Phil Ryan, Carleton University
Politics is in part a battle over the meaning of words. Imagine, for example, a parallel universe where United States fundamentalist Pat Robertson’s definition of feminism had become dominant: “Feminism is a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.” If you don’t remember that vivid definition, it’s because feminists have at least been successful enough to prevent the most outrageous characterizations of their dreams from becoming “accepted wisdom.”
Consider, on the other hand, competing definitions of socialism. For Karl Polanyi, it represents a necessary attempt by any industrial civilization to tame the market, and to put the economy at the service of a democratic society. Sarah Palin, on the other hand, defines it as... Well, I don’t quite know how she defines it. But I do know that when she declares that “Obama is leading America towards socialism,” it’s an accusation, not a compliment. It’s clear which understanding of socialism – democratic requirement or ominous menace – is more influential in North America today. The eclipse of socialism is both a cause and an effect of the popularity of the word’s bogeyman connotations. Lose the political struggle, and you’ve lost the battle for meaning.
Lose the battle for meaning, and political success is that much more difficult. The politics and struggle over meaning brings us to the debate about ‘multiculturalism’.
It’s a commonplace that the word multiculturalism means different things to different people. But in research for my book Multicultiphobia, I came across a remarkable aspect of this confusion: “official multiculturalism.”
Normally, we expect the phrase “official X” to refer to a government understanding or definition of X. Thus, “official unemployment” would naturally refer to a government definition of the concept. Similarly, the “official line on Afghanistan” would denote the ongoing positions coming out of, for example, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, the Department of National Defence, the Prime Minister’s Office, and so on.
Not so with “official multiculturalism.” All sorts of claims are made about it. These claims are almost never supported by reference to some official source. When, for example, a Calgary Sun columnist declares that “official multiculturalism” tells an immigrant that, “You’re coming to live in a country so confused and degenerate we’ve decided our culture isn’t worth preserving, defending or extending,” evidence is neither offered nor, it would seem, expected.
The roots of this strange practice? Anti-immigration activist Martin Collacott offers a clue, when he claims that: “The nature as well as the drawbacks of official multicultural policy has been amply described by a number of well-known Canadian writers. Notable among them are Richard Gwyn in The Unbearable Lightness of Being Canadian [sic], Neil Bissoondath in The Cult of Multiculturalism: The Selling of Illusions [sic], Jack Granatstein in Who Killed Canadian History? and Daniel Stoffman in Who Gets In?”
Apparently because these works have “amply described” the “official” policy, no first-hand study of that policy is required. That the works of Bissoondath and Granatstein, among others, contain almost no direct citations of official sources does not trouble Collacott, or the many others who have followed their lead.
Notice something else: Collacott’s mangling of the titles of Bissoondath and Gwyn’s books. This suggests that his understanding of “official multiculturalism” may be based on books that he may not have read. He is not alone in this: in the 1990s, many conservative critics embraced Bissoondath’s rendering of “official multiculturalism,” citing not his book itself, but “a recent article in Saturday Night magazine” or “an editorial dealing with Mr. Bissoondath’s latest book.”
This practice of relying on the vision of multiculturalism offered by Bissoondath and others continues. If you have access to a news database, plug in the phrase “official multiculturalism” and check how many times the usage actually refers to some official document or statement. Of forty-five National Post articles that use the phrase, for example, just two make some reference to actual government policy. For the rest, “official multiculturalism” is a versatile bogeyman that: contributed to the Air India bombing; leads to “importing prejudices and nursing antipathies”; encourages “anti-Semitic, anti-Western sentiment”; prevents Canada from thwarting terrorist plots; and on, and on.
Nearly a half-century ago, philosopher Herbert Marcuse in One-Dimensional Man critiqued an authoritarian language that “speaks in constructions which impose upon the recipient the slanted and abridged meaning.” True then. True now. The hypnotic power of “official multiculturalism” seems to prevent those who hear and read the phrase from asking whether the wild claims made about it are really true.
Of course the word “multiculturalism” is often used without an adjective. But the chronic misrepresentation of “official multiculturalism” spares people the effort of trying to understand what the explicit goals of the policy were, the concrete means by which those goals have been pursued, and, just as importantly, the ways in which successive governments have failed to pursue those goals with sufficient energy.
The misrepresentation, in other words, spares people from any serious reflection on issues connected with diversity, inclusion and justice. They can retreat into a set of simple polar opposites: minority Canadians should integrate rather than huddling together in ghettos, they should become “like us,” embrace our values, rather than “clinging to their old traditions,” and so on.
Today, some would throw up their hands and declare the battle for the meaning of multiculturalism to be lost. “Multiculturalism should be struck from the national vocabulary,” declares the Globe and Mail: we will “refocus the debate” by talking about “pluralism” instead. A shift away from multiculturalism to the use of pluralism will apparently lead Canadians to “take their civic role more seriously.”
Given we have collectively failed to fix an uncontested meaning of “multiculturalism” in the national mind, why assume that “pluralism” will remain immune from conflicting interpretations? There are no simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers to multiculturalism. If there is anything that the sad history of Canadian multicultiphobia has taught us, it is that when an ideal or policy – such as multiculturalism – is opposed by media and political elites it will always be vulnerable to caricature and misrepresentation.
There is a great cost: The proposed shift from multiculturalism to pluralism suggests to the country and the world that something has failed in Canada. Just what is that something? Well, we don’t know, do we, because we were unwilling or unable to clarify just what we wanted Canadian multiculturalism to be or become. But despite decades of opposition and vituperative ridicule, this something has been embraced by millions of Canadians as one of the aspects of Canada they most cherish. To bury the word “multiculturalism” will trouble many Canadians who hope for a more just and inclusive society and, perhaps, embolden those with a very different and perhaps a much less inclusive vision.
Politics is in part a battle over the meaning of words. But it is many other things as well. At its best, it can be a space in which a society consciously reflects on what it wishes to become. Issues related to multiculturalism can be a rich stimulus to such reflection, as they touch on so many of our important values and hopes. Fiddling with vocabulary, declaring “Multiculturalism is dead, long live pluralism,” will not magically solve social problem and controversies, or engender a more inclusive and cohesive society.
In the end, we have little choice in a democracy: we must continue our collective reflections, however wearying and frustrating we may find them.
Phil Ryan is an associate professor in the School of Public Policy and Administration at Carleton University.