Review of Will Kymlicka’s Multicultural Citizenship



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Chapter 8
Multicultural Citizenship Redefined


This book began with a number of seemingly intractable questions:

    • How do we accord appropriate recognition to minorities?

    • Where do we draw the line between culture and human rights?

    • How do we avoid imposing our own conceptions of the good?

    • How do we include the manifold voices of the oppressed without institutional chaos?

    • How do we achieve unity without being the same?

Will Kymlicka, the main author under consideration in this book, has devoted his life’s work to answering the above. It was the task of this book to analyse his work, and to evaluate whether the answers he developed were adequate to address group rights within the framework of liberalism, and whether his suggestions strengthened or conversely posed a challenge to liberalism itself. In this final chapter, I will summarize what I consider to be Kymlicka’s main achievements, highlight the areas of his theory in need of strengthening, and then propose adjustments to bring his theory closer in line with his own intended results (the profusion of multicultural and multinational societies) within the context of the changing geopolitical realities of the 21st century.

Kymlicka’s Key Contributions


Without a doubt, Kymlicka has taken on a monumental task. Unwilling to forsake liberalism, yet dissatisfied with liberal neglect of culture, Kymlicka sought to find a way to explain the persistence of national identities in the world today, and their increasing emergence and demands for recognition worldwide. To his credit, he has given modern liberals a way of thinking about difference, and a way of acknowledging the importance of culture and of cultural communities. Multiculturalism and group rights are becoming increasingly tied up with our notions of democracy and liberalism, much to the credit of authors such as Kymlicka. Indeed, Kymlicka was one of the first to make a systematic attempt to connect notions of multiculturalism/minority rights with citizenship and liberalism.

As Caren’s says of Multicultural Citizenship, “one of the virtues of Kymlicka’s book is that it provides the materials for a more satisfactory position than the one he himself adopts. The key to this is to adopt a more flexible, open-ended view of culture and of why it matters morally” (Carens, 1997, p. 44). Kymlicka himself in recent years has attempted to broaden the scope of his theory. I find that Kymlicka’s first book, Liberalism, Community and Culture (1989) was his most philosophically interesting one, the one that spawned the great debate about multiculturalism, which at the time was really a turning point in discussions about minority rights. In this book, very importantly, he asks the right questions and is open to exploring in many ways the limits and potential of the intersections of group rights and identity. In the books that follow, I find there is a narrowing of this philosophical inquiry, as Kymlicka focuses on developing and justifying his theory in face of his critics. It is, of course, a theory which due to its theoretical elegance has really stood strong on its own against its critics, and as I mentioned previously, scarcely an author today can work on the topic of group rights without at least touching on his theory. In later years, Kymlicka has tried to expand the range and application of his theory through editing books focusing on other regions beyond the Canada/Quebec example, from eastern Europe, to Asia, to Africa, provoking ideas from around the globe on how liberalism (or illiberalism in some places) can sit comfortably with minority rights.

In the following concluding chapter, I will review what I believe to be Kymlicka’s key insights and then suggest how to expand on the important ideas captured in his theory.

Among Kymlicka’s key achievements are the following:

        1. Kymlicka has shown us why culture matters.


Kymlicka has given us a reason to protect culture. More than this, he has given us a liberal justification to protect culture. Building on the key insights of the communitarians, Kymlicka showed us how culture provides invaluable meaning to our lives. Holding a value greater than merely emotional affectations, Kymlicka shows us how our culture is a crucial tool for our ability to navigate the world and effectively speak and be heard within the social realm.

Culture, identity, and memories are of no small consequence; they are, says Kymlicka, the fundamental cornerstones of human freedom. For Kymlicka, freedom is always situated in a social context. Without a cultural heritage, we cannot be free. It is only from the meaningful world provided to us by our culture that we can make choices, without this heritage, the world around us would carry no meaning. Culture thereby provides us with a horizon of choice, indeed, is our context of choice. The deliberate privation of culture and the imposition of other dominant identities therefore mark a fundamental loss of human freedom and liberty.

Yet while culture is the ground for our freedom, it too says Kymlicka, like everything else, can change over time. As humans we have the ability to reflect and question our a priori assumptions. This alterability does not negate, however, the value culture holds for individual freedom cautions Kymlicka. Culture is the context for our choice, the basis of our human autonomy, and as such, it is one of the most valuable social goods in need of fair distribution. Kymlicka’s key insight is that that minority rights are not meant to protect the community but to protect the individuals who compose the community. In other words, culture must be valued only insofar as it belongs to the realm of human choice, not the other way around.

He has shown us why difference is important to liberalism.


Kymlicka tells us that “minority rights are not only consistent with individual freedom, but can actually promote it” (1995, p. 74). In tying our human autonomy to culture, Kymlicka has shown us why difference is indeed inseparable from liberalism. He has salvaged liberalism from its detractors, who argued that liberalism was incapable of dealing with pluralism, and was hence becoming increasingly ineffective in light of our ever greater pluralistic societies. Kymlicka not only theoretically blended liberalism and culture in his own theory, but he pointed out precedents for the successful marriage of the two throughout the history of the liberal tradition and described the reasons why difference and group rights ultimately came to be shunned by liberal theorists by linking theory to concrete stages in history which strongly influenced this perception.

What is most important about Kymlicka’s work is that he shows us how difference is essential to the liberal project. Difference is an integral part of all human communities, living in and between our communities. As human beings we are cultural beings, richly diverse, with different sources of meaning and widely differing life projects. The challenge for any liberal democracy is to treat all members of the society as equals, equally entitled to respect, to their unique voices, and to their own conceptions of the good. This is only possible, if we can promote the diversity of our liberal democracies. According to Kymlicka, this means that sometimes we need to provide group rights to raise minorities to a level of equality with the majority, and also by making our systems more inclusive and fair.

Kymlicka’s theory shows us that we can have equal but different voices, equality does not mean that we are all to be treated the same, but instead, means that we are treated with the same dignity. But, for Kymlicka, this is to be embedded into a common vision of well-being for all members of the community into the future. In other words, the only common vision expected of members of the polity is the mutual welfare of all (Young, 1990).

Reinforcing the work of other scholars in the politics of recognition, Kymlicka not only showed us why culture is important to us, but also the need for us to give recognition to the existence of the other, to name it (or rather allow it to name itself), and to try to raise it to a status of equality – not just individual equality, but also the need for equality between groups. In doing so, Kymlicka underscored one of the key lessons from his writings: that different can be equal, and that sometimes – in order to reach equality, difference is needed.

Kymlicka attempts to secure this equality between groups while maintaining his commitment to liberalism, through making his distinction between Internal and External restrictions, allowing groups to inwardly change on the one hand, while at the same time protecting them from unwanted outside intervention which could be destructive to the continuity of a fragile group. External impositions on the group are allowed, to give the group the breathing room to grow and develop at its own pace. Internal restrictions however are disallowed on the basis that it would be unjust for the group itself to impose restrictions upon its members, since the group – and the cultural values it carries forward – need to be adaptable and subject to individual choice and overall change. While I have problematized the distinction between Internal and External restrictions in this book, Kymlicka’s commitment to showing us that equality does not always mean the same, is itself a correct point. His focus on non-interference as established through the internal/external separation may be the wrong focus, or it may conversely be a stepping-stone for further development and disaggregation of sovereignty.

He has shown us how our western systems are unrepresentative.


Kymlicka speaks about the ways that our systems in western democracies are considered “unrepresentative”,

Legislatures in most of these countries are dominated by middle-class, able-bodied, white men. A more representative process, it is said, would include members of ethnic and racial minorities, women, the poor, the disabled, etc. The under-representation of historically disadvantaged groups is a general phenomenon (1995, p. 32).

Although I believe he needs to develop this further in his own theory, Kymlicka has nevertheless brought to our attention they ways our supposedly “neutral” democratic systems in the west, have failed cultural minorities and are, in fact, largely still rooted in a particular set of norms stemming from a particular cultural tradition. He has shown us how “liberal” and “civic” concepts of justice have at times been used to oppress pluralism, and indeed he warns that human rights language rooted in universalistic conceptions too can pose a challenge for numerous minority groups worldwide.

Moreover, Kymlicka has pointed out to us, that there are significant segments of our society, who are ill-served by majoritarian rule, and that under such a system, large minority groups may find it a challenge to obtain the social goods their culture/group deems vitally important, because they may be at odds with majority preferences. Group rights are Kymlicka’s solution to this challenge.

Everyone wants to feel they have a voice and a say in their future. Kymlicka shows us the reasons why smaller cultures are concerned for their futures, and why preserving their language and heritage is more meaningful for them than to be subsumed into other larger cultural spheres. Vulnerable minority groups need to feel that their cultural context is secured. They tie the securing of their culture with greater rights and freedoms. How can smaller cultures ultimately be sustained against the tides of colonization and one-sided globalization, wherein dominant cultures excel and proliferate and smaller ones cling for survival? Particularly non-industrialised, indigenous populations who wish to retain pre-“modern” way of life? Do they have the right to reject outside influences? Do they have the right to reject influx of new people on their land? Kymlicka says yes.

As Kymlicka and Norman say, “Despite…long-standing mutual suspicions, it is increasingly recognized that any plausible or attractive political theory must attend to both the claims of ethnocultural minorities and the promotion of responsible democratic citizenship” (Kymlicka & Norman, 2000, p. 1). As a result, assimilatory, homogenous models are considered outdated, in addition to a pervasive feeling that our democracies are out of touch and unaccountable to large swathes of citizens, who increasingly voice their demands to be heard. It is important that minorities be involved in the process of state-formation. Since our political systems are generally majority concentrated, Kymlicka presses us to find ways to integrate minorities so that their input is also reflected in the growth and transformation of our political communities.


He has explained why national identity remains a potent force.


Kymlicka has provided an explanation for the seemingly irrational stance of rising minority groups claiming national rights across the globe. Against the trend towards lessening national importance in our lives and globalization, national minorities seem like an oddity in today’s ever more de-nationalized world. Yet, Kymlicka explains to us the reasons why national minorities remain a significant, if not a growing phenomenon worldwide: because national minorities were unwillingly brought under the national majority rule. Often through coercion, national minorities had previously existing “societal cultures” prior to the advent of the state, and were forced to live and be ruled by another cultural group. Forced into an undesired union, these groups were in most cases not even given rights to be represented politically. Through granting such representation rights, Kymlicka hopes to forge a middle path somewhere between secession and assimilation.

He has de-linked the nation from the state.


Kymlicka has decoupled the traditional nation-state connection and has advocated strongly for states worldwide to acknowledge their multi-national character and grant rights to national minority groups within the main state infrastructure. Believing that there are routes available other than full separation or secession, Kymlicka aims to promote the co-existence of multiple semi-independent yet united groups, within a single polity.

He has provided a theory of justice supporting group rights.


Recognizing the global nature of the rising demands by minorities, Kymlicka has taken on the difficult task of creating a generalized theory of liberal minority rights that could be applicable worldwide. While many critics have argued precisely against this sort of a theory and the difficulties for the terminology Kymlicka uses being understood and applied across different countries worldwide, nevertheless, his theoretical work and the definitions he has attempted to standardize have at least laid the conceptual groundwork that has supported a global dialogue on the topic of liberalism and minority rights, and prepared the way for its entry into codification in international law.

Indeed, since the time of Kymlicka’s first writing, numerous treatises on group rights and recognition have come into effect in international law.159 Not only have group rights and ethnicity been given more recognition due to authors like Kymlicka, but the nation state itself is becoming recontextualized and the link between “nation” and “state” is increasingly becoming severed. As Adorno bluntly expresses the fate of the nation-state, “in the age of international communication and supranational blocs, nationalism cannot really believe in itself anymore and must exaggerate itself to the extreme in order to persuade itself and others that it is still substantial” (2003, p. 32). Yet, the days of the exaggerated nation-state too are slowly fading as nationalism becomes increasingly inconsequential on the global stage.


Areas of Consideration for Kymlicka


Indeed, with such strong theoretical achievements behind him, there is much positive to say about the contributions of Kymlicka’s theory. While Kymlicka’s theory is theoretically very elegant, when one begins to put theory into practice, it opens new perspectives. Many critics of Kymlicka voice that it is precisely his lack of first hand experience in dealing with minority conflicts worldwide that comes through in his writings. He “connects the dots” elegantly they argue, but ultimately, the theory itself is untenable, and if it is – then it is only within the very specific Canadian context for which Kymlicka sculpted its writing, and his version of “liberal pluralism” is not, in fact, exportable.

Certainly, there are areas in Kymlicka’s writings, where his own recommendations about implementation run counter to many of the key elements of his theoretical deductions and his insistence on liberalism. Even still, there is a current that runs thoughout his writing that is somehow inherently contradictory, as I have pointed out throughout this book, but most clearly in Chapter 6.

Yet, given the above-mentioned achievements, we should not easily forsake Kymlicka’s writings and their contributions to the debate on the state and status of minorities worldwide. What we can do however is examine how we can strengthen his theory, identify where the inconsistencies are (as this book has attempted to do), and then make recommendations, if possible, for how to overcome them.

The following summarizes the areas where Kymlicka’s theory encounters difficulties, so that we can look to how we can overcome them:


        1. Overly categorical treatment of minorities


Kymlicka is trying to establish a theory that backs group rights within the context of liberal pluralistic societies. Yet, as a starting point, Kymlicka’s own treatment of social groups has itself been judged as overly categorical and hence unable to normatively represent the complexity of social groups themselves, or their interactions. Kymlicka’s theory divides (ethnic) minorities into three groups: Immigrants, Indigenous peoples, and National Minorities. Yet the distinction he draws between the definitions of the three groups runs the risk of slotting disadvantaged groups into moulds they do not fit, or would prefer not to be defined by. For example, take the Metis in Canada (the mixed offspring of the aboriginals and the French), would they need a separate nation to protect their cultural rights? Under which national category – Quebecois, or Native American, should they be considered?160. Further, there are highly significant minority groups for whom Kymlicka’s theory fails to represent, such as the African-American community. For a theory being developed in North America, Kymlicka’s omission in this respect and failure to address wider racial issues is glaring in light of it being a theory of multiculturalism and minority rights.

Moreover, the focus in Kymlicka’s theory ends up on considering these groups in very essentialist terms, with defined boundaries. Instead, a more helpful approach may be to follow Brubakers “Beyond Groupism”, and to focus not on groups themselves – that groups are not satisfactory units of analysis at all (in doing so, the tendency to see the group in monolithic terms often results), but instead to analyse how race, ethnicity, nation actually “work” (Brubaker, 2004a). Iris Marion Young says something along similar lines, that any group cannot be considered on its own, but only in relation to others, and that our identity itself is multi-layered and complex.


“Immigrants” misconstrued


One of the key groups that Kymlicka writes about after national minorities is that of immigrants. Yet this terminology, which Kymlicka uses quite extensively through his writings, is absolutely inadequate to capture the group he aims to discuss. This definition should be modified on a number of levels.

Firstly (resulting from his definition of societal cultures), Kymlicka says that any person who does not have access to a secure societal culture is at a disadvantage. And that immigrants, who have willingly chosen to leave their home nation and immerse themselves in a new language and new historical culture, are akin to living “a life of perpetual poverty”, because he warrants that without our home culture we are at a profound loss in this world. While next generation children will grow up more easily within the new societal culture, the original immigrant family has a very difficult time to adapt. While the difficulties in being uprooted from one’s home and adapting to a new culture may be partially true (particularly in the case of refugees where this is not a matter of choice but of circumstance), the case of immigrants seems to defy Kymlicka’s own case for the connection between liberalism and freedom, as immigrants often do thrive and contribute even politically and certainly with great success socially to the new cultures to which they belong, especially in Kymlicka’s own Canada. The success of these minority groups is attributable not to a strong Canadian nationalism (or if so, then to a completely non-ethnic and open definition of nation), but to Canada’s strong policies on multiculturalism.

Second, the “immigrants” Kymlicka primarily refers to in his writings are deep-seated communities who have been living in Canada since before its Confederation, and who have a sizable portion of the overall population. To label them indifferently as “immigrants” is a sleight to these communities and to their historic contributions to building Canada. The term “immigrants” similarly faces problems in other countries, where many such communities have also been rooted within surrounding majority cultures, sometimes for generations or even centuries (such as the Jews or the Roma in Europe), and is also an inadequate term of reference for people like the African-Americans who were forcibly brought into new lands through colonization.

Third, Kymlicka’s theory, despite its mention of “immigrants”, is largely dismissive of this topic on the whole, as the focus is on national minorities. Yet, while Kymlicka admits that immigrants are in an undesirable position without the security of their home societal culture, he does not mention any need to compensate these groups for lack of access to their culture in the way he does for national minorities, as he insists immigrants leave by choice – which is a simplistic view of global migration currents. If societal cultures are truly necessary for our freedom, as Kymlicka says they are, then it would seem that there should be more attention in his theory devoted towards addressing the needs of immigrants. I suggest however, that the answer lies only partially in Kymlicka’s need to devote attention to other (non-nationally defined) ethnic groups through revisiting his concept of societal culture itself and what it means for group identity and liberalism of culture.


Lack of indigenous voices


Contrary to immigrants, indigenous peoples are considered by Kymlicka to be “national minorities” and hence are able to access the minority group rights for which he is arguing. However, national minorities are a category Kymlicka subdivides into two: one being “sub-state nations” (such as the Quebecois) and the other indigenous peoples. Arguably, the bulk of Kymlicka’s theory is designed with the former in mind and not the latter. Even Kymlicka’s definition of those groups with a previously existing societal culture (those for whom minority group rights are applicable) seem entirely contrary to most indigenous bands/tribes, criteria such as: territorially contiguous, a single language, pre-existing societal institutions (media, uniform education system) to disseminate the societal culture. All of these describe sub-state nations very well, who themselves are in many cases also a product of the monocultural drive of western modernity/nationalism, but are hardly in keeping with the diversity of languages and cultures characteristic of indigenous groups. The western nationalist language in addition to the top-down institutional settings which Kymlicka recommends for addressing the needs of minority groups, do not match well with the needs of indigenous communities.

Kymlicka should also more strongly acknowledge the history of violence committed towards indigenous groups, and their continued oppression – not only culturally but also economically. Geoffrey B. Levy, who offers a more cautionary account on the status of indigenous bands in Australia, says that even if they were “resident aliens” or citizens in “trapped enclaves”, they would deserve better respect than most indigenous groups have received, for

Even such aliens have a right not to be exterminated, not to have their goods expropriated, not to have their children stolen away. And even such aliens would have a right to restitution or compensation for many of those past wrongs (Levy, 2000b, p. 318).

Turner and Simpson similarly express, what they consider the continuing colonization of their people which not only wove a long stretch of their history but also continues to define their relationship with the “newcomers” in “the present”. As they say,

Colonialism is the reason why our people still have difficulty getting back loans, why there is not a national crisis over the missing or murdered native women in Canada, why there are barricades and protests by our people over land issues every two to five years, and why some of our people hold cards that declare that they are Indian and some (who we know are) do not (May 2008, p. 8).

Kymlicka places the locus of their concerns as being solely rooted in cultural preservation, while neglecting to draw attention to their demands for self-rule. In doing so, his theory may at times be used against indigenous demands for sovereignty. Under “Kymlicka’s constraint” indigenous tribes are not granted self-rule, but are still subsumed under the banner of Canadian nationalism, and ultimately any independent courts which they would be granted would still have a higher Canadian judicial authority above them. In the case of many indigenous peoples, this remains an undesirable situation.


Emphasizes nation to exclusion of other groups


Overall, Kymlicka underestimates the impact of majority rule and grand (nationalist rooted) narratives for a wide spectrum of other minorities. By separating national groups, he does not de-normalize the overarching metanarrative. Women for example, or homosexuals. These significant minority groups, under the rule of national minorities who rule according to historical cultural practices, may find themselves in a more difficult situation to foster change and acceptance of diversity in their community if the core values of the group become institutionally enshrined. As much as Kymlicka says that minority groups granted semi-independence must maintain their liberal nature, the lines between culture and liberalism become increasingly blurred, and it is difficult to safeguard the internal change Kymlicka says must be met for group rights to remain liberal.

Reification of culture


The institutional aspect of Kymlicka’s definition of societal cultures is something that can stifle the dynamic internal change he seeks to allow by reifying group identity and building separations between groups. As Frank Cohen warns, institutionally reinforcing ethnopolitical groups is a risky approach to conflict management, and can potential aggravating already existing ethnic tensions towards violent conflict through reinforcing dissent and boundaries (Cohen, 1997, p. 628). When dealing with situations of minority grievances, particularly in conflict situations, this approach to culture risks exacerbating already difficult disagreements through the creation of myth and symbol – separate versions of history and of struggle - to conceptualize otherness. Finding a more bottom-up approach that emphasizes shared identities may be one way forward for deeply divided socieities.

It must be acknowledged that national minority rights may actually diminish pluralism or multiculturalism instead of increasing it, if policies of selectivity (such as immigration control) with respect to endorsing continuity of a particular culture are at stake. Moreover, a more subtle risk is that an institutional approach to cultures will lead to cultural reification through state-induced planning of “communities”. As Goonewarda and Kipfer warn, the politics of multiculturalism often descends to “the hegemony of multiculturalism”: an institutionalized strategy structured by the elite and new middle classes which churns multiculturalism into processes of “bourgeois urbanism” (2005, p. 671), leading to alienation of citizens of non-European origin and the commodification of difference (2005, p. 672). Goonewardena and Kipfer envision a far more open horizon for plurality, going beyond the Canadian Multiculturalism Act of 1988 which speaks of “’communities whose members share a common origin’ and therefore a diversity of ‘common cultures’” (2005, p. 673). Seeking to avoid confining ethnicity to “common origins”, they radically critique cultural reductionism and instead point towards more dialectical approaches to identity and difference. As Goonewardena and Kipfer suggest:

Here we must recognize that the promise of the city consists not in simply celebrating the plurality of actually existing differences given to us under the signs of ‘cultural diversity’: multiculturalism, diaspora and creolization. Rather, the future lies, to adopt a phrase from Perry Anderson (1992: 45), in a plethora of produced differences in everyday life, aimed at a genuinely socialist ‘diversity founded on a far greater plurality and complexity of possible ways of living that any community of equals, no longer divided by class, race or gender, would create’. For only in a disalienated city produced by citizens in their everyday life can we as creative human beings hope to find our true identity amidst real difference (Goonewardena & Kipfer, 2005, p. 676).

Goonewardena and Kipfer’s anti-reductionist stance and attention to empowering the subaltern, brings a critical dimension of feminism and anti-racism missing from the writings of Kymlicka as well as captures a greater complexity behind the workings of cultural politics and their implications for formations of new cultures.


Risks of Illiberalism


Kymlicka defends his theory as a liberal justification of group rights. Yet, at times, his cultural liberalism is much more cultural than it is liberal, as sometimes culture seemingly trumps liberalism when it comes to a conflict between the two. This is evinced in statements by Kymlicka such as English Canadians should become more Anglo, and even more dangerously, Kymlicka’s allowance of small “illiberalisms” in order to avoid, what he says, would result in the growth of ethnic nationalism. How acceptance of illiberalism on a small scale would pre-empt the rise of ethnic nationalism remains unsubstantiated by Kymlicka. More importantly, Kymlicka’s support of non-neutrality as a goal leads him to such questionable statements.

Kymlicka must first, revisit the aims of civic nationalism and recognize that there is a clear difference between a country like Canada that advocates polities of multiculturalism vs. a country like France which aims far more to neutralize difference and promote “French-ness”. If placed on a spectrum, liberal nationalism that Kymlicka describes veers much more to the side of the ethnic, than does, for example, the similar but more open theory of his Israeli counterpart Yael Tamir. Tamir herself says that when there is a tug of war between culture and liberalism, ultimately one needs to win. For his theory to truly adhere to the liberal standards which Kymlicka aims it to reach, he needs to re-examine some of his conclusions and ensure that they are in keeping with that proposed vision.


Advancing globalization not reflected in his theory


Finally, Kymlicka theory was originally developed towards the end of the 80s. Well before the dot.com boom and bust or the advent of social media. At a time when a “world without borders” was still a far-off notion, despite the bringing down of walls and vastly changed landscape in Eastern Europe. The Internet generation, those who grew up using computers and having access to the Internet, was only then babies. Today, this generation is transforming the world in ways that Kymlicka could hardly have anticipated 20 years ago.

Culture, ethnicity, race, borders, migration, nationality. All of these are being recontextualized through the proliferation of telecommunications. Otherness is gradually diminishing as the world becomes increasingly smaller and diverse cultures come into closer contact. Identity, now more than ever, is seen to be porous, dynamic, and relational more than substantive. Even nationalism itself, is increasingly becoming articulated as an acultural legal status, void of the substance Kymlicka attributes to it. In light of these developments, Kymlicka needs reinforce his avowal to “polyethnicity” and “dynamic cultures” and to do so, he will need to modify or at least question some of the assumptions behind his societal cultures.


The Path Forward for Multiculturalism and Group Rights


To fortify his theory, and to bring it more in line with the rapidly shifting nature of human communities and cultures, there are a number of modifications that can be made to Kymlicka’s theory to maintain its relevance.
        1. Widen the net of those eligible for group rights


As we have already discussed, there are many other groups who need their rights protected, not just national ones. Kymlicka needs to widen the net of those who are eligible for group rights. Focusing on Kymlicka’s insight that identity is a cornerstone of human freedom, we need to allow that there are other instances, other than the narrowly defined ones which Kymlicka sets forth, where identity is of importance and deserves our recognition and representation to ensure those minority voices are not ruled out through majority influence.

Reinforce a commitment to pluralism


Kymlicka describes his position as being one highly committed to pluralism, and yet, there are numerous instances in his conclusions where he veers away from the “dynamic”, “polyethnic” cultures he aims to protect. To commit to pluralism, Kymlicka needs to modify the following aspects of his theory:

    • No longer talking about national identities in terms of them being “rooted” in historical communities (subsequently privileging older ethnic members over newer immigrants).

    • No longer aiming for protected cultures to be carried into the indeterminate future (undermining his support for cultural dynamism and the natural growth of all cultures to rise and fall over time).

    • Not imposing limitations on immigration with respect to matching it with the “societal culture”, whether it be shared language, history, or race (which inevitably descends to ethnocentrism).

    • Dropping the language of needing a “secure” or “stable” culture (this is not only a contraction to his commitment to dynamic culture, but in practice it can serve as a pretext for exclusion or racism, threat of outside change or foreign elements).

    • The definition of societal culture must itself needs to come under question, particularly for its inability to describe the ethnic challenges faced by “non-national” minorities (Kymlicka’s so-called “immigrants”) and also for not being suitable even for indigenous groups.

Not endurable cultures but endurable equity


To enhance his commitment to dynamic cultures, Kymlicka should treat rights only as temporary measures not enduring ones. Language advocating group preservation, in Kymlicka’s words, to a common cultural (national) group and perpetuating its “distinctive” cultural traits (such as language, habit, tradition and history) should be strongly reconsidered.

De-normalize the system


One of Kymlicka’s key insights is into how our liberal western democracies are failing to provide adequate recognition for numerous groups within our society. To build on this key insight, Kymlicka must go beyond separating powers for different cultural groups, and look more closely at the ways our system itself underprivileges and excludes voices. The goal of neutrality may never be attainable, but it does not negate the goal itself. We must find ways to reimagine belonging and continually appraise whether our systems are themselves adequately pluralistic, and if not, then to challenge them to grow and change until they match more closely the fabric of our societies, and in particular, protect and give voices to those most marginalized – whether culturally, or economically, or otherwise.

Need to marry rights to economics and non-domination


For Kymlicka, and also those trying to implement his theory, to have a proper chance at fairness between groups, his theory must integrate economics, which Kymlicka does not adequately address in his writings. Power relations are also important. Kymlicka needs to look more clearly at the sources of oppression that line minority grievances, which go far beyond access to a secure cultural structure, to properly ensure that group rights do not become illiberal.

A realistic assessment of the dangers of illiberalism


Kymlicka waxes lyrical about group rights and minority nationalism, however he mostly glosses over the potential risks and challenges both can hold. A more honest, and realistic assessment of the potential dangers would allow those who seek to implement his theory a chance to develop practical and realistic guidelines for areas with a history of conflict and violence.

Relational strategy for group rights


Kymlicka needs to view groups through not a single lens of national/societal culture, but through the multiple aspects of identity at play. Groups should not be taken as discrete units, but as having porous ill-defined borders. Instead on focusing on the unit of the group itself, focus should be shifted towards the relations between groups, and how groups develop their own self-definitions based on those relations.

Further – particularly in areas of conflict – emphasis needs to be laid not on defining barriers and histories of groups, but on how bridges can be built. Instead of focusing on boundaries, Kymlicka needs to focus much more on the bridges that can allow us to live together, how to create open channels for sharing and overcoming our differences, how to create shared identities. If he does this, I believe his theory may offer us new perspectives on sovereignty and serve as a justification of multiculturalism and representation rights – in fact better serving those least addressed by his theory (those who fall under his label “immigrants”) and beyond.

In today’s world, walls are falling. Identity, culture, global migrations are all being redefined. Kymlicka’s theory still has much to offer us for its lessons about the importance of culture and its meaning for human freedom. Kymlicka offered us a valiant attempt to bridge universalism and particularism, a way to think difference and equality at once. He has shown us the importance of group recognition, and the need to give others equal voices. We should continue this effort, but through a lens that is as dynamic and variegated as the cultures under our study. Instead of “securing” diversity and stable cultural frameworks, we can best realize Kymlicka’s vision through the creation of open, inclusive societies, aimed at fostering positive group relations and countering marginalization. And perhaps, we should keep in mind the words of Kymlicka’s great mentor Rawls, who clearly said,

In a society marked by deep divisions between opposing and incommensurable conceptions of the good, justice as fairness enables us at least to conceive of how social unity can be both possible and stable (1998a, p. 71).



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