An Apology for Multiculturalism

Not long ago we assumed globalization, with its intensity of interactions, would breed tolerance for others. Instead, we must fight for that ideal, even if flawed, now more than ever.

By: /
13 August, 2018
Illustrations by Abhilasha Dewan
Stephen Marche
By: Stephen Marche
Toronto-based essayist

Multiculturalism has reached its moment of peril. Multiculturalism, as public policy, as a way of life, could disappear altogether, relegated to a figment of history, a relic.

The counter-reaction to global trade, to globalization generally, has been a deep retreat behind borders. The recent election in Hungary, in which Viktor Orban ran and won on a loathing for immigrants and “foreign meddling,” is only the latest example of a militant and triumphant xenophobia seen everywhere. The consequences of the Brexit vote are starting to harden; non-English Londoners, once the definitive cosmopolitans, are stumbling back dazed to home countries they long since stopped considering home. The United States, the country with e pluribus unum on the money, separates immigrant children from their parents in detention camps on its borders. The most liberal societies are taking on illiberal attitudes: Denmark has announced special regulations and requirements for “ghetto children.”

By no means is the xenophobia limited to Western countries or fully developed economies. Hindutva dominates Indian politics. The so-called Communist government of China has no relationship whatsoever with the international proletariat. Nationalism is its legitimating ideology, and no other. In the face of an opening world, the most egregious stupidity of humanity — pride in blood — has reasserted itself with a vengeance.

It’s not just recent elections, either. It’s not just politics, even. Culture, too, is closing itself off, partitioned along ethnic lines, and patrolled by stewards of rage and loathing. In the West, the idea of cultural exchange has become fraught by its reduction to categories of cultural appropriation. Similar processes of separation and purification are evident everywhere else, too. Bollywood — what has been called the greatest pluralistic culture industry in history — banned Pakistani actors two years ago. Pakistan responded by banning Indian films. A recent Bollywood film, Padmaavat, caused massive riots before it was even released because it was rumoured, just rumoured, to contain a romantic relationship between the Hindu Queen Padmavati and the invading Muslim King Alauddin Khilji. The film turned out to dehumanize Muslims fully enough — indulging to the maximum the stereotype of the dead-eyed rapist Islamic invader — but even the possibility of a cross-cultural connection provoked the burning of Muslim school buses. Real violence follows closely behind the imaginary.

In both politics and culture, the lines between in-groups and out-groups are thickening, sometimes subtly, sometimes sharply. Ethnic nationalism relies on a profound sense of victimhood, even among groups that are self-evidently established and prosperous. The English are the victims of Europe, so they need Brexit. The Americans are the victims of the world economy, so they need to rid themselves of immigrants. The Bharatiya Janata Party in India operates under the all-consuming premise that Hindus are the victims of the Muslims. Paranoia is the new norm. Context vanishes. Each defines themselves by their enemies.

Even a few years ago, those of us who grew up in open societies more or less assumed that the world was tending inexorably towards more openness. The argument went something like this, although it was not so much an argument as an impression, an assumption: Trade throws us together in cities. Cities are the seat of power and influence. When they live together people tend to encounter each other as people. They eat each other’s food. Their children sleep with each other and end up having children together. Everyone prospers. Democracy and freedom of trade underlie that prosperity, and ensure progress towards fundamental respect for human dignity. The faith in globalized tolerance was the faith of Francis Fukuyama’s famous essay “The End of History?,” which seems more ludicrous by the day. That essay is now a relic of the assumption of the power of democracy and tolerance that the global elite once widely shared. Many literally believed there was no other way to live.

That confidence was obviously misplaced, and it blinded us to our responsibility to defend multiculturalism. The atavism of blood haunts us in ways we imagined we had already exorcised through the various mass slaughters of the twentieth century. The widening middle classes of the developing world and the shrinking middle class of the developed world increasingly take their values from half-inherited, half-imagined hatreds. Meanwhile the world swells with stateless peoples, a vast and expanding pool of mostly ignored suffering. It is now, at this moment of darkness, at this moment of deep unpopularity, that we most need to understand why multiculturalism is so necessary, so glorious. Openness towards others is neither easy nor inevitable, as we believed a decade ago. Rather the opposite. Multiculturalism is difficult and unlikely and fragile. That’s why we have to fight for it.

family new

I am a child of multiculturalism. I grew up with the assumptions of multiculturalism ingrained in me. I was a boy when the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Multiculturalism Act both became law. Together they explicitly positioned the ideal of multiculturalism as a bedrock national principle. In Edmonton, Alberta, in the 1980s, my friends and my family’s friends were of different races and different cultures. Like anyone raised in a specific way of life, I considered my way of life natural, the only way to live. In many ways, I still do.

It is only now, many years later, that I recognize just how unusual the society that raised me was. The Canadian experience is particular. I’m not sure it could be recreated in any other context. But its great advantage, as a global example, is the clarity of its reckoning with difference. Other pluralistic cultures emerge from historical proximities, longstanding juxtapositions, as in Europe, or the Middle East. Canadian multiculturalism replaced history with a points system, six factors that determined admissibility for immigrants; points threw Jamaicans in with Italians, Croatians in with Koreans, the Icelandic in with the Japanese. Our parents came from everywhere, possessing different cultures and religions, but they shared one creed: the creed of the middle class, which is exactly how the points system was designed to work. Again, none of this seemed strange. It seemed self-evident that people would come from all over the world to live in a frozen wasteland to ensure that their kids became doctors, or lawyers, or, if all else failed, dentists.

Another reason Canada might actually matter to the world is that our brand of multiculturalism works, in the sense that it remains broadly popular and there is no serious movement to end it. Canada is the only country in which the more patriotic a person is the more he or she believes in multiculturalism. Those distinctions are the essence of Canadian exceptionalism, and even populists have not dared to violate them. Anyone who has run against multiculturalism, even in Quebec, has lost. So far. The phrasing of section 27 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is superabundantly clear: “This Charter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians.” At the time of its declaration, in 1982, I don’t believe the radical nature of this proposition was entirely understood. In other open societies known to history, the underlying purpose of cultural openness has been to find unity, a common humanity, or even a larger truth. Not here. Here, the purpose of multiculturalism is diversity for its own sake. Differences are to be respected, not overcome.

Canada is the only country in which the more patriotic a person is the more he or she believes in multiculturalism.

What was the result in myself? It is hard to say. Maybe nothing more than the fact that I know how to play Chinese chess, or that I have opinions about what constitutes really good spicy pickled limes. One friend was Chinese-Canadian, and we would hang out after school playing pool and doing homework together. I remember his grandmother would feed me sticky rice in banana leaf with peanuts in the middle. She spoke no English and liked to run her hands through my blond hair, which was much blonder then. My friend and his parents would scream at each other over the usual adolescent agonies, he in English, they in Chinese, and she and I would always smile at each other. Each of us could only understand half the argument. I think I was something like a big cheerful dog to her, which, when I was 15, was not that far from the truth. I remember that my friend’s parents kept a book with a list of every present they had ever given him, on the understanding that, in exchange, he would give them what they wanted. They wanted him to marry a nice Chinese-Canadian girl. Needless to say, he quickly found a white girlfriend and I frequently had to cover for him. I remember trying to figure out how much of this struggle was due to the fact they were Chinese-Canadian and how much was just them. The comedy of Russell Peters is so recognizable to me because it is that question asked over and over again: How much of people’s weirdness is inherited culture and how much is just people? Everyone from every culture comes from a messed up family.

Other questions buzzed in the air, unasked but always there. Who fit in where? On what terms? There was an obsession with self-described ‘bananas’ (yellow on the outside, white on the inside) and ‘Oreos’ (same but for brown people), and who was a mangiacake friend and who wasn’t. (These terms are all from my 1990s adolescence. I assume they have evolved and fractured.) There was always a push and a pull between original ethnicity and bland unidentifiable Canadianness, between the grandmother who spoke no English and the white friend named Stephen. The experience of racism was real. So was the experience of parents insistent on the preservation of the cultures they had left behind. From those tensions, manifold tensions, ethnicity splintered and resolved itself in shifting, unsatisfying fragments. Some of my friends grew up to become upstanding representatives of their respective communities. Others simply drifted away from any identification, cosmopolitan, world-wanderers. They all fulfilled their destiny of becoming middle class professionals.

There was nothing exotic about the multiculturalism in which I was raised. There was no grand encounter of peoples, no cornucopia of colours and smells. Middle class banality was one of its essential conditions. Another friend of mine, who is Sikh, grew up in a subdivision of Toronto, and every house of everyone he knew followed the exact same cookie-cutter layout. He never had to ask where the bathroom was, no matter whom he visited. It was always up the stairs to the right. He assumed that every house in Canada was the same.

multiculturalism 3

I have spent most of my adulthood in Toronto, by some accounts the most diverse city in the world, and the banality of its experience of difference defines it. If you take a moment to notice the diversity, it can be shocking. Toronto is full of communities of survival; the public space is not the same for all. Many, most, live on the margins. But the public space itself is a palimpsest of those communities, a book composed of marginalia. A colleague recently wrote me an email about an experience fighting a ticket:

One day last fall, before getting my new German car, I was driving an old and rusty Japanese car in a Jewish neighbourhood (Forest Hill), and a Sikh police officer stopped me. Finding a law-abiding academic, he was very polite but felt compelled by the Anglo-Scotch puritan system, where every stop must be accounted for, to give me a spurious ticket for a dirty license plate. All of this was recorded by the latest American surveillance technology, built in China and mounted on a cruiser assembled in Mexico. Today, I went to a pre-trial hearing to avoid paying the fine — another aspect of Scottish civic culture — and spent an hour waiting in a hall filled with the music of the languages spoken by the other supplicants: Portuguese, Hindi, Punjabi, Sicilian, Russian, Spanish, and I think Vietnamese. The prosecutor finally arrived in a very elegant chador, and she then proceeded to throw out my ticket, not even waiting for the exculpatory photos because, as she put it, Don’t worry I trust you.

The point of my friend’s email, of course, is that his experience was ordinary. You wouldn’t expect fighting a ticket to be any other way.

I offer this portrait of my experience to show my hand as much as to describe a particular reality. This way of life is not, in any way, natural. It is, however, possible. The spasm of recent xenophobia around the world has come mainly from those who do not live in diverse places. Trump was not popular in immigrant-heavy cities. Sixty percent of Londoners voted against Brexit. Specific conditions made the multiculturalism I inhabited possible: a political commitment, a tradition derived from freedom of trade and freedom of movement and a broadening middle class. There was also the spirit of openness, which I realize now was what bound us into a political unity. There was a widespread assumption, even among the racists themselves, that they were resisting the future. The future moved towards difference.

A peculiar conservative idea has achieved particular virulence recently, that tolerance itself, as a political idea and practice, is uniquely Western. It is a bizarre type of chauvinism, a chauvinism of openness, indulging the vague lunacy of the “clash of civilizations” rhetoric. You have to ignore a great deal of history, of course. The great Indian tradition of pluralism goes back three millennia. The Emperor Ashoka of the third century BCE understood implicitly the value of diversity: “The sects of other people all deserve reverence for one reason or another,” he carved into a rock inscription. To him, xenophobia was more of a threat than tolerance was a virtue. He carved that insight into rock, too: “For he who does reverence to his own sect while disparaging the sects of others wholly from attachment to his own sect, in reality inflicts, by such conduct, the severest injury on his own sect.” Two thousand years later, Akbar the Great set up the House of Worship, in Fatehpur Sikri, to figure out who was right about God. He repealed the jizya, the tax on non-Muslims, and listened to followers of Christianity, Jainism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism and Hinduism. His conclusion?

In the name of him who gave us empire
Who endowed us with a wise heart and a strong arm
Who guided us in the path of equity and justice
Putting away from our heart aught but equity.
His attributes transcend man’s understanding
Exalted be His Majesty! Allah Akbar!

Did he mean God is great or did he mean Akbar is God? No one was entirely sure.

The Muslim world for thousands of years contained a vastly diverse political and religious reality. Baba Tahir, the eleventh century Iranian poet, wrote:

Synagogue, Ka’abah, idol-temple, monastery
None are known to be empty of the sweetheart.

Every great culture has had a period of cross-cultural openness, a recognition of common humanity across the boundaries of distinction. That fact should be a warning. Other societies, in the flourishing of their civilizations, achieved openness and lost it. So may we.

multiculturalism 4

Despite the unquestioning acceptance of multiculturalism that defined my childhood, its contradictions and tensions were obvious to me even then. Difference was acceptable within highly defined limits. The most obvious contradiction is that multiculturalism as a public policy is explicitly the product of British institutions; it is a colonial legacy. Openness to others tends to exist only after conquest. Ashoka and Akbar ruled absolutely and built their systems of intercultural exchange from a position of absolute power. Our liberal order in Canada has very definite limits. You can move here as a fundamentalist Christian or Wahhabi Muslim or Orthodox Jew, but if you open a cake shop you’re going to have to serve gay people. We don’t even allow polygamy, which is a common cultural practice the world over. Tolerance is reactive. There is always somebody tolerating and there is somebody being tolerated.

A sour aftertaste of fraudulence persists in any multicultural society. The fraudulence isn’t just the obvious failures: racist police forces, or inequality of opportunity, or the fact that we welcome supremely talented immigrants into the country and then make it nearly impossible for them to use those talents. (My plumber literally has a Ph.D. in astrophysics.)

There is also the matter that in my cheerful multicultural childhood, I was never exposed, not once, to any Indigenous culture as a living force. But failure is inevitable in any political body with ideals. Wherever and whenever societies try to conceive of a universal humanity, they fail. The American Declaration of Independence decrees that all men are created equal and the Constitution slips in that a black person is three-fifths of a person. The French declared Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, but threw Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture in jail the moment he arrived on French soil. Multiculturalism is no different: Be different, please, but the way we want you to be different.

Famously, one of the leaders of Black Lives Matter called Justin Trudeau, a man raised to multiculturalism the way Prince William has been raised to the monarchy, “a white supremacist terrorist” at a rally in 2017. The comment was roundly mocked but the system he believes in, the system called multiculturalism, is white. As the Australian author Ghassan Hage has noted, “diversity is a white word.” Identity politics points out the basic contradiction of multicultural society and the hypocrisy of its universal claims. We claim to want diversity, but it must be on our own terms. The fact that this hypocrisy is inevitable doesn’t make it any more bearable for its victims.

The political embarrassment of multiculturalism is mirrored in a kind of cultural paralysis. The debates around appropriation that have raged so ferociously over the past few years failed to ask the most important question that Canadian multiculturalism raises: Is art that is respectful of cultural difference possible? Can it be any good? We should acknowledge that it might not be. It certainly hasn’t been so far. Nietzsche once wrote that, “where races are mixed, there is the source of great cultures.” That point seems obvious when you go to Ghana or India and see what local cultures have done with, say, the introduction of brass instruments — making the best of the imperial legacy. But the standard Canadian cultural practice is to attempt to fuse the arts of various different places and times in a respectful way — African guitars interspersed with Vivaldi, Shakespeare spoken in Bangala, etc., etc. This material always gets funded and then dissolves on contact with an audience. Everyone politely applauds then immediately forgets.

No culture, of any type, exists without cultural exchange. Anglo-Saxon culture — so often a fixation of ideologies of racial purity — is so mixed that it literally has to have a hyphen in it. The English language is the bastard whore-son of a thousand mothers, a thousand come-ons, a thousand rapes. The periods of the greatest cultural efflorescence are always periods of cross-cultural exchange. But by no means does that exchange need to be respectful. Usually, the opposite.

We like to imagine, to pretend, that the glories of culture rise out of our better instincts.

Multiculturalism is not cosmopolitanism — a vital distinction, often lost. Recently, on a trip to Tokyo, I visited the shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji, and I was surprised to find an offering to his memory of several dozen barrels of premier cru Burgundies and Bordeaux. The barrels were there just the same as the Shinto lanterns, an offer to a great spirit. The fifth principle of Emperor Meiji’s 1868 “Charter Oath of Five Principles” had opened Japan to the world and to everything that was good in the world: “Knowledge shall be sought throughout the world so as to strengthen the foundations of imperial rule.” That is the cosmopolitan spirit: The world, improved, Japanized.

If you find yourself in Tokyo, and you want some of the best Italian food in the world, you can easily find perfectly prepared truffle gnudi. The best of Italy is right there, precisely articulated. That is cosmopolitanism. In Toronto, you might be able to find something similar, but the point of Toronto is that the Italian coffee shops are not like the beautiful caffès in Rome. They are like the corner coffee joints you might find beside gas stations in the lousy parts of the country, the parts that tourists don’t go to, the parts people leave for places like Canada. The purpose of the Tokyo coffee shop is to harvest the glory of the world. The purpose of the Toronto coffee shop is to be a replica of an abandoned home. It is exactly the ugliness of Toronto which reveals its power as a society. The differences within the city are not there to be consumed. They are there for themselves.

We like to imagine, to pretend, that the glories of culture rise out of our better instincts. We like to imagine that the cross-cultural exchanges that produce the art and music we adore are redemptive, angelic. The pretense does not hold up to inspection. Jazz was the fusion of African-American, Southern folk and various European traditions. Its heady mélange of influences could only have fruited in a port town, and its final shape could only have been sculpted in Storyville, the red-light district of New Orleans. During the birth of jazz, guidebooks to Storyville described which establishments provided white, black or mulatto prostitutes. White men were the sole clients. Black musicians played for them. Jazz came out of a world of extreme racial hierarchies and sexual exploitation, not tolerance and fellow feeling. Its sound is the sound of the power of the insistence of personhood in an atmosphere of sexual subservience and the ownership of bodies. The most beautiful music of the twentieth century came out of degradation, not respect. Multiculturalism in its twenty-first century form will never produce jazz. It is too polite. It is too hesitant. The critique of cultural appropriation has inadvertently brought a chilling possibility to light. What if art that is respectful of others can never be any good?

It’s no wonder then that multiculturalism is so fragile. Its vaunted tolerance is an afterthought of imperialism. Inevitably, it involves hypocrisy. At best, it fulfills cold tolerance. And its tolerance restrains rather than unleashes cross-cultural encounters. Racial tension is higher in multicultural societies. As many have argued, homogenous societies are more stable and prosperous than heterogeneous societies. The world over, ethnic diversity has a strong association with weaker economic performance and leads to more conflict. And these effects seem to be general: they have been charted in Africa and across Europe and North America and Asia. Diversity leads to more ethnic strife, not less.

I bring up all these flaws merely to point out that none of them matter. None of them matter the tiniest little bit.


Multiculturalism on its worst day is better than the alternative on its best. The politics of ethnic pride ends in the hateful chanting and the acrid smoke of Charlottesville, the casual violence against Poles in London in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, Central American children in cages at the American border, Putin in Crimea, the slaughter of the Rohingya. That’s what ethnic pride, empowered, looks like. It’s unclear, at the moment, whether the trend to xenophobia is a passing fad or a permanent fact of the twenty-first century. But it has become clear that it’s just as stupid and violent as it has always been. You have to swallow your own sense of reality to believe that you are special because you come from one place or another on this earth.

There is an ancient story, 2,500 years old at least, repeated in several Sanskrit texts, of the well-frog, the kupamanduka. The kupamanduka believes his well to be the best place on earth, and the small circle of sky above him to be all that is worth seeing in the universe. In a Chinese version of the story from the fourth century CE, a turtle tries to explain the glories of the sea to the well-frog. “The sea? Hah! It’s paradise in here. Nothing can be better than this well. Why don’t you come down and share my joy?” Are you going to be a well-frog, or are you going to be a sea turtle? That has always been the choice.

The pleasures of multiculturalism are as real as its crises. They should not be forgotten, out of the pain of contradiction and failure. No city is worth living in unless you regularly hear languages you do not recognize. The city of the twentieth century was defined by the shock of the sheer number of people competing for the fulfillment of desires. Its pleasures were the pleasures of the flaneur, the alienated loner who strolls the streets inspecting the infinity of human variety, taking everything as the subject of his gaze. The flaneur indulges in the pursuit of various vices — gambling, drunkenness, prostitution, drugs — partly because they are pleasurable but mostly because they are unfathomable. What is unfathomable is most fascinating. The twenty-first century city, the multicultural city, is all unfathomability, infinity within infinity. In the vast collected differences of humanity, you face mystery and resonance, often simultaneously. At the banya in the suburbs, Russian-Canadian families splash each other in the central pool, sometimes under pornographic pictures, and in the saunas a large Kyrgyz man will beat you with oak branches for a price. The sound of women ululating drifts from the next building. It’s a Russian wedding! No, they’re Azerbaijani? No, they’re some Caucasian tribe, or something. The South American club is filled with South American drag queens. In an afterhours club in Chinatown, they serve vodka in teapots and you can soak it up with pot-stickers. What does it mean? What does it amount to? You are exposed to difference, to the awareness of your own misunderstanding. Just as in the families I grew up around, just as in the banal diversity of everyday exchanges in Toronto, there is always another room, and in that room, there is always a further room.

The art of the glamorous and potent collisions has not yet been made. That might be a strength, not a weakness, an opportunity rather than crisis. The existence of jazz is no compensation for the existence of Storyville anyway. Jazz was the escape from the prisons of ethnicity, and it is the escape that matters, not the art that enabled it. The greatness of art is its ability to make us see beyond our eyes, to feel with other people’s feelings, to know that what is human belongs to us. We may not know what an art of respectful difference looks like, but we know we need it.

This is what we must acknowledge or die: All the flaws of multiculturalism, its inherent contradictions, its inevitable hypocrisies, its fragility, all its various weaknesses are strengths in disguise. We must revel in them or be doomed. Only multiculturalism acknowledges the basic human reality that we need tribes, that the comfort of belonging is a necessary comfort, and that tribes are also stupid. The crises of openness are the right crises — that is the most human beings can hope for. The vulnerability of any open society is real and the liberal order which is so easy to mock can easily vanish, a point those who wish to recognize only multiculturalism’s failures seem to forget. To be a human being is to live in contradictions; only multiculturalism takes that human condition as a premise. The confrontation with sameness and difference has been with us since human beings, as a species, engaged on our dispersion over the surface of the earth, to be transformed by landscape and by chance, by life as it comes. Multiculturalism forces us to ask: What does it mean to be a person among other people? What is the connection to be found in difference? What do we mean to each other?


We should fight for multiculturalism not because it’s easy but because it’s hard. Open societies are rare; they call to each other over the great nightmare of history, candles in windy darknesses. And yet openness to the other has always been an essential element of basic human decency. Stone age tribes had taboos against the violation of the stranger. Ancient myths related encounters with divine wanderers: the unknown who drifted onto the threshold could be a king, a god even. The refugee is your basic human, with all that is holy in that status. Act accordingly.

The story of the Tower of Babel was told by itinerant shepherds 5,000 years ago, and in towns that barely knew the name for what they were. Even then, they understood the crisis we now face as the world becomes all city. “And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech,” begins the ancient story of the origin of ethnic difference.

And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.
So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.

That story knows that common humanity is an abomination and a glory, that to live among others is to face a kind of ultimate possibility and an ultimate danger, the overthrow of heaven itself. If we could find our shared purpose as a species we could achieve everything, but our differences are divine too. It is good to know that we are only human. Misunderstanding is our station. The struggle may well be unwinnable. It doesn’t matter. We win only ever in part and lose almost always and continue to struggle because civilization means building the tower you know will fall.

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