Last Thursday evening, the Cambridge Union hosted a debate about multiculturalism in Britain. Chris Romalds, a postgraduate student in Development Studies, explores the reasons why multiculturalism could be said to be failing. Sarah Garland, a second year English student at Newnham College, argues that despite its problems, multiculturalism has not failed.
Almost two years ago to the day, David Cameron made a speech in Munich. His salient point was this: that state multiculturalism has failed in the UK - and furthermore, that such failures have the potential to manifest themselves within extremist ideologies. The same day - many miles away in Luton - the English Defence League marched through the streets. Their outlook was countered by that of Unite Against Facism; both were tempered by an extensive police presence.
In effect, three consequences emerged. A transient tone of discontent over the proximity of government policy to the rhetoric of a fringe group echoed. For a short time, misinterpretation of the sentiment behind the speech was evidenced: Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French far-right group Front National, considered Cameron's views a convergence with her own. Persian newspaper Siyasat-e Ruz spoke of the removal of Cameron's "pro-Islam mask." The third and most important consequence was that the debate over multiculturalism was catalysed.
The breadth of definitions of 'multiculturalism' is considerable. To some, it is about peaceful or equitable co-existence. To others, the term itself champions segregation rather than integration.
A progressive society ensures that the issues are not only debated, but that such discussion is undertaken with appropriate calm and reason. 'Those that shout the loudest do not necessarily have the most to say' remains an important adage. Moreover, the degree of pervasiveness of the national debate - from Parliament to the pub - is to my mind a clear indicator for the health of the nation.
For too long, debates on multiculturalism have been suffocated by two things. For many of those that seek to propel the debate, a residual fear of causing offence or appearing regressive is not uncommon.
For those that may wish to hinder such debate, an assumption that any such discussion is proffered solely to serve as either inflammatory or in order to dilute individual cultures, is incorrect.
Either all of us matter - Muslims or Jews, atheists or Sikhs - or none of us do. Furthermore it is a truth self-evident that when we get together, good things happen. It is instead when we are isolated, segregated and determined to perpetuate our differences that our futures appear less prosperous, less progressive and less happy. It is important that we remember these differences but learn not to become defined by them, that our ideological entrenchment does not separate us.
Whether multiculturalism has failed is a contentious issue, but it has certainly failed to flourish in the way one might have hoped. Our initial societal efforts can however be built upon with candid debate and intelligent discussion. It is not a utopian view to seek a country in which Jewish and Christian children play together both at school and at home, nor is it myopic to welcome instances whereby a couple can marry despite only one following Islam. This is the reality in some parts of Britain and it should be a reality in many more.
As a wise man - whose wisdom, be it scientific or religious, was anything but received - once noted: "You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it. You must learn to see the world anew".
We have so much to learn from one another. I try to keep that in mind whenever I think about diversity - not only in terms of race and culture, but in terms of gender, sexuality, social class and religious conviction. If we don't engage with one another in a spirit of good faith and sincere curiosity, if we let ourselves be content with our own blinkered perspectives, we risk cutting ourselves off from a wealth of information that could bring us closer to genuine inter-cultural understanding.
How should we define multiculturalism? It seems to me that the clue is in the name: multiple cultures, coexisting peacefully and harmoniously together. Considering the kinds of incidents that still take place, even in our ostensibly post-racial society - the majority of incidents on the Institute of Race Relations's list of racially-motivated murders that have taken place since the Stephen Lawrence case, eighteen years ago, failed to even make the news - it would be naïve of me to state that we have managed that yet. Certainly, it would speak to my position as a member of the hegemonic culture, which has trained its members to look the other way when we encounter racial and cultural oppression. We in England still struggle, as a culture, to live side by side with that which is different from ourselves without retreating or lashing out.
To take this as a sign that multiculturalism has failed, however, is simply defeatist. If we gave up on all of our projects at the first sign of difficulty, we would never accomplish anything. Multiculturalism requires a readiness to learn and a capacity for good faith, both of which are difficult to develop; this is undeniable. But the challenge it presents does not make it an impossible ideal or a worthless endeavour - it only means that we have to put in effort equal to the difficulty, if we hope to get it right.
And it requires a good deal of effort; as a former imperial power, we are less accustomed to reaching out as equals and trying to learn than to storming in and taking what we want. The process of compromise that multiculturalism involves, particularly on the part of the hegemonic culture, is not an easy one for us - we need only look at David Cameron's thoughts on Europe to see that. But we cannot afford to isolate ourselves if we are to have any chance of learning to be better, and of making the world a better, kinder place for generations to come.
Learning, after all, is the source of true social change. When we, the people, try to understand and learn from one another - to share our experiences, to listen to others as they do the same - we lay the foundations for a society in which everyone can feel welcome. It's still very much a work in progress; we have a long way to go. But that doesn't mean we should discount the distance we've already covered, and turn back.