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Ethnic Groups and Minorities: a Barrier or an Impulse?

8.6.1989., Contribution to the Conference “Minorities for Europe Tomorrow”, International Scientific Consultation. Ljubljana, 8-9 June 1989
1. Ethnic minorities and minority groups are often, but not always, the remains of other, previously-existing social structures and are often, though again not always, to be found on the economic, social, cultural, political and also often geographical margins.

Apart from the few cases of innovative (sometimes also privileged) minorities and ethnic groups (of which there are in the past and at present some interesting examples, but which are not the subject of these notes), ethnic minorities and minority ethnic groups are generally excluded, to a greater or lesser extent, from “progress”, from “development” and from “modernisation”. This results in disadvantages and danger which have to be resisted (the aspect which research into minorities, and the relevant social and political movements have tended to concentrate on), but also chances and possibilities which have up to now too often been overlooked or neglected.

2
The stronger the concepts of “progress”, “modernisation” and “development”, in the current, predominant way these concepts are understood, are imprinted on society and become accepted values, the more ethnic minorities will be pushed to the margins of society. Whoever stands aside from “progress”, “modernisation” and “development” becomes a “minority” - even a stumbling block to progress, whereby it is not very relevant whether these groups are numerically strong or not. Whoever can’t or doesn’t want to accept the predominant way of “development”, becomes “underdeveloped”. Normally belonging to a “minority” means above all to be “weaker”, to possess less social and political clout to realise one’s own autonomous identity and aims. Ethnic minorities and ethnic groups enter a new situation through the confrontation with “progress” (“development”, “modernisation”), a situation which can only partly be resolved with the help of their traditional experience - the defence of their ethnic differentness vis-à-vis an alien ethnic majority.

3
Multiple pressures involving both assimilation and exclusion are exercised on ethnic minorities and ethnic groups - but also on other minorities which are outside the mainstream of “progress”. The alternative of former times between enforced Christianisation or isolation in a ghetto reappears with all the more emphasis - in today’s Europe in a less violent form than in the past - in many new ways and using all the tricks from coercion to seduction.

4
The minorities and their members generally experience their situation as disadvantageous and are permanently confronted with the dilemma of whether to react by taking up a defensive position (self-isolation, “opting out”) or by adapting (assimilation), or to decide whether some intermediate way is possible to reconcile the maintenance of identity with competitiveness - where emancipation doesn’t have to be bought by betraying the minority and where the preservation of their separate identity doesn’t necessarily involve a voluntary retreat into a museum-like reserve.

5
The predominant pattern of progress and development characterised by the belief in economic-industrial growth and the dominance of market forces can be challenged by ethnic minorities both on the basis of more traditional arguments (opposition to progress) and on the basis of an active, critical raising of consciousness which defies “progress” because it sees in it something which condemns ethnic minorities to underdevelopment or to assimilation, which in both cases lead towards a process of spiritual and material impoverishment.
In this sense ethnic minorities can become active “stumbling blocks to progress”, whereby they may well be motivated by a mixture of traditional and modern values, so that they can fight against the current which harms them (and not only them). However this necessitates a high level of consciousness and varied strategies.

6
An important impulse can emanate from ethnic minorities, an impulse which postulates a different quality to the concepts of “progress”, “development” and “modernisation”; less appeasement towards the central power, more value ascribed to the periphery (up to the point to questioning the relationship itself) and where being “different” doesn’t mean “inferior”.
In this sense the multiple pressures on ethnic minorities could open up new chances for both they themselves and for the rest of society, and a situation generally perceived as disadvantageous could point in the direction of some advantages: the “exclusion from progress” could turn into a conscious “rejection of progress” and those who hitherto have been last in the “development” stakes could become the first on the way to a different type of development, the basically passive suffering of a condition could turn into creative “critique of progress”, and the illusory attempt (demonstrably dangerous for minorities) to blindly imitate predominant concepts of “progress” could be overcome by a search for autonomous ways to new types of development.

7
There are numerous analogies in the relationship to “progress”, “modernisation” and “development” between the situation of ethnic minorities and other special groups and movements whose identity, experience and needs stand aside of progress, or are against “progress”: e.g. women, ‘Third World’, certain religious and spiritual movements, the elderly, etc.: the issue is always whether those at the bottom of the ladder should try to pick up the challenge in order to try to become competitive (highly improbable) or whether they should, instead, develop social forms in which they can at least remain viable i.e. whether they should strive to build a convivial but less competitive way of life with certain disadvantages compared with “progress” or whether to strive after industrial, more competitive models which however are not in harmony with their own specific nature. This is all assuming they have a choice at all.

8
The active consciousness of “being different and wanting to remain different” is an important precondition for developing the power to oppose the predominant model of progress. A highly complex interaction of ideas and actions is necessary in order to facilitate an autonomous development with the greatest possible (personal and community) independance and freedom in the choice of issue and the strategies in order to work towards a society which is convivial and open to diversity. Both the one-sided rejection of “modernisation” with the resulting self-isolation and the hope of an early integration into the model of “progress” through conformity are in the light of the experience up to now of ethnic (and other) minorities who stand aside from progress, both illusory and abstract attempts to resolve the issue, attempts which don’t lead out of inferiority, dependence and extinction.
This is why multiple patterns and programmes of action are needed, which are able to combine rejection, criticism and participation, and which in their choice of strategies allow consciousness to resonate, which are aware of the fact that not one single measure (recognition and institutionalisation of languages, rights, protective measures, reserves etc.) in itself offers the guarantee of success, rather that such single measures could be counter-productive. Neither the maintenance of a no-longer existing “innocence of progress” of ethnic minorities nor the accomplishment of the predominant “progress” in the way desired by minorities are within the realms of possibility - even if one wanted the one or the other. That is why the only possibility is to tread the difficult path between self-isolation and conformity, exploring a range of possibilities encompassing conflicts, interaction, palliative measures, partial de-linking measures, the construction of free spaces, etc.

9
The common knowledge of all those social groups which - like the ethnic minorities - have experienced “being different and wanting to remain different” could represent an enrichment for other people and groups, and also for members of the “majorities”, calling into question the predominant relationship between the centre and the periphery, development and underdevelopment, exchange value and user value, market and subsistance, assimilation and diversity, quantity and quality, male and female...
In a certain sense one could say that the experience of minorities is useful for whoever is looking for autonomous ways for a qualitative understanding of “progress” (“development” and “modernisation”). For example, the fact that there are peoples in Europe with languages which have not been codified into writing or without written laws, or minorities, for whom money is not of supreme value - they all represent an invaluable (and today an endangered) treasure, because they show that it is possible that “things could be done in a different way”.

10
So ethnic minorities and minority ethnic groups can be not only defensive stumbling blocks to “progress” but can also be regarded as an indicator for the quality of “progress” (“development” and “modernisation”) inasmuch as they are in possession of or desire riches which are not measurable like industrially produced riches. They can ask “progress” the crucial question: “What is your position with regard to diversity?”. The minorities can ask this question also on behalf of other groups who may not yet know how to question the concept of “progress”.
In this way they could consciously and proposefully act as a stumbling block to particular types of “progress” (which for instance increase dependance and alienation) and give development impulses for certain other types of “progress”. And this not only in their own name and interest; if practicable it can be in interesting also for other groups.

11
The movement towards European unity today - and by this we don’t mean just the extension of the existing European Common Market - is putting the preservation of cultural, linguistic, ethnic and regional diversity under a severe test. In view of the increased danger of assimilation and a new and much more blatant gap between the centre and periphery, the experience of European minorities and ethnic groups, who have maintained themselves despite so called “progress” and despite pressure to assimilate, could be a major contribution to the development of a special European characteristic. If one imagines a process of European integration which does not simply repeat the familiar process of the creation of national states with the attendeant assimilation, dependence, material and spiritual poverty, than any experience to the contrary in the form of preservation of diversity and the capacity to live in a culture where there is a positive will by different groups and identities to live side by side, will gain importance and even become a model.
Minorities and ethnic groups which have successfully defended themselves against assimilation and extinction have essentially the following to offer to all the people of Europe:

a) The maintenance and assertion of identity is sensible and enriching even in the face of overwhelming odds, even though a lot of effort may have to be made and a certain price paid.

b) The maintenance and assertion of identity is not possible by one-sided strategies of isolation or self-isolation, but it is only possible with a complex interconnection between life inside the minority and life together with the others, whereby there is a decidedly positive chance of mutual enrichment and develoment; any ethnic exclusivity can only lead to a trial of strength from which the stronger will undoubtedly emerge as victor.

c) The future perspectives for ethnic minority groups and cultures is not the integration in a faceless, nature - threatening “progress”, but on the contrary precisely the calling into question of this “progress”, which can be initiated by ethnic or cultural minorities thanks to their higher specific level of consciousness, and which can be an important signal for broader sections of the population with a consciousness that is not developed any more, a signal and a possible example for a different and more autonomous development.

Contribution to the Conference “Minorities for Europe Tomorrow”, International Scientific Consultation
Ljubljana, 8-9 June 1989


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