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Multiculturism, and a Critique of Pure Tolerance

Business Conflict Blog by Peter Phillips

At the IBA in Dubai last week, a three-hour session was held on “The Rise of Multiculturalism and Resulting Challenges of Managing Diversity in the Workplace.” While the subjects discussed were fascinating, the subjects not discussed might have been even more so.

The panel was preceded by an announcement from David Lowe of San Francisco, Chair of the Discrimination Law Committee that was co-sponsoring the discussion. He stated that, five weeks ago, representatives of the United Arab Emirates had notified the IBA that the UAE was no longer willing to host the IBA Annual Meeting and that the event — six years in the planning — would need to be cancelled. The concern seemed to be centered on seven programs on the agenda that, in the UAE’s view, singled out the UAE for criticism. This panel was one such. In response, and without convening the various Committees involved, IBA Executive Director Mark Ellis worked with the UAE representative to modify the titles and descriptions of the programs, offering assurance that none of them would contain attacks or criticisms of the host country. The UAE relented, but many Committee heads – including Mr. Lowe – remained troubled when they were advised. Mr. Lowe took this opportunity to advise the audience that neither he nor the Committee had instructed the panelists on what they could or could not say, and that he spurned utterly any effort to censor or control the discussion of the topic at hand.

The topic, in the meanwhile, was the impact on employment law of the rapid increase in diversity in workplaces in various regions of the globe. Cherie Booth QC of the Blair Partnership in London posited the essential distinction that the conversation was to address: Is the ideal approach to diversity in public institutions one of assimilation or of respect for difference? She suggested that both approaches may be seen in the United Kingdom. Sociologically, the wealthy classes tend to “melt” together, while in the less affluent parts of British society one sees Pakistani or Chinese neighborhoods where language, food and social customs of the “old world.” UK law has been greatly influenced by various European Human Rights directives and rulings from the Strasborg court – initially barring discrimination in the workplace based on race and sex, then later on such attributes as disability, age and sexual preference, all of which, Booth suggested, are meant to be tolerated.

Nimer Basbous of HSBC Bank in Dubai portrayed the UAE as a “mixed salad” rather than a “melting pot,” by dint of circumstance. Eighty percent of the workforce comes from outside the UAE, and so employing corporations are the engine of diversity in communities. He emphasized that employers seek talent, and that diversity is an unintended but welcome by-product to this trend. He reported no problems of intolerance; the UAE is trying to present itself to the world as an international commercial hub, and so diversity is a predictable implication of UAE’s commercial success.

Pascale Lagesse of Bredin Prat, Paris, took the opposite view. France’s history has inculcated its society with expectations of equality, she said, which expresses itself in the firm practice of treating all people in France the same. In public schools, for example, the state is neutral, secular and democratic, and the wearing of distinctive religious emblems is forbidden. Immigrants from Corsica are not permitted to speak only Corsican – all must speak a common language. Women wishing to wear a burka or other distinguishing cultural or religious dress may not do so in public schools, nor many students wear necklaces with crosses or other identifying emblems. If all French must show their faces while going through security, then no veiled women are allowed to pass through security, regardless of the religious nature of their custom.

Marianne Granhøj of Copenhagen noted that Denmark’s society was not multicultural until the 1980s, because there had been little immigration until that time. She predicted, however, that increasingly diverse workforce will yield better business results. By contrast, Maria Alexia Aurelio of Buenos Aires reportted that Argentina is nothing but diversity, even among the many and varied indigenous populations who have been displaced by the Spanish and other Europeans who built modern Argentina.

Ms. Booth and Ms. Lagesse engaged each other rather directly. Multiculturalism is a concept entirely distinct from discrimination, said Lagesse. The question is the proper role of the state. Is it to protect groups or is it to enforce strict neutrality in its treatment of citizens? Barring all religious indicia in schools cannot be discriminatory. Multiculturalism means respect for citizens’ behaviors and beliefs in their families; non-discrimination, on the other hand, means that requirements of unobstructed sight for drivers of motor vehicles are to be applied across-the-board, even if some drivers obstruct their sight with religiously-mandated veils.

The panel discussion, and the break-out sessions that followed, were superbly moderated by Anthony Hyams-Parish of London, Johan Lubbe of New York, and Gerlind Wisskirchen of Cologne.

What was missing, of course, was the elephant (the camel?) in the room. Relatively stable theocracies such as Iran and Israel predominate much of the world and, with the “Arab Spring,” may be anticipated to grow in number and influence. While France and England debate the nuances of social tolerance, what of the people who live in countries formed and maintained for the purpose of establishing a religious society? A particular religion? While Western thinkers debate the “melting pot” and the “salad bowl,” a great deal of the rest of the world is conformimg to, and finding national purpose in, religious intolerance. Perhaps the 21st century will reveal the limitations of the precepts of individualism that the Age of Enlightenment proclaimed?


F. Peter Phillips

F. Peter Phillips is a commercial arbitrator and mediator with substantial experience providing consultation on the management of business disputes to companies around the globe. A cum laude graduate of Dartmouth College and a magna cum laude graduate of New York Law School, Mr. Phillips served for nearly ten years… MORE >

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