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The limits of cultural politics*
B R I A N B A R RY
Abstract. This article argues against a recent development within anglo-phone political philosophy which treats almost all group conﬂicts as deriving from cultural differences, thus downplaying the notion that conﬂicts may simply be over the distribution of things to which all the participants attach value: power, money, land and so on. Normative political philosophy, it is claimed by those who take this view, should be primarily concerned with issues of identity, recognition and culture at the expense of issues concerning distribution. There is however, little basis for these claims, whose implications are sketched in here and form the foundation for a defence of a liberalism ‘that has conﬁdence in its own insights, a liberalism possessed of clarity as well as compassion.’
I begin with the commonplace observation that the liberal conception of the polity currently faces a variety of changes. Fundamental to this liberal conception is the idea of a single and undifferentiated grade of citizenship, expressing itself in identical legal and political rights. Since all votes are supposed to count equally under such a system, the ultimate validation of collective decisions is majoritarian. This is consistent with the existence of political subunits within a state, but the basic assumption holds that internal boundaries should reﬂect administrative convenience rather than a shared history, culture and aspirations. Thus, following the French Revolution, the ancient divisions of the country were dismantled and replaced by a more or less rectangular grid of départements, roughly equal in size regardless of their population. A further assumption is that state boundaries are relatively impermeable, and that citizens will normally be born, grow up, live and die within a single state.1 Under these circumstances, the state claims a loyalty overriding any more limited ones, such as to family, class, religion or ethnic group, and is also suspicious of loyalties that extend beyond its boundaries. In return for this primary loyalty, the state undertakes to sustain a system of equitable law and order and to provide public goods and services. In the postwar Western European version common to both main political tendencies, social democracy and Christian democracy, it also provides economic security in the face of such contingencies as youth, age, disability and unemployment. In typical Owl of Minerva fashion, this whole conception received its most systematic exposition in A Theory of Justice, which was written in 1971.2 This, of course, is the very time when
* This essay is based on the twelfth E. H. Carr Memorial Lecture delivered at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth on 1 May 1997. E. H. Carr was Woodrow Wilson Professor of International Politics there from 1936 to 1947. 1 This is made explicit in John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA, 1971), e.g., p. 8. 2 Ibid.
it might be argued that its utility as a charter of a politically organized society (which is the way Rawls presents the theory) was becoming increasingly problematic. Some of these problems arise from international developments: globalization appears to threaten the ability of states to secure full employment, to provide economic security and to redistribute wealth according to shared norms. To put it pessimistically, states have not lost their capacity to do bad things (torture, ‘disappearances’ and even genocide), but their capacity to do good things. In this article, I shall concentrate on the other source of difﬁculty for the model of liberal citizenship. This takes the form of a challenge to the model itself. The idea of uniform rules applying equally to all and decided upon by some majoritarian procedure encompassing all citizens is currently under attack in the name of multiculturalism and multinationalism. ****** Construed as a programme rather than as a description, ‘multiculturalism’ is, it seems to me, a potentially misleading way of describing claims made on behalf of a very heterogeneous series of groups with very heterogeneous objectives. Endemic in the literature of multiculturalism is the tendency to suggest that all social groups are differentiated by culture, and have distinctive outlooks, aspirations and priorities.3 This ‘culturalization’ of group conﬂicts in many cases provides a misleading analysis of what is at issue. For example, those who object to being discriminated against in education or employment on grounds of race, gender or sexual preference may simply be demanding an equal opportunity to achieve exactly the same general goods that others desire. They may also have distinctive outlooks, aspirations and priorities, but they may not; and, even if they do, they may regard these (unlike discrimination) as being matters for personal choice with no implications for public policy. However, even if the reach of multiculturalism is not as broad as some of its exponents imply, there are undeniably in almost all contemporary liberal societies a number of groups that are differentiated on bases such as religion and deep-seated cultural beliefs and practices. The multiculturalist objection to the liberal model of citizenship is, then, that the equal treatment it promises is not really equal and that its claim to impartiality conceals a tendency to penalize cultural minorities. Even where a piece of legislation has manifestly benign purposes—the prevention of head injuries to motorcyclists or of cruelty to animals, for example—it is liable to be regarded as unfair by the partisans of multiculturalism if it has a differential impact on people as a result of their distinctive beliefs or practices. One way—and an increasingly popular way—of conceiving of multinationalism is to treat it as a special case of multiculturalism. On this understanding of it, a nation is deﬁned primarily in cultural terms, and where its members form a majority within some territory the claim is made that they should be able to exercise political authority so as to preserve and strengthen the culture. Although this approach to the analysis of nationality is now dominant among the academic supporters of nationalism, it is curiously at odds with the way in which real-life nationalists pitch their claims. Real nationalists typically regard a nation as (notionally) a descent group: one becomes a member of a nation purely by being born into it. Of course,
See, e.g., Iris Marion Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton, NJ, 1990), pp. 43, 186.
Limits of cultural politics
there must be criteria of nationality, such as religion, language or just residence in an area going back some generations. However, the signiﬁcance of these is to serve as markers of membership in the descent group. The other feature present in most real-life nationalism is the idea that a nation has the right to control a certain territory, whether or not it is currently actually in control of that territory. In a recent article, Lea Brilmayer has argued that political philosophers are strangely silent about this ‘blood-and-soil’ nationalism.4 I entirely agree about this, and I agree that this has a distorting effect on what they do say about it. Where I part company with Brilmayer is in her suggestion that others have not taken this seriously enough normatively; in other words that claims made on a basis of bloodand-soil nationalism should be addressed on a serious basis. According to her, adjudicating blood-and-soil type claims is difﬁcult but not impossible, However, I cannot seriously imagine a panel of jurists and political philosophers reaching decisions based on such claims. Thus, representatives of the present Israeli Government might go along to the court envisaged by Brilmayer and make the claim that God had given the land of Israel to the Jews, and that this justiﬁed its policy of refusing to implement the Oslo Accords and steadily expropriating Palestinian land in (what it would call) Judea and Samaria. No doubt this could be supported by wheeling in a barrowload of Biblical exegesis. But what would this tribunal do in the face of objectors who denied the existence of God, acknowledged His existence but claimed He had been misreported, or refused to accept that God had the authority to promise land in this way? (The authority of His Vicar to divide the New World between between Spain and Portugal was, it may be recalled, similarly challenged in earlier times, not only by those whose territory was parcelled out but by other Europeans.) Claims based on geography would be equally incapable of assessment. Irish nationalists could produce a map to show that Ireland is undeniably an island. But how would that prove that it should be one state? The Italian Government could exhibit a model in relief to show that, if the boundaries of Italy are to constitute the whole of the peninsula up to the Alps, they are in the right place. But how could that withstand a challenge from German-speakers in the Tyrol who wished to deny that geography is fate? Historically based claims would fare no better. Every country in Central Europe, for example, would make claims to what it regarded as its national territory. These claims could be defended by producing evidence that the (supposed) ancestors of its dominant national group had at some time in the past controlled this territory, or perhaps merely controlled different bits at different times. But these claims would, of course, in many cases be to the same areas, and the claims would be equally good— or equally bad. That the claims made by blood-and-soil nationalists are blatantly self-serving and cannot conceivably be expected to be accepted by anybody else does not, of course, prevent them from being politically efﬁcacious within the group. Indeed, the very simplicity of the structure of blood-and-soil arguments, while rendering them unconvincing to outsiders, at the same time makes them irrefutable. There is no question that these arguments are incompatible with liberal premises, but they
Lea Brilmayer, ‘The Moral Signiﬁcance of Nationalism’, Notre Dame Law Review, 71 (1995), pp. 7–73.
cannot be deemed to represent a challenge to liberalism in any intellectually interesting sense. All that can be said is that they fail to connect up with any intelligible account of the welfare of individuals, and that the notion of collective entitlements to which they appeal cannot be accommodated by liberal ideas of justice. The ‘national territory’ of a successful blood-and-soil nationalist movement will almost invariably include within the state boundaries people who are not members of the dominant national group. These may be members of other nationalities (which may or may not have a state in which their co-nationals are dominant) or they may be members of a socially distinct group that is not a nationality, such as the Roma. The crucial point to grasp about blood-and-soil nationalism is that it is not a universalistic doctrine asserting that every nation should have a territory of its own. Rather, in as far as it is universalistic, its universal principle is (as Brilmayer describes it) that people should get what they are entitled to. But ‘what people are (collectively) entitled to’ is to control a national territory underwritten by theology, geography or history. There is, therefore, no inconsistency, as is sometimes alleged, in Zionists denying that the Palestinians have a right to an independent state of their own, so long as the case for the existence of Israel is made on blood-and-soil lines and not represented as a theorem of universalistic nationalism. ****** There is a widely held view that blood-and-soil nationalism is characteristically Central European and can be contrasted with the nationalism of Western Europe. However, the idea of a national territory and a Staatsvolk with a right to control it is far more pervasive than that would suggest. To the extent that it exists in a country, it is normally seen by members of the national group that ‘owns’ the country as legitimizing their monopolization of political power. This may be achieved formally by reserving citizenship to them, or by creating de facto ﬁrst-class and second-class citizens. This division was displayed in its most murderous form in former Yugoslavia: ‘The central conﬂict which destabilized Yugoslavia was between, on the one hand, the desire to create or consolidate (in the case of Serbia) a state in which one national group was dominant, and on the other, the perceived or demonstrable vulnerability of minority populations in these projected states.’ 5 But the idea that a state is ‘for’ only a part of its population is liable to have malign consequences everywhere in the form of political exclusion and discriminatory public policies. Thus, a prime minister of the micro-quasi-state of Northern Ireland once declared it to be ‘a Protestant state for a Protestant people’, despite the presence within its borders of a one-third Catholic minority. One-party Protestant rule guaranteed that the minority, despite having the vote, was totally excluded from power. In Israel, whose avowed raison d’être is to be ‘a Jewish state for a Jewish people’, the exclusion of the Palestinian minority from a share in power is achieved in a different but equally effective way. Although the electoral system is highly proportional, parties predominantly supported by non-Jewish citizens are omitted from the process of coalition formation that is the lifeblood of Israeli politics. Public policy in Northern Ireland before the ‘Troubles’ was notoriously biased in favour of the majority
Misha Glenny, The Fall of Yugoslavia (London, 1992), p. 177.
Limits of cultural politics
community, and in Israel too there are respects in which the Jewish population occupies a relatively privileged position. All this is quite straightforwardly contrary to the liberal theory of citizenship which (as we have seen) posits equal treatment as fundamental. But it is not, I wish to insist, an intellectually interesting challenge, however important it may be as a cause of institutions that violate liberal precepts. On the contrary, a recognition of the consequences of repudiating the liberal conception should give liberals a strong reason for reafﬁrming their commitment. The ‘cultural’ nationalism of the academic political theorists is more of an intellectual challenge, because it can claim to be a genuinely universal principle (a ‘right to national culture’ for all) and because it is put forward as a more sophisticated way of achieving the liberal end of equal treatment. However, because the nationalism of the political theorists articulates so poorly with popular nationalism, they ﬁnd themselves attached to movements that do not ﬁt their model. Thus, the two causes dearest to the hearts of contemporary academic nationalists are those of Israel (e.g., Michael Walzer and Yael Tamir) and Quebec (e.g., Charles Taylor and Will Kymlicka).6 Yet the phenomena in these two cases obstinately fail to ﬁt the ‘cultural’ model. Thus, the very existence of Israel in its present location is inexplicable in the absence of the idea that a self-deﬁned descent group can lay claim to a national territory even if it is many generations since those that it regards as its ancestors occupied it. Such claims are the stuff of blood-and-soil nationalism: a good current example is the Serbian claim on Kosovo, with its predominantly ethnic Albanian Muslim population, based on its signiﬁcance to Serbs as the site of the holiest Serbian Orthodox shrine, and the former occupation of the area by Serbs. Another puzzle for the ‘cultural’ model of nationhood is that the founders of contemporary Israel were not interested in perpetuating the Jewish religion (most of them were secular) or the Jewish culture of Eastern Europe from which most of them came (hence the decision to recreate Hebrew rather than make Yiddish the national language). It may be said, of course, that there is now an Israeli culture for the state to defend. But it would be hard to maintain that the preservation of this culture has anything to do with the disadvantages in access to land, housing and public services suffered by the minority. Finally, the ‘law of return’ deﬁnes the right to settle in Israel and become an Israeli citizen in purely ethnic terms and not cultural terms. (In requiring no afﬁnity with Israeli culture or knowledge of Hebrew, it is parallel to the German provision for automatic citizenship, which demands proof of German ancestry but does not call for knowledge of German language or culture.) All this makes perfect sense from within the blood-and-soil perspective, but not otherwise.
Michael Walzer’s notion of a state as the guarantor of a national culture pervades all his work; see, e.g., Spheres of Justice (New York, 1983). Yael Tamir’s Liberal Nationalism (Princeton, NJ, 1993, rpt with new preface 1995) explicitly points out that ‘in [her] account of nationalism the terms multiculturalism and multinationalism can be interchangeable’ (p. xvii) in virtue of ‘a cultural deﬁnition of the term “nation” ’ (p. 8). Similarly, Will Kymlicka’s ‘culturalization’ of nationalism is embodied in the title of his book Multicultural Citizenship (Oxford, 1995), which is actually about relations between groups of different national origins in the United States and Canada. Charles Taylor has acknowledged a debt to Johann Herder, for whom language and culture deﬁne nationhood, and has deployed these ideas voluminously in defence of Quebec nationalism. The book I cite below is, again signiﬁcantly, entitled Multiculturalism and the ‘Politics of Recognition’, ed. Amy Gutmann (Princeton, NJ, 1992).
Similarly, despite the unique degree to which Quebec nationalism has been inﬂuenced by academic ‘cultural’ nationalism, it still requires a lot of hard work to make the reality ﬁt that model better than the blood-and-soil model. Thus, if the concern were exclusively for the integrity of French language and culture, an independent Quebec would not merely accept but welcome the loss of those areas occupied by anglophones and native Americans. Yet Quebec nationalists are unwilling to give up any territory, even parts ceded to Quebec by the Dominion government in 1898 and 1912.7 (This, incidentally, illustrates the tendency for the ‘national territory’ to be deﬁned so as to cover the largest area ever controlled by the national group.) The proposal for local referenda allowing for a decision to opt into or out of an independent Quebec, modelled on the way in which the Swiss handled the division of Canton Berne, has been derided as appropriate only to the ‘pays de gruyère’.8 But even if the anglophone enclaves in western Montreal and the Eastern Townships (contiguous with the United States but not the rest of Canada) were incorporated in an independent Quebec, a large anglophone area along the western border and an even larger (though lightly populated) area in the north-west with a native American majority could be ceded without compromising the territorial integrity of the remaining area. If the gruyère objection were the only one, it would not hold in these cases. The resistance to the opportunity to create a more linguistically and culturally pure Quebec is quite understandable, however, if the current boundaries are taken to comprise the national territory, and the national majority is taken to have a valid claim to the whole of the national territory. As far as the language is concerned, there can, of course, be no question but that speakers of French should be able to be educated (to the highest level), have access to a wide array of occupational opportunities, and conduct their relations with government in French. The rationale for this has the implication that the same should be guaranteed to the anglophone minority. However, it is hard to see why the French language should die out so long as French speakers choose to use French in private and public. The pedantic thoroughness of the legislation that puts English in an ofﬁcially subordinate position makes more sense, I suggest, if understood as a way of asserting ethnic superiority (with language as the marker dividing communities) rather than as a response to any such threat. In Northern Ireland the fault-line between the communities is a history of conquest, and the Protestant ‘marching season’ is a not very subtle reminder of that history. In Quebec, the fault-line is language, and linguistic legislation the form taken by the symbolic politics of ethnic superiority. Charles Taylor has argued that there are no ‘fundamental rights to things like commercial signage in the language of one’s choice’.9 (The issue alluded to here was whether, given that all shop signs should be in French, it should be permissible for signs to be in English as well or whether public signs in English should be banished altogether.) Perhaps it could equally well be said that there is no fundamental right not to have the members of a community whose ancestors defeated yours march down your street in fancy dress while playing pipes and drums to celebrate these ancient victories. But in both cases,
Scott J. Reid, ‘The Borders of an Independent Quebec: A Thought Experiment’, The Good Society (PEGS), 7 (1997), pp. 11–17. Ibid., p. 15. Charles Taylor, ‘The Politics of Recognition’, in Gutmann (ed.), Multiculturalism, p. 59.
Limits of cultural politics
the very unreasonableness, amounting to absurdity, of the majority action makes it a symbol of raw power, a daily or recurrent demonstration of political superiority. The practice of marching might, indeed, be defended as an aspect of the majority group’s culture, and it is amusing to observe that the language of culture has penetrated even the ranks of hardline Ulster loyalists. In the face of a long-overdue proposal by the British Government to set up a commission to regulate marches (instead of leaving it to the Royal Ulster Constabulary) a spokesperson for the Orange Order said, ‘There is nothing in this legislation for us and we reject totally the thinking that allows our faith, tradition and culture to be treated with such contempt.’10 If it were simply a matter of marching through areas in which the marchers were welcome, the practice could perhaps with some stretching be treated as a harmless cultural tradition. But then it would not need to be regulated, because the Catholic minority do not object to marches as such (though they would, in my view, be quite justiﬁed in doing so). Problems arise ‘typically where loyalist marches have attempted to go through districts which were once predominantly Protestant but which have over the years become Catholic’.11 What is going on here, then, is an exhibition of microscale blood-and-soil nationalism. As members of the Orange Order have in the past told reporters, they feel that by rerouting their marches they would be publicly recognizing a loss of communal territory. The Ulster Protestants could, admittedly, claim with perfect accuracy that it is part of their culture to monopolize political power in the province, and to reinforce this symbolically by playing the national anthem on every possible occasion, making lavish use of the royal title and insignia (no other police force in the UK is ‘royal’, for example), and marching through predominantly Catholic areas. No doubt, if defenders of the Old South had had access to the currently fashionable vocabulary, they would have explained that their culture (as romanticized in Gone with the Wind) was inextricably linked with the ‘Peculiar Institution’—and they would have been right. But this simply illustrates that the appeal to ‘culture’ is less than conclusive, to say the least. All too often, the appeal to culture is an attempt to legitimate either the oppression of one group by another, or the oppression of some members of a group by others within the group in the name of an internally inegalitarian and illiberal culture. ****** The gravamen of my complaint against academic supporters of multiculturalism and multinationalism is that they have failed to penetrate what is, in essence, an ideology in the strict Marxist sense: an otherworldly rationalization of a distasteful reality. Whereas in recent decades historians and social scientists have concentrated on unmasking the pretensions of these movements, political philosophers have been willing to act as intellectual accomplices. Nevertheless, I believe that the focus on culture has raised some questions that have characteristically been neglected by the liberal tradition and that need to be addressed. In its simplest form—the form that I began by depicting—liberalism has no theory of political boundaries. Yet it seems absurd to suggest that any boundaries are as good as any others, so long as the
‘Anger Greets Ulster March Proposal’, Independent, 18 Oct. 1997, p. 12. Ibid.
territories they enclose have liberal institutions. If we take it as given that blood-andsoil nationalism cannot be reconciled with liberalism, it is surely plausible that a liberal account will have to appeal to culture in some shape or form. To this degree, the ‘cultural’ school can be said to be vindicated. Here again we come up against the importance of language, not this time as an ethnic marker (the ‘mother tongue’) but simply as a means of communication. In earlier times, it was perfectly feasible (as in parts of the Habsburg Empire) for the towns to be linguistic enclaves surrounded by a peasantry that spoke another language. So long as there were some intermediaries and ofﬁcials that could speak both languages, life could go on quite satisfactorily for all concerned, so long as they accepted the political and economic status quo. But a democratic state requires for its most effective functioning a single public discourse, which entails either a single language or true bilingualism. The latter is not impossible. It exists, for example, in the Alto Adige (or Südtirol, depending on which language you speak) in Italy. But the conditions for its ﬂourishing are highly peculiar. What is usually called a bilingual society is one in which the state offers services in both languages but individuals are not themselves necessarily bilingual and form communities that speak one or other language. A single polity may contain more than one long-standing linguistic community of this kind, because it has been put together in a way that cuts across a linguistic frontier (or more than one), like Belgium or Switzerland. Alternatively, autochthonous communities may have been overrun but not assimilated, as in much of the New World. In all such cases, forcible imposition of a single language as the only legitimate public means of communication would clearly be oppressive. This means that liberals must accept certain group rights: the different linguistic communities have a valid claim to conduct their collective life in their own language. However, what must be acknowledged is that this kind of arrangement takes its toll on the functioning of a democratic regime. If one linguistic group is a minority, it is liable simply to be excluded from the majority discourse and hence marginalized. Even where all linguistic groups count, as in Switzerland and Belgium, what corresponds to ordinary political debate in unilingual countries tends to occur in parallel within the different linguistic communities (almost all Swiss cantons are unilingual), with federal policies brokered by elites in a bargaining process. The connection between language and democratic politics seems inexorable: it helps to explain, for example, the redivision of the Indian states along linguistic lines since independence. Contemporary liberalism is committed to equality of opportunity. This leaves a great deal of room for dispute about what equality of opportunity entails. But what is at any rate fairly clearly a violation of it is a situation in which members of different groups within a society have systematically different prospects of educational and occupational achievement, even if they have comparable levels of ability and motivation. The existence of different linguistic communities is compatible with equality of opportunity understood in this way, so long as these communities are able to maintain educational and economic institutions that provide a range of opportunities of roughly equal value, even if they are not exactly the same opportunities. Belgium and Switzerland both meet these conditions adequately. The demands of ‘multiculturalism’ begin to bite only where such conditions are not fulﬁlled.
Limits of cultural politics
Manifestly, a Cree or Inuit in Canada who does not speak English or French is at a severe disadvantage in the national job market. Anyone who wants to integrate into the mainstream economy will have to learn English or French. But it should be noted that there is no demand for the creation of an entire parallel economy for those whose only language is that of a native band. What those who choose to identify with a native American group want is to have a quite different set of options from those offered in the mainstream economy. They will be satisﬁed if they have the opportunities that are valuable to them. This calls for measures to give control over the resources they need for a distinctive way of life, not the creation of a parallel economy functioning in their language. The point to be made here is that nothing in this case carries over to that of immigrants. Immigrants to liberal societies are normally attracted by job opportunities in the mainstream economy: they have no wish to create a completely distinctive, self-enclosed economy, on the lines of a native American band. There are a few exceptions such as the Hutterites and the Amish in North America. These raise some questions about equal opportunity in as far as their educational practices leave those who choose to leave the community at a disadvantage in the mainstream job market; but, for those who stay, nobody would regard it as an objection that membership is incompatible with a career in banking or nuclear physics. The singularity of these cases highlights their difference from that of the general run of immigrants. A claim characteristically made by exponents of multiculturalist pluralism is that no group should be placed at a disadvantage as a consequence of adhering to its own distinctive beliefs and practices.12 This is taken by some to imply that immigrants and their descendants should be able to retain their original language without suffering educational or occupational disadvantage. Furnishing anything approaching equal educational and occupational opportunity would entail constructing a parallel educational system (up to tertiary level) and a parallel economy. Otherwise, those who do not speak the dominant language will be condemned to menial jobs in the mainstream economy under the direction of a bilingual supervisor, or to providing services for members of the immigrant community only. Even where it entails these stunted opportunities, there may well be community leaders who urge the maintenance of linguistic enclaves. This is, however, more plausibly seen as an intergenerational conﬂict of interest within the immigrant group than as a straightforward conﬂict between its interests collectively and those of the host society. For the older generation, there is the advantage of not having to adapt. In addition, there are for the community leaders the power and other rewards that come from being needed as the intermediaries between the ordinary group members and the political and administrative structures of the wider society. (Characteristically, the community leaders do not practise what they preach, in that they are themselves bilingual.) For the children, there is much less to lose and much more to gain from the acquisition of the means of moving freely in the larger society.13
See Young, Justice, esp. pp. 168–83. Russell Hardin argues that ‘the forc[ible] institutionalization of minor languages as required for ofﬁcial and business transactions, and other such communally motivated policies, often have as their sad consequence the fettering of the lives of future generations, who, in a sense, are used by the present generations merely to make life a bit more comfortable for themselves’. Russell Hardin, One for All: The Logic of Group Conﬂict (Princeton, NJ, 1995), p. 220.
Liberal societies are committed to the ideal of equal opportunity for all. Now, it is true that the ﬁrst generation may well ﬁnd themselves at a disadvantage if they are unable to become ﬂuent in the language of business and public affairs in their new home. But many newly arrived immigrants are in any case at a disadvantage as a result of coming in with an education that restricts their occupational opportunities. It is, I suggest, an unrealistic demand to place on any society that it should provide equal opportunity to newly arrived immigrants, if this entails creating conditions under which they will have the same range of occupations open to them as those who speak the language in which the mainstream economy operates. Immigrants themselves are normally content if their lot has improved over the one that they left behind. Where equality of opportunity is relevant is among those who are born and grow up in the host country. Fortunately, the experience of immigrants all over the world testiﬁes to the ease with which young children learn the local language, even if their parents speak it poorly or not at all. (Indeed, itinerant academics who take young children to a foreign country for just a year are regularly amazed to hear them rattling away in the local language after a short time.) It is what naturally happens in the absence of deliberate attempts by the immigrant community to impede it, especially where these attempts include the provision of public education employing the community’s language as a medium of instruction. Equality of opportunity is, then, a criterion on which a society can properly be judged. But it should be construed as an opportunity to acquire the country’s language, to achieve educational success in that language, and to gain employment on the basis of those qualiﬁcations without suffering discrimination. These are hard enough objectives to achieve, and most countries of immigration have at best a spotty record in ensuring them. But they are objectives whose validity nobody who accepts basic liberal principles can deny. In contrast, the provision of genuine equality of opportunity without linguistic assimilation would be, if not impossible, fantastically burdensome. In practice, the maintenance of linguistic diversity is a recipe for condemning successive generations to dead-end jobs (or unemployment) and inability to take part in public affairs except as voting-fodder for a politics of sectional interest. The rest of the society has a legitimate direct interest, not only a paternalistic one, in avoiding such an outcome. For it has a legitimate interest in all its citizens’ having the capacity to be economically productive and being equipped to take part in its national politics on an individual basis. Where language is concerned, a state cannot adopt a neutral stance: it must provide its services in one or more languages, decide if a linguistic test for employment is to count as illegal discrimination, and so on. At the same time, however, it can be said of language as of no other cultural trait, that it is a matter of convention. No doubt every language has its own singular excellencies, but any language will do as the medium of communication in a society so long as everybody speaks it. This is the one case involving cultural attributes in which ‘This is how we do things here’—the appeal to local convention—is a self-sufﬁcient response to pleas for the public recognition of diversity. Charles Taylor is quite right to say that, in general, saying no more than ‘This is how we do things here’ would be crude and insensitive.14 If it were the only reason offered for holding to uniform laws that make no exceptions for those whose culture
Taylor, ‘Politics of Recognition’, p. 63.
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or religion would result in their being inconvenienced by these laws, it certainly would be very inadequate. But only an unargued relativism leaves us with nothing between that and a multiculturalist ‘politics of recognition’. What both of these alternatives have in common is that they assume there to be nothing except ‘my culture’ and ‘your culture’. It is not even ‘My culture, right or wrong’, because that still presupposes that right and wrong can have a content independent of culture. Rather, it is ‘My culture provides the measure of what is right for me, and yours does the same for you.’ Each culture is a moral monad. This is, manifestly, the pluralization of the romantic nationalist idea of the incommensurability of national moralities. ****** Liberals must thus resist the multiculturalists’ false dichotomy. For one culture to be imposed simply because its bearers have the power to do so is bad. But there is no reason for thinking that it is any better simply to say that the different cultural groups should ﬁght it out in the political arena. Indeed, unless that arena can be tightly constrained by rules of the game it may be a lot worse. What is lacking in both scenarios is any notion of a principled resolution of group conﬂict. That would be, as postmodernist cant has it, ‘monological’, which is merely to say that it would be somebody’s view about the substantive right answer, rather than a vacuous appeal to ‘dialogue’. The same substitution of process for substance gives rise to the equally absurd, and potentially lethal, notion that something called a ‘peace process’ can somehow bring about peace in the absence of any agreement on what the terms of a just peace might be. In any political system open to lobbying, it is quite understandable that wellorganized groups will often be able to obtain special concessions for their members. If there is (as is commonly the case) no similarly well-organized group on the other side, governments and legislatures are naturally tempted to take the path of least resistance and cave in to these group demands. But such ad hoc concessions may well lack any coherent rationale. Liberals should have the courage of their universalistic convictions and insist that it makes sense to seek for principled solutions to group conﬂicts. At the minimum, they can reasonably demand that policies should be capable of passing a test for internal consistency. I believe that the exemptions for cultural minorities commonly cited by partisans of multiculturalism fail this elementary requirement. In a nutshell, my contention is that there are sometimes good reasons (whether everybody accepts them or not) for having laws that prohibit certain kinds of conduct. If the reasons are strong enough, then exceptions should not be made for anybody; conversely, if a good case can be made for saying that exceptions should be granted, this suggests that the reasons for having the law in the ﬁrst place are inadequate. Let me illustrate with the two examples that I mentioned in passing earlier, both of which are widely cited as the kind of thing there should be more of. ‘Under the Slaughter of Poultry Act (1967) and the Slaughterhouses Act (1979), Jews and Muslims may slaughter poultry and animals in abattoirs according to their traditional methods.’15 ‘Traditional methods’ is a euphemism for bleeding animals to
Bhikhu Parekh, ‘The Rushdie Affair: Research Agenda for Political Philosophy’, Political Studies, 38 (1990), pp. 695–709, at p. 704.
death while they are conscious, rather than stunning them prior to killing them, as is otherwise required. Now it can be argued that, just as the decision to eat meat at all is left to the individual conscience, decisions about the way in which animals are killed should be left to the conscience of the consumer. This argument is parallel to that used to oppose the prohibition of blood sports, another culturally validated custom central to the lives (and livelihoods) of a minority. The implication would be that meat should be labelled with information about the way in which the animal was killed but that there should be no other kind of regulation beyond that entailed by considerations of hygiene. Alternatively, the case can be assimilated to the ban on cockﬁghting and dogﬁghting, customs in their time equally deep-rooted but prohibited nonetheless on animal welfare grounds. Taking this line, the implication would be that there is a certain point beyond which cruelty to animals is a legitimate matter for collective decision-making, and that kosher/halal butchery is over that line. Second, ‘under the Motor-cycle Crash-helmet Act (1976), Sikhs are excused from wearing crash helmets provided they are wearing turbans’.16 Again, it is possible to make an argument that uniformity should be brought about by repealing the Act. It can, obviously, be said against it that it is paternalistic legislation, and that if people choose not to wear crash helmets the resultant injuries are (literally) on their own heads. Libertarians may object on principle to having to adhere to such a law, and so may those for whom the thrills of riding a motorcycle at high speed are severely compromised. (A former colleague in North America assured me that nothing matches riding a Harley-Davidson at full throttle down a deserted freeway, and that a bare head is essential to the value of the experience.) But there is, of course, the competing argument that it is a valid aim of public policy to reduce the number of paraplegic, quadriplegic and permanently comatose young men (as most victims are) in the neurological wards of the hospitals. But if this is a valid objective, it is valid across the board. That the law will result in some people who would otherwise have ridden motorcycles not doing so is not a good reason for making an exception in their case. ****** To sum up, much group conﬂict does not arise from different beliefs or preferences but simply reﬂects a struggle for positional advantage, deﬁned in terms of access to goods that are valued by all the parties. The groups may be distinguished by culture to some degree, but in these cases culture is not what is at stake. If a man and a woman or a white and a black who have the same qualiﬁcations fare differently in the job market, that is simply old-fashioned discrimination of the kind that liberal principles are well equipped to condemn. If we leave these cases on one side, we are left with those in which cultural differences are genuinely relevant. Some of these will also be straightforward cases of discrimination: unequal treatment in an undeniable sense. Thus, a blasphemy law that protects Christianity but not other religions is discriminatory on its face. A liberal will of course say that the crime of blasphemy should be abolished rather than that its protection should be extended to all religions—and perhaps, to be completely fair, also extended to avoid offence to the susceptibilities of atheists.
Limits of cultural politics
Finally, we have cases in which laws and rules that are not discriminatory on their face nevertheless have differential impact on people as a result of their distinctive religious beliefs, culturally rooted practices and norms, and so on. This is the kind of case in which exponents of multiculturalism argue for special exemptions. I have suggested that the examples normally cited in this context are not good ones. If there is a sufﬁciently compelling reason for having the law in the ﬁrst place, its inconveniencing some people (for whatever reason) is not a basis on which exemptions should be granted. The fact is that almost all laws are more burdensome to some people than to others. The paradigmatic liberal achievement of freedom of worship manifestly suits those whose religious beliefs are compatible with it better than those whose beliefs commit them to the imposition of a religious orthodoxy. A law prohibiting drink-driving does not bother non-drinkers, a law against paedophilia restrains only those inclined to it, and so on. So long as there are sufﬁciently good reasons for having uniform laws, their having a differential impact is no reason for making exceptions to them.17 This, of course, presupposes that there are such things as good reasons, not just my reasons and your reasons. But that is the price we pay for living together in a society bound by overarching norms of civility, and in a world that has the moral resources needed to call brutish regimes to account. ‘Deference to the autonomy of other beliefs, other values, other cultures has become an all-too-easy alibi for moral isolation. When we need action, we get hand-wringing. When we need forthrightness, we get equivocation. We need a liberalism that has conﬁdence in its own insights, a liberalism possessed of clarity as well as compassion.’18
Rawls articulated the point fundamental to a liberal theory of justice when he wrote that ‘equal citizenship deﬁnes a general point of view’ and that ‘many questions of social policy [as well as those involving basic rights] can be considered from this position’, including ‘reasonable regulations to maintain public order and security or efﬁcient measures for public safety’. Rawls, Theory of Justice, p. 97. As Rawls makes clear, what this means is that questions of distributive justice are out of place here, even if policies have incidental distributive effects. Henry Louis Gates, Jr, ‘Ethics and Ethnicity’, Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 51 (1997), pp. 36–53, at p. 47.
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