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 1970’s, to name just three examples.
In the 1980’s 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 1990’s 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 recognized that liberal constitutions are shot through with partisan ethnocultural norms. This is the first claim I want to make. 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 marginalized 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 recognize that our multicultural reality is pertinent for politics as soon as we start theorizing 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 in non-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 some sort 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 theorized, 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 civilization, 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 neighbors, 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.
—To be Continued..
—The author holds an MA in Political Science. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org