Thursday, October 13, 2005

*On the value of cultural diversity*

It can be generally agreed that cultural diversity is a good thing, but as usual the devil is in the details. A few implications of such an affirmation is as follows, what constitutes cultural diversity, do we need to encourage it, how do we do so and what the heck is the role of the government in all of this?

There are a number of ways an issue like this might arise. For example, what is the obligation of the state to preserve a dying culture or language? I am personally of the opinion that a culture or society has no intrinsic right to exist and the easy answer would be of course to point to Hitler's Germany or Pol Pot's Cambodia. But there's a huge problem when it is an aboriginal (using it in the technical sense here and not specifically in reference to any ethnic group) culture that's dying and there's some indication that it is in the face of mainstream culture. Of course, this being a next to impossible issue to quantify, what's a poor government to do? If people from that culture simply don't wish to live like their ancestors and do slash and burn subsistance agriculture, can we and should we force them to do so? Because closely tied to this argument is the concept of the 'noble savage' which unfortunately is just that - a myth. But on the other hand, there is an intrinsic value in a culture in and of itself which a state might well seek to preserve and while perhaps the state perhaps should not force those who do not wish to remain with such a culture, there are a number of things that could be done ranging from the limited to the ambitious.

A limited approach perhaps could be something as simple as preserving the language. And as long as there are a core of speakers and it is passed on, in this fashion the culture is somewhat preserved. Of course, language while inextricably tied to culture does not nevertheless encapsulate the culture. So on the other extreme would be to create a cultural village and make a dedicated effort to preserving everything including the way of life. I honestly can't think of any successful examples of this except oddly enough for some reason Welsh villages. Of course there are the Amish but it's a community with pretty deep roots and was not some form of cultural preservation project of the state.

On the social aspect of cultural diversity, we of course run headlog into the very very touchy issue of immigration and its associated problems. That of irrational fears (mostly over jobs and welfare) and more rational ones of ghettoisation (and violence from racists and extremist). Suffice to say, a nationwide plan to give lessons to them to help assimilate e.g. through language and cultural lessons is very tempting but runs into problems not just of practicality and feasibility but also a broader question of whether we're trying to turn out a particular version of a citizen. Not that states do not try it through civics lessons and national history and *cough* education but I feel that this goes much further because we're now forcing people into having a form of cultural reeducation but more than that though, it kills of the concept of in loco parentis and in particular a parent's right to decide what their child should learn and study. But considering the problem Europe faces with the extremist and lack of cultural assimilation, I really wouldn't be surprised if a government turns to such a solution. However, does this solve the root problem of a vicious cycle of poverty and ghettoisation (more than half of UK Jews are in Southern London and no one worries about them for good reason i.e. they aren't poor)? Or will it finally solve the problem of multi-culturalism and tolerance being its own worst enemy?

And finally we have the very very serious problem of the Culture Defence. The premise of cultural diversity is that we should respect if not tolerate each other's cultures because having many cultures is a good. But as it happens cultural values clash and sometimes murder is the result. One of the defences to murder is provocation and it reduces it to culpable homicide not amounting to murder. This is a very big deal because you go from facing the death penalty to 'merely' facing life imprisonment or even a max of 10 years.

But the problem that faces the court are these cases of immigrants using it and claiming stuff like honour killings. And while you would like to respect their culture and customs, how does one in a civilised society accept that simply going out with a male you disapprove of allows you to kill your female relations? Or worse still, assume that we do accept it, in Singapore, will we not perpetuate a sterotype of foreign workers being violent and unable to control their killing tempers?

To borrow a line from Aaron Sorkin's West Wing: "There are days of absolute morality, but those days always involves body counts." And in all things else, we struggle to find the good and distinguish it from the bad.



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