By Waris Itoo
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’ 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 constitute 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 in this 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 fulfill. 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 key assumption 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 fulfill. Whatever our real views on the merits of others’ ways of life, we can treat them with civility, courtesy and respect. Recognition, however, politicizes those private judgments 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 social action. 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 theorizes 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 absolutizing normative principles, theorists for intellectual robustness, practitioners for practical power.) There is, therefore, no simple conflict between cultural values. Recognized in one context, they can be criticized 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.
—The author holds an MA in Political Science. He can be reached at: email@example.com