“Multiculturalism” is a term which has been in the news recently, as a number of politicians, including the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, have expressed doubts about its success within their countries. In a political context, it has been defined as “the advocacy of extending equitable status to distinct ethnic and religious groups without promoting any specific ethnic, religious, and/or cultural community values as central.” Another very similar term is “pluralism”, although pluralism seems to have a more positive sense of celebrating different cultures within a nation.
“Culture” itself is a term with a number of meanings. In ordinary discussion, it often refers to the arts. Yet, taken in its widest sense, it extends far beyond the arts to encompass a complex synthesis of social, religious and political values and expectations. It is therefore fundamentally subjective in nature. However, crucially, as we shall see later, it is expressed through objective institutions and practices. It is strongly connected with an individual’s sense of identity. It is also connected with national identity – a nation usually has a sense of a shared cultural heritage. Yet it is not confined to nations – for religions, political ideologies and other dimensions of culture cross national boundaries. This is one reason why the politics concerning culture is so difficult: because it means that national cultures and national identities cannot remain fixed and static, particularly if nations are open to immigration.
Another reason for the difficulty is that, especially in liberal democracies, the notion that the state can, or should, intervene in the practices of a specific group with their own cultural identity, may conflict with the obligations embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And there is also the fact that, because culture is so subjective, agreeing upon its exact nature is difficult. Thus, two co-religionists, even of the same sect, may differ in their interpretation of what its commandments requires of them. Two people of the same political party may disagree on the best policies for their nation. Two people of the same nationality may look to differing national symbols, myths, and heroes to support their own sense of what it means to be Egyptian or Nigerian or Dutch. This is why, in the arguments over multiculturalism, so much attention is paid to the physical symbols and practices that express the culture – a style of clothing, a type of building, and so on. Yet because those symbols and practices may mean different things, even to people within a cultural group, never mind to those outside the group, the opportunities for disagreement and contention are, sadly, many.
A single well-known case helps illustrate this point: the recent banning of the niqab (a veil covering everything but the eyes) in France. One of the significant points of disagreement between those opposed to the ban, and those supporting it, is whether wearers of the niqab actually choose to do so, or are compelled by others within their cultural group. The answer turns in part on how the women wearing the niqab, others within their cultural group, and those within other groups, interpret the meaning of wearing it. Is it a sign of religiously recommended modesty? Of patriarchal oppression? Of an attempt to conceal personal identity? Or is it a political statement?
How are conundrums like these to be resolved? Should nation-states encourage people from other lands to assimilate, blending into the national culture – the so-called “melting pot” approach? Should they allow them to retain as much of their cultural distinctiveness as possible – the multicultural or “cultural mosaic” response? Perhaps the answer may vary with the maturity and stability of each nation’s own cultural identity. Another way of thinking about culture, which comes from Alice Bailey’s writings, suggests one approach that could help.
Alice Bailey proposes that there are degrees to which a person may be cultured, and that to be cultured means to have the ability to correlate the world of meaning with the world of outer effects. Another way of saying this, which links with the earlier definition, is that, while most people are subconsciously conditioned by the ideas which motivate their own culture, and participate more or less unquestioningly in the institutions and practices that express that culture, a cultural sensitive is someone who can explicitly and consciously understand that culture. This heightened cultural sensitivity would also give them deeper insight into the culture of other groups, making them ideal candidates for helping to mediate between different cultures, forging contacts and suggesting paths of mutual agreement. A key prerequisite for such work is goodwill, for it is only within an atmosphere of goodwill that the subtle and demanding work of making cultural symbols intelligible to both sides can proceed.
Humanity has made a start in this area, through the creation of the field of cultural anthropology. The work done in this area would be very useful in helping the cultural sensitive to develop cross-cultural understanding. True success in this work would also require training in meditation, for the cultural sensitive must be able to free himself from the habitual reactions which his culture has instilled in him, and to achieve this level of detachment from the self requires the stern discipline of the mind and emotions which meditation can provide. We can imagine a future in which, if a potential cultural conflict emerges within a nation, trained cultural sensitives are delegated by that nation’s government to meet with all parties concerned within the nation, and also with delegated cultural sensitives from the nation(s) of origin of the minority cultural group. Their work together would then be transmitted to the government as recommendations for the best way to proceed. If this form of purposeful, intensified cultural contact can become the norm, then we can expect that the subjective spiritual unity which underlies the many outer differences that distinguish cultures will become more and more evident; and that humanity will move into a cycle where the many cultures become a choir whose diverse voices can blend into a symphony of joy.