Minorities and Cultural Identities in the Aftermath of 1918 and Beyond: The Case for Pluralism

This is the write-up of a talk I gave at the 2018 European Remembrance Symposium in Bucharest on 16 May. 

With the advent of nationalism in the late 18th century, and arguably even before that, minorities and different cultural identities have come to be seen as ‘problems’ standing in the way of grand state- and nation-building projects.

Competing national narratives left little room for difference, and rival nationalist claims to territories often left no room even for physical co-existence of majorities and minorities.

Through the rise and fall of empires and multi-national states, relationships between different ethnic communities—defined by differences in language, religion, customs, etc.—have at best been uneasy, and at worst catastrophic.

The inability and unwillingness of European states, their populations and elites alike, to accommodate such differences is sadly one of the defining features of the past 100 years.

From the Balkan Wars to the First and Second World Wars and to the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the breakup of Yugoslavia, attempts to eliminate differences have predominated, including forced population transfers, massacres, and acts of genocide.

Despite these attempts to ‘un-mix’ populations, diversity remains a social fact across contemporary European states and societies, and with it the challenge to manage it.

This challenge, however, also presents an opportunity: the choice to overcome bitter legacies of the past and to put efforts into meaningful accommodation of minorities.

What would such accommodation look like?

For most of my academic career, I have studied ethnic conflicts and other types of civil war, their causes and consequences, and how they can be prevented and resolved. In practical terms, advising governments and international organisations on conflict settlements from Transnistria to Iraq and Yemen, much of this has been a frustrating exercise.

On a more conceptual level, however, academics have made some real progress on understanding why and how certain responses to diversity are better able to achieve sustainable accommodation and peaceful relations between different population groups.

For the past several years, I have worked with colleagues at the Ottawa, Canada, based Global Centre for Pluralism, developing a new approach to the shared global challenge of diversity. This approach is pluralism.

In our understanding, pluralism is an ethic of respect for diversity. As a normative rather than an instrumental response, we start with considering diversity as a potential asset rather than an automatic liability. But pluralist societies are not accidents of history. They require decision and investment as well as sustained political will by the institutions of a society and its people.

While every country faces different conditions of diversity, embedded in often unique historical and contemporary contexts, every pathway to pluralism begins with a deliberate choice: to value diversity.

Such a decision, has implications for policy: the goal becomes inclusion rather than exclusion, recognition rather than denial, all with the goal of fostering a society in which everyone belongs, and everyone feels they belong.

Such an approach to diversity has two immediate implications: first, pluralism is a constant process rather than a final end state that will simply reproduce itself without ongoing effort; and second for this process to succeed, it needs to be underpinned by institutions and be embedded in a supportive culture, and both institutions and culture must make pluralism actively possible.

A society’s treatment of diversity is shaped by both cultural and institutional responses. Habituated attitudes shape institutional choice and, in turn, institutional actions can reorient, or reinforce, cultural habits. Like the hardware and software of a computer, both are needed to make the system run. When the institutional and cultural responses of a society align and orient toward inclusion, they create the hardware and software of pluralism.

The formal institutions of a society, such as constitutions, courts, legislatures, governments, and so on define the legal and political spaces within which the members of a society act and interact, and they can all contribute to pluralism in different but complementary ways that recognise individuals as members of society.

Formal recognition alone, while often a critical first step, however, is not enough. True belonging can only be achieved once the norms of a society align with institutional recognition and reinforce perceptions of who is a legitimate and contributing member.

It is, therefore not enough to recognise minorities with their different cultural identities in a legal or political sense. Given more than a century of often bitter and violent contestation over who belongs and has what rights and which obligations, norms of belonging need to extend to shared historical and national narratives as much as they need to regulate the interaction among different ethnic groups in public and private spaces and the recognition of diversity in public life.

Much of this sounds academic, and it probably is—at least to the extent that the principles of pluralism have not, so far, been embraced everywhere and by everyone. Yet we know from our own European history and more recent experiences that deciding against pluralism can have catastrophic consequences. Civil war and forced displacement, populism, and radicalisation and violent extremism are, unfortunately not only phenomena of a distant past that we have long left behind or of far-away places in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

It is as if the lessons that can be learned from the past and present are being deliberately ignored and the disastrous choice of deciding against pluralism is being repeated despite the evidence that to do so has serious negative consequences for individuals and societies and despite evidence that pluralism is a real possibility.

Much has been achieved in Europe in the aftermath of two World Wars and the collapse of communism. Inclusive citizenship, based on the institutional recognition of diversity and embedded in a culture that fosters belonging, has become a reality across many countries. It may not always be perfect, comprehensive, and all-embracing, but human and minority rights, civil liberties, political representation and participation, and economic opportunities today extend to a much broader cross-section of our societies than ever before.

Yet, we must remember that such pluralism is a process, requiring constant institutional and cultural effort and the constant reaffirmation of the choice to value, rather than denigrate, diversity. Thus, we must not only remember 1918 for the horrors that it ended, but also for the opportunity it could have been but never was—the opportunity to create pluralistic societies in which minorities do not feel as second-class citizens but as equal members who are recognised and belong, making society richer because diversity is valued as an asset, not feared as a threat.

In this sense, remembering 1918 creates not only an opportunity not to repeat the wrong choices of the past century but also an obligation to build on, and intensify, efforts to create pluralistic societies in which minorities and majorities alike can strive and their members can reach their full potential as individuals.

Date

16 May 2018

Event

International Conference

Location

Bucharest, Romania



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