Politicians tarnish a tradition of tolerance

9 February 2011

We don't abandon the public ideal of multiculturalism, writes Professor Duncan Ivison.
We don't abandon the public ideal of multiculturalism, writes Professor Duncan Ivison.

The British Prime Minister's critique of multiculturalism in his recent speech in Germany raises the spectre of it being linked to the rise of Islamic extremism and the weakening of the societal bonds that secure liberal democracy. The German Chancellor has made similar claims. They are wrong on both counts. But they are right to suggest we need to be clear about the philosophical underpinnings of liberal multiculturalism as a public ideal.

Multiculturalism is closely connected to deep and important liberal values: the ideas of equal respect, tolerance and freedom. It is also connected to the idea that being treated as an equal citizen in a pluralistic, democratic society requires our accommodation of pluralism, the choices people make about their cultural, social and ethnic identities. Crucially, we must accommodate them in ways compatible with a commitment to those basic liberal values. Its critics associate multiculturalism with moral relativism, with the idea that an appeal to culture justifies everything and anything and is thus ''soft'' or ''mushy''. But this is doubly mistaken.

People sometimes talk as if multiculturalism is a product of the 1970s. Multiculturalism as a form of public policy emerged around then yet it is a direct descendant of a much older liberal tradition. It comes from arguments that emerged from the wars of religion in early modern Europe. It is a cousin of tolerance and the gradual detachment of the state from the active promotion of religious orthodoxy. At its heart, tolerance is the notion that the state is not justified in violating people's basic rights to promote religious or cultural uniformity. Tolerance emerged when people opted for peaceful, shared political order instead of war.

Because people are free and equal they deserve to be treated in certain ways, and one way of expressing this is to respect their basic freedom to live according to their religious and cultural beliefs in ways compatible with the freedom of others. So when we talk about liberal democratic values - of tolerance, of respect for persons, of freedom, of equality and the rule of law - we are not talking about values at odds with multiculturalism. Liberal multiculturalism is an expression of these values.

Dealing justly with deep diversity in complex democracies requires treating people with equal respect. And it isn't easy. Multicultural tolerance is hard work. History teaches us very clearly that religious and cultural minorities suffer most in times of fear and political uncertainty. Debates over multiculturalism must not end up endorsing or repeating mistakes of the past when it comes to discriminatory treatment of particular groups.

Moreover, let us be clear about certain myths about multiculturalism. There is no empirical evidence that multiculturalism erodes the social capital required for civil society to work. Claims that multiculturalist policies ferment radicalism need to be treated with extreme care. The connections are complex and unclear. If poverty and alienation provide fertile ground for extremist politics, then to what extent have multiculturalist policies contributed to those conditions? Which policies exactly? If alienation helps explain political extremism, then how will abandoning a policy of seeking principled accommodation of religious and cultural beliefs in the public sphere help us overcome it?

Multiculturalism is often described as a set of demands made on the state by ethnocultural groups. In one sense this is true, but that's not the whole story. The policy emerged at a time when older, assimilationist policies were rejected because of the perception (and reality) that they licensed often racist and discriminatory attitudes and policies towards migrants, especially non-whites. Liberal multiculturalism has been as much about integration as it has been about recognising difference. This seems to have been lost in the debate. When Canada repatriated its constitution in 1982, it added a Charter of Rights and Freedoms and also enshrined a commitment to multiculturalism.

Where we find multicultural policies being used to encourage or tolerate discrimination or alienation then we amend the policy. We stop the discrimination; we don't abandon the public ideal of multiculturalism.

Duncan Ivison is a professor of political philosophy in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney.

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