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The contradictions of liberal multiculturalism

5 November 2014

How we should accommodate and respect the values of people who aren’t like us? A new book has some of the answers, writes Janna Thompson

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Montreal street sign photographed by AILAF/Flickr

Montreal street sign photographed by AILAF/Flickr

Equal Recognition: The Moral Foundations of Minority Rights
By Alan Patten | Princeton University Press | $69


Back in the 1980s when the historian Geoffrey Blainey criticised multiculturalism for undermining the British heritage of the majority of Australians he awakened fears and resentments that have become a standard conservative response to immigration from non-Western countries.

This response is a compound of incompatible ingredients. One is the fear that the liberal values that define Western civilisation are under threat from people who have no respect for human rights or individual freedom. But the other part of the mix is a belief that people from non-Western cultures threaten the traditions and way of life that define us as Australians and make us into a unified nation.

These ingredients are at odds because liberalism is no friend of those who want to maintain the privileges and power of their national, religious or ethnic group in a society that contains other nations or other ethnic and religious communities. Though liberal philosophers differ about how a liberal society should handle cultural and religious differences, they agree that liberalism cannot tolerate political arrangements that privilege some individuals just because they belong to the majority or to a historically favoured culture or religion.

In Equal Recognition Alan Patten takes this liberal position for granted. He doesn’t take on people like Blainey who insist that the majority culture has an entitlement to retain its dominant position. His aim is to sort through liberal views about treatment of minorities, to probe their strengths and weaknesses and to arrive at the best defence of the rights of minority cultures.

Equal Recognition is a book that only philosophers are likely to love. It is meticulous in its arguments and thorough in its treatment of the views of others. Those who are mostly interested in how to solve problems caused by cultural or religious diversity are not going to get many answers. But readers patient with his approach will find a plausible, though contestable, answer to the question of what we ought to mean by justice, equality and individual freedom in a liberal multicultural society.

Liberalism is a political philosophy that focuses on the rights and responsibilities of individuals. In a liberal society citizens are supposed to be free to choose their way of life, their goals and associates. Religion and culture in a liberal society are supposed to be matters of personal preference, and ought not to interfere with an individual’s ability to participate in the political, civic and economic life of her society. A liberal state should not impede the pursuit of personal goals and ideals except to protect individual rights, and it should not favour the interests or aspirations of some individuals over others.

Patten’s defence of liberal multiculturalism hinges on the liberal commitment to equality. Equality requires a liberal state to be neutral in its treatment of citizens: its laws, policies, practices and institutions should not favour those who belong to a particular culture or religious group, or discriminate against those who are in the minority. It should provide no more support to one group than it provides to others. Members of cultural minorities, he argues, are owed equal recognition.

Patten’s ideal of equal recognition is a long way from political reality. No existing liberal state treats culture or religion even-handedly. States have a religious and ethnic heritage that is reflected in their holidays, flags, symbols, laws and political institutions. They have a language, or a few languages, in which state business is conducted. Their history celebrates the triumphs of the national group that founded and built the nation. Their schools emphasise values associated with this group. Groups with a different heritage, especially those who were on the losing side in this triumphal history, are very much aware that their state plays favourites.

Patten doesn’t suppose that any state can or should be completely neutral in its treatment of culture. His position is hedged around by caveats. But he does think that liberal states should move in the direction of neutrality. Equal recognition is for him an ideal that ought to guide liberal policy. A failure to achieve it is not necessarily a wrong, but stands in need of a good excuse.

Although Patten is not in the business of making proposals about multicultural policy, it isn’t hard to draw some practical implications from his position. It entails that the Canadians were right to recognise French as one of the official languages for the whole of Canada. It entails that Australians should adopt a flag that does not refer to its British heritage. It entails that the Welsh as well as the Scots ought to have a parliament of their own. And it would endorse the right of Muslim women to choose to wear headscarves or burqas in public places.

Despite the large number of Spanish-speaking people living in the United States, on the other hand, Patten’s position doesn’t require the Americans to adopt Spanish as a language of state. It doesn’t justify the demand of some Muslims in Western countries to be allowed to govern themselves by Sharia law. It doesn’t mean that Scotland or Wales has a right to be an independent state.

The details of Patten’s argument show that he is trying to weave a path through an obstacle course that forces him to modify and put limits on the application of his ideal. He wants to find a way to give due recognition to the importance of culture to individuals while adhering to liberal ideals of freedom and equality. He wants to find a way of reconciling the aspirations of minorities with the practical problems of building and maintaining viable political societies. And he wants to explain why established minority groups can make more demands on a state than immigrants.

The first obstacle in the way of defending cultural rights is a doubt about the very existence of cultures. There is no ideal way of behaving or set of beliefs that all Scots or all Catalonians share. Any attempt to determine the essence of a culture will either fail or involve prescriptions that some members do not satisfy. How, then, can people make demands on behalf of such an elusive entity? Patten’s answer is to appeal to formative influences on individuals. You belong to a culture if you were brought up and educated by members of that culture. A common upbringing and education makes it likely that members of a culture will share common reference points, customs and ideals. But Patten’s definition allows that people can respond differently to their upbringing. They can reject traditional beliefs or interpret them in a new way. It allows that a culture can change radically over time and still count as the same culture – so long as its members control its development and transmission. It allows that people can belong to more than one culture.

Most people want to maintain their culture. But a liberal society is not required to ensure that individuals can get what they want. So the next problem for a liberal multiculturalist is to explain why cultures are important enough to deserve recognition by the state. Patten adheres to the liberal conviction that cultures are not valuable in themselves. A liberal state has no obligation to preserve a language or a way of life simply because it is in danger of disappearing. A culture is valuable only in so far as it is valuable from the perspective of the people who belong to it. Some defenders of multiculturalism point to the way that people identify with their culture or religion. Others argue that a flourishing culture enhances individual freedom by providing members with ideals and goals that they can relate to.

Patten agrees that these are reasons for valuing a culture but he doesn’t think they are sufficient. Individuals are capable of changing their identities and finding valuable options in other cultures. Indeed, this is what immigrants or their children are expected to do. His defence of culture rests on the liberal requirement that individuals should have an equal opportunity for self-realisation. Since a person’s culture plays such a large role in enabling her to satisfy her preferences and to participate in public life, a state that favours a particular culture is violating the liberal commitment to equality. It is not providing individuals with equal opportunities.


This, in brief, is Patten’s case for equal recognition of cultures. The requirement of equal recognition can sometimes be satisfied by a state that refuses to meddle in the private affairs of citizens. Patten suggests that this is the position it should take in respect to religion – that people should be free to worship as they please. If individual choices result in the growth of some religions and the decline of others this is no concern of the state.

A state can avoid taking sides on matters of religion, and it can expunge or change symbols and ceremonies that favour the majority culture. But it cannot avoid making more difficult decisions about language or responding to the demands of minority cultures for more control over their own affairs. These are matters that bring the requirement of equal recognition into conflict with other objectives that we want a state to fulfil.

For many people, being able to use their own language is a primary aspect of their cultural life. Minorities suffer from the disadvantage of being forced to use the language of the majority in order to participate in public affairs. Patten thinks that the ideal of state neutrality, strictly applied, requires that people should be able to participate in their own language wherever they happen to live. This means that many states ought to have more than one official language (as does Canada).

The problem with this requirement is obvious. There are over one hundred Aboriginal languages, not to mention the many languages spoken in immigrant communities in Australia. It is simply impractical to insist that all of these languages should be taught in Australian schools or used by public officials. Even the existence of a smaller number of official languages could be seriously detrimental to conditions in which democracy flourishes. Patten is well aware that equal recognition competes with other requirements and values: efficiency, solidarity, ease of communication and budgetary limitations. Compromise is necessary.

This is also true for a demand that often accompanies a struggle for equal recognition: the right to self-determination. Patten thinks that this demand is often justified. Minorities are disadvantaged in their ability to maintain their culture so long as the majority controls all social institutions. A multicultural society requires arrangements that allow minority cultures to govern their own affairs, but it should not go as far as permitting secession (except in cases where minorities are oppressed or exploited). Self-determination must be compatible with the ability of the state to maintain its existence and integrity.

No state can be expected to allow all of its minority groups to have a government of their own and Patten doesn’t require this. Self-determination is only the right of those minority groups that are able to give individuals a wide set of options for living good lives as well as the institutions and services that people in a wealthy liberal society have a right to expect. The Quebecois, the Catalonians, the Scots and the Welsh can do this. The Inuits of northern Canada are a borderline case, but most indigenous societies, including Aboriginal communities, do not qualify. They are too small and too impoverished to provide individuals with opportunities or services. Patten recognises that many indigenous people would have difficulty assimilating into mainstream society. But nevertheless, he suggests that this is their better option.

In making this judgement he is violating a requirement that he earlier imposed on the discussion of the value of a culture: that it should be judged from the perspective of those who belong to it. He does not consider the possibility that individual self-realisation may not be supremely valuable for everyone. He does not allow that people in some cultural communities may value more highly their community, their land, their traditions or their law.

Immigrant communities are also excluded from the right to self-determination. Their languages are not candidates for official adoption. Patten argues that the advantages immigrants receive by becoming citizens of their new country allow its inhabitants to insist that they adapt themselves to its cultural and political life. In this respect, Patten’s multiculturalism amounts to no more than support for services that many liberal states already extend to people of different cultures: translators for those who need to deal with public institutions, and language classes for new arrivals. Indeed, he thinks that members of a democratic majority are entitled to favour their own culture and language and to insist that newcomers fit in. This support for a position like Blainey’s – so out of step with the rest of his discussion – comes about, I suggest, because of a problem inherent in liberal approaches to culture.

If the value of cultural or political membership has to be cashed out in terms of the opportunities it provides for individuals to satisfy their preferences then it is very difficult to explain why people should want to maintain a threatened culture when they would have better opportunities in another. It is difficult to explain why an established minority culture – like that of the Quebecois – should be any better for individuals and any more deserving of recognition than a culture belonging to a group of more recent arrivals – like Spanish speakers in the United States. And it is equally difficult to explain why members of a political society are entitled to maintain their political culture, defend it from attack and shape its development. If Aborigines were assimilated into mainstream society, if French Canadians were integrated into English Canada, if New Zealand were forced to become part of Australia, what of significant value would people lose?

Most people would explain such a loss by referring to their community’s heritage, history, traditions and accomplishments, to the sacrifices of forebears and what their achievements or suffering mean for present and future generations. But these appeals to history and heritage are difficult to fit into a liberal framework that focuses on satisfaction of individual preferences and opportunities for self-realisation.

Patten’s adherence to this framework creates problems of other kinds – most obviously in his treatment of indigenous communities. Conversations about multiculturalism have moved on from the assumption that living in a liberal community is a universal destiny for all people – that it is the end of history to which all rational people should aspire. Having confronted the fact that there are other legitimate ways of valuing, we are faced with the problem of how we should accommodate and respect the values of people who are not liberals.

Do the inadequacies of Patten’s liberalism mean that there is something to be said for Blainey’s insistence that Australians are entitled to maintain the dominant position of their country’s British heritage? The problem with his view is not his appeal to tradition or his celebration of the contributions of British culture but his narrow understanding of which contributions count in the formation and further development of Australian society. An insistence that Australia is British by heritage ignores the culture and heritage of Aboriginal Australia. It also ignores the contributions that non-Anglo immigrants have made to our national culture. It circumscribes the possibility of a future to which people of all cultures can contribute on equal terms. •

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