Revisiting Multiculturalism and Its Critics

By Christensen, Erik | The Monist, January 2012 | Go to article overview

Revisiting Multiculturalism and Its Critics


Christensen, Erik, The Monist


Since the late 1990s, multiculturaUsm has been on the decline. In 1999, Will Kymlicka announced that "multiculturalism had won the day" (Kymlicka 1999a, 113; cf. 1998, 144; 2001, 32), but when examined against the landscape of political philosophy over the last decade, Kymlicka's assessment does not reflect reality. As Christian Joppke observes, the use of 'multiculturalism' has recently declined at the levels of both theory and policy (Joppke 2004). The liberal critique of the concept began as early as 1997 with the publication of Susan Okin's "Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?" In this paper, Okin objects to multiculturalism on feminist grounds by arguing that, from a gender perspective, multiculturalism is not always in the best interest of women.1 Okin followed up on this theme in "Feminism and Multiculturalism: Some Tensions" (Okin 1998) and in '"Mistresses of tíieir Own Destiny': Group Rights, Gender, and Realistic Rights of Exit" (Okin 2002). In 2007, in Multiculturalism Without Culture, Anne Phillips addresses the competing equality claims of multiculturalism and feminism and defends "a multiculturalism that dispenses with the reified notions of culture that feed those stereotypes to which so many feminists have objected, yet retain enough robustness to address inequalities between cultural groups" (Phillips 2007, 8).2

In this article, I wiU first briefly describe the "multicultural" position developed and defended by KymUcka. I will focus on those aspects of multiculturalism that has to do with accommodating for special group rights ('polyethnic' rights or 'accommodation' rights) in order to protect the distinct culture of a group, or the survival and flourishing of "ways of life" within the group, from the surrounding (majority) culture (Kymlicka 1995, ch. 2; Okin 1998). Then, I wiU provide a detailed discussion and assessment of Okin's and Phillips's critiques. Finally, I will discuss the possible shortcomings of the feminist critique of multiculturalism and suggest how to address these shortcomings.

1. Kymlicka and the Rise of Multiculturalism

To evaluate the recent critique of multiculturalism, we must examine the factors that led to the rise of multiculturalism. Therefore, die purpose of this section is to provide the necessary background to a discussion of multiculturalism. To do so, I will focus on the works of Kymlicka (1989; 1995; 2001; 2007).

Kymlicka has written extensively on minority rights, ethnic and cultural diversity, nationalism, and multicultural citizenship. In his 1989 piece Liberalism, Community and Culture, Kymlicka identifies some of the questions that arise in relation to cultural diversity. He does not use the term "multiculturalism," and his objective is to address the "communitarian" critique of Michael Sandel and Charles Taylor. Nevertheless, Kymlicka appropriately stresses the importance of the idea of cultural membership when he asks:

What does it mean for people to 'belong' to a cultural community - to what extent are individuals' interests tied to, or their very sense of identity dependent on, a particular culture? And do people have a legitimate interest in ensuring the continuation of their own culture, even if other cultures are available in the political community - is there an interest in cultural membership which requires independent recognition in a theory of justice? (Kymlicka 1989, 3)

When the issue is framed in this manner, it is clear that liberal theories must confront the challenge of cultural pluralism. All people are interested in leading a good life. If liberalism is meant to accommodate this interest and if "cultural membership" is a condition of a good life, then liberalism must pay attention to "cultural community." However, Kymlika also notes that we participate in two communities, the political community and the cultural community, which may be a source of conflicting interests. Although the political community and the cultural community may be coextensive, these communities do not coincide in multinational and culturally plural states. …

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