‘So, Minette Marrin – all cultures are equal, yes or no?” This was the challenge put to me live and rather scarily by a BBC World Service presenter a few years ago. She was chairing a debate about multiculturalism in front of a large audience of people who were mostly black or brown. Judging from her manner and from the previous panellists’ remarks, her question was one of those that expect the answer yes, at least from a civilised person.
“No,” I said firmly, but nervously, since I don’t like inviting contempt and anger any more than anyone else. Those were the days when the multicultural orthodoxy prevailed and when it was genuinely hard to point out that cultures that treat women as irresponsible inferiors, that hang young gay men, mutilate criminals and silence debate are not equal to ours. They are inferior and it is not self-evidently racist to say so.
For at least 20 years there was a debilitating fog of moral relativism in the air, a miasma of guilty self-loathing, to the point when some natives persuaded themselves that although all other cultures were equal, ours alone was less equal than others, or might at least be offensive, and should be suppressed. Even the phrase “host culture” was considered unacceptable.
We have moved on since then, supposedly, and surprisingly suddenly. Many prominent multiculturalists, including the Commission for Racial Equality itself, have recently performed swift U-turns and the bien-pensant orthodoxy now is that multiculturalism has been a divisive failure. Integration is the new big thing.
The host culture is no longer to be demonised, but to be accepted and respected. Even manipulative politicians, such as Gordon Brown, now realise that saying so will do them no harm these days. It might seem, superficially, that the Victoria Climbié report and the massacre of 7/7 in London, among other shocks, have brought us back at last to our cultural senses and our cultural self-respect.
Not entirely so, unfortunately. There are still signs that many people are in the grip of the old orthodoxy; its hold on public institutions and the public mind seems to be remarkably persistent. A week ago The Sunday Times reported that some Muslim workers in Sainsbury’s are refusing to check out purchases of alcohol on the debatable ground that it’s against their religion. Whenever the sinful stuff is presented by a customer at the till, the Muslim expects an infidel colleague to hurry over and sully his or her hands with the transaction instead.
This is preposterous and a depressing sign of the times. But the painful truth is it would be just as preposterous to blame the Sainsbury’s Muslims. For years now ethnic minorities have been encouraged to insist on their cultural differences and on their human right to have these differences respected and actively promoted. It is hardly surprising that they have responded by doing so. It is those who have encouraged them who are to blame.
The point about this story is not the absurd demand, but that Sainsbury’s gave into it, quite unnecessarily, of its own free will. It wasn’t even being pressed to do so by any prominent Muslim figures. Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, leader of the Muslim Parliament, said last week: “This is some kind of overenthusiasm. One expects professional behaviour from people working in a professional capacity and this shows a lack of maturity. The fault lies with the employee who is exploiting and misusing their goodwill.”
Surely the fault lies with Sainsbury’s, for cultural funk. And it lies with all those others who out of some strange abandonment of common sense – such as the government’s laissez-faire guidelines on wearing Muslim veils in schools last week – bottle out.
Think of the headmistress in Yorkshire who removed stories about pigs, including the Three Little Pigs, from her school in case they might offend her tiny Muslim pupils. Think of the councils that have banned Christmas, or hot cross buns, or the council worker who banned a flyer about a Christmas service from a council notice board but held a party to celebrate Eid.
I remember being shown round a good care home for young people dying of a terrible degenerative disease. Unable to move, talk, see, hear, taste or eat, they had to be spoon-fed pureed food and the staff told me proudly that they made a point of respecting cultural and ethnic differences. In practice this meant that one person (the only person who was not 100% British) had a great deal of meat in her puree (unlike the others) because she was a Turkish Cypriot, from a meat-eating culture.
I could only assume these care workers were the victims of extensive brain washing. Theirs was the behaviour of underconfident and undereducated people who have been ceaselessly bullied by ideologues.
This example is trivial, but there are countless well documented cases that are not trivial, because cumulatively they constantly wear away at our customs and our identity – we being the host culture. In many cases Muslims (or Jews or Hindus – or Cypriots no doubt) who are asked to comment say publicly that it was all quite unnecessary. They would not have been offended at all and nobody had bothered to ask them. People in the grip of this daft racial correctness take it upon themselves, or make others feel obliged to go far further than good manners or common sense or the law would take them.
In the case of European Union regulations this is known as gold plating and the British bureaucrat is notorious for it. Some – perhaps a lot – of the European red tape and rules that we love to hate may not be European at all but British, added on to satisfy the strange moral imperatives of interfering apparatchiks. Ethnic gold plating is even more mysterious; it comes from a decadent loss of belief in ourselves, in our own culture and in its superiority – warts and all – to others that may threaten it.
No well mannered person wants to go about pronouncing that western civilisation, particularly the British variety, is better than others. But sometimes it is necessary to risk giving offence, to defend what matters. It may not cause offence; it might even command respect.