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The diversity trilemma
You can only pick two
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At the end of February, there was a truly Kafkaesque incident at a school in the little-known town of Wakefield, England.
After losing a game of Call of Duty with his friends, a 14-year-old boy was dared to bring a copy of the Quran into school. He purchased one on Amazon and brought it in the next day. At some point it was accidentally damaged – though apparently not by the boy himself (rather by his friends). Bear in mind that he is autistic, and according to his mother “doesn’t always realise what is appropriate”.
News of the “incident” reached the local Muslim community, and rumours swirled that the book had been burnt or destroyed. The boy received numerous death threats, which made him feel “petrified”. And he had to be moved to a secret location. Despite concluding that there was no “malicious intent” on the part of him or his friends, the school suspended them for a week.
The boy’s mother, understandably concerned for the safety of her son, then went to the local Mosque to “plead for forgiveness”. The police, too, bent over backward to placate the Muslim community, even thanking a local imam for his “tolerance and understanding”. (Seriously, watch this video.) Incredibly, they recorded a “non-crime hate incident”, which may show up on the boys’ permanent records.
This nefarious book-scuffing comes less than two years after a similar incident at a school in Batley, England.
In 2021, a teacher showed his students a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad during a class discussion about religious extremism (the irony), prompting protests and death threats from local Muslims. As in the recent case, the school immediately capitulated and threw the teacher under the bus. A few weeks ago, it was reported that he is “still in hiding” two years later.
These are, of course, far from the only cases where basic civil liberties were sacrificed in order to ease “community tensions”. It’s well-known that authorities failed to take action on grooming gangs because they were “under pressure not to appear institutionally racist”. And a security guard who might have been able to prevent the Manchester Arena bombing refrained from acting for fear of being “branded a racist”.
Such cases highlight what I like to call the “diversity trilemma”.
What’s this? Basically, you can pick two out of the following three: social stability, civil liberties, non-selective immigration. If you want social stability and civil liberties, you have to be picky with immigration. If you want civil liberties and non-selective immigration, you won’t get social stability. And if you want non-selective immigration and social stability, you’ll have to infringe civil liberties.
Since social stability is paramount for most governments (winning reelection is hard when people are rioting in the streets), there are really only two ways to “solve” the diversity trilemma: by being picky with immigration, or by infringing civil liberties.
To date, Britain has opted mainly for the latter. As a consequence, we have forfeited basic freedoms, such as the right to do what you want with your own property so long as you don’t hurt anyone else. Had the boy in Wakefield bought any other book into school and then scuffed it, nothing would have happened. (At the school I attended, every single bible had the word “Blow” scrawled in next to the title of the chapter “Job”.)
Another freedom we’ve lost, at least in practice, is the right to publish satirical cartoons mocking the prophets of certain religions. If every British newspaper had published an image of the prophet Muhammad the day after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and the police had swiftly clamped down on any rioters, we’d be in a much better position today. It would have been a forceful demonstration that we do not negotiate with fanatics. And it would have solved the coordination problem confronting each individual newspaper.
Instead, editors were either too afraid of the inevitable backlash or felt that showing solidarity with murdered satirists was somehow in poor taste – even though those satirists had relentlessly mocked all religions. Fast forward to 2023 and we have dimwitted police officers lecturing us about “awareness and education”, as if people who care about the right to criticise any belief system lack those things. (I guess John Stuart Mill was just unaware and uneducated.)
Singapore is another country that has opted to solve the diversity trilemma by infringing civil liberties. In the world’s second richest country, there are ethnic quotas for housing blocks to prevent the formation of ghettos. And there are strict laws against blasphemy to forestall Satanic Verses-style rioting, with punishment of up to one year in prison. Such policies come under the rubric of maintaining “racial and religious harmony” – something the nation state’s founder, Lee Kuan Yew, recognised as very important.
Interestingly, the country’s censorship laws are actually quite narrowly focussed. While it’s illegal to promote “feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes of the population of Singapore”, Lee himself talked repeatedly about race differences – including among Singaporeans. He once wrote, “I have said openly that if we were 100 per cent Chinese, we would do better. But we are not and never will be, so we live with what we have.”
Still other countries have opted to be picky with immigration.
Since at least 2009, the Danish government has been offering inducements for people to return to their countries of origin; that is, paying them to go home. This policy began under the centre-right coalition government and continued when the Social Democrats got back into power. (In case you’re wondering, the people they’re paying aren’t high-skilled immigrants from Western Europe.) Sweden – which for years had Europe’s least restrictive policy – now looks to be following Denmark.
Eastern European nations like Poland and Hungary have taken an even tougher line, simply refusing to accept any Muslim migrants. This stubbornness has embroiled them in a years-long battle with the EU, backed by assorted American thinktanks. Japan and South Korea have likewise chosen to remain ethnically homogeneous – even at the expense of a declining workforce.
The diversity trilemma is exactly that: a trilemma. Because you can’t have all three. And instead of doing what most British people would have wanted – preserving civil liberties while being picky with immigration – our leaders did the opposite. Indeed, the costs of having to tiptoe around certain religions are obvious, while the benefits of having those religions around in the first place are far from clear. Which raises the question of what exactly our leaders were thinking.
Alas, solving the diversity trilemma surely involves a large degree of path-dependency. Once you’ve gone down one path, you can’t easily retrace your steps and go down another. So having eschewed selective immigration, Britons are unlikely to win back their foregone civil liberties. This is the new normal.
Image: Aleem Yousaf, Suffa Tull Islam mosque, 2012
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