Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. November 2003
  Plenum | Plenary Session | Séance plénière  DEUTSCH | ENGLISH | FRANCAIS

Cultural diversity: Challenge for Europe.
An awareness of the current situation and future trends

Beate Winkler (Vienna/EUMC)


"What are the demands that globalisation makes on us when it comes to the peaceful co-existence of different cultures in our own country? What are the criteria that we should adhere to? How can not only we ourselves but also other people and institutions deal more competently with cultural differences? What possibilities does culture have, both in theory and in practice, to foster this ability?"

These are the questions that we must ask ourselves, for both future trends and the current situation clearly demonstrate that new approaches and a different type of awareness are called for in the realm of cultural policies as regards the co-habitation of the indigenous majority and the immigrant minorities, as well as among the migrant groups themselves. We must realise that, because of the world-wide migrations from east to west and from south to north, and in view of the demographic changes, there will be an increasing number of migrant minorities living on our soil - people who often come from a completely different cultural background and who have different ethical values.

Despite the many positive developments in Europe and the daily co-existence that we take as a matter of course, relations between the native population and the migrant newcomers are often characterised by feelings of insecurity and reticence. Over the past few years, the fear of further islamisation has grown in the indigenous population, anti-Semitism has increased in some EU Member States while among the migrant groups the fear of right-wing extremism and xenophobia has also increased.

There is still no full equal and legal participation of migrant minorities in the life of our society and yet this is an essential prerequisite for peaceful co-existence. Marginalisation only serves to strengthen the "ethnisation" of the minority groups and to nurture fundamentalist developments. This is precisely why it is so important to convey to ethnic minorities that they have equal rights as members of a multi-cultural society. Air transport and television via satellite from the country of origin make it increasingly easy for migrants to remain to a large extent culturally embedded in their own countries.

Using opportunities, contradictions and deficits

New concepts are necessary in order to prevent further polarisation between the migrant groups within our population. However, little has been done, to strengthen our competence to deal with cultural differences in a sensitive and responsible way. The immigration situation is still insufficiently addressed and all too often a clear political statement on the question of co-existence is missing. This has also contributed to the fact that the necessary concepts and strategies have hardly been elaborated.

This deficit can also be explained by the fact that the cultural questions pertaining to the co-habitation of the indigenous majority and the foreign migrant minorities are often experienced and viewed in a contradictory way. If the culture in question has neither a West European nor a North American background many people in our society regard it as a threat. Many people have a desire for clarity and " homogeneity". The fear of becoming "over-populated by foreigners" is the one that is most frequently cited in surveys conducted within Europe. However, what is often overlooked is that `foreignness' can also be exotic, fascinating and attractive.

On the other hand, many sections of society have come to realise that culture offers special opportunities for positively influencing the co-habitation of different cultural groups. Culture in all its different forms emerges from an involvement with that which is "foreign", and thus offers the chance of positively experiencing diversity, while at the same time fostering the ability to deal with contradictions and contrasts. Important personal competences - tolerance, curiosity, the ability to solve problems in an unconventional way - can be strengthened through cultural activities.

These competences are especially called for when tackling important problems concerning the future. In a social situation in which modernisation and the loss of certain relationships make it particularly prone to simple and radical ideologies, culture can, through shared positive experiences, create new bonds with people from other cultural backgrounds. In addition, as we know from social and cultural history, it is precisely the involvement with and integration of different cultural influences which often provides the strongest sources of creative innovation.

But this is not all: culture also helps the migrant members of our society to find their own identity in a new environment and offers them their own familiar terrain, which they need in order to assimilate what is new and foreign. Cultural policies should therefore be directed towards the formulation and implementation of a "policy of recognition". This "policy of recognition" means respecting "the other person" in his or her personal and cultural identity and accepting their "right to being culturally different". This right to being culturally different can, however, lead to a cultural conflict if human rights are violated. At present, there is no "universal ethos", with which all peoples and nations feel they can identify equally. The Rushdie case is a prime example: freedom of speech and tolerance are not values which are accepted all over the world. That this is the goal to strive for is borne out by the ever-growing debate about universal ethos and transcultural ethics - a goal which is gaining increasing political significance. Ever since Auschwitz there has been no alternative in our society to the basic principle stating that "human rights must take precedence over the guiding values of other cultures". It cannot be our response to the mass murder of the European Jews to declare human rights as something which is arbitrary. The question concerning the limits of tolerance and of what may or may not be accepted must also be determined on the basis of human rights.

Providing opportunities and designing cultural policies

The positive aspects must be brought more clearly into the public awareness. The public debate has been too one-sided and coloured by the dictum "against xenophobia and against right-wing extremism", which places it under a negative omen. The cultural stimuli, the creativity, that which is irritating, that which is lively and that which is full of conflicts, from which new approaches also emerge, were all too often covered by a "grey layer". The opportunity of using culture as a bridge and a communication factor between the indigenous majority and migrants and minorities - also to counteract the fear of feeling threatened - must be used more decisively.

In order to react appropriately to the immigration situation and to initiate equal participation we should use the avenues offered by cultural activities in all European Member States much more intensively for ethnic, cultural minorities.

Developing new forms of co-operation

Positive and negative experiences must be gathered and compiled in such a way that they can also be used in other places and in other fields of politics and life. The question of how to convey and implement cultural experiences, concepts and strategies within the realm of politics, society and the media presents a core problem. Many groups of society remain too cloistered among themselves and are not interested in seeking a dialogue with people from other vocational groups or walks of life, which renders the cultural transfer and the necessary networking more difficult. There should be more awareness of the fact that the questions relating to the co-existence of the migrant minorities and the indigenous majority are of a highly complex nature and therefore demand complex answers. In the wake of increased globalisation it is essential that people with different experiences and backgrounds and different opinions and attitudes together formulate new approaches. In drawing up new concepts, strategies and projects, there are no ready-made answers. It is rather a question of searching for new avenues and of posing questions such as: How can we strengthen our ability to deal with cultural differences in a more sensitive and responsible way? How can we succeed in changing our perspectives so that we do not regard our own attitudes and approaches as "the be-all and end-all"? Is it possible to let another person be `different', without eradicating that which is distinct and foreign and without prejudice or devaluation?

When confronted with something that is different we experience a change, which generally makes us stop seeing things in the light of our original set of values. This provides scope for new ideas. In this context, the co-operation between the indigenous majority and the foreign minorities and the integration of the migrant population in drawing up concepts, strategies and projects is a basic prerequisite. Long-term co-operation in this respect would have a positive impact on solving problems as well as enhancing the opportunities provided by globalisation and the cultural exchange. Conflicts may in themselves prove to be a clear and positive challenge in terms of further development. A changed approach to conflicts can also lead to new attitudes, for the positive force generated by conflicts is all too often ignored. While conflicts emerging from different points of view may well engender painful situations, they can, however, be transformed into creative processes - into a productive dialogue between different cultures.

It is these processes that are needed by politicians and by society at large if we are to justify our cultural diversity in a democratic way.


The demands of globalisation make it necessary to strengthen the intercultural dialogue and to use in a responsible way the great opportunities provided for peaceful co-existence by culture - without concealing the problems involved. What is incomprehensible and irresponsible is that the fear of the general public of an over-population by foreigners is supported, or even stirred up, by politicians, as is often the case. The "homogeneity" of a people, which is so often propagated, does not exist and has never done so.

It is therefore the task of culture, both in drawing up its policies and in implementing them, to counteract this attitude. In this context, experiences should be gathered, new forms of co-operation tried out and concepts and policies for the intercultural dialogue worked out. Instead of generating a clash between different cultures, we should seek to use the great opportunities provided by cultural diversity and the intercultural dialogue in the wake of increased globalisation. For the future perspectives for Europe lie in our cultural diversity and in an intercultural dialogue.

© Beate Winkler (Vienna/EUMC)

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For quotation purposes:
Beate Winkler (Vienna/EUMC): Cultural diversity: Challenge for Europe. An awareness of the current situation and future trends. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003.

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