Diversity, Equality, Naming

By Padraig Colman

I have a favourite quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson: " all generalisations are dangerous, even this one". Putting people into categories and expecting them to be happy in their boxes is a dangerous delusion. Putting people into racial or ethnic boxes is particularly risky.

I got into a dispute with my editor at Le Monde diplomatique when she asked for my views on an article she had published by a Frenchman, Cédric Gouverneur, who had parachuted into Sri Lanka. I said that I was not sure if his phrase, "the government, overjoyed at being able to divide the Tamils" was useful. It seems to me to verge on racism to lump all Tamils together and assume that they all have the same interests and opinions. Neither author nor editor welcomed my contribution. People of a leftist persuasion, including my good self, hate to be called racist.

I complained to the BBC, The Independent and The Irish Times about their sloppy use of language in describing the last days of the LTTE in terms of the government trouncing "the Tamils". Robert Kaplan, in the Atlantic Monthly September 2009, wrote "Sri Lanka has experienced more than a quarter of a century of civil war between ethnic Sinhalese Buddhists and Hindu Tamils."

In my writing for western audiences, I have tried to disabuse my readers of the delusion that Sri Lanka is a nation where two races are always at each other’s throats. I tell them that, for such a small nation (a little larger than West Virginia, a little smaller than Ireland, but with 16 million more people than Ireland) there are many fault lines of ethnicity, political philosophy, language and religion. I tell my western readers that, despite difficulties, people of all groups co-exist reasonably well.

The Sri Lanka cricket team has been a good example of multiculturalism. In his Lords speech, Kumar Sangakarra said: "I am Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim and Burgher. I am a Buddhist, a Hindu, a follower of Islam and Christianity. I am today, and always, proudly Sri Lankan".

David Cameron said multiculturalism has failed, arguing for a stronger sense of British identity (a difficult concept for most Brits to understand). Cameron was speaking in Germany where Chancellor Angela Merkel had already said "multikulti" did not work, and immigrants needed to integrate. A recent survey suggested more than 30% of people believed Germany was "overrun by foreigners". Nazism is on the rise.

Susanne Wessendorf argues that support for multiculturalism stems from changes in Western societies dealing, after World War II, with the racist trauma of the holocaust and ethnic cleansing. African and Asian nations became independent, highlighting colonial racism and exporting their people. In the USA black militants criticised assimilation, implicit in which was prejudice against those who did not act white. Multiculturalism in western countries was seen as a useful strategy to combat racism.

Supporters of multiculturalism argue that culture is not one definable thing based on one race or religion, but the result of multiple factors changing as the world changes. Multiculturalism allows people to truly express who they are within a tolerant, adaptable society.

Anti-multiculturalism covers a spectrum ranging from genuine anxieties to outright toxic racism. I recently read an extremely distasteful blog post entitled "Multiculturalism kills another Libtard". A young Swedish woman was violently raped, killed and mutilated. The culprit was black. Someone chastised the blogger: "Since you don't know this woman, how dare you call her a libtard in your title -- do you know her political leanings? Multiculturalism doesn't kill, people kill. The right wing favorite "Guns don’t kill, people kill" meme applies here too, not just for your NRA bumper stickers. Depending on monitor / browser settings those who do not wish to see a mutilated corpse (me, for example) may see it despite your lame warning. The only person you have effectively insulted with this disgusting post is the dead woman. Classy." The source blog the poster got his information from was pornographic with comments along the lines of "Kill all niggers".

Academics have noted legitimate public fears about multiculturalism. Harvard professor of political science, Robert D Putnam, surveyed 26,200 people in 40 American communities and found that the more racially diverse a community is, the greater the loss of trust. People in diverse communities "don’t trust the local mayor, they don’t trust the local paper, they don’t trust other people and they don’t trust institutions," writes Putnam. In the presence of ethnic diversity, Putnam maintains that "[W]e hunker down. We act like turtles. The effect of diversity is worse than had been imagined. And it’s not just that we don’t trust people who are not like us. In diverse communities, we don’t trust people who do look like us."

Australian ethologist Frank Salter writes : "Relatively homogeneous societies invest more in public goods, indicating a higher level of public altruism. For example, the degree of ethnic homogeneity correlates with the government's share of gross domestic product as well as the average wealth of citizens." Salter has developed a theory of Universal Nationalism. "The realisation that ethnicity is extended kinship at the genetic level led to the realisation that individuals have a large genetic stake in their ethnic groups, which could help explain the ubiquitousness of ethnic identity, solidarity and conflict from tribal times to the present." Salter does not recommend strengthening the gene pool by interracial marriage. He is popular with the American New Right and those who believe it is vitally important for whites to defend their legitimate group interests. However, Salter is not quite right-wing enough for them.

This is all rather depressing as many scientists argue that the concept of race or ethnicity is meaningless. According to John H. Relethford, author of The Fundamentals of Biological Anthropology, a race "is a group of populations that share some biological characteristics….These populations differ from other groups of populations according to these characteristics." Race is fluid and thus difficult to pinpoint scientifically. "Race is a concept of human minds, not of nature," Relethford writes.

I recently had my knuckles rapped for using the word "gypsies" to describe a group of people living in the Aligambay area. Their mother tongue is Telugu and they seem to originate from Andhra Pradesh. They are Inaccurately, referred to as gypsies in Wikipedia and The Island. What’s in a name?

I asked my knuckle-rapper what I should call them. She thought they would prefer to be classed as Tamil, as that would place them in one of the common ethnic groups in Sri Lanka. Although ethnicity is a fluid concept, these people are definitely not Tamil and it is doubtful if Tamils would accept them as such. My interlocutor said people settled in Sri Lanka, whatever their historical origin, would like to be identified as Sri Lankan. However, this is an aspiration rather than an actuality. Whatever they might hope, they are not as fortunate as Sri Lankan cricketers. People do see them as outsiders.

Categorisation and the act of naming can exclude. However, it may be necessary to identify and name those in need of affirmative action to encourage their inclusion. Naming should be sensitively applied.

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...