Review of Will Kymlicka’s Multicultural Citizenship



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Institutionalized Culture as Liberation


Despite this, it is precisely liberty that Kymlicka claims his theory is providing us with. Indeed, societal culture, which allows us to make intelligible choices in our lives, is in need of secure institutional reinforcement for us to make intelligible choices is what he calls one’s societal culture. Societal cultures and national cultures both bridge an institutional aspect: state provided curriculum, media, which inculcates and reinforces the cultural values and mores, along with a more organic growth stemming from history and location, and the collective memories of the community. But how can diffusion of societal culture promote choice as Kymlicka claims it should? How can institutional systems and top-down cultural dissemination be essential for human freedom or for the ability to lead the good life?

For Kymlicka, it is not a shared vision of the good but the institutional structures that promote and diffuse a common history and language and culture that matter. Within the liberal nation, this culture is modifiable and can even be thrown away by its members at any time. However, if we argue as Kymlicka does that we must protect these institutional structures to diffuse a particular culture, are we really protecting choice or are we not protecting – to a certain extent at least – some shared conception of the good? How easily modifiable is this conception when we have institutional structures set in place to reinforce it? As Kymlicka says,

Societal cultures within a modern liberal democracy are inevitably pluralistic….this diversity, however, is balanced and constrained by linguistic and institutional cohesion; cohesion that has not emerged on its own, but rather is the result of deliberate state policies. (Kymlicka, 1997b, p. 24; 2001b, p. 25; 2002, p. 18; 2004a, p. 55) (italics mine).

The freedom of choice and the freedom from imposition of other’s views that liberalism espouses and which Kymlicka defends simply do not follow from such state-instituted cultural indoctrination which Kymlicka defines as societal culture.

Who determines the societal culture we promote and how can we make this reflective of the changing (variable) culture of the society? If there is a profound shift in the society, such as that which occurred during the Quiet Revolution in Quebec, how do we ensure that this state-imposed common culture will be able to shift to adapt and meet the new needs of the society? Levey, in his study on “Multiculturalism and Australian National Identity”, makes an astute remark about the conundrum of national character, that it

cannot be the object or intention of political administration without doing it violence. This is because national character is constantly evolving, and any deliberate attempt to represent it will wrench out particular aspects, ensuring that the accounts offered can, at best, bear a passing relation to it. (2008, p. 264)

Levey identifies the inherent contradiction behind Kymlicka’s work in institutionalizing a culture which is purportedly supposed to be in flux. Whatever culture is disseminated will only be a shadow of the culture itself, newer iterations of culture may be suppressed by the hegemonic pulse encroachment of the official national culture.

Even the language Kymlicka uses displays the institutional aspect of this cultural engineering which he is proposing: “state-sponsored”, “same tools”, “program of nation-building”. There is nothing to indicate how this change in the “flexible” societal culture of the nation which Kymlicka believes is an obvious feature of modern nation-building will take place. Put another way, how can the legal and political frameworks of the state be prevented from using what he hopes to exclude: internal restrictions.

Although Kymlicka says that societal cultures will be given the opportunity to develop and change internally, there are of course no guarantees that the nation-building systems set in place would necessarily encourage or make easy any such change, particularly when cultural preservation is on the state agenda. Societal cultures are, after all, effectively top-down dissemination of cultural mores. Kymlicka himself acknowledges contrary to the communitarians that preservation of culture can lead to its stagnation. Yet, the dangers of stagnation seem to be all the more when already Kymlicka acknowledges that occasionally the promoted societal culture may need to be, at times - in Kymlicka’s own words - “mildly illiberal” (for example by limiting outside influence in the form of immigration controls (2001b, p. 288)).

Advocating institutional measures to reinforce cultural contiguity is after all what nationalism is all about, and Kymlicka sees no problem with nation-building. But if we are looking back to his philosophical justifications for group rights, it is very hard to see how institutional measures to reinforce a particular historic national culture can amount to the proliferation of freedom and why this would be required by the tenets of liberalism.

Kymlicka is correct however in identifying the important role that institutions have played in spreading nationalism, but rather than simply providing access to a secure culture that was somehow already inhering in the group, these institutions were as active in making anew the nation as they were in maintaining their secure continuance. Army, schools, media all helped to forge what have now become established nations. Such “nations” (the “French” or the “British” for example) though they may have had some sort of collective sentiments or common cultural markers, did not come to see themselves in national terms until the state began instituting programs of nation-building. And yes, while these nation-building programs took pre-existing markers of the population (Smith’s ethnae: phenotype, language, or unique memories of historical moments) and they disseminated the importance of these markers as defining the nation, this dissemination, when it was not in the exclusionary ethnic nation state, was assimilatory. As Brubaker says,

To assimilate means to make similar: and school and army in their Republican reincarnations, entrusted with “the mission of retempering the French soul”, were powerfully equipped to do just that. Their assimilatory virtues worked on persons long juridically French, reshaping their habits of thought and feeling to make them fit the wider frame of the nation (1998a, p. 150).

Kymlicka himself concedes that state-instituted culture has often faced open opposition, particularly from minorities,

Attempts to integrate people into such a common societal culture have often met with serious resistance…some groups have…vehemently rejected the idea that they should view their life chances as tied up with the societal institutions that operate in the majority language (2000b, pp. 164-5) (italics mine).

Although Kymlicka recognizes the engineered aspect of “societal cultures”, he underestimates the conflict brought about by state nation-building and cultural engineering with respect to human freedom.

Indeed, it is the institutional aspect of societal culture, as opposed to actual shared cultural values themselves and the choices they protect (which those institutions are presumably supposed to uphold), which Kymlicka ultimately defends. As Kymlicka says, he calls it “a societal culture to emphasize that it involves a common language and social institutions, rather than common religious beliefs, family customs, or personal lifestyles” (1998a, pp. 180-1; 1999a, pp. 104-5) (italics mine). But in defining societal cultures as such, Kymlicka dangerously crosses his own boundary: institutional cultural dissemination counters the freedom from cultural imposition he wishes to protect. Recognizing the awkwardness of his own position, Kymlicka covers the incongruity by saying that “the connection between individual freedom and cultural membership is essentially correct, though difficult to articulate,” (2001b, p. 209), tying his theory to an unverified assumption.

Perhaps Kymlicka’s defence of the importance of belonging to a stable, intergenerational (historical) community warrants reinforcement by institutional measures, it is not clear however how individuals would become more free and self-reflexive through institutionally embedding cultural choices. Certainly it cannot be denied that there are many instances wherein “cultural community” would take precedence over “polyethnicity” and choice when securing societal cultures. An alternative to institutionalizing culture is offered by David Kahane, who argues that instead we should speak about “the importance of vibrant debate…within and between communities” that is both ongoing and fluid (2004, p. 50). When considering such dialogical alternatives, it becomes even harder to see how institutionalized nation-building would instantiate liberalism.

Let us now consider more fully the implications of this stance on societal cultures for two of the main categories of groups which Kymlicka refers to in his writings, Immigrants and Indigenous Peoples as well as a third category which he does not address, racial minorities. With respect to minority groups, Kymlicka takes a highly categorical approach, which he divides into three clearly defined groups: 1. Substate nations, 2. Aboriginal peoples and 3. Immigrants. This highly categorical treatment of groups poses a severe limitation on Kymlicka’s theory and has been criticized by many prominent authors for its impoverished view of cultural diversity (Young, 1997; Parekh, 1997; Carens, 1997).


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