The opium of the intellectuals

Article published on March 6, 2006
community published
Article published on March 6, 2006

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Intellectuals have debated the concept of multiculturalism since the 1960s. Some regard it as an opportunity; others refuse to believe in it.

After World War II a stream of immigrants poured into Europe from the continent’s former colonies. Germany and the Netherlands drew up guest worker agreements with countries from the Mediterranean area. The question of defining cultural identity and belonging was quickly picked up on. New terms such as transculturalism, hybridity, internal difference, interculturality and créolisation flooded scientific discourse. In short, Europe began to concern itself with multiculturalism.

Patchwork of minorities

The following waves of immigrants in the 1960s attached themselves to new social movements. Ethnic minorities saw these movements as a mouthpiece to meaningfully assert their rights. The debate surrounding multiculturalism was in this way accelerated, spurred on particularly by the Canadian political scientists Will Kymlicka and Charles Taylor. Taylor, a communitarian, believed that the concept of multiculturalism was confronted with irreconcilable social values and norms. His colleague Kymlicka conversely attempted to portray multiculturalism as an opportunity when embedded in liberal surroundings.

The transition into postmodernism and globalisation brought ‘a patchwork of minorities’, as the French philosopher,Jean-Francois Lyotard, announced in 1977. Lyotard was convinced that societies are fundamentally pluralistic. In his opinion, however, a ‘multiculture’ is only possible if the various minority groups achieve equal rights.

It is precisely these minorities, however, that developed a different cultural self-understanding than was the case among the first generation. Can culture actually be observed as a homogenous entity? In the words of the Spanish author Juan Goytisolo, culture is ‘the sum of outside influences’. Today culture, ‘cannot be exclusively Spanish or French or German, not even European, but only Mestizo, a bastard’ (1) that is fertilised by various other cultures.

Only on the basis of shared values

The terrorist attacks of 11 September and the murder of the Dutch director, Theo van Gogh, by an Islamic extremist in 2004 made clear that the co-existence of cultures is only possible on the basis of shared values. Multiculturalism fell out of favour, discussions of ‘parallel societies’ preferred. The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has gone so far as to term multiculturalism ‘a neutralisation of differences’; a political formula that misjudges the complex reality. The Nobel literature laureate, Imre Kertesz, prophesised that conflicts would persist, ‘as long as a fixed value system does not arise among a mutually shaped and mutually sustained culture.’ (2) The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas believes that colourful coexistence can only function within a democratic framework.

Is multiculturalism ‘long dead’, as the Götting-based political scientist, Bassam Tibi, believes? Not yet. As the scandal surrounding the Mohammed caricatures illustrates, it is precisely democratic societies that have a bizarre and distorted perception of other cultures and religions, despite Enlightenment. Due to this, the phantom of multiculturalism still lurks in the media. Perhaps the American sociologist, Russell Jacoby, has a point – multiculturalism is ‘the opium of disillusioned intellectuals’.

(1) Juan Goytisolo, Der Wald der Literatur. Wider den kulturellen Ethnozentrismus, in: Exilforschung. Ein internationales Jahrbuch, Vol. 13, 1995, p. 12.

(2) Die Zeit, 25.4.2002