Giles Fraser: The three options for diversity

20 October 2010

The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, recently told young members of her Christian Democratic Party that multiculturalism has “failed utterly”. It was wrong to think that economic migrants and native Germans could “live happily side by side”, she said. German Chancellors really shouldn’t say things like this.

But multiculturalism does get a bad press these days, and often from people who ought to know better. There are many, and, indeed, many on the Left, who argue that a society that is too diverse risks squandering the social solidarity that binds people together. Critics rightly point out that in a diverse society, it is much more difficult to develop an agreed account of the common good, because what counts as good is inevitably going to be contested. Thus some pine for a golden age when the people who lived next door looked and thought like me.

But I like diversity. Last night, I went out for a curry with the theo­logian Stanley Hauerwas. We ate at my favourite place, the Lahore Kebab House, behind the East London Mosque. Professor Hauer­was has spent most of his career excoriating the evils of liberalism, the idea that we are the authors of our own moral­ity. This curry house was the best place I could think of to make my case for a limited version of liberal­ism.

The way I see it, there are three options: (1) Frau Merkel’s nostalgia for some monoculture where we all look and sound the same; (2) my commitment to diversity, which may entail a limited retreat from the language of the common good; and (3) Professor Hauerwas’s view that we can have both diversity and vibrant public morality, if we accept that the latter comes with boisterous dis­agree­ment.

I would love no. 3 above to be possible. I, too, love a good scrap, and sometimes we ought to be having more scraps about public morality. But, deep in Muslim Whitechapel, a scrap about the common good looks too close to real fighting to me. Agon­istic pluralism is all very well in the university (I know: it’s a cheap shot), but it is dangerous in a genuinely diverse society.

I do grasp the failures of liberal­ism. There is no coherent sense in which we can make ourselves up morally, ex nihilo. We need a vibrant moral culture in which to flour­ish. But there are times when it is all too sensitive to have the big argument.

Ultimately, liberals believe only in peace — and they want it even if they have to live off the moral fat of the past to achieve it. Indeed, this com­mitment to peace is precisely why liberalism emerged from the English Civil War. Even so, a retreat from the public realm cannot go on for ever. And then it is the Hauerwas way or the Merkel way. I know where I shall stand.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral.

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