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The Incompleteness of the Multiculturalist Agenda: Overlooking the Need for a Shared Identity

Multiculturalism offers a robust critique of liberalism's emphasis on basic individual rights, an emphasis that is unable to address the problems of national minorities and myriad marginalised groups. Yet, the attention given to cultural difference and exclusivity by multiculturalism underestimates the safety valves that traditional liberal political theory provides to redress such demands.

The Incompleteness of the Multiculturalist Agenda: Overlooking the Need for a Shared Identity

Multiculturalism offers a robust critique of liberalism's emphasis on basic individual rights, an emphasis that is unable to address the problems of national minorities and myriad marginalised groups. Yet, the attention given to cultural difference and exclusivity by multiculturalism underestimates the safety valves that traditional liberal political theory provides to redress such demands.


n recent years, in many well-established western democracies, identity politics driven by considerations of nationality, ethnicity, religion, gender, and language has come to the forefront of public debate. It focuses on questions of recognising cultural diversity, the status and rights of immigrants, and in specific cases, of the rights of indigenous people, and underlines the need for group representation and rights. These issues form the subject matter of identity politics with its variants – multiculturalism, politics of recognition of difference and, to the notions of differentiated citizenship and theory of group rights. Classical political theory examined questions concerning justice or democracy in a society which according to J S Mill had a shared identity. However, in the 20th century, demographic and political changes have set aside these traditional assumptions about the relationship between culture and politics. Most of the larger countries today have substantial number of minorities from more than one culture and this has altered the debate on ideals of democracy, justice or citizenship, from those when they were first proposed in a situation of relative homogeneity.

The advocates of identity politics question the liberal individualist1 conception of citizenship as equal rights to all under the law which differed from the feudal perception that decided people’s political status by their group identity of guilds. When this well-established social practice of group identity, behaviour and social balancing was challenged by the theory of divine right of kings, then the theory of natural rights that provides the individualist basis to liberalism emerged. Cultural pluralists argue that on the contrary citizenship must reflect the distinct sociocultural identity of groups like – African American, indigenous peoples, ethnic and religious minorities, gays and lesbians who feel excluded and marginalised because of their “difference”2 from the mainstream of society.

“Multiculturalism” stresses on the need to accommodate cultural diversity fairly, as there are different consequences and impact that public policies have for persons of different cultural groups within multinational states. For instance, given the importance of language to culture and the role of the modern states in so many facets of life, the choice of official language will affect different people differently. Similarly, the content of education, personal laws or choice of public holidays, national symbols such as the choice of national anthem, immigration and naturalisation policy, religious freedom, special privileges for minorities or mechanisms for representing minorities have increasingly captured attention of theorists and policy makers in order to avoid policies that entail unfair burdens [Kymlicka 1995b:1].

Origins and Meaning of Multiculturalism

The term multiculturalism was first used in Canada in 1971 and then, in Australia in 1978, to describe a new public policy that moved away from assimilation of ethnic minorities, and immigrants in particular, towards policies of acceptance and integration of diverse cultures [Lopez 2000: 2-3]. It entered the American and British political lexicon in the 1980s [Glazer 1997: 8]. In the US, when it entered the public debate, in the first instance, it was about the need for reform of public school curriculum, in disciplines like history, literature and social sciences as its contents reflected a euro-centric bias. Glazer observed that initially, it was about “how American society, particularly American education should respond to diversity” (1997:8). Since then, multiculturalism has questioned the traditional conception of the US as a “melting pot” of diverse people bonded in a common culture of the “New World”. The metaphor “melting pot”3 is seen as a cover for oppressive assimilation to the dominant or hegemonic white culture. As American society, from the very beginning has, in fact been, multiracial and diverse, there is a need to underline the separate characteristics and virtues of the different cultural groups. Instead of “melting pot”, terms such as “salad bowl” and “glorious mosaic” are preferred as they convey more a sense of separateness and distinctiveness in describing a nation of immigrants (ibid: 10).

Like many other concepts in political theory, there is no unanimity about what constitutes multiculturalism and it continues to be a contested concept. For some, multiculturalism requires reasonable changes in social and political institutions to enable cultural minorities to preserve their language and their distinctive customs. For others, multiculturalism is about eliminating racism and nurturing rather than repudiating or tolerating “difference”, as differences spring from a universally shared attachment of importance to cultures, and this implies greater social transformation. A unifying theme amongst the multiculturalists is their resistance to homogenisation or assimilation which is evident in the conception of citizenship implicit in the contemporary liberal theories of justice that conceptualises justice as equal rights for all citizens irrespective of their gender, religion and ethnicity. Kymlicka points out that the logical conclusion of liberal principles of justice “seems to be a ‘colour-blind” constitution – the removal of all legislation differentiating people in terms of their race or ethnicity (except for temporary measures, like affirmative action, which are believed necessary to reach a “colour blind” society (1989:141). Multiculturalists see this attempt towards a “colour blind” society as ill-founded, for it is not possible to separate the state and ethnicity and when the liberal state attempts to do this, it unfairly privileges certain ways of life over others. They allege that liberals do not take diversity seriously. This is despite the fact that liberals value pluralism, with Rawls stressing on “reasonable pluralism”, which is why liberals defend a neutral public philosophy that entails equal rights for all citizens. Kymlicka (1995a) argues that liberals, like Rawls and Dworkin, have falsely assumed that members of a political community are members of the same cultural community. He regards a culture as a civilisation, self-sufficient and with its own social institutions. Parekh observes that Rawls, like many liberals, “is sensitive to moral but not cultural plurality, and thus takes little account of the cultural aspirations of such communities as the indigenous peoples, national minorities, subnational groups, and the immigrants” (2000:89). A culture has a claim to rights if it is vital to the basic interests of its members and contributes to the wider society [ibid: 217-18]. Multiculturalism is not merely “about difference and identity per se but about those that are embedded in and sustained by culture, that is, a body of beliefs and practices in terms of which a group of people understand themselves and the world and organise their individual and collective lives” [ibid: 2-3].

Kymlicka’s Theory of Multiculturalism

It was in the 1990s, that political theorists began to furnish the theoretical basis of a multicultural society. The first systematic theory of multiculturalism was elaborated by Will Kymlicka in his two major works: Liberalism, Community and Culture (1989) and Multicultural Citizenship (1995a). Kymlicka criticises the earlier models of unitary republican citizenship in which all the citizens enjoy common citizenship rights on the grounds that in its assumption of a more homogenous political community, it ignores cultural and ethnic diversity. He observes that liberalism with its stress on individual rights has not paid adequate attention to group rights. Following J S Mill, Kymlicka points out that the distinctive feature of liberalism is that it ascribes to individuals the freedom to choose and revise their conception of good life. The capacity of an individual to make meaningful life choices depends on access to a culture because one is shaped by one’s culture. According to him, the institutions of liberal democratic societies embody the culture of the major national group. If members of minority cultural groups are to have autonomy, freedom and identity as those of the majority community, then justice and fairness require that their culture be secure. This would entail granting demands of minority groups for rights of self-government within the polity, of guaranteed representation or veto rights over certain decisions, measures like education arrangements in the form of protection of minority languages through special radio or television channels. These measures can be claimed as a matter of just and equal treatment and not as a matter of special treatment: in this way Kymlicka argues that multiculturalism and liberalism are compatible. He argues that in a multicultural state, a comprehensive theory of justice would have to include both universal rights and certain group differentiated rights or special status for minority cultures (1995a: 6).

Kymlicka is dissatisfied with the post-war liberal political theory, which in his view, wrongly assumes that provision of basic individual rights could resolve the problem of national minorities. He contends that minority rights could not be subsumed under human rights because “human rights standards are simply unable to resolve some of the most important and controversial questions relating to cultural minorities” (ibid: 4). These included questions about which languages should be recognised in parliaments, bureaucracies and courts; whether any ethnic or national groups should have publicly funded educations in their mother tongues; whether internal boundaries should be drawn so that cultural minorities form majorities in local regions; whether traditional homelands of indigenous people should be reserved for their benefit; and to what degree of cultural integration might be required of immigrants seeking citizenship (ibid: 4-5). As traditional human rights doctrines offer no guidance on these questions, Kymlicka recommends the need for a theory of minority rights to supplement human rights theory. This would enable us to confront burning issues that raged in places like eastern Europe which was mired in disputes over local autonomy, language and naturalisation. He proposes to develop a liberal theory of minority rights which would explain “how minority rights could coexist with human rights and how minority rights are limited by principles of individual liberty, democracy and social justice” (ibid: 6).

Kymlicka, in course of elaborating his theory, distinguishes three kinds of minority or group differentiated rights that are to be assured to ethnic and national groups: self-government rights, poly-ethnic rights and special representation rights. Selfgovernment rights require the delegation of powers to national minorities, such as indigenous peoples, but are not available to other cultural minorities who had immigrated into the country. Instead, their claim is for rights of fair recognition since immigrant groups choose to immigrate into a host society, they must bear some of the burdens of integration. Poly-ethnic rights are for cultural minorities as it guarantees financial support and legal and political protection from the state for certain practices associated with particular ethnic or religious groups and in particular to aboriginal people as to enable them to maintain their culture and autonomy. Poly-ethnic rights might include legislation to prevent suppression or marginalisation of cultural and identity concerns of minority ethnic groups by the deliberate, or unthinking, discrimination by the majority ethnic population within a country. Special state support for media policies and funding to address the media interests of minority ethnic groups are one particular expression of poly-ethnic rights. Both indigenous peoples and immigrant minorities might also be eligible for special representation rights which guarantee places for minority representatives on state bodies or institutions.

Of pivotal importance in Kymlicka’s account of group-differentiated citizenship is the distinction that he makes between two kinds of minorities: national minorities and ethnic minorities. The former are peoples whose previously self-governing, territorially concentrated cultures have been incorporated into a large state. These are “American Indians”, Puerto Ricans, Chicanos and native Hawaiians in the US; the Quebecois and various aboriginal communities in Canada and the Aborigines in Australia. Ethnic minorities are peoples who have immigrated to a new society and do not wish to govern themselves, but nonetheless wished to retain their ethnic identities and traditions.

Economic and Political Weekly September 15, 2007

But Kymlicka also strongly believes that group-based protection should not violate rights fundamental to individual wellbeing. He acknowledges the fact that individuals might need protection from the abusive power of their own ethnic communities. He endorses group-differentiated rights which provide for external protection for groups, but does not permit “internal restrictions” except in cases of systematic and gross human violations like slavery or genocide, in which case state intervention is warranted. For Kymlicka, culture is important because it is the context within which individuals learn how to choose, but its value reduces when it disallows individuals to choose their lives for themselves, thus retaining the overall spirit of liberalism that it permits individual’s capacity for autonomous choice. Cultural membership and cultural diversity is to sustain those options within which autonomous persons can exercise choice. Devoid of autonomy, cultural diversity is neither morally or aesthetically valuable (1995a: 121-23).

Parekh insists that members of cultural minorities must be treated as equal and valued members with the rest, as equal respect is central to individual’s sense of dignity going beyond conventional notions of non-discrimination and equal opportunity, and not be given unintended discrimination in employment, housing, education, promotion, appointment to public offices. Minority communities may be allowed to run their internal affairs themselves so long as they are not internally oppressive. They should also be free to set up their own cultural, educational and other institutions, organise literary, artistic, sports and other events and to institute museums and academies, with the help of the state if they need or ask for. Cultural differences should also be taken into account in the formulation and enforcement of public policies and laws.

Politics of Recognition

Charles Taylor has offered an alternative theory in his “The Politics of Recognition” (1994) by rejecting as inadequate the liberal theory of multiculturalism. Liberalism, in his view, is incapable of giving culture the recognition it requires. He suggests that the liberal ideal of public neutrality is inapplicable in culturally diverse societies and should be replaced with the idea of equal worth of cultures. Liberalism emphasises on sameness, viewing individuals as bearers of rights and possessors of dignity as equal citizens, but cultural groups desire recognition of their distinctness and not sameness. He wants to recognise cultures that have fairly large number of members, have survived for some time and articulate a language of moral evaluations. He contends that democracies need to take the claims of indigenous peoples, linguistic minorities and other kinds of social groups seriously. He rejects Kymlicka’s efforts to develop a liberalism that might accommodate difference by granting individuals differentiated rights to enable them to pursue their particular ends. According to Taylor, this solution works only “for existing people who find themselves trapped within a culture under pressure, and can flourish within it or not at all. But it does justify measures designed to ensure survival through indefinite future generations” (1994: 62). In this context, he cites the example of Quebecois whose aim is the long-term survival of the French speaking community in Canada.

One of the main foundations for Taylor’s theory of recognition is the assertion that our sense of our own well-being and moral goals depends critically on how we see ourselves reflected in the eyes of others. Being in a group whose culture is reviled and devalued leads to moral harm of its members and hence there is a need for revaluation and public acknowledgement of the despised group as a legitimate presence in the body politic. While acknowledging the need for “difference-blind procedures for interpreting and redeeming individual rights” within a liberal polity there is also a need for a substantive sense of common moral purpose forged out of the interaction of the different cultures subsisting within it. He also proposed strongly the need for a multiculturalist education to enhance mutual cultural understanding. For Taylor a multicultural liberal society is one in which individuals are given respect insofar as they are followers of a particular cultural heritage, as well as a distinctive kind of legal-constitutional regime in which the basic structure of rights and liberties is preserved.

Politics of Difference

Defenders of the politics of difference desire an extension of the democratic processes to give greater scope to the participation of cultural minorities in the shaping and governing of the polity [Young 1990, 2000; Phillips 1995; Williams 1998; Tully 2003]. In Strange Multiplicity (1995), Tully recommends a reconstruction of modern constitutionalism as to accommodate the wide variety of cultural traditions to enhance the quality of liberal constitutional arrangements. Williams (1998) proposes measures like proportional representation, holding reserved seats in legislative bodies for members of under-represented marginalised groups, redrawing of electoral boundaries when underrepresented groups are concentrated in geographically determined ridings or providing for multimember districts when appropriate and providing for quotas for under-represented groups in political party candidate lists.

Young demands guaranteed representation only of oppressed disadvantaged groups and veto power over policies that affect them. These groups can only be fully integrated through what she calls differentiated citizenship. It means that members of certain groups should be incorporated into the political community, not only as individuals, but also through their group, and their rights should depend in part on their group membership: “group veto power regarding specific policies that affect a group directly, such as reproductive rights policy for women, or land use policy for Indian reservations” (1990: 184).

Young does not consider protection of minority cultures as a state responsibility, a notion advanced by some liberal multiculturalists like Kymlicka and Raz (1986; 1994), as adequate, as this is tantamount to confining groups to the private sphere. It fails to give public endorsement to their distinct identities. The public sphere is dominated by norms which appear to be universal and culturally neutral but in reality reflect cultural values of the dominant social categories – middle class white males. Young (1992), picking up on the model of “associative democracy” that Cohen and Rogers (1992) propose, states that the state ought to be an organisation of oppressed minorities with the view that they could exercise real power. Arguing within the US context, she (2000) also points out that exclusive emphasis on rational argument further disadvantages minorities who are well versed in its niceties. She supports forms of communication like rhetoric, story telling (or testimony, or narrative) and an oral tradition argument, which are more accessible to disadvantaged minorities.

Phillips (1995)4 puts forward an essentialist assumption of what she calls “the politics of presence” namely representation for the under-represented (in her example – women) by reserving places in governmental bodies for people from marginalised groups or “the politics of ideas” of ensuring that at least some political party platforms feature marginalised group interests. The second one is complementary to the first one and that will ensure representation of the unrepresented segments in government. But it is possible that the representatives would not pursue the specific interest of the group that they represent. Party discipline may lead to some accountability but even proportional representation may not lead to electoral success. One solution is by including group list in the list of political party candidates ensuring representation of marginalised groups.

Phillips (1991) conceptualises the public and private spheres as interdependent but distinct. She thinks it is necessary to integrate the private sphere into analysis and focus on gendered nature of power relations within the family, and not ignore it as traditional political science has done. The inequities within the family are as relevant to issues of social justice as inequalities in the public sphere. Democratisation of the public sphere understood in terms of higher participation of women is possible only if there is prior democratisation of the private sphere. This, she desires by maintaining the public-private distinction like Okin (1991) and Young (1987), so as to preserve areas for individual decision and privacy. In this context, she mentions the right of abortion. She also argues for the need to detach the two spheres of gender differences and base it instead on the criterion of right to privacy.


Critics raise a number of objections to many of the aforesaid basic formulations. For some, it is simple that only individuals, and not groups, have rights [Narveson 1991; Hartney 1991]. Graf (1994: 194) observes that groups are fictitious entities and fictitious entities could not be right bearers. The idea of differentiated citizenship is a contradiction in terms. If groups are encouraged to focus on their “difference” then how can citizenship be a shared identity, a source of commonality and solidarity among the various groups in society.

Aboriginal peoples, on whose behalf multiculturalists speak, see multiculturalism as facilitating further marginalisation of their communities and culture in a modern state which is more attuned to the needs of migrants than to the aborigines. Many press for the rights of indigenous minorities and insist that unlike immigrants, what they need is not only recognition of their independent status but also rectification of past injustice.

A severe objection to multiculturalism is that in pleading for special rights for cultural groups or religious communities, it may permit these groups to continue with practices that are sexist and highly disadvantageous, if not harmful to women. Okin (1998; 1999a; 1999b; 2002) finds among most exponents of multiculturalism a weak commitment to women’s rights and interests.

Non-liberal Critique

The non-liberal critics contend that the prevailing theories of liberal multiculturalism are essentially arguments for homogeneity, since the idea is that one will support cultural diversity as long as the cultures are liberal. They observe that liberal multiculturalism is narrow: since its base is in a liberal theory of autonomy, it does not give enough support to non-liberal cultures [Deveaux 2000; Parekh 2000]. The non-liberal multiculturalists stress on the intrinsic worth of culture.

Mouffe (1992) in response to group-differentiated citizenship points out that the solution is not to make gender or other group characteristics important to the concept of citizenship but to reduce their significance. She proposes a conception of citizenship which is neither gendered nor gender neutral but one based on real equality and liberty for all citizens. She stresses on political issues and claims, and observes that the public-private distinction needs to be redefined from case to case, according to the type of political demands, and not in a fixed and permanent way.

The Danger of Identity Politics

Miller (2000) considers identity politics as dangerous to the groups, who it is supposed to serve, as the identities of these groups are much more open and fluid than recognised by the advocates of group identity. Identity politics emphasises on separateness creating a barrier to the politics of inclusion. This political mechanism of inclusion is important to reshape the public space, as an expression of shared national identity in a manner that, it is “more hospitable to women, ethnic minorities and other groups without emptying them of content and destroying the underpinnings of democratic politics” (ibid: 80). Miller mentions J S Mill who, despite lending support to the independence movements in Poland, Hungary and Italy, is appreciative of the role that national identities play in supporting liberal institutions (2006: 534). In the Considerations on Representative Government (1861), Mill argues that unless the several groups, which compose a society, have mutual sympathy and trust that is derived from a common nationality, it would be difficult to have free institutions. There would be no common interest to prevent government excesses and politics would become a zero-sum game, in which each group could only hope to profit by the exploitation of the others. Rule of law in such a situation usually becomes the first casualty. Miller also cites the example of Mazzini who argued passionately for Italian unity and independence while defending individual rights and republican government. He observes that liberal thinkers by the mid-19th century “forged links between individual freedom, national independence, and representative government in opposing the imperial powers of Europe” (ibid: 534). Miller (1995; 2000; 2001) states that nationality is important and its recognition need not mean suppression of other sources of ethnicity or culture. One major reason as to why nationality is important is because it is the precondition of the pursuit of social justice, which cannot be pursued globally (1999a, b). The pursuit of social justice requires a measure of social solidarity and that would mean that citizens go along with the institutions which perform a redistributive function.

‘Kaleidoscope of Culture’

Waldron (1993) questions as to whether there exist distinct cultures as most of us are cultural fragments imbibing from a variety of ethno-cultural sources without feeling any sense of membership in or dependence on a particular culture. Defending the cosmopolitan alternative, he argues that most of the people in the modern world live “in a kaleidoscope of culture” moving freely from one cultural tradition to another. Cultures can no longer remain monolithic in view of globalisation of trade, the increase in human mobility and the development of international institutions and communications. The only way that a culture could remain authentic is by adopting a wholly inauthentic way of life by denying the “overwhelming reality of cultural interchange and global interdependence” [Waldron, cited in Kymlicka 1995b: 8]. A liberal conception of the self gives importance to the ability of individuals to question and revise in

Economic and Political Weekly September 15, 2007 inherited ways of life which is in contrast to the communitarian perception of viewing people as embedded in particular cultures. Waldron rightly worries that this process of cultural interchange would be decisively hampered if the notion of protecting the “authenticity” of minority cultures through minority rights is accepted.

Glazer (1975) and Walzer (1992) points out that expression and perpetuation of cultural identities should be left to the private sphere and, as Glazer observes the response of the state ought to be one of “salutary neglect” (1975: 25). Protection against discrimination and prejudice is provided to members of ethnic and national groups and they are free to maintain their identity and heritage, consistent with the rights of others but strictly in the private sphere.

Whither Enlightenment?

Barry (2001) argues that multiculturalism is a fog that blots out recognition of class inequalities and human rights abuse. It is inconsistent with liberalism and disrespectful of liberal values and should be rejected. By replacing the idea of equal citizenship based on equal rights with culturally differentiated rights, and in modifying the doctrine of equal citizenship, the multiculturalists are insensitive to the abuse of power which is inevitable in such a policy. Barry considers the concept of uniform citizenship and individual autonomy as an achievement of the Enlightenment. By criticising the Enlightenment and in advocating culturally differentiated rights, these theorists overlook the gross irregularities and inequities that existed prior to the Enlightenment. Barry finds an affinity between the “right” and the “left” in their anti-liberal rhetoric as emphasis on special interests is an old policy of divide and rule beneficial to those who gain from the status quo. Such an emphasis denies any unified struggle for the common demand of the disadvantaged. There is a larger arena of the shared disadvantages of all like unemployment, poverty, low quality housing and inadequate public housing which can be tackled only from the point of view of the larger category of the disadvantaged. Particularity of group politics dissipates the political effort for mobilising people on the basis of a broad shared interest. Emphasis on cultural heterogeneity does not lead to either promotion of liberty or equality. Such policies are policies of retreat as group differentiated politics is inimical to the pursuit of a programme of universal material benefit to which all must have access. He insists that politics of multiculturalism undermines the politics of redistribution.

Barry is clear that the conflict between culture and law is over-emphasised as exemptions in the name of culture normally leads to sidetracking or breaking the law in the context of denial of individual rights within the group. He additionally regards multiculturalism and group rights discourses as endangering protections hard won over the centuries, in now liberal polities for individuals” religious and family autonomy. Arguing within the framework provided by J S Mill, Barry writes:

The defining feature of a liberal is, I suggest, that it is someone

who holds that there are certain rights against oppression, exploi

tation and injury to which every single human being is entitled

to lay claim, and that appeals to cultural diversity and pluralism

under no circumstances trump the value of basic human rights.

For [the multiculturalists] a society is to be conceived as a fictitious body whose real constituents are communities (ibid: 132-33, 300). Contrary to “enlightenment liberalism” which Barry defends is “reformation liberalism” propounded by Galston (1995) one which takes into account diversity and underlines the importance

of “differences among individuals and groups over such matters as the nature of the good life, sources of moral authority, reason versus faith, and the like” (1995: 521). Barry rejects reformation liberalism on three grounds: (1) liberal theory is based on the primacy of respect for individuals which included the culture as well provided the culture is not illiberal by itself and does not violate equal respect to other cultures. (2) On the question of liberalism’s commitment to diversity as enhancing the range of choice, Barry argues that for liberals, individualism is more important than diversity. (3) Regarding the question of publicprivate divide and the liberal commitment to non-intervention in the private sphere, Barry points out that throughout the process of history, liberalism has challenged both parental and paternal authority while protecting the individual from the group to which he belongs. On the question of every group having to conform to liberalism, Barry points out that it is a free choice of the individuals to join any group or association with a rider that such groups are to be consistent with the legal protection that exists for all those outside the group. There are, however, two important preconditions: (a) all participants in the group are sane adults and (b) participation should be voluntary (ibid: 148). Groups may then do as they please, provided those who do not like the way the group functions can exit without facing undue costs (ibid: 150).

Barry (2001: 208) castigates multiculturalists for supporting national autonomy as “they see it as a way of enabling nations within which illiberal values are politically dominant to pursue them in ways that violate the constraints imposed by any standard list of liberal rights, such as those embodied in the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’, the US Constitution, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms or the European Convention on Human Rights”. Liberalism guarantees norms and institutional devices to ensure freedom from injustice and oppression and “these do not (contrary to a popular multiculturalist claim) prevent different societies from expressing their differences politically” (ibid: 209). Barry stresses the need to subject minority cultural rights to democratic deliberation. “If a cultural or a religious minority failed to gain a concession from the political process” then it “could not properly claim that it had suffered an injustice” (ibid: 214).

Concluding Remarks

Ever since Durkheim and Weber paid attention to the cultural dimension of social, economic and political analyses it has remained an important component of enquiry within liberalism. However, Tawney’s critique of Weber on the factors of the rise of capitalism has brought in serious limitations of this approach as well. Multiculturalism is a continuation of this trend reinforced by the present post-modernist assertion of rejection of post-Enlightenment liberal intellectual traditions. Habermas gives an effective reply to such post modernist assertions. Multiculturalism has remained a critique rather than becoming a viable alternative to traditional liberalism which since J S Mill has been able to refine and modernise its premises while retaining its core values to withstand the continuous onslaught. Twentieth century liberalism is conscious of the limits of philosophical enquiry and also the need to limit the political, and instead emphasise on building institutions that are accountable, and protect and enhance civil liberties. In the American context, Daniel Bell observes that the mainstay of the civil society is the existence of the Constitution and the Supreme Court. Within the larger framework of liberal politics, which inevitably consolidates a liberal society, much of the fears whether of recognition or participation can be taken care of by not merely highlighting cultural differences but by pointing to the larger commonality of the disadvantaged.

Multiculturalism rejects the idea of the liberal state of J S Mill, Rawls and Barry as being neutral to differing conceptions of good life. For Kymlicka, liberalism is about autonomy. A perfectionist liberal, he rejects the idea of the liberal state of Mill, Rawls and Barry as being neutral to differing conceptions of good life. Autonomy is good, as long as it is anchored in choice, the quintessence of negative liberty according to Berlin. Dworkin (2006) asserts that liberal principles flow from two principles and these are: (1) each human life is intrinsically and equally valuable and (2) each person has an inalienable personal responsibility for identifying and realising the values in his life.

Multiculturalism’s charge that liberalism’s championing of individualism intrinsically incapacitates it from explaining that some of the inherently collective features of political life are flawed. In the 19th century, European liberal thinkers, in contrast with their Enlightenment predecessors and their 20th century successors with the exception of Berlin and Raz, understood the importance of collective identities to human beings, other than, and more particularistic than, that of the species as a whole. J S Mill, for instance, considered the sentiment of nationality an important source of social solidarity, and of political stability of a liberal society. Berlin’s own lifelong commitment to the idea of a Jewish nationalist homeland or Zionism is within the broader liberal framework of his thought. He also supported a Palestinian state for the Palestinians. He is clear that individual well-being demands common cultural forms, and that individual self identity and self-esteem require the respectful recognition of these cultural forms by others. However, he does not advocate special rights for the members of minority cultures nor does he insist on the need of the state to extend official recognition ranging from legal exemptions to self determination to minority cultures within its jurisdiction. He is not advocating assimilation but integration where the members of the group maintain their distinct identity within the family and voluntary associations while accepting the same public rights and duties as other citizens. He subordinates cultural identity and diversity to two values: (1) freedom, understood as choice which implies that people have a right to choose how to live, a right which is common to all human beings. Cultures also have to promote diversity of goods.

(2) A successful liberal politics cannot flourish in situations of chronic instability, like the Weimar Republic. It requires high levels of trust and cooperation and that is possible only if there exists within a society, a common cultural identity. Aggressive cultures which encourage divisiveness in society cannot sustain free institutions.

Both traditional liberalism and multiculturalism are concerned with addressing the problems of the disadvantaged. The former, since Green’s revision of the doctrine which paved the way for Keynesian consensus and the inauguration of the welfare state in the post second world war period and Rawls’ theory focusing on the procedural elevation of the worst off, with its stress on non discrimination and equal opportunity through the mechanism of constitutional guarantees of equal rights within the rule of law, ensures that individuals are not adversely affected because of their beliefs and ways of life in matters pertaining to education and employment. The guarantee and protection of individual rights which is the basis of a liberal state is still an important component of modern democracy. Multiculturalism with its emphasis on cultural exclusivity tries to bring in marginalised and neglected groups and redesigns the political space by accepting larger fragmentation and then, its incorporation. However, in doing so, not only are economic disadvantages relegated to secondary importance but the attempt to stress and highlight difference results in fragmentation of identities thus undermining the benefits which uniform citizenship based on one person-one vote, and equal rights for all, after years of protracted struggle, guaranteed. Stressing any one identity to the point of excluding others makes it meaningless as modern societies accept the multiple identities of persons in which no one identity is decisive and that different identities – gender, class, language, religion, region, ethnicity, culture, colour and race coalesce in a person. It is this spirit of unity in diversity, of the possibilities of co-existence of various identities in a person which multiculturalism overlooks. Cultural exclusivity and differentiation beyond a point could both be oppressive and coercive. Within the groups, some practices could be discriminatory and oppressive. What is the possibility for redress of grievance available to the individual against such practices? What is the basis of their assumption that the group will protect and advance the rights of its individual members than the constitutional state? On these important questions the multiculturalists do not offer satisfactory answers.

As Miller points out that “by turning their backs on forms of identity, particularly national identities, that can bond citizens together in a single community, advocates of identity politics would destroy the conditions under which disparate groups in a culturally plural society can work together to achieve social justice for all groups. Minority groups are likely to have little bargaining power, so they must rely on appeals to the majority’s sense of justice and fairness, and these will be effective only to the extent that majority and minorities sympathise and identify with each other” (2000: 4-5). Multiculturalism prevents the forging of a common public space which sustains democratic life. It questions the idea of shared moral values that exists among human beings despite their differences due to cultural backgrounds. Culture is fundamental as it is an important source of legitimacy and political power. For authority to be effective it has to be rooted in people’s experiences and identity. Only then it would win the loyalty of its people. However, power aims at unity while culture is diverse. By emphasising cultural diversity and overlooking the mechanisms of promoting cultural consensus multicultural politics would be divisive.

Multiculturalism alleges that democratic procedures in western democracies are not neutral but biased in favour of white, middle class males and against women and disadvantaged minorities. They maintain that the interests of these groups are best served not through existing forms of rational deliberation but by adopting new forms of political communication – greeting, rhetoric and story telling. Their call for encouraging the use of native tongues rather than the official language is fraught with dangers as can be seen from the following incident. Sir William Jones, as the judge of Supreme Court of Calcutta from 1783 for the next 11 years, felt the need to have the knowledge of Persian and other Indian languages as he realised that the court order were based on translations from Indian languages which often were wrongly translated and that led to denial of justice. While many see the idea of English as the common lingua franca in colonial and independent India as privileging the elite, what is overlooked is the continued discrimination and unfairness faced by those who are well versed only in their mother tongues. A common language is necessary for justice and to ensure minimal mischief, apart from the fact that such knowledge would help

Economic and Political Weekly September 15, 2007

in career advancement creating a climate of mutual respect which

exclusivity denies and allows greater flowering of talent as the

recent Indian writings in English prove. Liberalism accommodates cultural plurality and stresses on

the need for shared identity. Multiculturalism by stressing on

cultural difference and cultural exclusivity underestimates the

safety values that exist within traditional liberal political theory

for answering satisfactorily its concerns.




1 At the core of the arguments for recognising cultural diversity is the contention that individual identity is a social construct, taking off from where the communitarians left in their debate with the liberals in the late 1970s and early 1980s within Anglo American political theory. The publications of Rawls A Theory of Justice (1971) and Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974) led Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre and Michael Walzer to criticise the individualist underpinnings of their theories. However, by the middle of the 1980s, communitarianism peaked off mainly because its “main theorists had either failed to come up with persuasive alternative conception of moral and political community (MacIntyre) or had conceded much of the normative terrain to the liberals while turning their attention to other issues of social ontology, history and interpretation (Taylor). Out of this stalemate emerged the sudden growth of interest in multiculturalism” [Kelly 2006: 9-10].

2 Those who claim themselves to be “different” from the mainstream are broadly of two types. For some groups – the poor, women, ethnic minorities and immigrants, the demand for group rights is a demand for greater inclusion and participation in the mainstream society, as they feel excluded, under-represented or unrepresented. Or, they might seek exemption from laws that disadvantage them economically or they want school curriculum to recognise their contributions to society’s culture and history. These groups accept the goal of national integration, for they desire to be part of mainstream society as full and equal members but only insist that recognition and accommodation of their “difference” is needed to bring about national integration. The other group demanding differentiated citizenship reject the goal of national integration and wish to be self-governing, to freely develop their culture and are usually national minorities or distinct historical communities occupying their own territory with a distinct language and history. They do not want greater representation in the central government but transfer of power from the central government to their communities, often through some kind of federalism or local autonomy. They do not desire greater inclusion into the larger society but autonomy from it.

3 Israel Zangwill, an Anglo Jewish writer coined the term, in his play of the same name produced in 1908 in New York to refer to the manner in which immigrants who came to the US at the end of the 19th century were encouraged to think of themselves as Americans, gradually discard their culture of origin until, as in the action of the melting-pot, they become fully a part of the new alloy.

4 For Phillips there is a parallel between the multicultural critique of liberal theory of rights and social justice and the feminist critique of the distributive paradigm of liberal egalitarianism. Where she differs with the multiculturalists is on issues of patriarchy and the defence of traditionalism within some religious and cultural groups.


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