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Multiculturalism, citizenship and human freedom

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Friday, March 25, 2011

Cecil Foster, University of Guelph
Guest Contributor

This blog entry is part of the Equity Issues Portfolio’s series on ‘interculturalism, multiculturalism and pluralism’.

Multiculturalism is the modern name for an ideal that people can live freely in raceless societies. It is for this reason the ‘death of multiculturalism’ as proclaimed in some European circles might be much exaggerated. If multiculturalism were to die what would be its replacement, how can different ethnicities be integrated fully into societies without forcing those who are very different to give up democratic rights, thereby becoming racially inferior citizens?

Another anniversary in the anti-racism struggle marked by the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination allows us time for reflection. This year gives us double reason for reflection for it marks the 40th anniversary of the announcement of Canada’s policy of official multiculturalism. Both anniversaries are about the same thing, a belief that in their diversity and differences human beings can live together socially. It is an argument that at the universal level presents humanity anthropologically as one race; at the particular level it is what would sociologically be described as receiving recognition in a fraternity of equals, of living in a society where race does not matter. This is a story as old as modern society and its quest for freedom.

Almost three thousand years ago the Greek social thinker Aristotle noticed something contradictory about democracy: It was rule by the poor and since there are always more poor than rich people there would be a danger of dispossession for the rich, propertied classes. Of course, this danger would only be in the eyes of the wealthy; those opposing the elites might simply see redistribution as an exercise in equality. Perspective and entrenched positions do matter, and this is particularly so where there are extreme differences.

Turning to the issue of citizenship as property and social justice, Aristotle again found glaring contradictions especially for those who crave social stability and solidarity as conformity. Citizenship should be about who does the job of effectively (re)producing the state – for they are the people that really matter to its survival. Citizenship should not be based on such formulas as shared bloodline, shared religion, or even shared values – but simply on an active commitment to the good of the state.

Aristotle was arguing against what we might now call the racialization of citizenship.  While citizenship has much to do with socialization – sharing and learning a common culture in the hopes of creating an organic whole – it should not have much to do with social stratification, especially racialization. Stratification is really an issue of democracy, of how diverse citizen-members are positioned relative to one another within the state, of whose perspective and positions really matter.

I am reminded of Aristotle’s concerns as the western world grapples with the viability of multiculturalism, particularly what is called multicultural citizenship. How is it that multiculturalism seems to be more of a problem for countries historically built on racialized citizenship? Is giving the rights of full citizenship to radically different newcomers tantamount to disinheriting and dispossessing citizens who currently feel privileged by prior claims of belonging and entitlement? For this is certainly the case whether we think of countries like Germany, Britain (England really) or France – where the current leaders have declaimed multiculturalism is dead – or in European settler communities that are now Canada, the United States and Australia.

It is worth noting that in western societies not “founded” or intended as ‘white dominions,’ states where white men alone were citizens, but as plantations, there is not much concern about multiculturalism as lived reality. The ideal of multicultural citizenship is as old as the so-called West: Each time there has been enslavement, genocides, holocaust, apartheid and other forms of racialization within states a bit of the ideal perished.

As a worldwide phenomenon, the dream of raceless societies and egalitarian citizenship never dies, even if it may take different names and conceptualizations. Multiculturalism as a concept for raceless and egalitarian citizenship has undergone conflation. First it is presented as socialization, for the way different ethnicities can live together, as some would say, side by side in love and fellowship, but still very much apart. It is about how ethnically different groups can learn to behave and act appropriately in society, particularly how they will behave in a liberal democracy: which means how they will act in the public sphere.

As a result many issues multiculturalism is now tagged with are really issues of liberalism: for example, who truly has freedom of speech, what forms of Islam should be accommodated, should public schools make provisions for such things as religious holidays, and should we all celebrate Christmas. But multiculturalism is also presented as stratification, especially in the area of power sharing. It is seen in the discussion of who is considered to be white, middle class and therefore as having privileges in society. Here we associate multiculturalism with employment and pay equity, criminalization and with general issues of social stratification in terms of who receives or is denied what level of social justice.

Multiculturalism as imagined 40 years ago in Canada is about citizenship in terms of who shares power, and who gets to determine what paths a nation-state should map for itself in the future. It is about democracy through socialization. This is how the then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau explained it: “A policy of multiculturalism within a bilingual framework commends itself to the government as the most suitable means of assuring the cultural freedom of Canadians. Such a policy should help to break down discriminatory attitudes and cultural jealousies. National unity if it is to mean anything in the deeply personal sense must be founded on confidence in one's own individual identity; out of this can grow respect for that of others and a willingness to share ideas, attitudes and assumptions.  A vigorous policy of multiculturalism will help create this initial confidence. It can form the base of a society which is based on fair play for all.”

Multiculturalism is about how The People that are the authority givers in a democracy can live freely, meaning free of domination and coercion. Trudeau explained in the statement:

I wish to emphasize the view of the government that a policy of multiculturalism within a bilingual framework is basically the conscious support of individual freedom of choice. We are free to be ourselves. But this cannot be left to chance. It must be fostered and pursued actively. If freedom of choice is in danger for some ethnic groups, it is in danger for all. It is the policy of this government to eliminate any such danger and to ‘safeguard’ this freedom.

Multiculturalism cannot be separated from the mechanisms for determining power and authority in the state and especially from democratic efforts to expand human freedom.

Significant to this process is the understanding that authority always rests with those who are, in the moment, citizens or the people. There can be no rule from the grave. This is a kind of power that allows the living to look back on what has been achieved in the name of the nation-state and to pass moral judgment on the achievements and the achievers. In this context, multiculturalism is about creating fraternity in the present moment in the hopes that what is achieved will pass the test of time and will be validated morally by future generations. It is not about rarifying some idyllic past, or of imposing values better suited to previous eras.

It is troubling that criticisms against multiculturalism are based on the upholding or returning to a less inclusive past. In Germany, Britain and France, for example, opponents have argued multiculturalism does not encourage or even allow for newcomers into the state to conform to liberal values.

This argument arises in Canada too where we are making much of the path newcomers must take to citizenship – a path that includes their having to show proficiency in Canadian history and geography and in their willingness to show an appreciation for Canadian values. But which values? As those who come from groups that have been wronged historically know, all values are not deemed equally important, and certainly not across time and space.

In its pursuit of expanding human dignity and freedom, multiculturalism forces us to confront and address the contradictions and inequities that may arise in a context of racialization, democracy and citizenship. While they might take new names, freedom’s ideals never die.

Cecil Foster is a professor in the department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Guelph, and author of Blackness and Modernity, and Where Race Does Not Matter.

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Equity Matters

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Interculturalism and pluralism