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The Dilemmas of Identity in Multicultural Society

prof. Zdzisław Mach


Multiculturality is a very trendy concept functioning in contemporary Western societies. We often refer to it as a value, at the same time, acknowledging that it suffers a crisis. Hence, it is worth considering what this phenomenon of multiculturality consists in, what chances and challenges are related to it, and what its perspectives are. These questions are especially significant in today’s Europe where numerous communities coexist along with their own cultural traditions, languages, customs or religions. Among them, there are ethnic minorities which have been settled there, like the Basques, from the time immemorial. There are also groups of immigrants that move to Europe to improve their living conditions, but in most cases they do not want to assimilate culturally, get deprived of their cultural heritage and identity based on it.


Multiculturality is a reality of European society, at the same time, its idea and value. As far as several decades ago there was a popular view in Europe that cultural uniformity, particular homogeneity of culture is an ideal state of society, while differentiation induces conflicts. Now the opinion generating mainstream reflections on social issues is dominated by the opposite view. It advocates multiculturality not only as a necessity, but value in itself and good which should be competently made use of. Multiculturality does not simply mean a multiplicity of cultures within one social system or proximity of groups representing various traditions and ways of living. Multiculturality is something more; it is a social, political and economic integration of individuals and social groups representing different cultures that form one relatively integrated society, cooperating and competing within the scheme of the established values.


Maintaining their cultural differences, they are faithful to their heritage and develop it in a creative manner. With this respect, an ideal would be openness, tolerance, willingness to a dialogue and mutual enrichment of their ways of life, drawing from the repository of other cultures. Hence, multiculturality does not consist in a multiplicity of ethnic ghettos, isolated “strongholds”, but a living stream of intercultural contacts, developing civil society which is politically and socially integrated as well as culturally variegated. 


Great Britain was a country which for years was considered to be strongly orientated towards building multiculturality of this provenience. Of course, it was far from a model ideal; problems and conflicts emerged, discriminating and isolating of minorities occurred. Nevertheless, the British policy related to minorities aimed at building multicultural society, integrated on a civil level, ethnically and culturally variegated.  The British tradition of civil society and acquaintance with a variety of cultures were conductive to it, however, the crisis symptoms have been noticeable over the last few years. It turned out that many immigrant minorities did not intend to integrate within the framework of one civil society; there have been an evident escalation of a tendency for minorities closing themselves in ethnic ghettos, refusing to contact the rest of British society, demanding a right to complete autonomy, including their reluctance to learn English. The reasons for that tendency were discerned in, on one hand, the manifestations of the discrimination of immigrants by the core of British society, on the other hand, the escalation of immigrants’ ethnic nationalism, in particular because the majority of them came from the Muslim countries, thus it is situated in the orbit of the radical Islamic influence.


The issue of identity is situated in the centre of a multicultural spectrum.  The question refers to a way in which people define their collective identity in multicultural society. An identity is a social construction, symbolic image which defines us in relation to others. It replies to the question: „who are we in relation to others?” Hence, it is a construction which originated in the process of a dialogue with other people and social groups, and in relation to community partners. Not all social interaction partners are equally important in the process of creating our identity. Some of them play a particular role – these who are significant for us as “points of reference” in an image of the social world, occupy a special position in our awareness shaped in the course of previous social relations, or are especially significant for our collective, historical memory. Sometimes these relations are symmetrical and sometimes asymmetrical. To give an example, in a process of the historical shaping of Polish national identity the Russians and Germans occupy an exceptional place – they are these “important others” we particularly refer to in a complicated process of forming and interpreting national identity. Other neighbours, the partners of historical relations for the Polish nation, are less significant for us and occupy a less important place in our collective memory. However, we may claim that these are not symmetrical relations – in forming German or Russian national identities the Poles are not as important for them as they are for the Poles (which does not mean: completely unimportant).


The contents of a symbolic image, that is an identity of a group, depends on the relation with „significant others”, how we see them, how we differ from them, and also how they see us in our view. The more complicated a social system is and the richer a multicultural mosaic is, the greater a variety of relations shaping a collective identity of respective groups society is composed of. An identity is a contextual phenomenon – its contents and way of constructing depends on a social context in which it originates. An identity is also dynamic – it is not an invariable construction, although it may seem to be. It changes depending on the transformations of intergroup relations and their significance for people who participate in them. However, sometimes we think that a collective identity is based on some fundamental, constant and unchangeable element; some cultural essence which determines who we are. Sometimes it is common roots, real or imagined, sometimes a race or religion. In each case the belief that such an “essence” exists, defining the character of a collective identity of a group, makes it extremely difficult or simply impossible for people from the outside who do not share this essence to join the group. This kind of identity, sometimes called ethnic, occurs in traditional societies, whereas in the modern world, especially in the West, characterized by growing mobility, this way of building and interpreting an identity is extremely damaging. For it renders accepting newcomers as members of your own group, guaranteeing them full rights, makes them “strangers” forever. On the other hand, this kind of forming a collective identity is conductive to maintaining the autonomy of minorities endangered by unwanted assimilation. A traditional way of building the Jewish identity in which a Jew is a person who has a Jewish mother can serve as an example here. Since you cannot choose your mother you are either a Jew or not, regardless of your will or cultural competence. This state of affairs cannot be changed.


Another way of building an identity which we can call “civil” is the opposite of “essential”. It consists in defining whether you belong to a certain group not by having an indispensable common characteristic, but working towards common good through creative contribution to the life of a group, your will to belong to it confirmed by your actions. Thus we do not ask “who are you?” and “where do you come from?” but “do you want and can co-create our world in the name of shared values?” Here comes, of course, a problem of these common values: who is to choose them and decide on their interpretation. No doubt, there is a danger of imposing “the only right” interpretation of values by a dominating group to which minorities and newcomers have to adapt. The principle of openness, dialogue and negotiation is a partial solution to the problem. Nobody has a monopoly for truth and each interpretation requires justification and argumentation. Negotiated interpretations are accepted by everybody, by also everybody remembers that new interpretations can emerge and new partners can enter the scene, who also have to be allowed an access to a dialogue.  Hence, culture and an identity are dynamic, and creating culture and a collective identity is more a continuous process than constant state of affairs.

Such a “civil” model of identity fits better mobile and diversified, multicultural society in which the principles of a collective life have to be negotiated. Such open, multicultural and mobile society offers conditions which are conductive to actions undertaken by active, creative, talented people who are inclined to control their lives.  In such society people learn how to be open to various forms of living your life, “otherness” in their environment, inclined to be tolerant and respectful to other people who think differently. At the same time, in such an open society free and creative citizens are ready to negotiate common attitudes and values which everybody is ready to accept, at least for the time being.


Hence, multiculturality is a state of society, but also an individual view on the world, attitude in relation to other people and one’s own life. This “multiculturality in us”, socially and culturally formed, is a prerequisite for creative functioning in the diversified world. An ability to question the existing stereotypes, transcending the established boundaries is the opposite of a dogmatic attitude towards the world. Living in open multicultural society based on the principle of a dialogue between diversities, we learn how to deal with otherness and acquire a critical approach to the socially established dogmas. We acquire an ability to understand other, culturally different people and, at the same time, approach ourselves in a critical way, not as depositories of objective truth and the only right way of life, but as participants in the dynamic multicultural world for whom their way of life is one of many possibilities. We learn to interpret the actions of others in relative categories, but also problematize and relativize ourselves. We interpret foreign symbols, foreign creativity but, at the same time, we acknowledge that our own symbols can also be subjected to various interpretations. In particular, we learn to reinterpret these elements of our cultural heritage which most of us consider being absolutely univocal. We realize that the interpretation of cultural symbols, literature, art, historical heritage is and should be take place in the course of a dialogue in which people of various roots and views on the world take part. Therefore our symbolic world ceases to be monopolized by institutions that claim the right to own objective truth, the only true picture of the world.


For years multiculturality has been discussed in western societies where the policy of dealing with emigration and problems, which multiculturality can lead to, has been developed efficiently on a government level. Right now the discussions on these issues are being carried throughout Europe, accompanied by the growing conviction that it is necessary to work out common European immigration policy and take into consideration various models of multiculturality. These processes concern also the EU newly accepted countries, including Poland. Until recently the Poles shared the view that multiculturality is not their “problem” as there are no significant minorities. Moreover, we are not an attractive country for immigrants from outside Europe. However, this view is difficult to be maintained nowadays. There are more and more immigrants arriving and expected economic development of Poland makes our country a more attractive place to emigrate to. It is true that settled minorities are not numerous here, but their contribution to Polish culture and social awareness is more significant than it can be expected by their number (just to mention the Jewish minority). However, the issue is still different, namely the development of civil society in Poland. For the artificially reinforced cultural uniformity of Poland after World War 2 means that several generations of Poles were brought up with no contacts with cultural “others’, neither in a direct experience or public discussion.  They have not developed an ability to deal with otherness in any sense; they are not used to tolerance and respect for otherness, and consider cultural homogeneity and uniformity of a way of life to be normal. It is a way of approaching the world which is different from our past tradition of the multicultural First Polish Republic, but such is our contemporary Polish reality. It has a very bad influence on the development of open pluralistic civil society based on a dialogue and respect for otherness. Therefore an experience of multiculturality and understanding multicultural social life can be recognized an essential prerequisite for a successful development of Poland in Europe.



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