Learning to Live Together

Diversity, Multiculturalism and Pluralism

Marie Fester
Assistant Editor-in-Chief

In the 1970s, Canada was the first country to adopt an official policy of multiculturalism. Since then, Canada has remained in the lead of having a society that is ethnically diverse with more than 20% of its citizens being foreign born. Only two others, New Zealand and Australia, have achieved this level of diversity. Considering how much diversity and multiculturalism are talked about, be it the Charter of Values or immigration to Germany or elsewhere in Europe, you might be surprised to hear that these ideals that we hold so dear are highly contested and their meanings are seldom clear.

Diversity is the oldest of three words pertaining to this subject, dating back to 1340. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it is “The condition or quality of being diverse, different, or varied; difference, unlikeness”. Diversity is a word that fits into everyday conversation and does not carry any social or political connotations. It would be hard to argue that the world is not diverse given the sheer number of stars in space, species on our planet or humans in humanity.

The two -isms of the day are not nearly as simple. We’ll start with pluralism: coined in 1924 it is “the advocacy of toleration or acceptance of the coexistence of differing views, values, cultures, etc” (OED). Pluralism hinges on being okay with diversity in general, and when it comes to politics, is contingent on there being a larger set of views, values or culture to accept or tolerate minorities. Furthermore, pluralism is not tied to culture; its many definitions can be applied to understanding logic, mathematics, religion, biology and countless others.

Closely tied to this is multiculturalism; the two are often used interchangeably. In fact, you would find that the two are Multiculturalism is “the policy or process whereby the distinctive identities of the cultural groups within such a society are maintained or supported” (OED). 23 years before the -ism was coined came the adjective, multicultural, which is something “of or relating to a society consisting of a number of cultural groups, esp. in which the distinctive cultural identity of each group is maintained.” (OED) Perhaps you already see the catch between pluralism and multiculturalism. The clincher is that in multiculturalism, distinct groups are supported; they are maintained.

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You can probably see how these two ideas are very similar. So is multiculturalism not inherently plural? Yes, but the opposite is not true: one can be plural but not multicultural. To clear up the uncertainties I’ll highlight the major arguments for and against multiculturalism.

Multiculturalist policies are ones that provide measures for the self-determination or self-government of a nation or other forms of group-differentiated rights. Simply put, it is positive discrimination. One reason for this is the idea that healthy social communities are more important or necessary for individual health; all communities are of equal social value and measures must be put in place to make sure they are legally and economically equal. Secondly, cultural membership is not chosen, therefore we should not be limited by it as we are by our decisions. For example, if my religion requires that I wear a certain garment I should not get detention, but if I choose to dye my hair pink, which is also against the dress code, then I should get detention. (Please save the debate on detentions for dying my hair to another day.)

Multiculturalism is also tied to imperialism and colonialism. An argument for multiculturalism is that, in post-colonial countries, dealing with diverse cultures requires developing methods for integrating different peoples, cultures and ideas and that multicultural polices can do this. Arguments against would be that by promoting distinct cultural groups, we are merely propping up certain cultural leaders who may abuse their power creating minorities within minorities. Governing through cultural leaders was actively used by empires like the Ottoman or the British. Although, it is fair to say that that is not the intention of proponents for multiculturalism.

continued on page 3The first main objection to multiculturalism is that by promoting a distinct culture that is deemed to be “historically pure” we are actually reducing that culture’s ability to adapt to changing times or interact with other cultures and eventually create a cosmopolitan whole. Essentially, multiculturalism prevents cultures from moving forward. We do not know, however, if such laissez-faire policies would lead to a global homogenization of culture. Others argue that tolerance and diversity are about the absence of discrimination, positive or negative. A truly plural or diverse society is one that embraces and acknowledges it, but the government’s policies, however, are indifferent to cultures.

Next comes more competing ideologies. Some critics of multiculturalism are worried that in trying to create a culturally equal society we are being diverted from creating an economically equal society. Thus, by focusing on culture, we are not reducing wage gaps which have the possibility to really change lives. In some cases, multiculturalism could harm the search for equality elsewhere by driving home certain characteristics of groups. Ergo, some groups are always more or less financially well off. Some are worried multiculturalism also diverts us from the struggles for gender or racial equality.

Lastly, is it not just as unequal to provide positive as negative discrimination; should minority cultures be given a leg up simply because they are a minority? Proponents of this would say that physical handicaps are “real” obstacles in life but that culture is not. I am not going to debate the reality of obstacles. Here is an example: if two kids grow up neighbours, their families live in houses of the same size, have the same income and play the same sports, but one belongs to a distinct cultural minority. Should the latter receive, for example, greater accessibility to scholarships?

The fact is that Canada ranks among the happiest countries in the world; multiculturalism has not hurt us. Globally, data on whether multiculturalism increases anti- or pro- foreigner sentiment in non-minorities is unclear. Likewise, academia remains torn on definitions of multiculturalism. What is clear, on the other hand, is that our world is diverse, plural and, in the everyday sense of the word, multicultural. We must learn to live together. How to do this is the great question of our time. I challenge you to search for answers within yourselves.