Multiculturalism: The Moral Maze

As many British readers willl already know, Moral Maze is a programme on Radio 4 in which a different moral or social topic is scrutinised each week.  A panel of regulars interviews four or five guest ‘witnesses’ in turn, trying to get to the heart of the matter.  The topic last night was multiculturalism, clearly picking up on David Cameron’s speech and its reception.    My own main criticism of the speech was in fact his use of the word ‘multiculturalism’.  I thought it was potentially misleading, as it means quite different things to different people, and Moral Maze did a useful job of unpicking those important distinctions. In fact it was a good episode generally, and I’m sure many readers would find it thought provoking.  Here are my own initial thoughts.  Apologies if I have misremembered any details.

The first witness, Tim Lott, seemed a sensible sort of chap who liked multiculturalism in its benign aspects, but strongly objected when it shaded into moral relativism.  He made an interesting point, which was that it might be useful to see our values (a concern for equality in matters of gender, race and sexuality for example) as articles of faith, albeit not of a religious kind.  That chimed with my own sense that arguments based on moral relativism can be difficult to combat by logic alone.

The next guest was Father Phil Sumner, whose perspective was very different.  He emphasised the importance of treating people differently, rather than the same, in order to achieve fairness, and argued that black and Asian students might be disadvantaged by an overly ‘indigenous’ curriculum.   His approach seemed to fetishise racial over other forms of difference.  I’m sure he wouldn’t think it a cause for concern that I was obliged to study Shakespeare rather than the Mabinogion at school, for example.

Then Douglas Murray was quizzed by the panel – he managed to antagonise Kenan Malik and Mr Sarah in roughly equal measure, and claimed (oddly) that RCP types all loathed Conservatives. Like some of those on the programme, I found his manner distracted from any potentially good points he might have made.

The final guest was Tariq Modood, who like Sumner, seemed highly conscious of racial differences but not of the other things which divide or unite us, and prompted Kenan Malik to identify the irony inherent in demanding different treatment, when historically most battles for equality have been driven by a wish to be treated in the same way as everyone else.

Overall the programme made me reflect that the idea of Britishness, or a national identity, is much less important (to me) than rights, values and freedoms.  Britishness is a pretty shifting, complex and contradictory idea – and it somehow doesn’t seem very British to obsess about it overmuch.

Alan A adds:

Kenan Malik has an excellent piece about the experience on his blog, entitled “I’m Still A Critic of Multiculturalism: Honest

Sarah adds:

I would like to add that I had never heard of Lott before and that (having now read a piece linked to in the thread below) I strongly disagree with the tone of some of his views on immigrants and Britishness.  As I noted in a comment, it is annoying that he wasn’t pulled up on this, given that Murray got a bit of a grilling on his own more controversial statements.