Rethinking multiculturalism

Gurpreet Mahajan

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Plural, diverse and multicultural are terms commonly used to describe societies that comprise of different religions, races, languages and cultures. In everyday conversation these words are applied interchangeably, the assumption being that each of these expressions represents the same thing – namely, the presence of many, different communities. While it is true that plural, diverse and multicultural point to the existence of ‘many’, it is less realized that they embody three quite distinct conceptions of ‘many’. The idea of multiplicity and difference that they incorporate are dissimilar in significant ways. Far from being synonyms they are discrete concepts with distinct meanings, contextual parameters and symbolic spaces. It is this dissonance in meaning that we need to apprehend if we are to understand both the discourse on multiculturalism and its relevance in contemporary political theory.

Let us begin with the concept of plural. Plurality suggests the presence of many but it does not stipulate anything about the nature of many. How the multiple forms are structured, and how they relate to one another, are aspects on which the idea of plurality is silent. Consequently, the many that it denotes could be manifold representations of ‘one’; they could even be reducible to a single unified whole. Alternately, the ‘many’ may be separate and unequal entities. As such, they may occupy different positions along a continuum; at times the many may be hierarchically arranged. All these possibilities can be envisaged within the concept of plurality. Thus, for instance, the existence and worship of many, different gods makes Hinduism a plural religion even though the many are, in the ultimate analysis, reducible to one supreme God.

Similarly, we may speak of a multiracial society as a plural society even when the different races are related to each other in a relationship of domination and subordination. Then again, we may see different caste communities in India as a sign of its plurality, even though these castes are hierarchically arranged. In another context, we could refer to plural associations and plural centres of power within society, each of which seek to influence the centre – the ‘one’ that constitutes the core. We may associate the presence of many interest groups in a society with pluralism even when some groups are relatively powerless. Even when the lobbying groups are all members of one and the same class, the presence of several groups is seen as an indicator of its plural character. This is the idea of pluralism that political theorists used in their study of industrialized western societies, and it is on the basis of this understanding that they distinguished between totalitarian and democratic polities. Here again, plurality symbolized the presence of more than one, but that is all.

The existence of ‘many’ became a sign of democracy in the 20th century because the presence of one, for instance, one ideology, one political party, one electoral candidate, was regarded to be a sign of state coercion. Hence, the presence of many – associations, interest groups, political parties and so on – was seen as a minimum condition of freedom. The fact that these many entities may express one and the same ideology was an aspect that did not diminish the democratic content of a system. While this reading of democracy was insensitive to structures of inequality that continued to exist in these societies despite the presence of a multitude of groups, it was correct in one small respect: the presence of many is a precondition for the recognition of difference. We need to acknowledge the presence of many before we can speak of difference and diversity.

To say this is not to suggest a necessary connection between the concept of plurality and diversity. Plurality merely suggests the presence of many; diversity points to the existence of many that are different, heterogeneous and often incommensurable. To put it in another way, when we speak of diversity we refer to multiplicity that is not collapsible into one. The many, in this conception, are discrete and separate entities that are different from one another. The difference in fact limits comparison.

It was this notion of difference and diversity that German historians developed in the mid-18th century. Theorists of Enlightenment in England and France noted the existence of plural cultures and civilizations. However, in keeping with their understanding of plurality, they arranged these cultures hierarchically. The history of humankind, in their view, represented progress – from the dark ages to the civilized, enlightened present. In making this assessment the Philosophes used their contemporary sensibilities to judge all other cultures, and it was from the perspective of their own historical world that other civilizations in the past, as well as existing non-industrial, absolutist regimes, seemed to be lagging behind.

The German historians, from Herder to Ranke, used the idea of cultural diversity to question this judgement of the Enlightenment. They argued that human history was constituted by discrete and heterogeneous cultures, each with its own values, moral and aesthetic norms, and political and economic structures. Thus, each culture was ‘in itself a whole’1 complete, with its own centre of happiness. ‘Can it be, that thousands are made for one? All the generations that have passed away, merely for the last? Every individual, only for the species, that is for the image of the abstract name? The Allwise sports not in this manner: he invents no finespun shadowy dreams: he lives and feels in each of his children with paternal affection, as though it were the only creature in the world.’2

To emphasize the authentic and unique nature of each culture, Herder represented them as ‘children’ of God which were destined to carve their own distinct identity and future. Subsequent historians and philosophers drew upon this idea of diversity to point to the heterogeneity and incommensurability of different epochs and civilizations. However, the peculiarity of this framework was that it accommodated diversity only historically. That is, it maintained that history is defined by a succession of diverse cultures or values, but each culture manifests a single idea. Thus while each era was characterized by a defined ‘spirit’ or volkgeist, historical succession provided evidence of difference and diversity.

The German historicist tradition elucidated the distinction between plurality and diversity. Since then the idea of irreducible difference or diversity has been used in a variety of theoretical contexts. The Occidentalists invoke this concept of diversity when they stress the difference between civilizations of Asia and Western Europe and argue that the former embody a set of values which are admirable in themselves. Advocates of ethno-social science also anchor their arguments in this conception of diversity or non-collapsible difference. They maintain that each society is unique in terms of its internal structure, institutions and values. Consequently, it must be studied in its own terms. That is, through the language and values internal to it, instead of those that are imported from outside.

At another level, this conception of diversity surfaces in the writings of contemporary liberals. The presence of different, and even incommensurable, epistemologies, perspectives, lifestyles, ideas and moral values is, for them, the crucial test of tolerance and democracy in society. To protect this diversity of thought and belief they favour a procedural republic and give priority to rights. To the extent that the fatwa by Ayatollah Khomeini aimed to suppress this diversity of views, liberals protested against it.

The concept of multiculturalism endorses the idea of difference and heterogeneity that is embodied in the concept of diversity. Albeit, in its discussion of diverse communities, it distinguishes between the majority community and the minorities. That is, the diverse cultural communities are categorized as majority or minorities. In modern democratic polities the state is usually identified with the majority culture, while communities that differ from it are designated as minorities. In emphasizing the irreconcilable differences between the majority and minority cultures, multiculturalism locates incommensurable differences within the boundaries of the state. In other words, diversity is no longer pushed outside the boundaries of the nation state. Further, as diverse communities coexist within the state, multiculturalism raises the issue of their equality. It asks whether the different entities, constituting the many, are granted an equal status within the polity.

The German historians and philosophers who spoke of cultural diversity, conveniently pushed differences outside the boundary of the state. The multiculturalists, on the other hand, place diversity within the borders of the nation state. Beginning with the empirical reality that most countries today are multiethnic and multinational societies, they examine whether these diverse communities receive equal and fair treatment in the public and political arena. In particular they analyze the ideology of liberalism and the practices of liberal nation states to see if they disadvantage minority communities or discriminate against them on account of their difference.

This concern for equality and non-discrimination of people of minority communities links multiculturalism to democracy in a fundamental way. The single most important value of democracy is non-discrimination. Historically, democratization has occurred through the struggles of different people and classes against prevailing sources of social discrimination in society. The early spokesmen of representative democracy, such as Locke and Paine, questioned the privileged status accorded to noble birth in the political arena. Subsequent struggles for democracy challenged the exclusion of propertyless classes, women and other racial and religious minorities from the public domain. Collectively, these voices of dissent argued that distribution of political rights must be delinked from ascriptive identities. Since caste, class, gender, race and religion had been identified as sources of discrimination, theorists of democracy argued that community membership must be disregarded in the political arena. Instead, individuals should be treated as citizens with equal rights and entitlements.

The concept of multiculturalism contributes to this agenda of democratization and non-discrimination. First, it locates cultural identity as a source of discrimination in society. While earlier theories focused on discrimination that occurs on account of one’s religion, race and gender, multiculturalism points to discrimination of minority cultures within the nation state. Second, it argues that equality for diverse cultures requires a system of special, group-differentiated rights.3 While liberals defend universal citizenship and equal rights as the most suitable instruments for countering community based discrimination, the multiculturalists support special group rights for vulnerable minorities.



Seen thus, the concept of multiculturalism is significantly different from that of plurality and diversity. While plurality simply represents the existence of many (more than one), multiculturalism points to the existence of many which are equal in the public arena. In other words, the presence of many different communities in itself is not enough. The important thing is whether they are treated as equals by the state.

Analyzing the ideology and policies of western liberal democracies, advocates of multiculturalism argue that in these multiethnic and multinational societies, minority cultures and communities are disadvantaged in the public arena. They are disadvantaged through the cultural orientation and practices of the nation state. The policies of the state – e.g., those pertaining to official language, declaration of holidays, permitted rituals, prescribed dress code in public institutions, curricula in educational institutions, laws on marriage, divorce and custody of children – contain a majoritarian cultural bias. They favour the majority community and, at the same time, place the minority communities at a disadvantage.

For instance, the declaration of English as the official language of Canada privileges the English speaking Canadians in the public arena and places the French-Canadians at a disadvantage. Similarly, the Sabbath laws in America which declare Sunday as a public holiday, conform to the religious practices of the Christian majority. This disadvantages the Jews and the Muslims. And, even seemingly neutral laws pertaining to compulsory education of children disadvantage the Gypsies in Britain and the Amish in America.4 Advocates of multiculturalism point to state laws that make it more difficult for the members of the minority community to compete in the public arena, as well as those that discriminate against minority cultures. Respect for diversity, in their view, implies equal space and opportunity for different cultures to sustain themselves. Consequently, policies that homogenize populations by disallowing culturally specific ways of life and practices are seen as being hostile to minorities.



While protesting against systemic discrimination, theorists of multiculturalism grant positive value to cultural diversity. According to them, the presence of diverse cultures enriches social life. Since each culture incorporates a distinct conception of good life, the presence of diverse cultures exposes us to alternative ways of life. It provides concrete options that we could choose to explore and, above all, encourages self-criticism. Encounters with the ‘other’ makes us aware of the limits of our own world-view and reveals the existence of other human projects and ways of organizing society. As such, cultural diversity is a valued good and the state must make an effort to preserve it.

Preservation of diverse cultures, particularly, minority cultures, requires special group rights. Classical theories of democracy were suspicious of group based rights because such a system of distribution justified apartheid. Historically, linking of political and civil rights with community membership had been the basis of excluding some people from the political arena.

In the present context where political rights have been extended to almost all classes of people in western democracies, the multiculturalists question the attempt by the state to assimilate the diverse populations. They defend group rights primarily for the purpose of resisting forced assimilation. At least in part, cultures are sought to be preserved against the homogenizing impulses of the nation state.

This conception of multiculturalism emerged at a time when it became evident that ethnic identities had not dissolved in market economies and democratic polities. The presence of ‘unmeltable’ ethnics, despite immigrant policies that aimed to bring in populations which could assimilate into the new world, necessitated fresh thinking about the nature of political institutions in multiethnic societies. The theory and practice of multiculturalism was a response to this pressing concern. Under the banner of multiculturalism, liberal nation states, such as Canada, provided special status to French language, endorsed bilingualism and devolved more powers to Quebec – the only province with a French majority.5 All these measures sought to ensure that national minorities, such as French Canadians, have a fair chance of preserving and protecting their linguistic and cultural identity.

Today, theories of multiculturalism reflect upon the special but diverse needs of the immigrant populations and indigenous people. They defend special land rights and self government for Native Indians in North America and argue that liberal democracies must develop sensitivity towards and respect for the cultural identity of immigrant populations. At the very minimum, they should provide opportunities for immigrant cultures to survive and preserve themselves. However, ideally they should provide minorities with a sense of involvement. For this democracies would need to go beyond the minimal agenda of keeping cultures alive in the private domain. They would have to provide public and institutional recognition to minority cultures through a system of group rights.



According to the multiculturalists group rights of this nature for specific kinds of minorities will create a more integrated society. As minorities receive institutional representation and their cultures survive and flourish, they will develop a sense of belonging and commitment to the state.6 This would reduce ethnic conflicts and make secession an unattractive option. Group rights would, in this way, be an inducement for minorities to remain within, and develop loyalty towards, the state of which they are at present a part. Minority rights are envisaged here as a special way of incorporating people into the polity.

Theorists of multiculturalism make a distinction between inclusion and assimilation. The idea of uniform citizenship seeks to assimilate diverse populations by prescribing uniform or identical rules and practices. Group differentiated minority rights, on the other hand, include people both as citizens and as members of specific communities. It is therefore a non- homogenizing and non-assimilative mode of inclusion.

The association of the nation state with an agenda of cultural homogenization, the philosophical defence of the right to culture, and the justification of special rights for minorities in the form of group representation, self-government and polyethnic rights, has won multiculturalism many followers in contemporary times. While post-modernists upholding the politics of difference and minorities struggling for a voice in national political life find a natural ally in multiculturalism, liberals fear that multicultural political strategies would strengthen community conflicts and pose a challenge to national unity. The feminists too are anxious that protection granted to cultural community practices may destroy the limited gains that the women’s movement has so far secured. Since most cultures endorse and permit control over women by men, preserving cultural practices may well become another way of allowing patriarchal domination in society. Group rights may, thus, assist in the continued subordination of women.



The apprehensions of the feminists and liberals are well-founded and deserve serious consideration. In particular, we need to examine whether communities should be given special rights to preserve their culture. Should communities have the right to protect all prevalent practices? Are all existing practices crucial for preserving a particular way of life? Should the state define the limits of permissible diversity? Should it stipulate minimum conditions that all cultures must adhere to? Since cultures are not homogeneous entities, whose voice should be heard and counted by the state?

These are questions that need to be analyzed further within the framework of multiculturalism. There is also need to incorporate the experience of different societies and contesting communities before we can arrive at a general framework or a set of principles to deal with the special needs of diverse minorities. Above all, we need to differentiate between rights that minorities may need to combat direct or latent discrimination and those that are needed to preserve their culture.



The difficulties with contemporary theories of multiculturalism arise from the conflation of these two quite distinct concerns relating to non discrimination and preservation of cultures. In their analysis of the liberal democratic state, multiculturalists note the contexts and policies that discriminate against minorities. However, while responding to the problems faced by these communities they recommend and justify special rights to minorities for preserving their culture. In making this suggestion they postulate a link between non discrimination and preservation of diverse minority cultures. This association of cultural diversity with non discrimination provides a powerful rationale for not interfering with, or restricting in any way, the existing community practices.

So long as the Pueblo Indians define their identity in religious terms, they remain free to disallow conversions and punish the convert, so as to continue with their own distinct way of life. Communities of Native Americans can go on denying women, who marry outside the community, rights to reservation land. Village communities in India can punish individuals who disobey caste hierarchy and prescribed marriage rules. And some tribes may even decide to kill persons who are designated as evil by the holy spirits. All this and much more could easily be justified in the name of preserving culture. If special rights are granted to communities only for the sake of promoting heterogeneity, and without protecting intra-group equality, then multiculturalism would be seriously flawed.

Consequently, it is extremely important to distinguish between policies that are a source of discrimination of minorities from the demand for preserving cultures that is often presented by minorities. To simply say that special rights will (or should) be granted to minorities only to counter ‘external pressures’ that can destabilize or destroy the minority culture7 does not really solve the problem. Rights which are granted to communities to protect their culture from threats that come from the larger society invariably empower the community against its own members. Special land rights that Native Americans need to protect their culture against economic and political pressures that come from the rest of society, necessarily grant the community the right to deny individual claims to property that may arise from within the community. One cannot give the right to sustain a culture against external pressures without simultaneously empowering the community against dissenting voices that exist within on that issue.



One cannot also take recourse to the argument that ‘operative public values' 8 that are enshrined in the Constitution can be the basis of determining what kind of diversity may or may not be protected and preserved. Till the 1960s, shared public values in America denied the Black community the right to vote and in Canada the prevailing consensus did not extend citizenship rights to Native Americans. Thus, the operative values and shared public norms may themselves buttress structures of discrimination. As such, they cannot be an acceptable way of prescribing the limits of permissible cultural diversity.

In a democracy the concern for inter-group equality must be in tandem with the demand for intra-group equality. Consequently, multiculturalists need to ensure that measures introduced for the purpose of enhancing equality between groups do not become a means of sustaining structures of inequality within the community. This may be possible only when multiculturalism dissociates special rights granted for countering systemic discrimination of minorities within the nation state from rights that may be necessary for preserving minority cultures. Preservation of cultural practices can be, and often is, an excuse to continue with customs that perpetuate discrimination of some groups within the community; special rights cannot be justified for this end.

Multiculturalism has raised important questions about the status of minorities within the nation state. Liberal democracies are now compelled to analyze the implications of their social and cultural policies to see if they discriminate against minorities. By asking whether different communities are treated as equals within the democratic polity, multiculturalism has also shown that the presence of many, plural cultures and communities is not enough. Within a democracy what is necessary is that difference must not be a source of discrimination. It must be acknowledged, accommodated and, above all, given an equal position within a democratic polity. However, this multicultural agenda of inter-group equality must be factored along with the concern for intra-group equality. Without the latter it may become a hindrance to, rather than a support for, the struggles for democracy.



1. J.G. von Herder, On Social and Political Culture, translated and edited by F.M. Barnard, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1969, p. 188.

2. J.G. von Herder, ‘Philosophy of History’, in Outline of a Philosophy of History, translated by T. Churchill, Bergman Publishers, New York, 1966, p. 229.

3. Iris M. Young, ‘Polity and Group Difference: A Critique of the Ideal of Universal Citizenship’, Ethics 99(2), 1989, pp. 250-74.

4. Bhikhu Parekh, ‘Equality in a Multicultural Society’, in Jane Franklin (ed.), Equality, Institute for Public Policy Research, London, 1997; and Will Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1995.

5. Evelyn Kallen, ‘Multiculturalism, Ideology, Policy and Reality’, Journal of Canadian Studies 17(1), 1982, pp. 51-63.

6. Joseph H. Carens, ‘Dimensions of Citizenship and National Identity in Canada’, The Philosophical Forum 28(1-2), 1996-97, pp. 111-123.

7. Will Kymlicka, op. cit., pp. 35-44.

8. Bhikhu Parekh, ‘Cultural Diversity and Liberal Democracy’, in Gurpreet Mahajan (ed), Democracy, Difference and Social Justice, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1998, p. 221.