In Praise of Disjointed Communities

This is an pretty old post from my blog, which has been preserved in case its content is of any interest. You might want to go back to the homepage to see some more recent stuff.

Prime Minister David Cameron is set to make a speech on immigration today which, to the very vocal displeasure of Vince Cable and doubtless many Lib Dems, is designed to appeal to the core and right of the Conservative party. According to the BBC article:

Communities have been affected by incomers who are unable to speak English and unwilling to integrate, [Cameron] will argue.

“That has created a kind of discomfort and disjointedness in some neighbourhoods. This has been the experience for many people in our country - and I believe it is untruthful and unfair not to speak about it and address it.”

Granted, I’m probably far from the average member of the public in my opinions, and certainly I’m far from core Tory material. But I see that disjointedness as more of a good thing than a bad one.

Many years ago, I lived for a while in the village of Easton, on Portland. It was blessed with both a Chinese restaurant and a Chinese take-away, as far as I am aware the only two on the island. When I was there, the restaurant was staffed with Chinese people (or at least those of Chinese descent) – whether they lived on the island or not, I have no idea. But the take-away? Well, I guess they ran out of Chinese people. It was staffed entirely by Brits. 96.8% of the population are of white ethnicity.

I come from, and have since returned to, Bournemouth. Just 30 miles away, it has a population more than 10 times that of the whole of Portland. During most of the year it is home to thousands of university students; in the summer it opens its doors to thousands more foreign language students and a never-ending influx of tourists. I live in an area with a high Brazilian population. Oriental and Middle-Eastern shops are everywhere.

It’s part of the world in a way that Easton is not.

By and large, immigrants naturally pick up enough English to get by – instead of imposing requirements on their proficiency with the language, how about we try to learn each others’ languages?

Instead of imposing some requirement to “integrate” with society (presumably that means reading the Daily Mail, drinking tea and moaning about the weather), why not celebrate each others’ cultures?

More to the point, why not stop pretending that there’s a single homogenous British society for people to integrate with in the first place? My comment about the Daily Mail was only partly in humour. How do you define such a nebulous concept?

I don’t read the Daily Mail, and I rarely drink tea. My instinctive reaction to the phrase “Oh dear, it’s come over all cloudy again, hasn’t it? Typical.” is an impotent rage as I realise that no matter how much of a travesty of conversation it is, in the eyes of the law, it’s still not cause enough to legitimately punch someone in the face.

Like most Brits though, I do love French food, German beer, Italian coffee, chow mein, pizza and chicken tikka masala.

If I’m trying to make a point here, it’s this:

Let’s stop clinging to an idea of British culture that we can’t even define, and pretending our way of life is under attack from Poles or Pakistanis.  Let’s not be Easton.

There’s a whole world out there.  Let’s live in it.


While I am generally on board with multiculturalism, I really do have to disagree. If someone comes from a culture where caste systems are common, their culture is worse than ours (in that instance). If someone comes from a culture where female genital multilation is common, their culture is worse than ours (in that instance). If someone comes from a culture that practices Sharia law, that culture is worse than ours (in that instance). I added the "in that instance" disclaimer as there are obviously ways in which said culture might be superior to ours, and those should be preserved, but there are certain parts of cultures which immigrants might bring which are actively harmful.

I love culture and all it brings with it for the most part, just wanted to be clear that I don't think we can be quite as ambivalent. I'm pretty certain that Britain's culture is much better than Saudia Arabia's, for a for instance. On language... I dunno. I think the world would be a better place if we could all communicate via one language, but I don't know if that should be English.

That's a lot of "in that instance" -- I suspect there are just as many aspects of British culture that are worse than most others. Chavs, maybe, or football hooligans? That we're suspicious of our neighbours, or uncaring about the elderly? If you can't think of any, ask someone from another country and see how long the list they provide is. :) The important thing is that by having all these cultures, they start to interact in a way that hopefully induces pressure on cultures -- including our own -- to reject their worse aspects.

(Sharia law is a more complicated issue, by the way. There are huge variations worldwide in how it is interpreted, practiced and enforced. Some countries make it a cornerstone of their society, whilst for others it is very much a personal code of conduct. For some it implies man's superiority over woman, for others, it demands equality for all. As in all things, it's not so black-and-white as to be a universally negative aspect to a culture.)

Regarding language, in lots of little ways, I think language is difficult to separate from culture because the two evolve together. There are phrases and concepts in each language that don't translate very well to others, and I think the world is left culturally poorer if we lose things like that. And I say this despite too many awkward silences with my Spanish in-laws and too much improvised sign language with heavily armed Middle-Easterners! :)

I think you're right, that the action of cultures mixing is usually good, provided it happens under a liberal democracy with certain legal assumptions protecting individuals. This is what's happened historically, anyhow. I just wanted to be clear that "Everyone else's culture is just as good as ours" isn't necessarily true. Saudia Arabia is worse than the UK on most measures.

I guess you're right about language, its just frustrating that along with that we lose the ability to easily understand other nations, and appreciate their art and culture on their terms. I guess I just want someone to go ahead and invent a universal translator already.

Agreed. The issue of it happening under a liberal democracy throws up an interesting point, actually: What if other people consider an incompatible political system, e.g. absolute monarchy, to be part of their culture? (However, as recent bouts of unrest have shown, I doubt that the middle and especially lower classes of any such country really feel this way.)

I think a good compromise might be mostly British culture, combined with the Saudi values of 10p/litre petrol and having all of Ramadan and Hajj off work! :)

Regarding a universal translator, <a 0="" href="" rel="nofollow noopener"></a>" rel="nofollow">work is progressing</a>. I carry one around with me in the form of Google Translate for Android, but unfortunately it kind of sucks at the moment. All the fun of GTranslate's dodgy translations, stacked on top of similarly dodgy text-to-speech!

Given that I have been here since 1997, was educated here, and whenever I was employed I paid my taxes here, I honestly get very tired of this stupid shit about how all immigrants are bad.

Language is brilliant though. I speak two, and because of that I could easily teach myself a third if I wanted to, but more importantly, it makes life a lot of more colourful. People with English as a second language often speak more colourfully and more poetically because they're still thinking in their first language and then translating into English. That's awesome, and shows how adaptable human beings are.

As to 'all immigrants are bad': My only revenge is to be one of the best garden designers of the next age, and outright refuse to do work for Daily Mail-reading toffs. I mean, they wouldn't want me to work for them, surely, being from some brown/beige/yellow heritage?

(The irony that my last name is Irish hasn't escaped me. I've had a few instance where people have done double takes).

Hmm. While I'm in complete disagreement with the usual Tory nonsense, I'm not sure I'm in complete agreement with you either. Everyone else's culture us not equal to ours by definition, as pointed out (repeatedly) above. Neither is other nations' food better, by definition; as much as I love my curry and Chinese and Thai - when was the last time you had a really good shepherd's pie? I'd contest it was more to do with exoticism.

As much as we may love multiculturalism, there has to be a point where you recognise that British culture is equally deserving of recognition. Equal, not greater or lesser but somewhere in between. I'm the least nationalist person around, but I don't think we should be apologising for our cultural traits. Our history, by all means, but to complain about the British 'make-do' attitude is to ignore an important part of our cultural make-up. Others take pride in their cultural traits, so why should we apologise for ours? Tea-drinking and general grumpiness should be just as valid as any other trait which makes up our complex, varied country.

@Ali: Damn foreigners, coming over here, designing our gardens... doesn't really work, does it? :D

@Martin: I'm confused -- in your first paragraph you say you don't think other cultures are necessarily equal to ours, but in the second paragraph you seem to be saying that they are!

I wasn't suggesting that our culture was less deserving of recognition or that we should apologise for it, merely that we shouldn't expect others to conform to it just because they choose to live on the same island as us. So long as it doesn't cause harm to others, everyone, including us, should be free to define their culture however they want.

Still don't like shepherd's pie though, unless it's got a ton of cheese on the top.

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