Multiculturalism, interculturalism and their skeptics

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Avigail I. Eisenberg, University of Victoria
Guest Contributor

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

Two challenges are invoked by critics of multiculturalism today and are associated with the retreat of multiculturalism in Europe and Quebec. The first challenge comes from those I’ll call ‘identity skeptics’ who point out that cultural or religious identity is just too subjective and opaque to be a suitable basis for claims for group accommodation. Identity skeptics are concerned that judges and legislators face serious difficulties when they try to assess the cultural or religious practices of minorities, which they must assess in the course of making decisions about whether a given practice ought to be accommodated.

Some identity skeptics worry that decisions makers often reinforce stereotypical, sexist and racist interpretations of a culture or religion in their decisions. Others point out that cultural fairness does not require complete cultural neutrality in the first place. On this view, multiculturalism has mobilized minorities to question the legitimacy of every public symbol, practice and policy which is not culturally and religiously neutral. It foists on courts the impossible task of translating multicultural principles into policies that could guarantee cultural accommodation for all groups and it has thereby led to a highly dubious kind of public decision making which often appears to be either biased or arbitrary.

For identity skeptics, a retreat from multiculturalism means a retreat from the public recognition and assessment of minority identity claims and a return to decision making based on more widely accepted principles and standards which, if not culturally neutral, are at least not overtly exclusive. We see this in Quebec, where the concept of interculturalism is now preferred over multiculturalism because it recognizes the centrality of francophone culture and promotes the integration of minorities into that culture. We also see this in France, where a new and more rigorous form of laicité, which promised to reinforce religious neutrality in the public sphere, emerged after the headscarf debates.

While identity skeptics have raised important challenges for multiculturalism, it’s doubtful that the best way to meet these challenges is to retreat from multiculturalism. This is especially true if what is meant by ‘retreat’ is the institutional avoidance of cultural and religious accommodation. Whether western states are officially multicultural or not, they all guarantee religious freedom and protect citizens from discrimination. On these bases, they sometimes have to respond to difficult questions about cultural and religious interpretation advanced by identity groups which have mobilized to defend their rights. We see this in France, where a flood of anti-discrimination complaints, many from Muslim complainants, followed the 2004 creation of Haute Autorité de Lutte contre les Discrimination et pour l’Egalité (HADRE), which monitored discrimination and helped to shepherd complaints through the system. Due to its liberal views, HADRE was eventually dismantled, but not before it challenged the dominant discourse and mobilized groups behind issues about religious discrimination.

In my research, I’ve argued that identity skeptics have misunderstood the challenge of multiculturalism.  The question is not whether public institutions should assess the identities of groups in the course of decision making but rather how they do so and what sort of criteria and guidelines they use to do so. We should expect identity group mobilization today wherever states, whether officially multicultural or not, adhere to anti-discrimination policies because these policies draw into question religious, gendered and other hierarchies. States with strong multicultural policies are explicit that these policies sometimes require cultural and religious accommodation and they publicize these policies, and debate them.

In contrast, countries with weak or no multicultural policies usually leave decisions about accommodation to officials – police officers, prison directors, social workers, school teachers, principals, municipal workers and so on – who decide such matters using their own discretion. When accommodation takes place on the basis of the discretion of public officials, it tends to be inconsistent from place to place and across groups. This is partly because public institutions in states with weak multicultural policies are less likely to publicize best practices for other decision-makers to draw on. Inconsistent accommodation may lead to more rather than fewer complaints from minority groups especially if groups resent being treated inconsistently or having to rely on the goodwill of local bureaucrats.

A second type of challenge for multiculturalism comes from those who I’ll call group skeptics because they are skeptical that groups which mobilize on the basis of identity can participate constructively in democratic politics. Group skeptics blame multiculturalism for social fragmentation because, on their view, multiculturalism encourages people to mobilize on the basis of what distinguishes them rather than what unites them. Theorists of social capital are group skeptics when they argue that ethnic and religious fragmentation depletes social trust thereby making cooperative relations amongst citizens difficult to attain.

Some group skeptics argue that multiculturalism is uniquely corrosive of basic democratic virtues such as public mindedness and willingness to compromise because it encourages group insularity and leaves groups vulnerable to being manipulated by elites. Because multiculturalism fosters separate group identification and sometimes encourages minorities to develop separate institutions, group skeptics argue that it promotes group insularity and following from this view, leads to group radicalization.

While group skeptics also raise important challenges, they give us no reason to believe that cultural or religious groups are uniquely unsuited to democratic politics. Democratic history is full of accounts in which groups advance claims based on religion, race, and class in keeping with democratic values such as compromise and public mindedness. Moreover, the threat of social fragmentation also arises where politics is organized around non-identity issues, such as class, the environment, and health care. Few people would suggest that we should minimize or abolish democratic mobilization around these issues. The remedy, rather, is to ensure that political mobilization of all kinds is subject to various tests of democratic contestation, openness to debate, and accountability so that the risk of social fragmentation is minimized.

If we set the ‘identity’ feature of  group skepticism aside, we can see that many of the policy changes in Europe today, which are described as a ‘retreat from multiculturalism’, share the general aim of changing the way in which immigrant groups interact in democratic contexts. They aim at encouraging integration through participation in mainstream groups such as political parties, unions, municipal councils and public interest groups. This is true of policies in Germany and the Netherlands that provide immigrants with language and job skills training, that encourage them to join political parties or participate in local elections.

Policies that integrate groups through participation in the public, social and economic spheres introduce immigrants to the issues and interests at stake for other societal groups. Some of these policies work to dilute the ‘groupness’ of minority identity by encouraging the expression of pluralism within groups and then publicizing this pluralism through intercultural dialogues. Where these policies encourage individual self-identification, and a fluid sense of membership boundaries, they discourage rigidly defined notions of group identity and insularity.

Of course, such policies raise significant challenges as well. For one thing, they rely on societal organizations and associations that are open to the interests and values of minorities. It is difficult to claim, for instance, that public institutions are fully inclusive of minorities if they prohibit those wearing religious dress or carrying religious articles of faith from entering the space where participation takes place. Even if such exclusive policies are sometimes justified, there can be no doubt that they work against the democratic inclusion of some members of society. The same is true of policies that identify some interests as ‘beyond the public agenda’ or ‘not open to debate’. For instance, when freedom of speech is defined in ways that are beyond debate and deliberation, or when what counts as a ‘religious issue’ is not open for discussion within public interest groups, members of some minority groups are unsurprisingly alienated from participating.

The challenge for group skeptics is to ensure that democratic organizations are open to the interests of all citizens and that the direction of public advocacy is determined by open democratic contestation and debate. Their goal is to ensure that minorities participate in some significant portion of public interest groups and are actively integrated into public institutions such as courts, legislatures, political parties and school boards. Group skeptics should be highly skeptical of policies that target the practices associated with particular minorities for exclusion and should oppose attempts by any interest group to permanently close democratic debate or frame issues as beyond discussion in ways that discourage the effective participation of some minorities from the start.

In the end, the important question, of course, is will the different measures we currently see in Europe and Quebec be successful at ridding states of the social ills associated with multiculturalism? The answer to this question must be both yes and no. On one hand, if retrenchment of multicultural policies is primarily sensitive to group skepticism, then the prospects for success are probably good. If policies provide immigrants with better opportunities to participate in the labour market, and greater access to the linguistic and job-related skills needed to participate in mainstream society, then these policies may improve integration.

On the other hand, if retrenching multiculturalism means dampening the commitment of public institutions to anti-discrimination measures, or if it means ceasing to publicize best practices regarding how to accommodate minorities, then this will work against efforts to treat minorities fairly and may lead to greater minority mobilization. Policies that meet the objectives of identity skeptics to rescind accommodation can work at cross-purposes to the concerns of group skeptics who favour policies that integrate minorities into democratic processes through participation. This cross purpose – rescinding accommodation or integrating minorities – becomes clear once we distinguish between the two types of critics and the policies they each favour.

Avigail Eisenberg is a professor in the Department of Political Science and a Faculty Associate in the Indigenous Governance program at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.


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