Diversity, tolerance, and inclusion are some of our society’s guiding lights. You’ll see them illuminating corporate statements, government policies, academic reports and public discourse. Often they’re meant to help us navigate the claims of multiple cultures—based in religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, age, and so on—so that we can co-exist peacefully and learn from each other. Genuine diversity and inclusion would be a good thing, producing a more cohesive society, stimulating diverse thinking to produce better outcomes, and opening up more opportunities. But paradoxically the version we’re offered often seems to divide more than it unites, stifling tolerance, erecting barriers between cultures, and splintering us into ever-smaller groups.
Readers will remember that we’re mounting an expedition through How to be a Conservative, the 2014 book by Sir Roger Scruton that explores what conservatism is by, in part, considering the truth in other philosophies. We’re up to chapter 7, “The truth in multiculturalism.” It’s worth noting that Scruton comes to this discussion from the perspective of someone defending his own indigenous inheritance, a point we’ll return to later.
Many people, and many peoples, can live together harmoniously because “social membership” is open to everyone. No-one can or should be excluded by virtue of religion, kin, or ethnicity. This, Scruton believes, is the truth in multiculturalism. But he also identifies a paradox: to hold social membership open to all and still remain something sufficiently cohesive to be called a society requires some kind of bond between us. As he puts it, “Political order, in short, requires cultural unity, something that politics itself can never provide.”
However, Scruton argues that the reality of inclusion does not match the rhetoric because it is not applied evenly. We are told, he says, “that we need to marginalize our inherited customs and beliefs, even to cast them off, in order to become an ‘inclusive’ society …”. He’s particularly concerned with what he calls “political correctness”, which might be labelled “wokeness” in our day, as manifested in the rejection of “Western civilisation” as a body of learning and culture. This remains a contemporary concern—Professor Cornel West and Jeremy Tate were recently moved to write that, “The Western canon is, more than anything, a conversation among great thinkers over generations that grows richer the more we add our own voices and the excellence of voices from Africa, Asia, Latin America and everywhere else in the world. We should never cancel voices in this conversation …”
According to Scruton, this gap between reality and rhetoric is a feature, not a bug, because the drive towards inclusivity often involves the rejection of truth. He traces this to the post-modern thinkers powered by Nietzsche’s famous assertion, “There are no truths, only interpretations.” Proponents of inclusivity latch onto this dogma because if there’s no truth, everyone has the same claim to validity and legitimacy, and no-one will be excluded. To put it another way, every culture is self-contained, judged only by its own internal criteria and not against any objective or rational standard that might confirm some cultural assumptions but question others. Scruton points out, though, that this approach is applied inconsistently—advocates of inclusion judge Western culture and Western history against standards of morality that would have made no sense inside that culture at that time. We see this in the sweeping contemporary assertion that anything inherited from the West must be rejected as we “decolonise,” an attitude ably satirised by the fictional Twitter personality Titania McGrath.
The rejection of truth also dissolves the bonds that might have united us across our differences. If there are no universals, then there cannot be any unity. As Scruton puts it, “there is no such thing as a community based in repudiation. The assault on the old cultural inheritance leads to no new form of membership, but only to a kind of alienation.” Those whose cultural inheritance is rejected end up rootless, and our alienated identity groups splinter into mutually uncomprehending factions, defined only by our differences.
Scruton’s point about repudiation and alienation will no doubt sound familiar to others who have experienced the rejection of their cultural inheritance, like Māori in nineteenth and twentieth century New Zealand whose language and traditions were suppressed. This is why, although Scruton is describing the rejection of his own indigenous inheritance, his arguments are relevant in other contexts and lands. It’s also relevant because although Western culture was imported here it has in some sense, through the passage of time and the exercise of creativity, become a part of what is ‘ours’ alongside the indigenous culture that predates it and alongside others that have joined more recently. But this process of change is where Scruton’s argument seems weakest, and where I felt most acutely the challenge of understanding and interpreting a rather difficult and at times uncomfortable chapter. He describes how others can join a community—by accepting its culture—but apart from a brief reference to that culture adapting to include newcomers, doesn’t discuss how their culture inevitably and legitimately becomes intertwined with the host culture, forging a new inheritance over time. Instead, the chapter reads as someone defending the Western inheritance as at a particular moment in time, against militant Islamic immigrants and post-modern academics, and the question of cultural change hovers just out of view.
Despite this, I think Scruton helpfully reminds us that we must, and do, have something that transcends our differences to knit us together into a society—that is, our common humanity. As I’ve argued elsewhere, this provides the unity that makes it possible to be diverse and cohesive. A deadening cultural uniformity will not sustain us, but nor will the thin gruel of inclusivity. We need universal truths, not relative ones, to hold us together across our differences.