What is multiculturalism?

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The early 1970s marked the emergence of the multicultural movement at first in Canada and Australia and then in the U.S.A., U.K., Germany and elsewhere. It has now begun to dominate the political agenda of even France, the strongest bastion of the nation state, which takes no official note of its citizens’ ethnicity, culture and religion and does not record these in its decennial census. Since the multicultural movement sprang up unplanned in many different political contexts, attracted a diverse cluster of groups, and has so far failed to throw up a coherent philosophical statement of its central principles, it lacks a clear focus and identity. I would therefore like to begin by clarifying what it means and stands for, and then briefly highlight some of the problems facing a multicultural society.

Multiculturalism is best understood neither as a political doctrine with a programmatic content nor a philosophical school with a distinct theory of man’s place in the world but as a perspective on or a way of viewing human life. Its central insights are three, each of which is sometimes misinterpreted by its advocates and needs to be carefully reformulated if it is to carry conviction. First, human beings are culturally embedded in the sense that they grow up and live within a culturally structured world and organize their lives and social relations in terms of a culturally derived system of meaning and significance.

This does not mean that they are determined by their culture in the sense of being unable to rise above its categories of thought and critically evaluate its values and system of meaning, but rather that they are deeply shaped by it, can overcome some but not all of its influences, and necessarily view the world from within a culture, be it the one they have inherited and uncritically accepted or reflectively revised or, in rare cases, one they have consciously adopted.

Second, different cultures represent different systems of meaning and visions of the good life. Since each realises a limited range of human capacities and emotions and grasps only a part of the totality of human existence, it needs other cultures to help it understand itself better, expand its intellectual and moral horizon, stretch its imagination, save it from narcissism to guard it against the obvious temptation to absolutise itself, and so on. This does not mean that one cannot lead a good life within one’s own culture, but rather that, other things being equal, one’s way of life is likely to be richer if one also enjoys access to others, and that a culturally self-contained life is virtually impossible for most human beings in the modern, mobile and interdependent world.

Nor does it mean that all cultures are equally rich and deserve equal respect, that each of them is good for its members, or that they cannot be compared and critically assessed. All it means is that no culture is wholly worthless, that it deserves at least some respect because of what it means to its members and the creative energy it displays, that no culture is perfect and has a right to impose itself on others, and that cultures are best changed from within.



Third, every culture is internally plural and reflects a continuing conversation between its different traditions and strands of thought. This does not mean that it is devoid of coherence and identity, but that its identity is plural, fluid and open. Cultures grow out of conscious and unconscious interactions with each other, define their identity in terms of what they take to be their significant other, and are at least partially multicultural in their origins and constitution. Each carries bits of the other within itself and is never wholly sui generis. This does not mean that it has no powers of self-determination and inner impulses, but rather that it is porous and subject to external influences which it assimilates in its now autonomous ways.

A culture’s relation to itself shapes and is in turn shaped by its relation to others, and their internal and external pluralities presuppose and reinforce each other. A culture cannot appreciate the value of others unless it appreciates the plurality within it; the converse is just as true. Closed cultures cannot and do not wish or need to talk to each other. Since each defines its identity in terms of its differences from others or what it is not, it feels threatened by them and seeks to safeguard its integrity by resisting their influences and even avoiding all contacts with them. A culture cannot be at ease with differences outside it unless it is at ease with its own internal differences. A dialogue between cultures requires that each should be willing to open itself up to the influence of and learn from others, and this presupposes that it is self-critical and willing and able to engage in a dialogue with itself.

What I might call a multiculturalist perspective is composed of the creative interplay of these three important and complementary insights – namely the cultural embeddedness of human beings, the inescapability and desirability of cultural plurality, and the plural and multicultural constitution of each culture. When we view the world from its vantage point, our attitudes to ourselves and others undergo profound changes. All claims that a particular institution or way of thinking or living is perfect, the best, or necessitated by human nature itself appear incoherent and even bizarre, for it goes against our well-considered conviction that all ways of thought and life are inherently limited and cannot embody the full range of the richness, complexity and grandeur of human existence.



We instinctively suspect attempts to homogenize a culture and impose a single identity on it, for we are acutely aware that every culture is internally plural and differentiated. And we remain equally sceptical of all attempts to present it as one whose origins lie within itself, as self-generating and sui generis, for we feel persuaded that all cultures are born out of interaction with and absorb the influences of others and are shaped by wider economic, political and other forces. This undercuts the very basis of Afrocentrism, Eurocentrism, Indocentrism, Sinocentrism and other kinds of centrisms, all of which isolate the history of the culture concerned from that of others and credit its achievements to its own genius.

From a multiculturalist perspective, no political doctrine or ideology can represent the full truth of human life. Each of them – be it liberalism, conservatism, socialism or nationalism – is embedded in a particular culture, represents a particular vision of the good life, and is necessarily narrow and partial. Liberalism, for example, is an inspiring political doctrine stressing such great values as human dignity, autonomy, liberty, critical thought and equality. However, they can be defined in several different ways, of which the liberal is only one and not always the most coherent.



And it also ignores or marginalizes such other great values as human solidarity, community, a sense of rootedness, selflessness, deep and self-effacing humility and contentment. Since it grasps only some aspects of the immensely complex human existence and misses out too much of what gives value to life, liberalism, socialism or for that matter any other political doctrine cannot provide the sole basis of the good society. Political doctrines are ways of structuring political life and do not offer a comprehensive philosophy of life. And even so far as political life is concerned, they need to be interpreted and defined in the light of the wider culture and the unique history and political circumstances of the community concerned.

From a multiculturalist perspective the good society cherishes the diversity of and encourages a creative dialogue between its different cultures and their moral visions. Such a society not only respects its members’ rights to their culture and increases their range of choices but also cultivates their powers of self-criticism, self-determination, imagination, intellectual and moral sympathy, and contributes to their development and well-being.

If some groups in it wish to lead self-contained lives and avoid interaction with others, it should respect their choices so long as they meet the consensually derived basic conditions of the good life. A multicultural society should not repeat the mistake of its monocultural counterpart by requiring that all its communities should become multicultural. Indeed, it is precisely because it cherishes cultural plurality that it accommodates those that do not share its dominant cultural ethos.



A multicultural society cannot be stable and last long without developing a common sense of belonging among its citizens. The sense of belonging cannot be ethnic and based on shared cultural, ethnic and other characteristics, for a multicultural society is too diverse for that, but must be political and based on a shared commitment to the political community. Its members do not directly belong to each other as in an ethnic group but through their mediating membership of a shared community, and they are committed to each other because they are all in their own different ways committed to a common historical community. They do and should matter to each other because they are bonded together by the ties of common interest and attachment. This is why, although they might personally loathe some of their fellow-members or find their lifestyles, views and values unacceptable, their mutual commitment and concern as members of a shared community remain unaffected.

The commitment to a political community is highly complex in nature and easily misunderstood. It does not involve commitment to common goals, for members of a community might deeply disagree about these, nor to a common view of its history which they may read very differently, nor to its form of government about which they might entertain very different views, nor to its dominant cultural ethos which some might strongly disapprove of. The commitment to the political community involves commitment to its continuing existence and well-being, and implies that one cares enough for it not to harm its interests and undermine its integrity. It is a matter of degree and could take such forms as a quiet concern for its well-being, deep attachment, affection, and intense love.

While different citizens would develop different emotions towards their community, what is necessary to sustain it and can legitimately be expected of them is a basic commitment to its integrity and well-being, what one might call patriotism or political loyalty. Guided by such loyalty, they might criticise their form of government, institutions, policies, values, ethos and dominant self understanding in the strongest possible terms if they think that these harm its survival and well-being. Their criticisms need not arouse unease or provoke charges of disloyalty so long as their basic commitment to the community is not in doubt. Patriotism is not the monopoly of the conservatives, and the socialists, the radicals and the communists can be loyal to their community just as much as and even more than they are.



Commitment or belonging is reciprocal in nature. A citizen cannot be committed to her political community unless it is also committed to her, and she cannot belong to it unless it accepts her as one of it. The political community therefore cannot expect its members to develop a sense of belonging to it unless it in turn belongs to them. It must, therefore, value and cherish them all equally and reflect this in its structure, policies, conduct of public affairs, self-understanding and self-definition. This involves granting them equal rights of citizenship, a decent standard of living, and the opportunity to develop themselves and participate in and make their respective contributions to its collective life.

In a multicultural society different communities have different needs, and some might be structurally disadvantaged or lack the skill and the confidence to participate in the mainstream society and avail of its opportunities. Both justice and the need to foster a common sense of belonging then require such measures as group-differentiated rights, culturally differentiated applications of laws and policies, state support for minority institutions, and a judicious programme of affirmative action.



Although equal citizenship is essential to fostering a common sense of belonging, it is not enough. Citizenship is about status and rights; belonging is about acceptance, feeling welcome, a sense of identification. The two do not necessarily coincide. One might enjoy all the rights of citizenship but feel that one does not quite belong to the community and is a relative outsider, as do some groups of African-Americans in the United States, Afro-Caribbeans and Asians in Britain, Arabs in France and Israel, and Muslims and, until recently, Sikhs in India.

This feeling of being fully a citizen and yet an outsider is difficult to analyse and explain, but it can be deep and real and seriously damage the quality of one’s citizenship as well as one’s sense of commitment to the political community. It is caused by, among other things, the manner in which the wider society defines itself, the demeaning ways in which the rest of its members talk about these groups, and the dismissive or patronizing ways in which they treat them. Although members of these groups are in principle free to participate in its public life, they often stay away for fear of rejection and ridicule or out of a deep sense of alienation.

When the dominant culture defines the minorities in a demeaning way and systematically reinforces it by all the institutional and other means at its disposal, they consciously or unconsciously internalize the negative self-image, lack self-esteem, and feel alienated from the mainstream society. As Charles Taylor correctly observes, social recognition is central to the individual’s identity and self-worth and misrecognition can gravely damage both. This raises the question as to how the demeaned minorities can secure recognition, and here Taylor’s analysis falters. He seems to take the rather naive liberal view that the dominant group can be rationally persuaded to change its view of them by intellectual arguments and moral appeals. This is to misunderstand the dynamics of the process of recognition.



Misrecognition has both a cultural and a material basis. The American Whites, for example, take a demeaning view of Blacks partly under the influence of the racist culture, partly because this helps them justify the prevailing system of domination, and partly because the deeply disadvantaged Blacks do sometimes exhibit some of the features that confirm White stereotypes. Misrecognition, therefore, can only be countered by undertaking a rigorous critique of the dominant culture and radically restructuring the prevailing inequalities of economic and political power.

Since the dominant group generally welcomes neither, recognition is not given willingly as a gift or an act of grace. It needs to be fought for and involves a cultural and political contestation and sometimes even violence as Hegel stressed in his analysis of the dialectic of recognition and which Taylor’s sanitized version of it ignores. The Muslim protests in Britain in the aftermath of the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses were a good example of this. The increasingly Hindu orientation of India’s political culture and national self-understanding, with its consequent marginalisation of the minority communities, has understandably led the latter in recent years to mobilise themselves and press for their adequate political recognition. The wisdom of a multicultural society consists in its ability to anticipate, minimize and manage such demands.



Multicultural societies in their current form are new to our age and throw up theoretical and political problems that have no parallel in history. The political theories, institutions, vocabulary, virtues and skill that we have developed in the course of consolidating and conducting the affairs of a culturally homogeneous state during the past three centuries are of limited help, and sometimes even a positive handicap, in dealing with multicultural societies. The latter need to find ways of reconciling the legitimate demands of unity and diversity, of achieving political unity without cultural uniformity, and cultivating among its citizens both a common sense of belonging and a willingness to respect and cherish deep cultural differences.

This is a formidable theoretical and political task and no multicultural society has so far succeeded in tackling it. The erstwhile Soviet Union and Yugoslavia lacked the requisite imagination and wisdom and met their doom. Even such affluent, stable and politically mature democracies as the U.S.A. and the U.K. and France have so far had only a limited success, and show signs of strong moral and emotional disorientation in the face of increasing minority demands for recognition and equality. Thanks to the wisdom of its founding fathers, and the judicious balance between unity and diversity embodied in the Indian Constitution, India has managed to persist for five decades as a territorially intact and moderately successful polity.



The political context in which the Constitution was drafted has however altered considerably. The Constitution presupposed a much higher rate of economic growth and a much greater degree of equitable distribution of resources among the diverse communities than has proved to be the case. It took full account of religious and a rather limited account of cultural diversity, but none of ethnic self assertion. Assuming, paradoxically, that India had minorities but not a majority, it sought to nurture the former’s cultural self-expression but not the latter’s and allowed the minorities to act as collective agents while ignoring the real and fraught possibility of the majority becoming integrated and acting as a collective subject.

It also assumed a culturally neutral and socially transcendental state, able to ensure political impartiality, and did not anticipate that a determined majority might culturally monopolise the state and use it to enforce a narrow vision of India. Now that these and other possibilities have materialized, we need to undertake a radical reconsideration of some of the constitutive principles of the Indian state, and find a historically more sensitive and realistic way of evolving political unity out of the newly emergent forms of diversity. There is little sign that we have even begun to grasp the enormity of the problem facing us, let alone explore ways of tackling it.