Multiculturalism can be acknowledged, championed, challenged or rejected, but it cannot be ignored because it describes a central feature of the world in which we live. Oddly, however, for many years it was ignored, despite decades of struggle by black Americans for full political inclusion, the confederalism adopted by several European states to accommodate linguistic and religious diversity and the multicultural policies adopted by Australia and Canada in the 1970s, to name just three examples. In the 1980s communitarian writers embraced the culture-friendly virtues of solidarity, togetherness and belonging, but ironically,while community was prized as homely and familiar, which communities – cultural or otherwise – were being invoked. Only in the early 1990s did the liberal-communitarian controversy begin to transform itself into a more particular debate about how to accommodate cultural and ethnic claims within a broadly liberal political theory. Here Will Kymlicka’s Liberalism, Community and Culture led the way.By now, it is increasingly recognised that liberal constitutions are shot through with partisan ethnocultural norms. This is the first claim I want to make then. Multiculturalism cannot be avoided. Whether endorsed as a policy (cultural diversity is good), it cannot be circumvented as a social fact, not so long as we are thinking about theories for the world in which we live and not a cultureless planet far away. Theories of justice, democracy and human rights are necessarily abstract since they have a more or less extensive reach and describe a reality not yet arrived.Abstraction is no bad thing. But when you argue that democracy fosters community,that social justice includes equal opportunity, or that there is a right to free speech but not against hate speech you move from the abstract to the ideal since, as a matter of fact, a community will need to take some stand on immigration, on ethnic patterning in work and education, and on offence to marginalised groups. Saying nothing has no less import than saying something when, like encountering a difficult aunt at Christmas, social circumstances demand a response. It is not necessarily wrong to suppose that cultural membership is irrelevant (at least in certain cases).
In sum, then, we must recognise that our multicultural reality is pertinent for politics as soon as we start theorising about it. It is not something which, as some writers imply, we can accommodate in larger theories of democracy, freedom and social justice that are first formulated in a culture-blind way. Multiculturalism is a problem for these theories only because of assumptions and premises that made it so. Approaching multiculturalism with honesty and integrity means accepting that it is not a decorative but a permanent feature of our public social world.
The first stage in this exploration is a careful consideration of the kinds of demands made by minority cultures. Here I shall mention three kinds. First, there are rights to do with government. They include the special representation rights such as the guaranteed seats for Maori representatives in the New Zealand Parliament, and the race-conscious drawing of district lines to boost black representation in the USA. It also includes devolved power of the kind fought for by Aboriginal peoples in Canada and Australia, the Scots, Welsh and Irish national minorities in the UK or the two million Hungarians spread across Romania, Slovakia and Serbia. At the limit, self-government means the right to national self-determination, whether secession from one state aims at unity with another (as republicans in Northern Ireland want) or a wholly new entity(as happened when Norway split from Sweden).The second family of multicultural rights seeks to accommodate a variety of distinct cultural practices within larger states. Sometimes these seek to release ethno-cultural groups from a burden that state laws would otherwise impose,such as the efforts made by some Amish parents to withdraw their children from state education at fourteen, the exemption from wearing hard hats on building sites sought by Sikh men, or exemptions on animal slaughter legislation sought by Muslims and Jews. In other cases cultural rights seek to give special assistance to a disadvantaged minority such as affirmative action programmes to increase minority representation in colleges in the USA, or its Bi-Lingual Education Act (1978) designed to help enable parallel instruction innon-English languages for children who spoke them at home. In some cases rights of exemption or assistance overlap with the first category of government rights, such as Aboriginal people’s demand that an indigenous legal tradition take precedence over a state’s legal code.The third family is most difficult to define. It does not involve rules or rights but the more amorphous issue of collective esteem, a group’s attitude towards itself. This becomes a matter for public policy when the symbolism of flags, currencies,names, public holidays, national anthems, public funds for cultural activities and the content of school curricula bear on a minority’s fragile presence in the public political culture. Inevitably affecting how the mainstream regards it, the gaze of recognition affects how members perceive themselves, and in turn their attitude towards the wider society of which they are a part.Prince Charles’s recent declaration that as king he would be called defender of faith, not the Christian faith, acknowledged the importance of symbolic recognition for minority religions which many in the mainstream would be hard pressed to conceive. Romania’s large Hungarian minority demanded an explicit acknowledgment of their existence in the light of the clause in the Romanian constitution that declared it to be ‘a unitary state of the Roumanian people’. Defending the controversial decision to ban Muslim girls from wearing headscarves in French schools, the former Education minister later declared that it was ‘impossible to accept’ signs whose very purpose was to ‘separate certain pupils from the communal life of the school’.Some multicultural rights such as the exemptions from common laws and limited self-government cause very little pain to the majority. Political issues of recognition are not like this. They are hard to resolve because they call into question not just a minority identity but the majority’s too, and a problem caused by others is always a resented gift.The rights and issues I have identified – self-government, exemptions and privileges, and recognition – overlap in various and complex ways. Bilingual schooling, for example, is both a collective right and a policy of recognition.Indeed all the second family of multicultural rights involve recognition of somesort where a minority wants to participate in the culture, rather than (as with the Amish) take their leave of it. Demands and challenges are made with the overriding need for cultural survival; multiculturalism is a battle fought on several fronts.
Kymlicka’s Multicultural Citizenship
As an example of how these multicultural claims are theorised, let us consider Will Kymlicka’s Multicultural Citizenship. Kymlicka wants to defend cultural protection along liberal lines. He is exercised, therefore, by whether groups can bear rights, by the need for toleration, and by the problem of sustaining a common civic identity. The result is that he comes to view cultures in a very particular way. Influenced by Inuit communities in the Canadian Northwest Territories, Kymlicka regards a culture as a civilisation, self-sufficient and with its own social institutions.Three further moves assist the conscription of cultures to the liberal side. The first move consists in saying that cultures are (a) valuable and (b) distinct, but that (c) they do not consist of shared values. (a) Since cultures are valuable, at least for their members, there is a loss involved if they begin to erode. This gives the basic rationale for a theory of cultural justice. (b) Since each culture is different from its neighbours, this loss is not just a general complaint about increasing cultural homogeneity, but a particular worry about the loss of a particular culture. Finally (c) cultures are not tightly knit clusters of shared values, and hence do (despite liberal worries) allow for freedom and autonomy. These three claims can each be questioned. Questioning (a), we can say that lots of valuable cultures have degraded or died, not just cultures of ethnic descent which are Kymlicka’s prime interest. Mining communities in South Wales also provided their members with strong identities and a sense of belonging, and have also declined. Do they too merit cultural rights? Examining (b), many ethnic groups need not have distinct cultural attributes. As Appiah has commented on the situation of blacks in the USA, ‘[c]ulture is not the problem and it is not the solution’.11 The problem is racism. Claim (c) is correct: cultures do not consist of shared values. They consist of people. If people in the same group share some values, they need not share them all. By implication, not every value is valued by each person in the group. The truth is more interesting and complicated than that. Moreover, while (a) combines easily with (b), the picture they conjure up together, of self-contained cultures each unique, sits a little oddly with (c) the non-shared values claim. In addition (a) and (b) together open the way for a fruitless search for cultural thingness that I shall later take issue with.Kymlicka’s second move is to distinguish between culture contexts, as media that provide meaning, orientation, identity and belonging, and cultural options, particular elements within that context.This distinction allows Kymlicka to advance two divergent arguments. Conceiving cultures as contexts means they can fulfil their purpose of over-arching individual choices. Cultures are a necessary frame to human action; hence there is a loss if one’s cultural context begins to erode. This is the justice argument, and it says that each person has the right to a secure cultural context, not just any context but her own. The freedom argument says that people are autonomous choosers, and what they choose between are different cultural options. Unitary optionless contexts, like seamless webs of shared values, would leave cultural members without liberal choices. But contextless constellations of free-floating options, would suggest there is no special loss if a culture declines – contrary to (a) and (b) above. One always loses something, not nothing; contexts provide that thing. Once again, this encourages the search for the identity of the context. Not language (because languages are not unique to cultures), not history (what has had the history?), not, as Kymlicka insists, shared values, it is never finally spelt out what a culture actually is, and hence not clear what is lost. Finally, Kymlicka’s third move distinguishes between national minorities and ethnic groups.The former are incipient nations who found themselves incorporated into a larger multinational state. Examples include the Aboriginal peoples in Canada and Australia, Maori in New Zealand and the various national groups that make up multinational states like Switzerland and Belgium. Ethnic groups, by contrast, are largely the result of immigration. This includes all the very different groups of migrants found in Canada, Australia and the USA (the three countries with the very highest rates of immigration), as well as Turks in Germany and Commonwealth immigrants in the UK, for example. The point of this distinction is to justify his hierarchy of cultural rights: while national minorities merit rights to special representation and devolved self-government, ethnic groups deserve only rights to help them assimilate on terms that are fair. Supporting this division are Rawls’s and Dworkin’s theories of social justice which say that we should compensate people for the circumstances they involuntarily find themselves in, while respecting their voluntarily made choices. National minorities merit more rights than ethnic groups because they generally find themselves in a situation not of their own choosing. However, some ethnic groups did not choose to migrate – black Americans are the best example. Even where they did, the choice was only made by the first generation not subsequent ones. The latter often find they have most in common with the country of their birth, however strange it was to their parents who first arrived. Reversing matters, some national minorities do not want self-government, but instead choose to assimilate into the larger culture. Even where self-government is demanded, its purpose need not be to maintain and transmit a unique cultural identity.To be fair to Kymlicka, he does appreciate the difficulties involved in bringing cultures into the ambit of normative analysis and he explicitly says that cultural claims must be assessed on a case by case basis. He further distinguishes between justifying a theory of minority rights and imposing it in practice.As J.L. Austin once said, ‘There’s the bit where you say it and the bit where you take it back’
The politics of recognition
The difficulty of legislating when a culture qualifies for minority rights is not unique to Kymlicka. Charles Taylor wants to recognise cultures that have fairly large numbers of members, have survived for some time and articulate a language of moral evaluations. Influenced by his native Quebec, he seems to see the essence of culture as possession of a shared language.Parekh maintains that a culture has a claim to rights if it is vital to the fundamental interests of its members and contributes to the wider society.David Miller claims a national community is constituted by shared beliefs, a historical narrative and territorial home, is active in character and has its own public culture. National communities that pass these five tests have a prima facie right to self-determination.Parekh, Miller and Taylor, and beyond them Young, Tully and Tamir, together go a little further than Kymlicka in their defence of cultural rights.For Kymlicka, the main value of cultural membership and cultural diversity is to sustain those options within which autonomous persons can exercise choice. Independent of autonomy, there are limits as to how far cultural diversity is morally or aesthetically valuable.For these other writers, the value of cultures,nations and ethnic groups is not primarily routed through their contribution to autonomy. The perspective begins to shift towards their collective value as such. In Taylor’s hands, this value supports what has come to be called a ‘politics of recognition’.Charles Taylor’s elegant essay ‘The Politics of Recognition’ has given the politics of recognition a rich philosophical background.Arguing for a model of liberalism that can include important collective goals, Taylor distinguishes between the crucial liberties central to any liberal society and the less critical rights and opportunities that may on occasion be over-ridden. The pro-French policies of Quebec are such a collective good. The goal here is not just to sustain but actively to create a community of French speakers into the indefinite future.Two strands make up this argument. In the early sections of the essay, Taylor defends the notion that individuals require, not just respect, but others’ recognition:they need to be the object of others’ positive attitudes. Through a matrix where affirmation is given and received, individuals acquire a positive relation to themselves. Recognition, therefore, is not an optional extra, but a vital human need. Second, Taylor distinguishes between two modes of being in late modernity, autonomy and authenticity. While autonomy is the seed bed in which the modern rational, disengaged self has grown, authenticity invokes the alternative Romantic tradition of spontaneity, uniqueness and difference.‘There is a certain way of life that is my way; I am called upon to live my life inthis way and not in imitation of anyone else’s life’.These two traditions are not opposite, but divergent: both free the individual from obligation to a larger order, but only authenticity invests the self with a unique life-project which she has a duty to fulfil. Taylor, however, interprets authenticity not just in an individual but a collective sense: cultures too have their own unique authentic essences.When this is added to the first strand we arrive at the view that cultures need recognition in their authentic particularity. Quebec is one case, but there are others besides. We have already encountered one keyassumption underlying the politics of recognition. In commenting on Kymlicka, I recorded claim (b), that each culture has its own cultural attributes. Individuals are unique – Taylor’s individual authenticity – but not cultures, or at least not every culture, not American blacks for example. Still, as we shall see, whether a group does or does not have a distinct identity is a political and not an empirical question. In any case, let us turn to the main demand of this kind of politics, the public affirmation of cultural difference. Barry believes that public recognition is impossibly demanding and logically incoherent. The equal treatment that liberalism demands of us is relatively easy to fulfil. Whatever our real views on the merits of others’ ways of life, we can treat them with civility, courtesy and respect. Recognition, however, politicises those private judgements that could otherwise remain concealed behind the formal practice of equal treatment. Hence ‘The notion that everybody should be entitled to an equal ration of “recognition” cannot be accepted by those who attach any value to individual liberty’. In any case, recognition is incoherent. It is not just that an across the board affirmation of each culture’s value is a meaningless activity. (It devalues the idea of value). The problem is also that to believe in the worth of one’s own culture must include a belief in the values and virtues it embodies. Faced with the demand to affirm the value of a culture that espouses contrary values to our own, we are put in an impossible situation. The Southern Baptist who believes homosexuality is a sin (this is Barry’s example) cannot, consistent with retaining her Baptist beliefs, also affirm the value of a homosexual lifestyle You cannot believe in something while sincerely advocating its opposite. These criticisms are somewhat overstated. Taylor’s account of recognition seems to hover between endorsing the values a culture subscribes to, and affirming a culture’s specific identity, which need not require endorsing all its values. The latter interpretation has less of a problem with Barry’s argument. It is also the view of the other main proponent of a politics of recognition, Iris Marion Young, for whom justice towards groups, before anything else, involves acknowledging what is different about each group.Still, besides this specificity- claim, there remains a good deal of plausibility to Barry’s strictures against recognition.Against Barry’s first point, however, the public expression of private attitudes is not unusual but routine. The shopkeeper whose veil of politeness to his Asian customers hides a deeper racism will let the mask slip with his friends in the pub.Since the communities we inhabit are diverse and several, a member of a liberal society might encounter those who value and affirm the culture which his other acquaintances ridicule and despise. This at least brings the possibility for a re-evaluation of attitudes, if not engineered by the state, then encouraged and fostered by it. Second, while the demand to affirm the worth of a culture represents an invasion of freedom, Barry implies that the burden of belonging to a disparaged one does not. This, however, rests on a particular notion of what freedom involves. It rests on the notion that freedom consists solely in doing what one wants, with no attention to the social relations – including those of servility, submission and domination – within which our wants are formed and acted on. Recent work on freedom has viewed the absence of these social circumstances as central to an elaboration of the concept. For republicans, freedom is non-domination. Even if this view is rejected, we could still maintain that a subject, disparaged and degraded by her peers, is hardly likely to make use of whatever legal freedom she enjoys. This is the point of insisting that recognition is a vital human need. In order to reply to Barry’s second argument, and hence clear the way for a partial vindication of a politics of recognition, we shall need to tackle some difficult issues of culture and value. I earlier took issue with Kymlicka for encouraging us to think of culture as a thing, a tendency encouraged by his assumptions that cultures were valuable and unique. An alternative liberal view sees culture as secondary quality, apt to fade away under the Enlightenment torch. Both these perspectives depart from the dominant view of cultural anthropology, which regards culture as a process, a manifestation, in diverse material and symbolic circumstances, of the universal human capacity to manufacture frames of socialaction.Men and women make culture, but they do not do so just as they please,but in circumstances directly encountered and transmitted from the past. Baumann’s analysis theorises culture as ‘dual discursive construction’.Cultural agents, in their day-to-day interactions, shape and change their culture as they act to reproduce it. At the same time, cultural elites, outsiders and the media tend to reify culture, they accentuate its thingness for a particular purpose: if you want to attack or defend something, it must be, just that, a thing. Better still, it should be a unique thing. During the Rushdie affair, for example, both Muslim leaders and their opponents had powerful reasons for maintaining that there was a fixed and characteristic Muslim community in the UK.‘Yet in the end, all the comforts of having a culture rely upon remaking that culture, and the dominant discourse of culture as an unchangeable heritage is only a conservative-sounding subcomponent of the processual truth.’If this view of cultures is correct then they cannot include, among other components, subscription to a relatively static core of principles and values, as Barry maintains. For as cultural agents remake their worlds and endow them with cultural meaning, they revise the contexts within which apparently immutable values are defended and maintained.Cultures are not clubs whose members must affirm a set charter of principles. Values, like rules,receive their meaning in the everyday production of social life. (Both theorists and practitioners have a motive for absolutising normative principles, theorists for intellectual robustness, practitioners for practical power.) There is, therefore, no simple conflict between cultural values. Recognised in one context, they can be criticised in another. In fact this is almost inevitable, given the different communities liberal citizens usually inhabit. It also means that a culture does not lose its identity when members revise their attitude towards the values of others.
1 W. Kymlicka, Liberalism, Community and Culture
2 W. Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy.