Myth # 1: The tradition of European democracy

One of the comforting myths of European society is that it is founded on democracy. Everyone knows about Athens and how the Greeks invented this new form of government, replacing the kings and tyrants with a popular assembly in which one man had one vote. And that’s the first problem with the myth. Athenian democracy was limited to men, and even then only men who had not completed military training. Women, children, slaves and foreigners—the vast majority of people living in Athens in the 4th century BCE had neither a vote nor a voice. It is estimated that just 20% of the adult male population was enfranchised.  Athenian democracy is an inspiring ideal but the reality was, as so often in human affairs, rather less that the idea.

Greak Theatre, CyrpusHappily, Athens had also invented the theatre, a far more public space in which the great moral and political issues of the times were enacted before thousands of spectators of all classes. And in the theatre, everyone had a voice: women, the poor, the young, the old—even slaves: all could be portrayed as actors in the drama. And the theatre—as in Aristophanes’ comedy, Frogs—could even comment on the political debates from which most people were excluded. Greek democracy may have been limited, but its art helped make up the gaps.

Europe looks back at that idealised democratic society and easily forgets that for most of its history, democracy has not even been an ideal. There have been centuries of feudalism, absolute monarchy, imperial rule and anarchy. There have been centuries of struggle towards emancipation. For most of the countries in this semi-continent, democracy has lasted a few decades, a century at most. Remember that women didn’t get the vote in Britain until 1927, in France until 1944 and in Switzerland until 1971. European democracy is, if not a myth, then a fragile, emergent ideal. But it is a brave one that must be fought for no less today than in the past. Its present enemies may be complacency and despair rather than totalitarianism but they are equally dangerous.

Myth # 2: The novelty of cultural diversity

Democracy and theatre are not the only ideas we owe the Greeks. They also gave us the word ‘barbarian’, though it was less pejorative to Athenians than it has since become. For them, a barbarian was simply someone who did not speak Greek, and who therefore ‘babbled’. Crucially, if that person learned the Greek language, and with it Greek culture and values, they could cease to be barbarian. Tzvetan Todorov, in his book La Peur des barbares, argues that the essential qualifications of civilisation were, and still are, conduct, not birth, knowledge, science, technology or culture.

I take two things from this. First, as should be obvious, there have always been different people in Europe: Greeks and barbarians, us and them, I and the other. Diversity is not new: it is the essence of European, indeed of human, experience. Secondly, this ancient experience suggests that the difference has mostly been understood as cultural, not racial. It exists in our minds, not in our bodies, though European colonialism worked hard to persuade the world otherwise. And what exists in our minds is open to change. That is the heart of Martin Luther King’s dream: that we should be judged for how we act, not how we look:

‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.’

 Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.,  Speech 28 August 1963

Human beings do have different experiences, values, traditions, languages, expressions, memories and dreams. They have different cultures. And those cultures, those differences, can seem strange to different people. So what? If that has been a reality since the time of the ancient Greeks, maybe it is time we got over it. Maybe it’s time we simply learned how to live with human diversity.

Myth # 3: The unity of nation states

Why do so many Europeans have trouble accepting the reality of cultural diversity? Perhaps because of ideas they have about their history and identity: the myth of national unity. It is the idea that the nation states that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th century from old principalities and failing empires were natural, homogenous and ethnically unified societies. They were nothing of the kind. In 1900, every European state, large and small, young and old, had a diverse population with people of different cultures, religions and traditions.

Salonica 1994Take a place like Salonica, where my grandfather was born in 1891, a Jewish man in an Ottoman city, where Greeks, Turks, Jews, Vlachs, Roma, Serbs, Bulgars and many other groups lived together more or less harmoniously. Mosques, churches and synagogues filled the city; different schools taught in different languages.It took five wars, mass population exchanges, ethnic cleansing and genocide to turn the diverse city that was Salonica in 1900 into the culturally uniform Greek city called Thessaloniki in 1950. In the subsequent decades, Thessaloniki, like the rest of Europe, has gradually returned to an inevitable—not to say natural—state of human diversity.

Salonica’s experience is distinctive but not unusual. Throughout Europe, the 1950s image of cities and nations as ethnically homogenous was, insofar as it was true at all, largely the result of repression, displacement and mass murder, the destructive and pointless attempt to impose fantastical ideas of unity on populations that were inescapably diverse.

What has happened in the subsequent 60 years is only a return to old realities of cultural diversity that Europeans once thought normal.

Berlin

Cultural diversity and democracy

European societies have experienced much change in recent decades. They have seen the rise of consumer capitalism, the end of communism, new prosperity and inequalities, better education and health care, artistic and media innovation and now, economic crisis and austerity. The resulting political tensions seem to threaten the cherished ideal of democracy in Greece itself. A return to cultural diversity after the genocidal nationalism of the 20th century is just one part of that change, though it receives much attention and troubles many people, as was evident in the recent French Presidential elections. As prosperity and security decline, difference easily becomes a focus for anxiety.

Discussion of diversity has often focused on people from other parts of the world now coming to live and work in Europe, exactly as Europeans once went to live, to work and, let’s not forget it, to rule in other parts of the world. But the recognition of diversity has also enabled previously marginalised groups, such as women, gays, disabled people and others to claim a place in what, after all, is supposed to be a democratic society where each person has a vote and a voice.

This change has been made harder by the three ideas I have touched on. First, the idea that democracy is the normal way of organising European society, rather than something rather recent, which must be built, developed and protected and that is still far from a fulfilled ideal. Secondly, the idea that cultural diversity is new and the result of policies imposed by political elites, rather than simply the ordinary reality of human experience. And thirdly, the idea that European nation states have a natural homogenous character, rather than being, as all humanity is, a mosaic of people, cultures, identities and values. When we do not see the world as it is, we struggle to understand and make the most of our unrepeatable opportunity for life and fulfillment.

Those ideas affect cultural institutions and arts professionals as much as anyone else. Though its discourse suggests otherwise, there is no justification for seeing the arts world as wiser or ethically better than the society of which it is part. Did culture have no part in the present economic and political crisis? If the cultural sector has no responsibility for shaping the beliefs and values that influenced the conduct of people over the past thirty years, it must be as irrelevant at its harshest critics say.

The myths affect cultural policy in various ways, including the belief that cultural policy is democratic, open and generally fair, when in reality the proportion of society that has a voice in public cultural life is comparable to the fifth of adult males who took part in Greek democracy. The cultural world is also inclined to see its present composition and range of expression as being a norm, comparable to the idealised homogenous societies of the 1950s, rather than the result of history, accident and inequality.

British MuseumThe culture protected and promoted by public institutions is in many ways admirable. We might even agree to describe it, in Arnold’s famous phrase, as representing at least some of ‘the best that has been thought and done’. But that should not blind us to the fact that it is also the culture of a particular people, and a specific time and place, and that as such it reflects the full range of their beliefs and values, It may be the best that Europeans have thought and done, but it is not only the best. To take an obvious example, the objectification of women in Western art is, to say the least, somewhat problematic.

Recognition of cultural diversity is a challenge to some of the values, beliefs and meanings of dominant cultures. That challenge may be justified or not: there are always debates to be had about cultural values. But whatever the character of the challenge, it can lead to anxiety and even promote hostility. And we Europeans, with our terrible twentieth century, have no excuse for not understanding the potential consequences of interethnic hostility. How can we void repeating the confrontations of the past? If we accept the reality of cultural diversity, and with it the existence of different, perhaps incompatible, beliefs and values, how can we avoid losing our way in a miasma of cultural relativism? How can we defend our own cultural values while respecting competing visions and narratives?

The Greeks gave us the answer, 2,500 years ago. Democracy is the only legitimate way to secure the right of each person, each autonomous and responsible individual, to their own culture, identity and history. But, as in Greece, that democracy must exist not only in parliaments, but in theatres too.

Theatre le fil 2006

Full, free and equal

If our democracy is to fulfill its promise, it must guarantee each person full, free and equal participation, in the phrase suggested by the philosopher, Joel Anderson (Platform for Intercultural Europe, Discussion Paper). And that full, free and equal participation is not limited to the civil and legal rights usually associated with citizenship. It must include the same rights of cultural participation as those enjoyed by other citizens. It is in the constant interplay of ideas and meanings, dreams and nightmares, feeling and reason enabled by culture that people can fulfil their own potential within a society.

Few people in the cultural sector would disagree with that ideal of participation, at least openly or even consciously. And they might say, with some justification, that the museums, galleries, libraries and theatres are open to everyone. The problem is that, if the values, beliefs and meanings offered by the museums, galleries, libraries and theatres are only those of a dominant group—that part of society that sees its values as being universal, normative and beyond legitimate question—they might as well be closed. Few people are interested in a book in which they find no reference to their own experience or beliefs or, worse, in which their experience and beliefs appear in distorted form.

In the 1950s the democratisation of culture was held simply to be a matter of ensuring better access to the higher summits of European art for the population. Increasing the number of concert halls, theatres and museums, and reducing the cost of attending, was the principal policy objective. In the 1970s and 1980s, when those taking up the new offer, in numbers and in social background, remained unrepresentative, education, outreach and marketing initiatives were put in place to attract new audiences. More recently still, special programmes have been developed to bring in so-called culturally diverse communities.

Worthy as these successive initiatives have been, they have reached the limit of their potential. It is time for a new approach to cultural policy and new sources of thinking and action that accept diversity as the norm, rather than a single culture, however admirable, and sees cultural democracy as the means through which people can flourish in it. This new approach to cultural policy would prioritise freedom of creative expression, working to ensure that all citizens had full, free and equal opportunities to create as well as to experience the creations of others. It would  see the creative act as a form of public utterance comparable to other forms of social speech in a democratic society: parliament and theatre as equally important social and public spaces.

A novel, a slam, a dance, a film or an image, a rap, a TV show, a performance, a blog—all forms of cultural expression enable people to explore, express, test and share their values, especially those that cannot be articulated through the formal and intellectual speech that is often seen to constitute democratic discourse. And crucially, that creative expression must not be prejudged because to do so is to essentialise its creator, to suggest that, because a person can be described as gay, Indian, female or any other simplifying category, their creativity, their values and their speech can be known and qualified in advance.

There is no justification for saying that a poem is intrinsically better than a rap: all that matters is what the poem and the rap bring into existence, their intrinsic quality and the response they can draw from readers or listeners. And yet, cultural policy is still largely constructed on the idea that certain forms, as practiced by certain social groups, are necessarily more valuable than others .If democracy means anything in this diverse world, it means that such prejudgements should not be built into policy.  Some art is great. Some art is awful. Some art expresses all that is best about human beings. Some art is oppressive, threatening and anti-democratic.

The debates about which is which, the relative worth of different creations and which art works we want to encourage, are of the greatest importance to democracy. They must not be prejudged by cultural policies that determine for us what we should see, enjoy, admire or think. As Todorov  argues:

‘We cannot advance on the path of civilisation without having first recognised the plurality of cultures. A refusal to take account of other visions of the world than our own cuts us off from human universality and keeps us closer to the pole of barbarism.’

Tzvetan Todorov, La Peur des barbares (Paris 2008)

This is the text of a speech given at the Next Step conference, Herning Museum of Contemporary Art, Denmark on 8 June 2012. 

One thought on “Three European myths about diversity

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