The Politics of Multiculturalism

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Politics of Multiculturalism Panel Participants included:
John Rundell (Associate Professor at the University of Melbourne)
Federigo Argentieri (Moderator, Professor at John Cabot University)
Tom Bailey (Professor at John Cabot University)

On Monday, February 21 the Guarini Institute for Public Affairs had the pleasure of hosting its first guest speaker from Australia, John Rundell, an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Melbourne. Professor Rundell specializes in classical and contemporary social and critical theory, focusing in particular on ‘multiple modernities’ and the role of the imagination in society and politics. He came to John Cabot University to talk about multiculturalism, as part of a two-month European lecture tour on religion and democracy.

Federigo Argentieri, Multiculturalism

Professor Federigo Argentieri

Professor Argentieri introduced the topic by mentioning German and British efforts at promoting the coexistence of linguistically and ethnically different people and recent claims by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the British Prime Minister David Cameron that such ‘multicultural’ policies have ‘failed’. How, then, are we to better integrate ethnically diverse groups into our post-industrialist society? This was an excellent starting point to engage the mixed audience present in the Aula Magna Regina.

With this question in mind, Rundell began his lecture by stressing how misleading it can be to analyze our modern society through pre-determined, closed categories of identity. He explained how the concepts of ‘strangers’ and ‘outsiders’ could perhaps be justified in more primitive societies, but not in Europe, especially considering the diversity that currently characterizes it, or even in the United States, which has undergone significant immigration in the last few decades. Rundell talked enthusiastically about how complicated multicultural processes are constant factors in our everyday lives.

Fundamental for a deeper understanding of the issue, Rundell argued, is the distinction between ‘conditional strangers’ – those ‘foreigners’ who have a well-defined self-identity, a centre of gravity, a home to which they can return – and ‘contingent strangers’ – those who live in the ‘here and now’ they find themselves in, rather than identifying themselves with a specific ‘home’. This latter category seems to be the condition not only of contemporary immigrants, but also of ordinary non-migrants, who also consider their ‘home’ simply as their contingent location amongst other contingent strangers. ‘We are all contingent strangers’, Rundell insisted.

However, despite the fact that globalization is diminishing the geographical, cultural and ideological gaps between different cultures and countries, Rundell argued that dichotomies between ‘us’ and ‘they’ continue to obstruct alternative, more effective politics of multiculturalism. This is evident, he argued, in the ‘anxiety of strangers’ which the European Union is still struggling to manage, reflecting a mixture of various nation’s nostalgic resistance to European integration and emphasis on ‘integration’ into their national identities and the need for immigration caused by the shortage of skilled labor.

Rundell suggested that this anxiety could be seen particularly in Europe’s relations with Arab countries – indeed, Rundell claimed that today prejudices bordering on racism persist, with ‘Arab’ often having a negative connotation just as ‘Irish’ and ‘Italian’ did when Europeans emigrated to the Americas. Rundell also pointed to the frequent confusion of ethnic or national groups with religious affiliations, a confusion that often results in simplifications and generalizations that obscure the complexities of people’s identities.

Rundell compared this with the cultural pluralism that marks Australian multiculturalism, in which groups are politically represented and their group rights legally established. There, in a country populated over time by “strangers” from all over the world, Rundell claimed that multiculturalism is not perceived as the integration of different individuals in a pre-established, “uniform” society – as ‘conditional strangers’ – but rather as a fluid, shared experience of being ‘contingent strangers’.

Claiming that “multiculturalism is not a threat”, Rundell concluded by insisting that we must face our condition of being ‘contingent strangers’ to one another, rather than trying to reduce citizenship to simplified ‘identities’. In particular, he claimed, we need to recognise the multiplicity and dissonances of our ‘identities’, as these are marked by our membership of national as well as supranational bodies, by labor market flows and by a range of different participatory, negative and welfare rights.

In response to the question of how better to integrate ethnically diverse groups into our post industrialist society, then, Rundell’s answer was that neither integration nor inclusion can be sufficient. Rather than making ‘them’ look, speak and live like ‘us’ or recognizing ‘them’ as a simplified ‘identity’, we need to coexist with all our multiple identities, accepting all the political challenges and complexities that this implies.