Academic journal article Independent Review

Cultural Diversity and Liberal Society: A Case for Reprivatizing Culture

Academic journal article Independent Review

Cultural Diversity and Liberal Society: A Case for Reprivatizing Culture

Article excerpt

Cultural diversity is an enduring fact of social life. Cultural differences exist within nations, and nations share a planet that is home to many different cultures. Even in the most homogenous of countries, where people recognize common ethnicity, speak the same language, and for the most part share one faith, there are subcultures shaped by conditions such as cast, occupation, wealth, and geography. In many countries, different ethnic, linguistic, and religious communities interact while seeking to retain their group identifies. In the history of humankind, it is difficult to find a social system more tolerant of diversity than liberal society. Religious and ethnic minorities live under the protection of liberal institutions, and even groups that bitterly oppose liberalism flourish within liberal democracies so long as they observe the laws of the land. Yet not all cultures are compatible with liberalism in the classical sense, and the failure to recognize this fact may imperil liberal society. The challenge for liberal society is to maintain the greatest degree of freedom compatible with its own existence. In this article, I consider the classical liberal responses to certain key questions that cultural diversity poses. Note that I use the term liberal in its classical sense, not in the modern North American sense.

Cultural diversity raises five issues for liberal society. The first concerns the extent to which liberal society can or should tolerate the illiberal norms and practices of cultural communities within it. How can liberal society protect its institutional flame-work without harming itself?. The second concerns cultural groups' claims for state aid in the preservation of their cultures. I consider here the politics and philosophy of multiculturalism. The third concerns cultural groups' claims for political self-determination leading to various degrees of devolution of power, from federal arrangements to complete separation. This kind of claim is most plausible when an ethnic, linguistic, or religious community occupies a historical homeland that has been forcibly absorbed into a larger state. The fourth concerns immigration into liberal societies. Will large-scale immigration of persons from culturally different parts of the world weaken the institutions of liberal society? If so, what is the appropriate liberal response? The fifth concerns the defense of liberal society against its external enemies. Samuel Huntington's thesis that in the post-Cold War era the major sources of conflict are not ideological but cultural, though flawed by its attempt to separate culture from ideology, nevertheless highlights the cultural element in the hostility that liberal society evokes (1996, 28). This last issue raises a plethora of questions that cannot be given the critical attention they merit within the limits of this article and hence must be left for another day.

In the following section, I explain the sense in which liberal society is understood in this article. I identify the fundamental value of liberal society as the freedom of choice. In the remainder of the article, I discuss in more depth the appropriate liberal responses to the first four issues raised. This article is not an attempt to resolve all these issues, but rather a discussion of the liberal principles relevant to their resolution.

Liberal Society

The liberal society of this inquiry is an ideal type that does not exist. Most societies that are considered liberal fall well short of this ideal. So why base this discussion on the nonexistent instead of the real? A useful way of improving our condition is to posit an ideal model and see how it works in relation to the problems we wish to solve. If the model is seen to work well, it will provide guidance to action, and if it is seen to fail, we still benefit from knowing why.

Two ideal models of liberal society compete for our attention. One is the natural order of the anarchist libertarian. …

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