Multiculturalism: A Small Step for Diversity, a Great Leap for Mankind

Multiculturalism is not an abstract concept: as a result of movement of populations, society is multicultural virtually everywhere. Different ethnic, religious and linguistic groups abound, and their coexistence is often a source of conflict and misunderstanding. So must we resign ourselves to the fact that it is impossible for people to open up to other cultures without avoiding confrontation and inevitably resort to imposing uniformity to guarantee greater cohesion? Or, on the contrary, should we see the diversity of cultures as a chance to broaden our horizons and understand what our humanity is made of? This dilemma lies at the heart of debates today.

Multicultural Society: a Regular Feature in the History of Humankind

Human migration is a phenomenon as old as mankind. Since the dawn of time, numerous reasons have led people to emigrate from their homeland: hostile climates, wars, colonizations, religious or political persecutions, misery, epidemics etc. The multicultural make-up of today’s nations, modelled by influxes of migrants of various origins, is a product of history.

Thus Russia, the largest country on the planet, has acquired a mosaic of over 120 nationalities in the course of its multiple territorial annexations. Canada, which defines itself as a bilingual nation, is home to people of more than 200 ethnic origins. The United States, the world’s leading land of immigration, have always been multiethnic. Originally inhabited by the Native Americans, the country has one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse populations in the world. About 160 currently spoken languages have been identified. China, whose civilization is among the oldest in the world, accounts for a fifth of the world’s population, with 56 ethnic cultures represented. Brazil, the largest and most populated country in Latin America, 170 indigenous languages and about thirty that have arrived with immigration are currently spoken. Australia, considered the world’s largest island, was already peopled by 250 tribes when the Europeans arrived in the 18th century. The aboriginal population covered the entire continent, each tribe having its own language and its own laws. Their culture was the most ancient on Earth. The second-most populated country after China, India has seen the development of nearly 4,000 different languages, 23 of which are officially recognized.

Like the major nations, countries of a more modest size also have populations of widely varying cultures. Nigeria, the most highly populated state in Africa, came into being through a merging of civilizations. Nowadays, it encompasses more than 250 ethnic groups, with about 500 languages. Switzerland, a country that is at a crossroads between several major European states, employs four national languages according to four defined linguistic zones. The foreign population accounts for over a fifth of the total population, one of the highest levels in Europe. While sparsely populated, Qatar is a cultural melting pot, owing to a high proportion of foreigners: nationals make up only 20% of the population, the remaining 80% being expatriates. As for Singapore, despite its tiny surface area of 618 km², its population manifests considerable cultural diversity. Since its foundation in 1819, Singapore has been a centre of cosmopolitan immigration.

So nations across the world, whatever the extent of their territories, have always presented a colourful cultural panorama.

Against Multiculturalism, Cultural Uniformity as a Guarantor of Cohesion?

The existence of a multiplicity of cultures in any given country is a fact. However, in spite of this avowed multiculturalism, official recognition is not extended to all the cultural entities found in a country. In most cases, it is the cultural groups that have influence in the country that are legally recognized. These groups, termed “dominant”, constitute the cultural nucleus of the nation and their values and norms serve as official references. Gravitating around this cultural core is a multitude of “minority” cultures, namely those of indigenous, regional and immigration populations, which rarely benefit from legal status.

So should we conclude that only the majority cultural model merits existence in the eyes of the law? Why aren’t legal recognition and the liberty to express a sense of cultural identity yet on the agenda in the majority of countries?

Through concern for cohesion, cultural uniformity is given preference over cultural diversity. For in general, difference rhymes poorly with deference. Cultural divergences generate tensions that can threaten national stability. The break-up of the old Yugoslavia is a perfect illustration of the impossibility of cohabitation between two antagonistic cultural zones, in this case inherited from the Austro-Hungarian empire in the north and the Ottoman empire in the south. Cultural uniformity would appear from this to be the solution to ensuring cohesion.

Sharing common values and norms is one of the phases in the process of uniformization, and the preferred instrument for this process is the language. It has to be recognized that a nation probably could not function with a score, or more, of languages. In the cacophony of languages and dialects spoken in any one country, there is a need to unite the various communities around a common language, known as a “vehicular language”. This is the case with American English in the United States, French in France and the Overseas Departments and Territories, standard mandarin in China and Taiwan… Besides the communicative function, this lingua franca is also the best means of conveying a culture, whether oral or written. Thus we see cultural links established between Spain and South America via the Spanish language, between Portugal and Brazil via Portuguese and across the Moslem world via Arabic. And English, considered the vehicular language par excellence, has facilitated the international propagation of the Anglophone cultural model.

As well as ensuring the establishment of common values and norms, the uniformization process relies on assimilation to erase cultural identity. For the cultural minorities, especially those arising from immigration, it is a question of conforming to model of the dominant cultural nucleus. Don’t we say, “In Rome, do as the Romans do”? However, it is extremely difficult for a person to abandon their original cultural identity and fully blend in with the other culture. For the cultural minorities, this enforced normalization is very hard to live down. It is perceived as a tyranny and a strategy on the part of the dominant cultural groups to consolidate their pre-eminence. This assimilation seems all the more arbitrary when is imposed on indigenous communities. Consider the case of Australia: the decline in the aboriginal population, estimated at 350,000 people when the first Europeans arrived, is essentially the result of the introduction of new contagious diseases, combined with a change in lifestyle. The mandatory placing of mixed-race aboriginal children outside the indigenous communities, which was enforced by law between 1909 and 1969, in order to impose a European lifestyle, is regarded by some historians and Aborigines as a genocide, because it contributed to the decline in the aboriginal population. Thus, assimilation seems to go against democratic principles and amplify the animosity of minority groups towards the dominant groups.

National cohesion in this sense, does not appear to depend on the suppression of cultural differences. According to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “uniting is the very marrying of particular diversities, not assigning them to some vain order.” (1)

Cultural Diversity: Humankind’s Heritage and a Source of Progress

The day after the events of 11 September 2001, in the course of the 31st Session of the UNESCO General Conference, the UNESCO Universal Declaration on cultural diversity (2) was unanimously adopted with a view to categorically rejecting the theory of inescapable conflicts between cultures and civilizations. At the same time, it reaffirms the conviction of the member states that intercultural dialogue is the best guarantee of peace and sees in this exchange a source of creativity and progress: “Every creation draws from the roots of cultural traditions, but comes to flower on contact with others.”

History has shown that the crossing of different cultures is not only conflictual but can be extremely fruitful: numerous scientific and philosophical treatises came to the West from Ancient Greece, Asia, Mesopotamia and India, as well as technical advances such as the compass, the sextant, cartographic information, paper, printing, Arabic numerals…

The UNESCO Universal Declaration on cultural diversity thus encourages governments to join forces with the private sector and civil society in setting up or reinforcing the multiculturalist-inspired political and legal measures that aim to promote respect and the recognition of cultural differences.

On matters of multiculturalism, Canada and Australia are ahead of the pack. In the 1970s, the term multiculturalism appeared explicitly in the Canadian political context (3). It became a constitutional principle in 1982, with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and in 1988, with the Canadian Multiculturalism Act, affirming publicly that civil equality is compatible with respect for cultural differences and officially breaking with the assimilationist model. In the same vein, Toronto proudly displays the Monument to Multiculturalism (4), by the artist Francesco Pirelli, in front of Union Station, the central railway station.

Australia was the second country officially to adopt multiculturalist political measures. In 2009, the Ministry of Immigration and Citizenship (previously known as the Ministry of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs ) initiated the Diversity and Social Cohesion Programme . This programme comprised two key elements: the allocation of community subsidies to local projects combating cultural, racial and religious discrimination and the organization of numerous intercultural demonstrations across the country on Harmony Day, celebrated on 21st March each year.

Another leading light in multiculturalism, Argentina, built cultural diversity into the preamble of its constitution, accommodating the cultures and traditions of more than 40 nations. It also granted the same civic rights to foreigners as to Argentinians. The ethnic minorities are held in great respect thanks to the value accorded to the indigenous languages and cultures in the media. The country’s numerous ex-patriate communities can celebrate their traditional festivals (like Saint Patrick’s day) and freely practise their religions with the greatest tolerance on la part of the Argentinians.

Although the country is principally Moslem, Indonesia is also home to large Christian and Hindu populations and has with more than 700 living languages. The national motto “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika” (which means literally “Unity in Diversity”) underlines the great cultural diversity that shapes the country. Owing to population migrations within the county (under the government’s transmigration programmes), many ethnic groups live outside their traditional regions. To improve intercultural relations, the Indonesian president, Abdurrahman Wahid, abolished some of the discriminatory laws soon after coming to power in 1999. The Chinese Indonesians are currently in a period of rediscovery. Many of the younger generation, who do not speak Mandarin due to the bans of preceding decades, can now reconnect with their language of origin thanks to the opening of a large number of educational centres up and down the country.

In France, the 6th immigration destination after the United States, Russia, Germany, Saudi Arabia and Canada, multiculturalism is at the centre of debate in today’s political context even though French law clearly advocates equality in the eyes of the law, respect of human dignity and the prohibiting of certain discriminations. In a professional context, multiculturalist measures were introduced by the Diversity Charter (5) that came into being in 2004, conceived by Claude Bébéar (6) and Yazid Sabeg (7). The aim of the charter is to discourage discrimination and promote cultural diversity in French companies: “It is in the interest of our companies to reflect the diversity of the society in which they are established. Just as a mix of men and women in the workplace is, in fact, a factor of social dynamism and stimulator of performance, diversity is a question not of compassion but of the economic and corporate interest of the company. In other countries, companies that have built diversity management into their core strategies are aware that diversity in their workplaces has become an advantage, economically just as much as socially, with a noticeable impact on the creativity and competitiveness of their businesses.” In September 2009, the number of signatories of the Diversity Charter exceeded 2,500 (Bouygues Telecom, France Telecom, Axa France, Allianz, American Express France, BNP Paribas, Natixis, Société Générale, Champagne Moët et Chandon, Carrefour, Coca Cola France, L’Oréal, LU France, LVMH, Procter & Gamble, Michelin, Arcelor-Mittal, GDF-SUEZ, Air Liquid, PSA Peugeot Citroën, Renault SAS, Sanofi-Aventis etc.). Philippe Gas, President of Euro Disney S.A.S, declared: “Today, Disneyland Resort Paris (8) has 13,000 employees representing more than 100 different nationalities. Diversity and multiculturalism are much more than concepts or objectives to achieve; they are real resources necessary for the proper execution of the company’s projects.”

According to the UNESCO Universal Declaration on cultural diversity, cultural diversity is much more than a right. It is a necessity for mankind, “as necessary … as biodiversity is for nature. In this sense, it is the common heritage of humanity and should be recognized and affirmed for the benefit of present and future generations.” An idea shared by Edgar Morin (9), who, in Dialogue sur la nature humaine (Dialogue on Human Nature), wrote “Le trésor de la vie et de l’humanité est la diversité (Diversity is the treasure of life and humanity).” (10)

  1. “Citadelle” in Œuvres (1948), publ. Gallimard, collection Bibliothèque de la Pléiade – 1959
  2. UNESCO Universal Declaration on cultural diversity, 2 November 2001, http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0012/001271/127162f.pdf
  3. It corresponds to the project of the Prime Minister Pierre-Eliott Trudeau who propounded the idea that Canada is a multicultural nation, constituted not only by the two founding peoples, but also all the immigrants who live in Canada.
  4. Four identical statues have been put up in Buffalo City in South Africa, in Changchun in China, in Sarajevo in Bosnia and in Sydney in Australia.
  5. The idea of the Diversity Charter was launched in January 2004, in a report published by the Institut Montaigne “Les oubliés de l’égalité des chances (By the Wayside of Equal Opportunity)”, co-written by Yazid Sabeg and Laurence Méhaignerie. The charter was then proposed by Claude Bébéar and Yazid Sabeg to 33 large companies and SMEs on 22 October 2004, who became its first signatories. Since September 2005, the Secretariat General for the Diversity Charter has been accommodated by IMS-Entreprendre pour la Cité (IMS-Enterprise for the City), an association that coordinates a network of 200 companies and accompanies them in the exercising of their corporate responsibility. Official website; http://www.charte-diversite.com/
  6. Honorary President of the AXA group. He is also one of the co-founders of the MIP group, with Bruno Bich and Martin Bouygues.
  7. French businessman of Algerian origin, Managing Director of the high-technology company CS Communication et Systèmes, and Commissioner for Diversity and Equal Opportunities since 17 December 2008.
  8. In 2009, Disneyland Paris signed the Diversity Charter, in partnership with IMS-Entreprendre pour la Cité. In 2010, AFNOR Certification awarded Disneyland Paris the “Diversity” label.
  9. Emeritus Director of Research at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), President of the Scientific Committee of the CNRS’s Institut des sciences de la communication (communication sciences institute) and President of the European Agency for Culture.
  10. UNESCO, Dialogue sur la nature humaine (Dialogue on Human Nature), publ. France Culture/l’Aube intervention, 2000
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