Safe multiculturalism and David Cameron's culturally transmitted diseases

United Colours of Benetton (1991) Condoms
By Zaki Nahaboo · 26 February 2011
United Colours of Benetton (1991) Condoms

Official multiculturalism has meant that we tolerate diversity so long as we can safely consume and/or inhabit it; so long as pleasure in difference continues without consequence to either the ‘majority’ values or marketable cultures. Identification can be fluid and differences ‘tolerated’, but we must ultimately move united in the singular direction of political exigency: currently integrated communities and shared values. Safe multiculturalism is always donned as a preventative measure against the supposed contaminating cultural values that infect the socio-political body. The usual suspects here are those that affront liberal rights and values.

According to David Cameron's speech this society has been too 'passive' by allowing threatening values to exist without policing. Safe multiculturalism becomes seen as ineffective. However, unlike his predecessors who tried to emphasise adherence to common values and a reassertion of Britishness, the current prime minister finds unsavoury values as a disease that spreads in the minds of young Muslim men to directly lead them to terrorism. His cure, which tacitly aims to solve the supposed failure of the cultural condom, is 'muscular liberalism': a doctrine which will politically and economically exclude voluntary groups that fundamentally disagree with liberal values.

'Muscular liberalism' or an 'active' society becomes contrasted with his notion of a 'passive' multiculturalist society debilitated by feardom. There is an ultimate similarity in the population addressed and constituted by both the cultural vaccine (muscular liberalism) and the preventive measure (the liberal multicultural condom): the threatening other. This is hardly a revelation. Multicultural theorists have long since recognized that the relationship between soft and hard liberalism cannot be mutually exclusive in a multiculturalist polity [1]. Here robust liberal rights become the inviolable foundations for building dominant multiculturalist theory [2]. From this there can always be those whose acts and habitus contravene this framework. With the discursive parameters set on how to talk about multiculturalism, the infamous cyclical debate of whether we should uphold multiculturalism or follow some variety of assimilationism then becomes a technological question for policy makers about balancing or reconceptualising equality, unity and diversity. 

Cameron’s delineation of 'muscular liberalism' cannot be fully comprehended within this debate for his phrase seeks to carve an impossible space. The threat of the culturally transmitted disease for Cameron’s Britain is not simply the one-way infection of Islamism. It is the unacknowledged miscegenation of values [3]: a ‘corruption’ (of the ability to perceive liberalism as immutable and isolatable from multiculturalism) made possible by the work of British multiculturalism in reshaping the foundations that contextualize liberalism. This goes beyond multicultural citizenship [4]. For instance, controversies over freedom of expression become particularly telling of how languages of liberalism and multiculturalism inform each other in the re-appropriation of concepts. Cherished liberal ideals such as respect can be equally advanced through the multiculturalist cause in a manner which reshapes liberalism’s attachment to such fundamental notions. Can we any longer claim political correctness is a crusade subscribed to by liberals? Whether we like it or not, multiculturalism has changed our language of rights and duties to include the concept of differentiated rights and by default the contested meaning of liberalism. The more radical outcome has been that safe multiculturalism’s capacity to protect its own liberal foundations from dynamism has, rightly or wrongly, faltered.

Why did Cameron feel the need to supplement liberalism with a more forceful adjective? The answer lies in this reshaping of liberalism and the desire to break free through a return to conceptual ‘purity’. Just like the notion of safe multiculturalism, Cameron’s phrase says more about its own compromised and unstable position. That is, safe multiculturalism was excess in waiting, while 'muscular liberalism' responds to this excess in a futile escalation of the term liberalism. Here 'Muscular liberalism' reveals the fear of the term liberalism to sustain its ‘truth’ by itself. Yet Cameron cannot return to pure liberal values, if such a thing were to exist, no matter how much muscular liberalism can bench. To do so would disavow the impact multiculturalism has had upon its present politics. The more a liberalism asserts itself as safe multiculturalism the more it can differentiate itself from itself, reconstituting even its deployment when in opposition to multiculturalism. 'Muscular liberalism' testifies to this latter development.

The relevance of the multicultural question continues to lie in what is allowed to pass into the political, what sneaks into the political disrupting some of its cherished concepts, and what remains as a constitutive outside. In Britain we need to think about the relationship between multiculturalism and liberalism, not as historical opposites or supportive doctrines, but as mutually constituting non-hypostatised entities.


[1] Michael Waltzer, “Comment,” in Multiculturalism, ed. Amy Gutmann (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).

[2] Will Kymlicka, Multicultural Odysseys : Navigating the New International Politics of Diversity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); Bhikhu C. Parekh, Rethinking Multiculturalism : Cultural Diversity and Political Theory (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000).

[3] I do not use this derogatory term to mourn a preceding ‘purity’ of value, but in an ironic sense which anticipates the perspective of those who may find what I am documenting to be a ‘diluting’ of liberalism. 

[4] Will Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995).

About the author

  • Zaki Nahaboo

    PhD Student
    Zaki Nahaboo
    The Open University
    I am currently a PhD student in Politics and International Studies at The Open University. My research interests are in postcolonial theory, citizenship, cultural studies, political theories of... Read more

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