Now and then I write about a conflict between "multiculturalism" — as that term is understood by some — and certain core values. Those values include the rule of law, and the equality of all humans before it, and freedom of expression, and freedom of worship.
"Multiculturalism" and "core values" need not conflict. Rationally understood, multiculturalism is simply an openness to ideas and contributions from cultures other than our own, and an interest in the history, artistic expression, and philosophy of other cultures. Multiculturalism encourages us not to be hostile to or afraid of something because it originates from somewhere else. Multiculturalism is not having a shitfit because salsa is more popular than ketchup now, and not assuming that a culture is doomed based on ethnic demographic shifts..
Improperly understood by some, multiculturalism encourages abandoning core values at the demand of another culture that doesn't share them. Demanding that a book be destroyed because it teaches girls how to play didgeridoos and girls aren't supposed to play digeridoos in Aboriginal culture is an example. Demanding that Western countries respect non-Western values and enact laws criminalizing blasphemy is an example. People who oppose our core values everywhere are perfectly capable of exploiting this unprincipled view of multiculturalism:
So, please respect our religions, cultures and traditions by keeping your homosexuality out of our country.
This month brings the latest example: universities segregating public meetings based on the culture-based demands of the speakers.
For some time there as been controversy about universities in the United Kingdom allowing Islamic speakers to require gender segregation of public events using university facilities. Recently Universities UK — an advocacy group for UK universities — published a policy that encouraged accommodation of speakers who wished to demand gender segregation of events on university campuses. Bear in mind we are not talking about meetings of a student group — which might be governed by values of freedom of association — but outside groups using university facilities for public events. I quote at length, because the mushy and unprincipled discussion is lengthy:
Aside from freedom of speech and the s.43 duty, the paramount issue is to consider how equality obligations apply, and how those interact.
• For example, under the Equality Act 2010, the first question is whether the segregation is discriminatory on the grounds of a protected characteristic within the definition of the Act. Segregation in the context of the facts outlined above would only be discriminatory on the grounds of sex if it amounts to ‘less favourable treatment’ of either female or male attendees.
• It will therefore, for example, be necessary to consider the seating plan for any segregation. For example, if the segregation is to be ‘front to back’, then that may well make it harder for the participants at the back to ask questions or participate in debate, and therefore is potentially discriminatory against those attendees. This issue could be overcome assuming the room can be segregated left and right, rather than front and back (and also ensuring that appropriate arrangements are made for those with disabilities).
• Consideration will also need to be given to whether imposing segregation on everyone attending the event is required (see below). If it is required, this may amount to less favourable treatment of other attendees because of a protected characteristic. On the face of the case study, assuming the side-by-side segregated seating arrangement is adopted, there does not appear to be any discrimination on gender grounds merely by imposing segregated seating. Both men and women are being treated equally, as they are both being segregated in the same way. However, one cannot rule out the possibility that discrimination claims will be made on other grounds. For example, it is arguable that ‘feminism’ (bearing in mind the views of the feminist society referred to in the case study), or some forms of belief in freedom of choice or freedom of association, could fall within the definition of ‘belief’ under the Equality Act. This would in turn mean that applying a segregated seating policy without offering alternatives (eg a nonsegregated seating area, again on a ‘side by side’ basis with the gender segregated areas) might be discriminatory against those (men or women) who hold such beliefs. However, the question of whether such beliefs are protected under the Act is unclear without a court ruling. Further, an act of indirect discrimination can be ‘objectively justified’ if it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim, meaning the institution should also have regard to its other obligations under the Equality Act and the s.43 duty to secure freedom of speech, for example.
It should therefore be borne in mind – taking account of the s.43 duty, as well as equality duties and Human Rights Act obligations – that in these circumstances, concerns to accommodate the wishes or beliefs of those opposed to segregation should not result in a religious group being prevented from having a debate in accordance with its belief system. Ultimately, if imposing an unsegregated seating area in addition to the segregated areas contravenes the genuinely held religious beliefs of the group hosting the event, or those of the speaker, the institution should be mindful to ensure that the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully. Those opposed to segregation are entitled to engage in lawful protest against segregation, and could be encouraged to hold a separate debate of the issues, but their views do not require an institution to stifle a religious society’s segregated debate where the segregation accords with a genuinely-held religious belief. The s.43 duty requires an institution to secure freedom of speech within the law.
Notice a few things about this. First, see how utterly useless it is as a guideline to any actual human being making a real decision about a real-world event. Second, see how academicians can simultaneously kowtow to and insult identity groups — for instance, the scare quotes around feminism. Third, note how the ethos of Universities UK create a ill-defined protected right to segregate at public events at a university, a right that must be "balanced" in some obscure way against values like equality of access. Note also how the Universities UK approach results in an unprincipled and self-parodying jumble of interests groups, in which yielding to a gender segregation demand is objectionable not because universities shouldn't be gender-segregating public events in 2013, but because gender-segregating might lead to impaired access for the disabled.
Universities UK has reacted to criticism by claiming that it doesn't promote gender segregation That's right: it doesn't promote it, it simply advocates accommodating it on the premise that a group's culture-based desire to segregate a public meeting on a university campus is of equal value as the university's core value of equality of access. Or at least, Universities UK wishes to accommodate some cultures. Let's be clear: this is not about equal respect for all viewpoints. There is precisely zero chance that Universities UK would have drafted this policy to support the beliefs of Christian or nativist groups. Universities UK is not going to write feckless hand-wringing policies about accommodating the BNP in excluding non-whites from speeches, nor should they. Universities UK is not going to write drivel explaining how to balance the desire of some fringe Christian group to exclude gays from speeches, nor should they. [Edit: as a commenter points out, a fairer analogy would be the BNP or religious groups insisting that non-whites or gays sit separated from others at the speech.] Universities UK and other groups of its ilk are proceeding from foolish and wrong view of multiculturalism: that the requisite respect for other cultures includes accommodating demands that violate core values, whether that means segregating public events on university campuses or pursuing deeply embarrassing and ridiculous anti-offense policies.1
University UK's input is quite controversial and has been roundly condemned. This brings predictable and unserious smears from the sort of people who think that multiculturalism requires uncritical deference to practices that violate core values:
In allowing its website to be used to petition against the right of Islamic Societies to determine the running of their own meetings, Avaaz is endorsing cultural imperialism and side-lining of an entire culture within our Universities. The petition represents an attempt to force Western culture into the meetings and events of women and men who subscribe to another culture. This is not tolerance, freedom or any other form of positive. Never underestimate the ability of White Men to use Women of Colour as a means to espouse racism and cultural superiority.
Look: if you want to have a private group that segregates, have a private group that segregates. If you want to determine the determine the leadership of your own group, determine the leadership of your own group. But if you want to hold an event open to the public on a university campus, and you want to demand that the university cooperate with and enforce your segregation requirements, then fuck off. If that's cultural imperialism, then hand me a pith hat and quote me some Kipling. The same goes for demands for censorship. My respect for your culture ends when you use it to demand that my nation censor speech to meet your tastes and join a system of brutal and minority-oppressing anti-blasphemy laws.
The post-9/11 world has triggered a lot of anti-Muslim dipshittery, from the increased prominence of anti-Muslim lunatics to paroxysms of idiocy over things like turning a Burlington Coat Factory into a mosque. It's good to call out and criticize that, and generally to resist the siren call to demonize The Other. But on the other hand, open-mindedness and charity towards other cultures doesn't require us to abandon the values that ought to be at our core. Should we look at the censorious and prejudiced motes in our own eye before picking at the eyes of others? Certainly. That's only honest. But we need not adopt censorship or segregation ourselves just because someone else says that's their cultural value. That view of multiculturalism is entitled to no respect.
Hat tip to Ophelia Benson for her coverage of the issue.