Identity and equality: an impossible choice?

Increasingly much of many western countries’ domestic policy seems to be absorbed in reconciling the relationship between a unified nation state and minorities of various kinds, especially where the minority in question imports a different set of social and cultural practices and values. That is, after all, why the large black and Asian populations within the UK stand in such different relationships to the wider population: while groups of West Indian and (to a lesser extent) African origin share a good deal of the pre-existing British culture, the Islamic and Hindu groups from the Indian sub-continent and east Africa not only bring quite different religions and cultures but also social institutions such as banks and commercial networks that made it quite unnecessary to participate in a great deal of the host society.

The latter point is crucial. Anyone with the least knowledge of, say, West Indian family structure recognises that it resembles conventional British systems very little. However, whatever the implications of this fact, they can at least expect to be lived and acted out within the context of British society as a whole, and any conflict between the two sides is likely to find both expression and (eventually) resolution. But where more strongly organised groups enter (and that may be by migration or internal development, of course), part of their organisation will consist of mechanisms for isolating the sub-culture from the indigenous culture and often for actively resisting any such accommodation. Furthermore, this is likely to be especially strong once the in-coming group recognises that its initial aspirations are unlikely to be met and the host society declines to treat them decently.

The crucial problem this creates for the ‘host’ societies (I must admit, I am unhappy about all this terminology of ‘indigenous’, ‘sub-culture’, ‘hosts’, ‘migrants’, and so on) seems to be to create a way of managing societies in such a way that everyone can express their own cultural identity, yet co-exist on equal terms within a single framework for society as a whole. This is the classic problem of ‘civil society’.

This in turn generates two problems for would-be policy-makers. Firstly, if you don’t clearly separate identity from equality, you will almost guarantee conflict. Secondly, if you do manage to separate them from one another, you will find that they are irreconcilable.

If you don’t clearly separate identity from equality, you will almost guarantee conflict. Everyone involved in policy-making, implementation and enforcement is a member of a particular culture. My impression is that, by and large, politicians, judges, policemen, civil servants, social workers, teachers, editors, journalists, media magnates and other mediators of social relationships are overwhelmingly members of the same culture, and, I am afraid, pretty unreflective about values, be it their own or others’. So even where they are keen to avoid imposing any particular identity, I can’t see how they will avoid imposing their own. Imagine that in a country whose largest-selling newspapers are the Daily Mail and the Sun

But even if you do manage to create systems that allow you to distinguish between identity and equality in principle, you will soon find that they are irreconcilable. For as far as I am aware, no major culture of any substance limits its prescriptions to what its own members should do. All define either what all people should do, and so find (literal or metaphorical) non-believers culpable in their non-belief, or define their members as inherently superior to non-members, or at least define an asymmetric relationship between members and non-members. In other words, whatever exponents of civil society may think, the notion of identity simply cannot be extricated from that of equality or from any of the major structures and processes of a contemporary nation state.

For example, Christian and Islamic fundamentalists share the belief that law has already been ordained by God, and that the only role of legal establishments is to interpret and implement that law. Whether the source is Leviticus or the Koran, it is wholly inappropriate for human beings to be inventing laws by themselves, other than within the very narrow bounds set by revelation. So that’s democracy dead, then. In many cases, membership of the approved sub-culture is regarded as prerequisite to membership of the decision-making process. George Bush Snr once remarked that ‘I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots . This is one nation under God’ [here]. He apparently wasn’t keen to go much further, but it’s an illuminating statement. Not too far from that to disenfranchising anyone the state deems an unbeliever. So that’s equality before the law out the window too.

I have no idea what the answer to this conundrum is. I suspect that there isn’t one, or rather that the solution will emerge in the usual dialectical (and potentially violent) manner. But in such a situation, surely the last thing you should do is make any attempt to solve the first problem in any formal manner. As soon as you do, one of two things will happen: either you will find yourself imposing one particular identity or you will make the second problem absolutely unavoidable.

In the former case you may well have persuaded yourself that certain key values can be legitimately generalised, because ‘surely’ everyone (‘every right-thinking individual’?) would subscribe to such values, but that would be fatal. But what are these true universals? A belief in democracy? Individual rights? Respect for the right of others to practice their beliefs in peace? But which of these is compatible with fundamentalism of any kind – Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Hindu – or even secular?

On the other hand, the people who are taking it upon themselves to solve it are perhaps the least qualified to do so: politicians like Tony Blair whose sensibilities are limited to an extraordinarily narrow (and rigidly a priori) conception of how the world should work. If you are waiting for a solution, don’t hold your breath…

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