When multiculturalists imagine the future, I suspect they have something in mind like the glorious multiplicity of restaurants serving all the cuisines of the world which is now to be found in most large cities. You can eat Thai on Monday, Italian on Tuesday, Szechuan on Wednesday, Hungarian on Thursday, and so forth, without any strain whatever. Anyone who has withstood the rigors of English cooking is bound to welcome this particular development.
However, the multiculturalist vision of the good society seems to me to be about as profound and realistic as Marx's famous description of what life would be like under communism once society was no longer divided into competing classes. In communist society, wrote Marx, nobody would have one exclusive sphere of activity; instead a man might hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and criticize after dinner, just as he had a mind to do, without ever becoming a hunter, fisherman, shepherd, or critic. Under multiculturalism, a man might turn towards Mecca in the morning, sacrifice a chicken in the afternoon, and go to Mass in the evening, without ever becoming a Muslim, an animist, or a Catholic.
As a doctor working in a slum area with many immigrant residents, I see multiculturalism from the ground up rather than from the theory down. And it is clear from what I see almost every day that not all cultural values are compatible or can be reconciled by the enunciation of platitudes. The idea that we can all rub along together, without the law having to discriminate in favor of one set of cultural values rather than another, is worse than merely false: it makes no sense whatever.
Let me say at once that I believe immigration to be a healthy phenomenon, particularly for an otherwise insular and inward-looking country such as Britain. Immigrants are generally hardworking and enterprising and enrich cultural life—provided, that is, they are not given victim status ex officio and their culture is not subjected to the sort of condescending patronage with which the Soviet state treated minorities.
Very large numbers of immigrants do in fact succeed in living in two cultures at once: not because anyone tells them to do so but because they want to and because they must.
Despite such successes, however, conflicts frequently emerge between individuals and groups because of different cultural standards, beliefs, and expectations. For us, these conflicts can be resolved by appeal to the deeply ingrained higher principle embodied in the law, that individuals have the right (within defined limits) to choose how to live. But this Western notion of individualism and tolerance is by no means a conception in all cultures.
I am consulted by large numbers of young women whose parents came to England from India and Pakistan and remain deeply attached to the values which prevailed in the remote villages from which they emigrated 20 or 30 years ago. It is even possible that, despite the enterprising spirit that brought them from their homeland, they are more culturally conservative than their compatriots who remained at home: for migration across half the world is very stressful and disorienting, and old customs therefore become to some immigrants what soft toys are to children in the dark—a source of great comfort.
Be that as it may, their daughters, having grown up in a different cultural environment, no longer accept the customs to which their parents so tenaciously cling and which seem to them unquestionably right and natural. Conflict usually revolves around matters of education, career, and love.
A 16-year-old Muslim girl was referred to me because she had started to wet the bed at night. She was accompanied by her father, an unskilled factory worker of Pakistani origin, and was beautifully dressed in satins and chiffon, her ankles and wrists covered with gold bangles and bracelets. Her father was reluctant to let me speak to her on her own but at my insistence eventually permitted me to do so.
I realized at once that she was both highly intelligent and deeply unhappy, Because of my experience in such cases, it took little time to discover the source of her unhappiness.
Her father had decided that she was to marry in a couple of months' time a man—a cousin—of whom she knew nothing. She, on the other hand, wished to continue her education, to study English literature at university and eventually to become a journalist. Although she controlled herself well—in the circumstances, heroically—there was absolutely no mistaking the passionate intensity of her wishes or of her despair. Her father, though, knew nothing of them: she had never dared tell him, because he was likely then to lock her in the house and forbid her ever to leave, except under close escort. As far as he was concerned, education, career, or choice of husbands was not for girls.
She saw her future life stretch endlessly before her, married to a man she did not love, performing thankless domestic drudgery not only for him but for her in-laws, who, according to custom, would live with them, while always dreaming of the wider world of which she had caught so brief and tantalizing a glimpse at school.
I interviewed her father, also on his own. I asked him what he thought was wrong with his daughter.
"Nothing," he replied. "She is happy, normal girl. Only she is wetting the bed."
There was nothing I could do, other than to prescribe medication. Had I tried to interfere, I could easily have precipitated an extreme reaction on his part. The girl's fears of being locked up were by no means exaggerated or absurd. I have known many instances of girls such as she who were imprisoned in their homes, sometimes for years, by their relatives; there is even a special unit of the local police dedicated to rescuing them, once information has been laid that they are being held at home against their will.
Not that fleeing the parental home is necessarily an answer for a girl in such a situation, for a number of reasons. First, her own feelings towards her parents are likely to be highly ambivalent: family bonds are extremely strong and not easily broken. The daughters love and respect their parents, whom they normally honor and obey, even though the parents inflict upon them a future which will cause nothing but the most prolonged and unutterable misery. The parents are not neglectful and incompetent, like those from the white underclass: according to their lights, they are highly solicitous for what they consider the good of their daughters.
Moreover, the "community" will condemn the girl who runs away and regard her, quite literally, as a prostitute. Since these girls are not fully integrated into the rest of British society and have hitherto led very sheltered lives, they have nowhere to go and nobody to turn to.
In the parents' scale of values, the respect of the community comes higher than the individual happiness of their offspring and indeed is a precondition of it. The need for this respect does encourage a certain standard of conduct, but it depends upon the offspring carrying out without demur the obligations laid upon them by the parents. Thus, once a marriage has been arranged, it is indissoluble—at least by the woman. I have known many young women who have been mercilessly and brutally treated by their husbands, but whose own parents recommended that they put up with the ill-treatment rather than bring public shame upon the whole family by separating from him.
A young patient of mine tried to hang herself. She had had an arranged marriage, but on the wedding night her husband had come to the doubtless mistaken conclusion that she was not a virgin and had administered a severe beating, of which the rest of his family naturally approved. Thereafter he locked her up, beat her regularly, and burned her with a cigarette lighter. She managed to run away, though her husband had said in advance that if ever he caught her doing so, or after having done so, he would kill her, to pay her back for the loss of face she would have caused him in the community. She returned to her mother, who, horrified by her behavior, said she should return to her husband at once (even if he were going to kill her), in order to preserve the good name of the family. Her other daughters would be unmarriageable if it became known in the community that this was the kind of conduct to which the family was prone. If my patient did not return to her husband, she—her mother—would commit suicide. Torn between the threatened suicide of her mother and the prospect of murder by her husband, she took to the rope.
In my quarter of the city, there are private detective agencies that specialize in locating immigrant girls who have run away from their husbands or parents. Once they are found, they are likely to be kidnapped by relatives or vigilantes—an experience which several of my patients have lived through. It is surprising how little reaction bundling someone off the street and driving away with him or her in a car causes nowadays—people do not wish to involve themselves in problems not their own. And the police are generally less than vigorous in their investigation of such cases, for fear of being criticized as racist.
I frequently meet young women whose parents, in flagrant contravention of the law, prevented them from attending school. The parents resort to a variety of subterfuges to protect their daughters from contamination by Western ideas. Complaisant doctors from the same racial and cultural group, who share the concerns of the parents, provide certificates for bogus illnesses, either of the pupil or of the pupil's mother, which require the girl's presence at home. Another technique is for the girl to be sent to school one week in four, to keep the school inspectors at bay. They, too, tread warily, for fear of being accused of acting from racial prejudice.
A patient of mine was thus kept away from school after the age of 11, for fear of being contaminated by Western notions. She was sent back to India for months at a time, so that the school lost track of her. Thanks to very superior natural intelligence, however, and surreptitious reading, for which she had a passion, she was now (at the age of 28) contemplating attending university to study law. But the rest of her story is also instructive and not untypical of what I hear.
At the age of 15 she had been taken back yet again to India, this time in the company of her parents and a 16-year-old boy who until then had been brought up in her house as her brother. When they arrived at the village in Gujurat from which her parents had emigrated, she was told that her "brother" was in fact her first cousin and that she was to marry him next day. This she said she would not do, whereupon her father beat her black and blue. She still bore the scars of her beating, and her face was still slightly asymmetrical where her cheekbone had been fractured. She maintained her opposition, however, until her father threatened to divorce her mother, casting her out, at the age of 45, into the street, unless the daughter consented to the marriage. His threat was not idle.
Reader, she married him. But still it was not enough: the relatives wanted to ensure that the marriage was consummated. Since the happy couple had been brought up as brother and sister, consummation seemed to them rather like incest, but the relatives would not take no for an answer and locked them together in a room for two weeks. They put a tape recorder under the bed to ensure that justice was done. When they discovered that still nothing had happened between them, they threatened violence: whereupon there was a happy ending, and she became pregnant.
She lived with her husband for 12 years after their return to England, never loving him as a husband but fearing to leave him because of her father's reaction. The husband, who likewise had no love for his wife, feared to leave because of his own relatives' reaction. Eventually they did separate but maintained the fiction that they still lived together, a fiction whose verisimilitude it took great expense of effort and ingenuity to maintain—a true expense of spirit in a waste of shame.
One of the conceits of multiculturalism is that the intolerance against which it is supposedly the sovereign remedy is a characteristic only of the host society. In the impoverished imagination of the multiculturalists, all those who do not belong by birth to the predominant culture are engaged in a united struggle against its oppressive and illegitimate hegemony.
The reality, in my experience, is somewhat different. For example, relations between immigrants from the Indian subcontinent and from Jamaica, at least in my city, are often far from amicable, the hostility extending to the generation born in England. Indian families are often dismayed (to put it mildly) when their daughters choose Jamaican lovers. I know of two who have been killed by their close families to redeem family honor in the eyes of their community. The first was hanged at home; the second was taken back to Pakistan, where she was beaten to death, the local police regarding this as the correct procedure under the circumstances.
Religious tolerance is not a value universally admired. Not only is it not emulated or practiced, but the urbane skepticism, indeed the lack of absolute faith, that it implies is regarded by many as anathema. Relations between the Hindu Sikhs and the Muslim Indians, for example, are particularly fraught, and scarcely any greater disaster can befall a family—in the eyes of its respective community—than for one of its own young people to fall in love with a young person of the other religion. The telluric emotions aroused by such liaisons often result in violence. Scarcely a week goes by without a terrible or tragic case coming to my attention.
A pleasant and intelligent Sikh girl, aged 18, was asked by her family to accompany her aged grandmother back home in a taxi, in which she was then to return. The taxi firm was run by Sikhs, who not only acted as transporters of the public but as vigilantes and guardians of their community's honor. The driver in this case reported to the girl's brother on her arrival home that, during the return journey through a neighborhood inhabited mainly by Muslims, she had waved to a Muslim boy. The brother, fearing the worst, called her into his room and asked whether she had in fact done so. She denied it, but he did not believe her. He took out a baseball bat (practically no baseball is played in Britain, but plenty of bats are sold as weapons and lie detectors) and tried to beat what he considered the truth out of her. She later appeared in my hospital with a badly fractured skull, but maintained to the police on her recovery that she had been assaulted on her doorstep by person or persons unknown.
A young Sikh boy formed a liaison with a Muslim girl. He was an outgoing lad, a good student and fine athlete, who represented his school and his city at several different sports. He used to meet his girlfriend clandestinely, in the flat of a young Muslim friend of his—or someone whom he had considered his friend. The friend, however, telephoned the girl's brothers and asked how long they were going to allow their family to be dishonored.
On his way to his evening work, the Sikh boy was attacked with machetes by the girl's three brothers. They knocked him to the ground, threatened to cut his throat next time, and hacked repeatedly at both his arms. This took place within a hundred yards of my hospital's main entrance. He had a compound fracture of his humerus, and so many of his tendons were cut that he will never recover full use of his hands and arms.
The three brothers were duly caught and tried. Unfortunately, they were granted bail, and when it was clear that the trial was certain to result in a verdict of guilty, they failed to attend the court and were sentenced in absentia to long terms of imprisonment. My patient went into hiding in a city 400 miles away, fearing to leave his flat there and sleeping always with a knife under his pillow. He had received information from a reliable source that the three brothers were still looking for him and would kill him if they found him. Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the story is that the three brothers were not regarded as delinquents by other members of their community but as having behaved in a thoroughly honorable and decent way. That they had broken the law in pursuing their vendetta, thus risking imprisonment, only added to their honor: they were spirited boys to be proud of.
Of course my work brings me into contact with the most dramatic instances of such caste, religious, and cultural intolerance, but I could tell very many such stories, the protagonists of which also know of many similar instances unknown to me: thus I am seeing the tip of an iceberg, not—to change the metaphor—the last survivors of a rare and endangered species.
I am by no means concluding that the cultures from which these patients come are worthless, that there is nothing to be learned from them (for example, about the role of family solidarity in enabling many children who live in physically poor conditions to achieve at school), or even that there is nothing whatever to be said in favor of the scale of values they espouse. When I talk to the parents who believe in that scale of values, they often speak most eloquently and intelligently of the social devastation they see around them among the white underclass, for whom human relationships are kaleidoscopic in their changeability, and whose lives are built on the most shifting of sands. I can quite understand that what they see only reinforces their determination to live according to their own beliefs, and that they do not want their children to become like that underclass.
Nevertheless, the painful and inescapable fact remains that many aspects of the cultures which they are trying to preserve are incompatible not only with the mores of a liberal democracy but with its juridical and philosophical foundations. No amount of hand-wringing or euphemism can alter this fact. To allow certain groups to refuse to send their girls to school, on the grounds that it is not in their culture to do so, would be to grant such groups the kind of corporate rights that will inevitably result in chronic civil war, with every conceivable group claiming such rights. Individuals will have to forgo altogether the freedoms in which Western liberal democracy believes.
The idea that it is possible to base a society on no cultural or philosophical presuppositions at all, or, alternatively, that all such presuppositions may be treated equally so that no choice has to be made between them, is absurd. Immigrants enrich—have enriched—our culture, but they do so by addition rather than by subtraction or division.