Immigration and Culture Fascism

by Benjamin Studebaker

One of the recurrent themes in western discourse is what is to be done with immigrants, minorities, people who come from different places and different backgrounds. To what extent should they be made to adjust to the societies they join, and to what extent should the societies they join make allowances for them? Today, I seek to answer those questions.

There are four answers commonly given in political theory as to what should be done:

  1. Assimilation–minorities and immigrants should be encouraged to and/or made to adopt the majority culture.
  2. Integration–minorities and immigrants should fuse their culture with the majority culture.
  3. Benign Neglect–the state should apply laws without any sensitivity to culture in any direction.
  4. Multiculturalism/Special Recognition–the state should actively protect minority and immigrant cultures and permit their members special exemptions from offending laws.

As I see it, the only ethical answer is #3, benign neglect. Why? Everything else is fascism.

Why is everything else fascism? To understand that, you have to understand what culture is. What we commonly refer to as “culture” is a set of beliefs, ways of doing things, traditions, and so on. It represents a collection of philosophical and lifestyle choices generalised under one name and usually common to people from specific geographical locations.

What is important to note is that no person is strictly speaking of a specific culture. Cultures are abstract generalisations. Consider the culture most familiar to most of my readers–western culture. Western culture is a broad generalisation. Contained within western culture are a variety of beliefs, traditions and practices, but no one individual adopts all of the behaviours that are part of what we call western culture. Not every westerner likes rap music, or rock and roll, or Christianity, or duck hunting, or basketball, or alcohol, or self-selected marriage, or Morgan Freeman, or any of the other elements of this culture. We individually pick and choose what ideas, traditions, interests, and behaviours to adopt for ourselves and which to discard. I’m an American and I am, for instance, a basketball fan, and basketball is one of many elements of American culture, but I am not an American football fan despite the fact that American football is also an element of the culture to which I am meant to belong. As outsiders attempting to describe the behaviours of individuals, we sometimes group them together as “cultures”, but too often we go further than that and treat cultures as monoliths. Oh, you are from India? Then you must be a Hindu, worship cattle, enjoy elephants, and so on. Oh, you are from France? Then you must love wine and cheese, be catholic, be a socialist, oppose the Iraq War, and so on. None of this is the least bit true. “Culture” is a sweeping generalisation, nothing more, and sweeping generalisations have limited usefulness.

So, when the state promotes a culture, what is it really doing? It is promoting certain elements of a generalised life philosophy. If say, a state promotes what it takes to be German culture, it might encourage people to hold the religious beliefs that most Germans hold, behave socially as most Germans do, speak German, celebrate German holidays, wear German fashions, eat German food, and so on. But wait a moment, isn’t there something terribly wrong with all of this? No individual German loves everything that is thought of as conventionally “German” in the first place, and in order for a state to do these things, it necessarily corrodes the liberty and legal equality of its citizens. It violates separation of church and state; it legislates, subsidises, or bans speech, matters of taste, and all manner of behaviours and beliefs. For a state to act in such a way is little different from fascism–a given culture, a given array of lifestyle choices, is imposed by a state upon a group of people. It is not merely the case where the majority culture is promoted. Even when the culture being promoted is a minority or immigrant culture, the state is still legislating taste, it is promoting or supporting religions and their customs.

If you make a law that says “everyone has to wear a helmet when riding a bicycle except for Sikhs because Sikhs have a religious requirement that they wear turbans”, you are endorsing the Sikh religion. Either it is a good law to require the wearing of helmets for everyone or it is not. To say that some people do not have to wear helmets because their religion prohibits it makes a fetish of the beliefs of people by permitting people to disobey laws simply because they do not agree with them. Being a Sikh is not a special reason to disagree with a helmet mandate. It is just as arbitrary to say “I have a religious objection to this law and therefore it shouldn’t apply to me” as it is to say that you have a political objection, a moral objection, any kind of objection, and that that objection should have any kind of special force. The whole point of laws is that they determine what conduct is permissible. To elevate religious or cultural objections above other kinds of objections is simply not rational.

Imagine if say, a state considered one’s political beliefs to be part of one’s culture. In a very real sense, political beliefs are cultural. We group together with other people who share our political beliefs, political beliefs are often common to many people from certain geographical locations, and many of our political ideas come from traditions and from our backgrounds. It is not much of a stretch. What if government was “culturally sensitive” to people’s political views? If the government were to adopt an attitude of assimilation, we would see a tyranny of the majority. If the government were to adopt an attitude of special recognition, minorities would be exempted from laws with which they politically disagreed. Pacifists would pay no tax for defence, libertarians would pay no tax for welfare spending, and so on down the line. Such a state simply could not rule successfully, everyone would get an exemption from everything with which they disagreed. How ludicrous is it to say that one’s culture is any better reason for special dispensation than a genuine, well-reasoned political objection? And yet, were we to permit people to disobey laws on political grounds, nothing would get done.

If we decide to pass a law, we have decided that the arguments against it simply do not countervail its benefits. That is true whether the arguments against it are cultural, political, economical, religious, or what have you. For the state to say that any life choice the effects of which do not harm society is the right choice, or that a given choice or set of choices allows one to violate the laws, represents a totalitarian fascist policy of imposing beliefs, values, etiquettes, and ways of living upon citizens. It spoils our liberty and strangles our freedom.

The only proper way to treat people culturally is with free and equal impartiality–benign neglect. No matter what your beliefs or customs, the same laws must apply to everyone, and they must be non-discriminatory. Language potentially is an exception, but only because a person who does not learn the most common language in the country in which said person lives is demonstrably less economically effective than one who does. Society has the right to legislate that citizens obtain minimum levels of education and skills for the purpose of promoting economic efficiency, and those skills can include language skills. To not possess such skills harms others. Outside of that, I see very little that we commonly term “culture” that warrants state encouragement, for all culture really amounts to are beliefs and life choices, and the state ought not to be determining our beliefs and life choices where they have no wider social impact beyond the individual’s own fulfilment.