk of ethnic conflict because
of the intergroup competition implied by segregation.
In most contemporary societies, processes of cultural homogenisation
are taking place in some social fields (such as consumption, education
and the media), while the demarcation of boundaries and the symbolic
strengthening of "identity", "roots" and "tradition"
takes place in other fields. It is this process I described at the
beginning of this article as the dual movement of cultural homogenisation
and ethnic fragmentation. In this context, the Mauritius I have
described may perhaps serve as a microcosm or an ideal type of a
modern society: Mauritian society is simultaneously characterised
by conflicts and contradictions, pluralism and value conflicts along
several axes, and one cannot offhand say what kind of values or
morality "society as such" represents. For this kind of
society to be cohesive at all, common denominators are necessary,
and a recognition of cultural diversity which does not interferes
with the principle of universal, individual human rights may actually
be the best alloy available. It is the blatant nonrecognition of
cultural heritages which leads to ethnic revitalisation and fundamentalism;
not their institutionalisation through the state.
India was mentioned above as an example of a society where Western
human rights thinking seems outlandish and alien. It might therefore
be appropriate to end by stating that both Marxist, feminist, liberal
and other kinds of individualist human rights related movements
enjoy great support in Indian society. Such groups are no less "authentic
Indian" than traditionalists who dream of a reawakened Hindu
millenarian kingdom where ancient hierarchies are respected in minute
Perhaps it would be useful to speak of a "weak" and a
"strong" variant of political multiculturalism. The former
is the one practiced in some liberal modern states, where a high
degree of cultural homogeneity is taken for granted. The latter,
which I have just argued against, would be a kind of political rhetoric
rejecting liberal individualism and human rights ideology on the
basis of alleged tradition. (Recall Tiananmen Square if in doubt.)
The former, "weak" variety is, however, also hard to defend.
It may, as I have argued with reference chiefly to Mauritius, (i)
contribute to freezing ethnic distinctions and thereby heighten
the risks of ethnic conflict, (ii) remove the protection and entitlement
of shared societal institutions from the members of minorities,
(iii) strengthen internal power discrepancies within the minorities,
(iv) direct public attention away from basic contradictions in society,
notably economic ones, and (v) contribute to a general moral and
political disqualification of minorities in society: since they
are not accorded the same rights and duties as everybody else, there
is no apparent reason why they should be treated as equals in other
respects either. The conclusion is, thus, not that cultural variation
in itself should be combatted, but that politicised culture is incompatible
with the individual rights modern states are, or ought to be, based
on. The slogan could be "cultural nationalism, political cosmopolitanism",
to borrow a turn of phrase from Gellner (1994).
This final statement, I now realise, provides a starting-point for
further discussion pivoting on the meaning of "politicised
culture". Is marriage politics? If so, should, for example,
arranged marriages in liberal individualist societies be seen as
incompatible with human rights? Trusting that the reader will be
able to draw on the preceding discussion in exploring further issues,
I leave the problem here, partly unresolved.
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