Integration: towards new interdependent identities
I was catching up on some podcasts a few weeks ago and chanced on a segment in BBC Radio 4’s “Thinking Aloud”, where Steven Tepper talked about his research on disputes over art in different American cities. It was a fascinating recount in itself, but what caught my attention was his analysis of why such protests tended to happen in some places and not others: he found “cities that experience the greatest rates of immigration in the 1980s fought the most over art and culture in the 1990s”. He went on to emphasise that the fighting was not over immigrant art, but “over a whole range of things”. It seems that immigration unsettles and triggers change, and Tepper believes that “art controversies are a way to negotiate and work through these changes, and to try and reassert one set of values over another.”
It might be too obvious to say that with the rise of immigration comes the clash of values. Is this why “integration” is such a hard problem? And is solving it only a matter of reaffirming and reasserting values, or playing down our divisive vocabulary? Is it a matter of making sure everyone speaks the language of our nation? Of course, I use the word “only” in its wryest sense. At its most contentious, we are talking about disagreements on women’s rights, the acceptance of the LGBT community, approaches to capital punishment, and so forth, let alone whose is Abraham’s God. We throw words like “fundamentalism” around, and sadly, it is more often associated with “Islamism” when it should also rightly refer to a variety of political and religious zealotry.
But this isn’t the first time the human race has encountered this discomfort when different cultures with different beliefs meet.
A couple of weeks ago, on the BBC World Service’s “World Have Your Say” program, Ros Atkins spoke to Falkland Islanders in the city of Stanley. In that discussion, Ros remarked that the Falkland Islanders expressed their Britishness in a more overt way than people in Britain do — “British and Proud” badges on their ties, Union Jacks flying from cars — such that the Falkland Islands are “almost more British than Britain”. One of the interviewees explained that they felt they had to assert their Britishness because of the current political climate in the Falklands.
But here’s an older example, a segment from an anthropology study by Ju-Kang Tien, who was sent by the British Colonial Office to undertake research on the Chinese immigrants to Sarawak from 1948 to 1949:
Except amongst the long established Baba families, it is probably true to say that the richer the Nan Yang Chinese, the more self-consciously he strives to adhere to a ‘Chinese’ way of life. In many of the material details of everyday life, these Nan Yang Chinese often appear more Chinese than the Chinese of China. Amid the alien corn they hark back to Chinese precedents all the more strongly, even tending to conserve what in China itself has been abandoned. A well-to-do Chinese wedding in the Nan Yang brings out replicas of all the old Ming costumes which are seldom seen in China today.
It is, of course, the common tendency of ‘provincial’ communities everywhere to be some twenty or thirty years behind the times. The overseas Chinese communities are large, contacts with home fairly easy, the sense of the superiority of the Chinese culture almost complete. It is not surprising, then, to find such faithful reproductions of the material background of Chinese life, even if the reproduction is old-fashioned and sometimes ludicrously over-emphasised. When a certain Kongsi house was being built in Sarawak, the pillars, which had been made rectangular after the usual local pattern, had to be take out and rounded off because ‘in China they are always circular’.
In part this emphasis upon things Chinese is an expression of a great nostalgia for home.
Going back to Tepper’s point: it is not surprising then, that when there is a high incidence of immigration, where we keep meeting other people who are not like us, that we all naturally hang on tighter to our values, and therefore our identities. Or rather, we hang onto what we believe our identities comprise: religious values, cultural artifacts, dress, and customs. It should surprise us less that there would be a rise of fundamentalism on all sides. If fundamentalism is the boiling down of beliefs to “pure truths”, we can see the attraction — a belief system that lacks complex nuances is more easily absorbable, communicated and spread, also more easily digested. It is also possible to think that this simplicity becomes mistaken for a form of enlightenment, where the “clarity” cuts through the hubbub of other possible interpretations.
In the last two weeks, we saw France go through social and political upheaval after Mohamed Merah killed a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school, having shot three French soldiers of North African origins the previous week.
David Meyer said it best in his excellent Guardian Comment Is Free article “Don’t let Toulouse blow out the flame of French diversity”:
Facing the multiple nature of one’s identity within the framework of a shared national citizenship is not easy and it has never been. […] Retreating behind the walls of a simple one-dimensional identity is nothing but a trap. The false sense of security it provides will only lead to a desperate lack of oxygen. Jews and Muslims in France today are at a crossroads. The Toulouse tragedy could tempt both communities into retreating behind the boundaries of their respective communities. France as a nation could also be tempted to evade the complex makeup of its diverse population, seeking refuge behind an illusory French traditional identity.
It’s hard to remember that our values and identities change depending on whether we feel confident or threatened, because it is one of those things that is very difficult to keep tabs on. While we like to think our identities have always been constant throughout history, the truth is: we absorb and change, and adjust our identities as is convenient for us at this point in time. We now know the us-and-them mentality is coded into our reptilian brains. Throw into the mix current issues of scarcity, economic downturn and unemployment, it is not a surprise that we all start to pull back to what we believe is our common denominator identity, dangerously close to a fundamentalism — whether religious or cultural — and we begin to convince ourselves that there must be such a thing as a “national identity”. Until we figure out how to make more of us feel part of a bigger tribe — bigger than the geographical bounds of a nation — and invent the crossroads where our cultures can be interdependent and cross-pollinate, left to its own, the act of integrating is contrary to natural behaviour.
Successful, long term integration cannot mean that we make immigrants to our shores “more like us”. Nor does it mean that we annihilate any differences. Because our identities and values are moving targets, we have the potential to strive for a new collective and inclusive identity, and this is something that all of us can and should take advantage of. Whether we were born here or we came to live here and start lives anew, all of us need to be willing to change.
A survey conducted in Germany in October 2010, revealed that 55% of Germans considered Muslims as burdensome to the local economy. In another study, 33% of Germans view immigrants as settling in the country to abuse its welfare benefits. Germany happens be the best welfare state in the EU boasting almost 28% of its DEP allocate to the best programs for healthcare, pension plan, accident, and unemployment insurance long with tax-financed child and family services.
But these findings were disputed in an annual report released by the country’s Advisory Council for Integration and Migration in May 2010. The council’s head, Klaus Bade, reported that the barriers to social integration between Germany and ethnic immigrants are breaking down with encouraging results.
The council surveyed in excess of 5,000 people that included Germans and immigrant to establish an integration baseline barometer with both groups surveyed as to how they fell about each other. Surprisingly, 54% of German trusted fellow citizens while around 66% of immigrants said they fully or partially trusted Germans. In addition, the same two-thirds perceived Germans as being honestly interested in social integration.