“Multiculturalism and assimilationism are different policy responses to the same problem: the fracturing of society. And yet both have had the effect of making things worse. It’s time, then, to move beyond the increasingly sterile debate between the two approaches. And that requires making three kinds of distinctions.
First, Europe should separate diversity as a lived experience from multiculturalism as a political process. The experience of living in a society made diverse by mass immigration should be welcomed. Attempts to institutionalize such diversity through the formal recognition of cultural differences should be resisted.
Second, Europe should distinguish colorblindness from blindness to racism. The assimilationist resolve to treat everyone equally as citizens, rather than as bearers of specific racial or cultural histories, is valuable. But that does not mean that the state should ignore discrimination against particular groups. Citizenship has no meaning if different classes of citizens are treated differently, whether because of multicultural policies or because of racism.
Finally, Europe should differentiate between peoples and values. Multiculturalists argue that societal diversity erodes the possibility of common values. Similarly, assimilationists suggest that such values are possible only within a more culturally—and, for some, ethnically—homogeneous society. Both regard minority communities as homogeneous wholes, attached to a particular set of cultural traits, faiths, beliefs, and values, rather than as constituent parts of a modern democracy.
The real debate should be not between multiculturalism and assimilationism but between two forms of the former and two forms of the latter. An ideal policy would marry multiculturalism’s embrace of actual diversity, rather than its tendency to institutionalize differences, and assimilationism’s resolve to treat everyone as citizens, rather than its tendency to construct a national identity by characterizing certain groups as alien to the nation. In practice, European countries have done the opposite. They have enacted either multicultural policies that place communities in constricting boxes or assimilationist ones that distance minorities from the mainstream.
Moving forward, Europe must rediscover a progressive sense of universal values, something that the continent’s liberals have largely abandoned, albeit in different ways. On the one hand, there is a section of the left that has combined relativism and multiculturalism, arguing that the very notion of universal values is in some sense racist. On the other, there are those, exemplified by such French assimilationists as the philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, who insist on upholding traditional Enlightenment values but who do so in a tribal fashion that presumes a clash of civilizations.
There has also been a guiding assumption throughout Europe that immigration and integration must be managed through state policies and institutions. Yet real integration, whether of immigrants or of indigenous groups, is rarely brought about by the actions of the state; it is shaped primarily by civil society, by the individual bonds that people form with one another, and by the organizations they establish to further their shared political and social interests. It is the erosion of such bonds and institutions that has proved so problematic—that links assimilationist policy failures to multicultural ones and that explains why social disengagement is a feature not simply of immigrant communities but of the wider society, too. To repair the damage that disengagement has done, and to revive a progressive universalism, Europe needs not so much new state policies as a renewal of civil society.”