Review of Will Kymlicka’s Multicultural Citizenship

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In addition to circular arguments, Kymlicka’s writings are pulled into paradoxes, caught between his monocultural approach to nation-building and his professed commitment to dynamic polyethnic societies. With respect to multiculturalism itself, Kymlicka admits that “multiculturalism is a distinctive way of responding to state projects of nation-building” (1998b, p. 29); to a certain extent, although he does not say so directly, Kymlicka is admitting that multiculturalism is a response against the monocultural direction that nation-building imposes across cultures. Yet the multiculturalism in a nationalist setting is fraught with tension in a way that complicates his own theory and leads to ambivalence and contradiction. One is a commitment to openness (in Kymlicka’s terms “polyethnic” society), while the other is committed to a particular limited people. As Walzer says, “No nation imagines itself coterminous with mankind” (1999a, p. 539). While affirming liberalism and multiculturalism on the one hand, and correspondingly affirming the priority of the community (particularly in nationalist terms) on the other hand, Kymlicka ends up with an irresolvable contradiction of interests.

Hence, although Kymlicka “connects the dots” nicely (Kaufmann & Zimmer, 2004, p. 65), a number of paradoxes arise which challenge the validity of his arguments and those of the liberal nationalists more generally. In his writings, Kymlicka seeks to normatively bridge choice (liberalism) and community (nation). Yet, liberalism means favouring maximum individual liberty in political and social policies. Instinctively, maximum individual liberty would seem to be at odds where a national culture is promoted or imposed. A cultural nationalism such as that which Kymlicka proposes is bound to face difficult roadblocks when confronted with questions about the priority of the Right (liberalism) over priority of the Good (communitarianism). The liberal nationalist has no litmus test for which an answer may be found and if anything, policies advocating sustaining a particular national culture over time would veer more closely towards the side of maintaining community over liberty should it come down to a choice between the two.

The following table is a brief look at some of the oppositions that follow from Kymlicka’s conclusions about choice and community:

A. Choice

B. Community



















The Right

The Good


























In effect, Kymlicka’s theory of multicultural citizenship says that if you have column two (community), then column one (choice) will result. Yet, the following contradictory derivatives (points 1 to 9) with respect to how Kymlicka envisions the application of A and B render his arguments inconsistent.

This unfortunately leads Kymlicka’s theory into some paradoxical territory:

  1. The culture we should be protecting (through national rights) is one that is able to change, yet stability in this culture is needed to provide the ground or “politics in the vernacular” necessary to make intelligible choices.

  2. Most national movements today, while arguing to maintain their (distinctive) history and cultural identity, are modernizing and losing their distinctiveness and becoming increasingly similar to other liberal nations.

  3. Liberal nationalism is polyethnic (neutrality), however it is selectively so (particularism).

  4. Liberal nationalism strives for equality between all citizens, however each national group accorded rights is preferential towards one particular societal culture.

  5. Liberal nationalists cling to the valorised memories of the past, though they support the choices of future generations to dismiss it.

The above contradictory points cause theoretical confusion in the vacillation between community and choice and leaving us without a clear roadmap to navigate between the two, often with community taking priority over choice.
        1. Change vs. Stability

With respect to point (1.) above, Kymlicka’s description of culture is often at odds with itself. If a stable cultural background is what is needed for us to be able to navigate through the politics of our vernacular, then why should we allow internal change? If strong attachment to our common history and myth is needed for us to live fulfilled lives in which we can make intelligible choices, then how can immigrants ever give up the societal culture of their birth? How is it that a national culture, which is implemented from above inasmuch as it is from below, able to change from the people through their will? Can you really “secure” diversity?

History vs. Modernizing

For point (2.), Kymlicka repeatedly refers back to his example of Quebec to dispute claims of critics that liberal nationalism as “deeply paradoxical” (Kymlicka, 1997b, p. 37). In a chapter he titles “Dissolving the Paradox of Liberal nationalism” he responds to point 2 in the list above, citing it as

[Presupposing] that people have a strong attachment to their own culture, and that this attachment is not inconsistent with the desire for individual freedom, and hence for the liberalization of one’s culture. (Kymlicka, 1997b, p. 37)

This claim is found by many commentators to be deeply paradoxical; however, Kymlicka disputes these critics by referring to his paradigmatic example of Quebecois nationalism and its increasing demands following the Silent Revolution. There are two ways of understanding the apparent paradox of Quebecois “modernizing nationalism” says Kymlicka: 1. That the Quebecois have an irrational attachment to their history. Or 2. That despite national identity losing its distinctiveness, there is still a deep attachment to it (Kymlicka, 1997b, pp. 37, 43). Kymlicka does not really dissolve his paradox here in this argument, but just spells it out further: national groups want to maintain their distinctiveness even though they are becoming less distinct. Despite its confusion, this singular example is routinely used by Kymlicka to back his theory.

Neutrality vs. Selectivity

With respect to point (3.), neutrality vs. selectivity, Kymlicka runs into difficulties when deciding whether it is correct to allow the Quebecois the right to ethnocentric measures such as enforcing the French language in schools and forbidding the availability of other mother tongue languages. As justification for these non-liberal measures, Kymlicka defends that sometimes a degree of illiberality is needed in order to prevent ethnocentrism, and that by allowing the Quebecois to protect and preserve their language and symbols they will feel less xenophobic towards immigrants who they would otherwise perceive as destroying their cultural fabric. With regard to this paradox, Nicholas Buttle says that, “the particularism of nationalism, indeed, pulls against the universalism of liberalism so that ‘liberal nationalism’ constitutes an incoherent construct” (Buttle, 2000).

Equality vs. Preferentialism

With regard to point (4.), equality vs. preferentialism, Kymlicka does not address this specifically however in following his theory we can surmise that Kymlicka would say that allowing preferences in some cases provides greater equality for all. In other words, equality is attained through difference. While it is indeed important to recognize that equality does not mean the “same”, it is an altogether different point to provide institutional preference or promotion of a particular culture (or in this case national culture). Kymlicka’s point is that the majority culture already has preferential treatment; therefore, to be fair to minority national cultures they deserve the same. He, quite rightly, wants us to recognize the ways in which our systems are currently biased. His answer however, instead of recognizing our biases and striving to overcome them, is to award preferential treatment in another sphere.
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