Political philosophy’s formerly espoused ideal of a culturally homogenous, isolated nation-state is a defunct anachronism in today’s shrinking world. Advances in modern technology have led to a radical increase in mobility in and between populations, ultimately changing the face of our human communities. In this new world, human mobility is quickly outstretching the folds of our imagination; Jules Verne’s journey Around the World in Eighty days is now possible in around 80 hours. Not only has our sense of physical space been completely altered, the advent of hyperspace has also fundamentally changed the ways human communities relate to one another. From Marconi’s first transatlantic signal back in 1901 to the advent of the World Wide Web, modern communications networks have entirely transformed the way people share their work, knowledge and culture.
Yet, many are concerned that the path to diversity may spell trouble and an inevitable fragmentation of our political systems. Hence, for the past few decades, political philosophers have grappled with our modern normative paradigms trying to wrest them open to new ways of thinking about culture and of being together in the world. Pressing questions have been asked that remain inconclusive: How can we accord appropriate recognition to minorities? How can we encourage tolerance and nurture a world that celebrates diversity and difference? How can we find unity in culturally divided societies? How can we live in peaceful coexistence with others whose views and values are different from our own? And perhaps the most poignant reoccurring question of all: How can we tolerate the intolerant? Within our communities, tolerating the intolerant is usually a question about the limits of liberal justice and cultural relativity. Human rights is often conceived of as a charged concept, blamed for having idealistic universalistic aims in an inescapably particularistic world.
The difficulty lies in the fundamental tension involved in thinking universalism and particularism together. As Michael Walzer says, “Independence, inner direction, individualism, self-determination, self-government, freedom, autonomy: all these can be regarded as universal values, but they all have particularist implications” (Walzer, 1999a, p. 518). These particularist implications are of critical consideration when it comes to international law and governance. How do we protect the basic rights of humankind while avoiding imposing our own conceptions of what is right and wrong (our own version of the truth, rooted in our own cultural narratives) upon others who hold dissimilar views? When the world balance of power is so unevenly distributed, with those who are poorest among us being the most marginalized culturally and politically as well, how are we to ensure that our “universal” rights will truly protect the global freedoms they are supposed to enshrine? Walzer rightly says, “our interpretations can do no more than suggest the differentiated commonalities of justice – for these common features are always incorporated within a particular cultural system and elaborated in highly specific ways” (Walzer, 1999a, pp. 525-526). What we consider to be a universal truth ultimately arises from a particular culture; thus, generalizing truth runs the risk of discounting other alternate perspectives of truth. History clearly shows us that too often cultural intolerance and hegemony have been paraded under the banner of universalism, posing great threats to diversity and to fragile communities.
This dissonance between universalistic theory and particularistic reality leads to a number of important questions: How can we protect freedoms, without, in Rousseau’s terms, forcing the people to be free? How are we to mediate cultural disputes in a way that is fair and sensitive, respecting both group and individual identity? How can we build a vibrant public forum from culturally dissimilar citizens; indeed, is there a place for civic pride without a uniform conception of the good? What is the best way to include the voices of the oppressed (women, lower classes, religious, ethnic and other minorities) without becoming lost in a maze of conflicting claims and institutional ineffectiveness? As Socrates said to Crito in Euthydemus, “We got into a labyrinth, and when we thought we were at the end, came out again at the beginning, having still to seek as much as ever”. (Plato) How do we find our way? How can we be together but different?
Despite voluminous studies since the 1980s on multiculturalism and pluralism, there remain no clear answers to the above questions. In the past three decades, culture has reared its head in often ugly, provocative, violent, and emotionally charged ways. Our modern political systems have failed to provide an adequate context of choice and fairness for our increasingly pluralist societies. Indeed, modern political systems were designed to form homogenous political units, in which disagreement would be minimized and a common good could be pursued (Gans, 2002, p. 23). The term “minority” itself took on new meaning within modern nation-state, minorities being any individual or group who did not share the national culture of the ruling majority. Difficulties have been faced not only in putatively ethnic nations, but also in nations that are more liberal as well, wherein the difficult conditions of minorities have often been quietly buried under the rhetoric of liberal neutrality.
Will Kymlicka’s first book Liberalism, Community and Culture was published back in 1989, the same year as the fall of the Berlin Wall, just ahead of the sweeping tide of changing geopolitics in the Eastern Bloc and thereafter a rising spate of ethnic conflicts worldwide. Kymlicka’s writings pioneered the groundwork for much of the discussion and debate on how to combine both unity and diversity and make our political institutions more suited to pluralism. What separates Kymlicka from many of his contemporaries is that although Kymlicka was a staunch advocate of culture he was also a firm believer that culture had a place within liberalism, and indeed, that our liberal democracies are most fully liberal when they take into account the cultural preferences of minority groups.
Kymlicka’s career has been devoted to developing a theory of justice that would encapsulate group rights as being rooted in liberalism. While the majority of scholars spearheading the politics of recognition movement identify themselves as communitarians, Kymlicka has always styled himself a strong liberalist, following in the footsteps of the preeminent John Rawls. The theory he developed convincingly reconciles Rawlsian liberalism with cultural politics and conveys a strong message that the politics of recognition must not be left to the communitarians alone (Kymlicka & Peonidis, 2008). Building from John Rawl’s Theory of Justice, Kymlicka tries to provide a comprehensive theory that would give philosophical backing to the idea of minority rights within a liberal framework. To support this view, Kymlicka weaves together writings from J.S. Mill to Ronald Dworkin to prove that cultural rights can and do reaffirm the liberal commitment to freedom and rights and to equal opportunity. The resounding message that Kymlicka leaves us with is this: Wecanbe equal but different. This is a simple yet critical idea for our times. While prima facie this statement appears to be a paradox, Kymlicka provides strong argumentation against the contrariness of the statement to show us that equality and difference must go together.
Kymlicka formulates his minority rights, chiefly as minority national rights, with the bulk of his theory being directed towards providing semi-independent rights for national minorities for which he includes two groups: indigenous peoples and what he calls “substate nations” (such as the Quebecois and the Basques) (2002, p. 24). These groups he differentiates from other ethnic minorities (and other non-ethnic minority groups which his theory does not address) (2001b, p. 60). He argues that these two groups already had a pre-existing national culture (or what he calls “societal culture”) before the majority state was created; therefore, they are entitled to retain a degree of independence from the majority political institutions in order to retain this national culture, which he views as critical to its members’ personal freedom (Kymlicka, 2001b, pp. 53-4).
For Kymlicka, the real significance of the nation-state lies not in its advancement of industry and social systems, but in its advancement of culture and choices (2001b, p. 47). The greatest boon of the nation-state is that is it a source of identity that allows choices (Kymlicka, 2001b, pp. 26-7, 250-1). Indeed, Kymlicka ties the flourishing of liberalism strongly to the development of nationalism. In part, this is because Kymlicka closely associates his term “societal culture” with nation throughout his writings. Indeed, he states that the most relevant society is one’s nation (1999a, pp. 114-5). As Kymlicka says,
The liberal ideal is a society of free and equal individuals. But what is the relevant ‘society’? For most people it seems to be their nation. The sort of freedom and equality they most value, and can make most use of, is freedom and equality within their own societal culture. (1995, p. 93)
Therefore, the protection of minority national rights is a necessary step towards providing true recognition to groups in today’s world. Principally because this national identity allows choices, our group identity in a very tangible way is linked to our individual identity, therefore providing ways to secure our group identity is also providing a way of securing individual choice and hence liberal freedom. Indeed, nationalism is not the malady that many claim it to be says Kymlicka. According to Kymlicka, nationalism has presented us with many of the amenities of modern day life; it has not only fuelled state-wide education, healthcare, legislation, and industry, but it is also the birthplace and abode of modern day liberalism (2001b, p. 226).
Yet despite the great strides that Kymlicka has made in his work, I aim to demonstrate that there are deep challenges posed by treating different groups with different rights as Kymlicka’s theory suggests we should do. These difficulties, I suggest, are exacerbated by Kymlicka’s concept of the group, or “societal culture”, which he not only uses synonymously with nation, but which he also defines in a very essentialist way linked to tradition and location, contradicting his otherwise strong commitment to a concept of the human person as one of transcendence and self-reflexivity.
In his theory, Kymlicka describes how national majorities reflect and promote a particular “societal culture” (1995, p. 76). This societal culture is reflected in the national stories, myths, history books, media, and school education systems, and is intricately tied up with the language, territoriality, and prevailing culture of the majority group (Kymlicka, 1995, pp. 110-1). This is true, says Kymlicka, not only in outright ethnic nations, but also in the majority of self-proclaimed civic nations (such as France for example)1 (2001b, p. 154). Within this environment, those individuals who do not subscribe to the majority societal culture find themselves at a loss compared to their compatriots who do. This lack of relating to the majority culture has profound effects on the actual freedom and autonomy of these individuals says Kymlicka, since our culture is not just a set of objects which we choose but forms the very ground from which we may choose (2001b, p. 208).2 Thus, living as a minority in another societal/national culture negatively affects our ability to fully participate in our society and our political systems.
Kymlicka says that frustration on the part of minorities grew throughout a “revivalist” period in American politics, when minority and ethnic groups began to demand recognition (1995, p. 98). Arguing that the system under-recognized and under-privileged their histories and their cultural perspectives, minority groups began to ask for different treatment to make them more equal. The rise of recognition rights (with respect to language and cultural heritage), representation rights (a certain percentage of seats reserved and allocated to various minority groups), and a broader category of group rights more generally, arose in response to these demands.
Kymlicka himself acknowledges the extreme difficulties that nationalism has posed for minorities worldwide and correctly identifies the monocultural tendencies of the nation state (1995, p. 19). Indeed, he formulates his theory as a reaction to the disadvantages that minorities face under a national system where they are subject to majority rule and preferences. Kymlicka tries to delink nation and state boundaries and acknowledge that within any state there are often multiple nations, and that each of these deserves recognition, and in Kymlicka’s view, separate national rights (2001b, p. 269). I aim to show however, that Kymlicka’s attempt to bridge the divide between liberalism and multiculturalism is marred precisely because he formulates his theory in nationalist terms (particularly, a very cultural variant of nationalism)3 and thus runs the risk of reproducing the same categorical inequalities as majority nation-building.
Kymlicka’s theory took minority rights forward at a time when their applicability was in doubt in an attempt to ground them in the liberal tradition. However, given the changing mobility and intensifying internationalization of the world, I suggest that Kymlicka’s theory must overcome nation and address the core iniquities of uneven power relations within and across borders. Worldwide demands for integration (regional, supra-national) in addition to demands for secession are linked to shifting nation-state identities and outcries for recognition as Kymlicka correctly identifies. Yet, while it seems that the national units that define our current global political realities are here to remain for the near future, the case for minority rights is weakened if it is developed in nationalist terms. In this book, I argue that minority rights go beyond the confines of nation to address the needs of a much wider and growing group of underprivileged minorities.
Kymlicka was one of the most prominent voices that arose in the late 80’s early 90’s on the topic of minority rights. His theory stood out partly because it gave a strong theoretical backing to group rights trying it with Rawlsian liberal justice and partly because it gave voice to the rising national demands in his own country Canada and worldwide. The strong political currency of his work positioned Kymlicka to become one of the foremost authorities on minority rights and today hardly a scholar can write on this topic without referring to his writings. Kymlicka has been invited by the United Nations to give formal advice on minority rights and his ideas have been received worldwide by those trying to tackle the difficult issue of balancing group rights with liberalism. It is precisely this balancing act that made Kymlicka’s work so popular and marked the beginning of a new era in political sciences, and to which multiculturalists and group activists today are indebted.
Outline of the Work Part One: Liberalism and Multiculturalism in the Balance, The Theory of Will Kymlicka
In the first part of this work, I explain the incisive debate on the co-existence of liberalism and minority rights and position Kymlicka’s theory within this background. I describe how recent criticisms of liberalism’s failure to address pluralism has led to a communitarian defence of group rights above and against individual rights. After outlining the liberal and communitarian positions, I describe how Kymlicka’s attempts to bridge the two by defending that individual rights are best fulfilled through group rights; in particular Kymlicka points out the need for giving rights to national minorities within his wider theory of multicultural citizenship. I elaborate on the core concepts of Kymlicka’s theory and how they are tied to the recent debate between liberals and communitarians on the desirability of culture in the political agenda.
Part Two: Societal Cultures and the Boundaries of Nationalism
In Part Two, I illustrate how nationalism is central to the work of Kymlicka and forms the backbone of his arguments for group rights. I provide a survey of the literature on nationalism popular at the time Kymlicka developed his initial theory (in the late 80s and 90s). I describe how Kymlicka’s theory fits within the discussions of nationalism at the time, and elaborate on Kymlicka’s interpretation of what has come to be known as the Janus-faced nature of the nation: the divide between civic and ethnic nationalism. Kymlicka’s own theory seeks to be an answer to the problems of both ethnic and civic nationalism and his works are counted among a group of scholars claiming to bridge the two, who call themselves “Liberal Nationalists”. I describe the ideas behind liberal nationalism and provide a critique on the unresolved inner tensions present in such theories.
Part Three: The Difficulties of Societal Cultures
Building on the insights from Part Two, in Part Three I describe how the conceptual confusion resulting from the liberal nationalist stance undergirds Kymlicka’s theory, and is predominantly inscribed in his standpoint on societal cultures. In particular, his lack of conceptual clarity on the term societal culture leads his theory into potentially treacherous ground with respect to the treatment of Immigrants and Aboriginal Peoples. By focusing on the national question, wrapped in the language of “societal culture”, Kymlicka inadvertently excludes addressing the rights claims of many others. Further, his reified approach to culture does not properly exemplify the dynamic and polyethnic (multicultural) society he aims to protect through his theory, particularly with respect to the flourishing of both Immigrants and Aboriginal Peoples. Instead of supporting their rights claims, in some instances Kymlicka’s theory may actually hinder them.
Part Four: Rethinking Multicultural Citizenship
In Part Four, I break down the main contradictions that arise in Kymlicka’s work and point out how to overcome these contradictions and make his theory stronger by modifying or eliminating his definition of societal cultures and his support for minority “cultural nationalism” (as well as tacit support for majority “cultural nationalism”). In addition to outlining the major theoretical paradoxes that pull at the seams of his theory, I will propose a number of suggestions to reinforce his theory, which are not emphasised strongly enough by Kymlicka (such as linking group rights to critical socio-economic considerations). I suggest Kymlicka focuses too much on barriers to the exclusion of bridges, and that given the current dynamic climate of world interconnectivity, we need to look past our self-imposed barriers and find ways to ultimately live together in difference in the world.