Since the 1960s, increasing protests on the part of indigenous peoples and other minority groups worldwide have led to the realization that the equal rights bestowed on them were not providing them with the equal opportunities those laws were supposed to enshrine (see Kymlicka & Norman, 2000 for a discussion of the “equality” of “differentiated citizenship”).4 With the realization of past injustices towards indigenous peoples and other minority groups, political theorists began attaching importance to the value of culture and looked for healthy ways to formulate group rights. In the flurry of writings on culture, the lofty liberal tradition came under fire as intolerant and incapable of providing alternate political conceptions that could support minorities. Liberal “neutrality” was seen as biased and rooted in western (white/male) norms, and therefore silently hegemonic and violent towards vulnerable minorities (Kymlicka, 2001b, p. 43). Critics accused the liberal tradition of confusing sameness with equality, thereby jeopardizing the prosperity and existence of minority groups worldwide.
Those who formed the vanguard against liberalism’s neglect of culture came to be known as “communitarians”, and included prominent theorists such as: Vernon van Dyke, Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael Sandel, Michael Walzer, Charles Taylor, and James Anaya (though none of these directly labels themselves as such (Sayers, 1999, p. 147))5. Starting from as early as the 1970s, this group, allied with important feminist critics, drew attention to the deficits of liberalism’s concept of the individual and began demanding that marginalized groups be given their due recognition; aptly named the “politics of recognition” (Taylor, Appiah, Habermas, Rockefeller, Walzer, & Wolf, 1994).
The Death of “Grand Narratives”
Interestingly, feminists were among the earliest critics of traditional liberalism. They drew our attention to the injury in accepting unquestioningly “universal” standards of reason and justice. Feminists like Carol Gilligan, Judith Butler, Iris Marion Young, and Seyla Benhabib among others deconstructed grand narratives that were previously called universal, and showed the ways they were really White, European, and Male. They showed us how metanarratives silence voices, removing significant segments of our society from effective participation in public life (Linklater, 1998, pp. 68-70; Benhabib, Butler, Cornell, & Fraser, 1994).
These ideas arose alongside postmodern philosophy, led by scholars such as Michel Foucault and Jean-François Lyotard, who reinforced the feminist critics in rejecting universals. Lyotard explains the death of “grand narratives” and describes the postmodern condition as “incredulity towards metanarratives” (Lyotard, 1984, p. xxiv). Postmodernism is sceptical about overarching narratives, the Enlightenment belief in the progress of reason and a universal standard of justice or the Hegelian and Marxist belief in the progress of history and man (through spirit or production) (Seidman, 1994). Instead of such sweeping generalisations and the pursuit of coherent theory, the postmodern emphasizes: disunity, difference, locality, and moral relativity. Indeed, the postmodernists derided that what is often held to be objective truth (in the form of grand universalisable truths) as particularistic subjectivism hidden in disguise, suppressing other versions of the “truth” and asserting its own dominant version over others.
Foucault closely ties knowledge to power. Like two sides of a coin, power is a result of knowledge and vice versa. As La Branche says of Foucault’s theory, “‘Truth’ is a status given certain knowledge by power…linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it” (la Branche, 2005, p. 221). Knowledge thus can be used to oppress or to control others, and only some knowledge is “given the status of truth” while other forms of knowledge, typically from subaltern voices, tend to be silenced (la Branche, 2005, p. 222). As such, universals are often no more than normative judgements that impose a certain “acceptable” behaviour and set the moral standard for society, in other words: Those who control and shape knowledge, control and shape the world. In his first major work “The History of Madness” (2006), Foucault questions the conventional understandings of Madness and illustrates how the modern human sciences have been used as a tool to establish and maintain conformity with societal norms. Further, the modern human sciences have been tools used to suppress behaviour that strayed from these norms, in what could – somewhat ironically – be considered a morally questionable way.6
Feminist authors understood this all too well, and used the arguments of the post-modernists to reveal the ways the dominant male metanarratives governing public life denigrated female roles and viewpoints. As Bader says, they “exposed mountains of formerly unrecognized sexism in ‘the laws of the country’ incompatible with the cherished and constitutionally guaranteed principle of equality and neutrality” (Bader, 1997, p. 792)7.
In another vein, feminist authors such as Carole Gilligan argued that the female “ethics of care”, which emphasizes responsibilities and relationships, had been characterized as irrational or unimportant by the dominant male metanarrative and hence was relegated to the private sphere. In its place – and to the detriment of overall society – an exclusively male-written, impersonal, abstract, and hierarchical ethics was promoted. By establishing the norms of society, it circumscribed women to remain in restricted roles and removed them from control over both knowledge and power. In her book, “In a Different Voice”, Gilligan raises this presumed “weakness” of the ethics of care to a place of “moral strength” and emphasises instead the need for a development model that is contextual and rooted in a female “activity of care” (Dallmayr, 2003a, p. 432).
The Priority of the Good
In a similar tenor, the communitarians wanted to return to the virtue of care and community and to move away from notions of “universally valid reason” and to understand how contextualized and particularistic “reason” is between various cultural communities. As Sandel argued, we should abandon the “politics of rights” instead for a “politics of the common good” (as cited in Gutmann, 1985, p. 310). From here however, the communitarians mostly part company with the feminists and their deconstructionist models and instead place a very high value on culture, which contrary to the feminists is seen by them as a necessary structuring framework to provide order and meaning in our lives. The communitarians see the loss of what they consider to be stable cultural frameworks as a problem not only for the functioning of democracy, (what Taylor refers to as “public consequences” (1992b, p. 502)), but also for the meaning these cultures hold for their members. As Taylor says “We are now in an age in which a publicly accessible cosmic order of meanings is an impossibility” (1992b, p. 512). We have reached the point of death of morals, metaphysics, and, from the communitarian perspective, authentic meaning.
Communitarians launched the attack on liberalism by arguing that the liberal social contract theories developed in the 17th and 18th centuries tried to elevate man to an abstract universal standard, separable from community and culture. They argued that through their strong emphasis on individualism and the universal reason of man, the liberals mistakenly adopted a contorted picture of human society and of human freedom (Gutmann, 1985, p. 310). They drew attention to the importance of culture in our lives and the impossibility of liberalism’s “unencumbered self” (Sandel, 1984), thus decrying liberalism’s inept stance on cultural groups and minorities. Although their theories are far from uniform, they have come to be collectively labelled as "communitarianism”, sharing in common their rejection of the atomism and universalism endorsed by traditional liberal thought (Sayers, 1999, p. 147).
The debate between the liberals and the communitarians therefore was principally centred on the concept of the human person and what it means to be free. For traditional liberalists – freedom meant to a large extent freedom from culture and freedom from the state (Berlin, 1969)8. Liberals are concerned about abuses of political power, and how other agents in the society (and the state itself) can control or restrict individuals in ways that limit and abuse personal freedom. Even the communitarians can hardly dispute the importance of such freedoms and the need to limit monopoly on physical force; as Walzer himself admits, “the limitation of power is liberalism’s historic achievement” (1984, pp. 327-8). Where the dispute lies however, is in the prioritization that liberals place on this right of “procedural justice over substantive conceptions of the good” (Walzer, 1990, p. 9); or in other words, the prioritisation of the right over the good of the community. John Rawls and Habermas both espouse this priority, rooted in Kantian deontology, and stand apart from their communitarian contemporaries (Benhabib, 1992, p. 40)9.
For liberals, freedom means to be free as an individual actor, a self-determining agent unrestrained by constraints (including those of culture and community). In the liberal view, it is the individual, not the community, which chooses the good. As Ronald Dworkin says, “political decisions must be, as far as possible, independent of any particular conception of the good life or of what gives value to life” (Dworkin, 1978/2003, p. 32). In securing individual rights, liberals thus place the individual as prior to the community, with the self-reflexive transcendent self at the centre of human freedom (Taylor, 1993, pp. 216-7).
Communitarians disagree about this prioritisation (Fossum, 2001, p. 181). According to the communitarians, liberals have undervalued our rootedness in a specific cultural context. As a result, liberal thought has had a tremendously negative impact on our ability to lead the good life. Taylor extols what comes across as a republican virtue in saying that citizens must have a strong “identification…with their public institutions and political way of life” (1992b, p. 505). Classical liberalism, the argument goes, inundating us with “egoistic” instrumentalist strategies, is eroding allegiance and devotion to our political systems (Habermas J. , 2005, p. 2). As Taylor says, quoting Alexis de Tocqueville, we are led to the fall of civil society, were individuals are “enclosed in their own hearts” and are unwilling political agents (Taylor, 1991, p. 9).
Communitarians object strongly to the idea of freedom and agency being tied to self-interested actors seeking only to satisfy their own preferences in isolation to others, or as Taylor chillingly puts it, “the disembodied ghost of disengaged reason, inhabiting an objectified machine” (1991, p. 106).10 Freedom they argue, rather than an abstract choosing by “disembodied freedoms” is firmly rooted in cultural structures of meaning. Therefore, since culture is the basis for our “being free”, our community precedes the rights of its individuals; or in other words, the Good should not be brushed aside by the Right (Taylor, 1998b, p. 150).11
In rebuttal, the liberals attack the communitarians for the dangerous, illiberalism that results from their theory (Gutmann, 1985). Communitarianism is explicit in its acceptance of the denial of basic individual freedoms and autonomy under the prioritization of community: for communitarians liberal rights and group-differentiated rights are not intended to coincide. The tireless refrain of the communitarian chorus is that the preservation of our cultural communities should not be sacrificed on the altar of individual liberties.
The Falling to Pieces of Liberalism
Walzer summarizes the communitarian critique of liberalism in defining liberalism as “The Art of Separation” (1984). This art of separation meant building theoretical walls between self and society, public and private life, church and state, between neighbours and between individuals. “Liberalism is a world of walls,” says Walzer, “and each one creates a new liberty” (1990, p. 315). But this liberty as we have already seen comes at a price. All of these separations led to the fragmentation of liberal theory or conversely to the fragmentation of modern man (Taylor, 1998, pp. 49-50). Walzer says that there are basically two lines of arguments put forward by the communitarians, though they countermand one another (1984, p. 323) as will be explained in the following pages. These two arguments will be outlined below can be summed up as: first, the incoherence of modern man (owing to Liberalism), and second, the incoherence of liberal atomism (its inability to properly map modern man). Walzer points out to us that neither argument is fully correct or fully wrong (1990, p. 7).
The Incoherence of Modern Man
In a way, the communitarians are overwhelmingly pessimists. Instead of embracing postmodernism and the changes wrought by globalization, everywhere around them the communitarians see modern man’s decline. Divided communities, loss of tradition, loss of religious values, loss of community involvement and pride, are all taken as signs that something has gone terribly amiss in our modern world. Echoing Adorno and Horkenheimer’s penetrating critiques of the Enlightenment and Modernity (Benhabib, 1992, p. 40), the communitarians argue that liberalism is a chief culprit for what they see as our current state of decline.
Tying the moral relativism of the postmodern condition to liberalism (MacIntyre, 1983; Taylor, 2004)12, the first communitarian argument says that modern society is composed of many isolated individuals leading egoistic, unconnected, unencumbered lives. As Walzer depicts the first argument where proponents argue that:
Liberal political theory accurately represents liberal social practice…. [it is the] home of radically isolated individuals, rational egotists, and existential agents, men and women protected and divided by their inalienable rights…Each individual imagines himself absolutely free, unencumbered, and on his own – and enters society, accepting its obligations, only in order to minimize his risks (Walzer, 1990, p. 7)
In this account, liberalism’s “instrumental mode of life” (Taylor, 1992b) is to blame for this isolation and for the destruction of culture and community. At its extreme (or its fulfilment), the liberal ideal leads to “a world in which every person, every single man and woman, is separated from every other” (Walzer, 1984, p. 323). As such, liberalism is the malaise of modernity; its “flawed concept” of the human person a canker inflicted upon modern society. Because those in modern times are now so thoroughly convinced of the ideas of “atomism”, they are unable to see the instrumentalism, and thus according to Taylor “happily support policies which undermine them.” (1992b, p. 505).
The prevalence of liberalism has unwittingly led to the fall of morality and to the apathetic purposelessness that characterize modern (or more appropriately post-modern) times, or what Taylor refers to as the “disengaged, instrumental mode“ of life (1992b, p. 500). The Good Life in such a world, no longer has any bearings. Indeed, there is no coherent unified good, no common purpose, no common values, no common goals or even “meeting of minds” (MacIntyre, 1983, p. 591). As MacIntyre says, the world has been led to a state of such “grave disorder” that “we have – very largely, if not entirely – lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality” (as cited in Gutmann, 1985, p. 310). It is because the liberal ideals of the individual have become diffused through our societies, that our communities are beginning to fall apart. We no longer care for one another or work towards common goals; instead, we have become self-interested individuals whose primary concern lies in our own good, not in the good of the society as a whole.13
Life for such an individual is alienated and capricious, unguided by moral standards and unschooled in his or her own heritage (Walzer, 1990, p. 8). The individual is reduced to a shell of a human being, with no enjoyment or satisfaction drawn from the abstract “natural” rights he enjoys, knowing no reason to unite meaningfully with others, no meaning to guide his life, only living as an “isolated self” pitted in a race against others (Walzer, 1990, p. 8).14 In effect, it is the birth of Nietzsche’s “last men”, and indeed, himself a neo-Aristotelian, MacIntyre says we have come to a point where we must now choose between “Nietzsche or Aristotle” (as cited in Gutmann, 1985, p. 310). As Habermas says, the argument poised by the communitarians boils down to the fact that the virtuous “freedom of the ancients” should not be forsaken for the (ostensibly lesser) “freedom of the moderns” (Habermas J. , 2005, p. 2).
The communitarian critique, in this first instance, is a criticism about the “loss of narrative capacity” (Walzer, 1990, p. 8) of modern man and the “decay of moral reasoning” (MacIntyre, 1982, p. 591). Though we may be deluded to think morality still exists in our society, it is a broken morality, the vestiges of former times (MacIntyre, 1981, p. 240). As Taylor says, it is a state that “empties life of meaning” (1992b, p. 500) making it flat, colourless, and uninspiring. Bereft of magic and myth, we are left in a state of what Weber called ‘disenchantment’ (Entzauberung) (Taylor, 1992b, p. 500). As Walzer harrowingly depicts the communitarian view of liberalism:
The [Liberal] self-portrait of the individual [is] constituted only by his wilfulness, liberated from all connection, without common values, binding ties, customs, or traditions – sans eyes, sans teeth, sans taste, sans everything – need only be evoked in order to be devalued: It is already the concrete absence of value (Walzer, 1990, p. 8).
Without community and culture, the argument implies, there can be no values. The argument is not only a criticism against the lack of coherence in modern social sciences and philosophy, but as Taylor says, “the problem of modern social science is modernity itself” – what amounts to a harsh criticism against modern society for its self-interestedness and lack of virtue (2004, p. 91).
By contrast, communitarians look backwards to a glorified past. Taylor traces attacks on the decay of modern society back to the onset of the Romantic period (Taylor, 1992b). Pre-modern society is elevated as a golden age full of heroism, valour and meaning. In pre-modern society, there were strong structures that gave meaning to our lives and clearly defined roles that told us how to act (MacIntyre, 1981, p. 240). In other words, our identities used to be shaped by our context, by the clear structure of our society and the moral obligations it set upon us. As In the Athenian polis, every citizen knew their duty towards others and virtues were clearly understood and sought. Yet in Sayers’ view, communitarians, such as MacIntyre are not modern or even postmodern but are dangerously pre-modern because they situate our source of identity in archaic structurally defined roles. (Sayers, 1999, p. 148).
Thus, the first communitarian argument is that liberal atomism actually maps what modern society has become(Walzer, 1990, p. 7). Moreover, liberal theory has played a central role in shaping this undesirable state of affairs. In a sense, liberalism has been a self-fulfilling prophecy, creating in reality what it predicated in theory. However this liberal reality has not brought about the ideal the philosophers sought but instead has led to the fragmentation and essentially the fatal destruction of society and of the values it holds for its members (Walzer, 1990, p. 21).
The Incoherence of Liberal Atomism
The second communitarian argument that Walzer traces runs, quite perplexingly, in total negation to the previous argument; it states that liberal theory is actually unable to properly map the human experience (Walzer, 1990, p. 13).15 This argument describes the liberal portrait of the “separated individual” (Walzer, 1984) (or otherwise called “atomism” (Taylor, 1985) or the “unencumbered self” (Sandel, 1982)) as an untenable philosophical abstraction. The idea that humans could be viewed as separate from one another and from their own culture is viewed by the communitarians as “liberal myopia” (Bader, 2001, p. 252), or what Walzer refers to as just plain “bad sociology” (Walzer, 1984, p. 324).
Against this, the communitarians argue there can never be an individual in isolation from his community and culture. We cannot separate ourselves from our heritage, the ethical milieu in which we were raised, the set of norms and standards we were schooled in. Borrowing from the Hegelian distinction between Moralität and Sittlichkeit(MacIntyre, 1983, p. 59)16, the communitarians who use the second argument say that freedom is only possible and located within a particular understanding given to us by our society. Human beings cannot separate themselves so easily from their preferences, and those preferences are rooted in our histories and our cultural communities. We bring our cultural perspectives and differences into the public realm with us, and our decisions in the public realm – far from being neutral – are very much influenced by our own particularistic culture.17
Communitarians accuse liberals of envisioning separated individuals who do not interfere with one another, each acting in their own closed circle. This is simply unrealistic they argue, people are always situated in a particular context and particular history. “Personal history is a part of social history,” says Walzer (1984, p. 324), no one is inseparable from the institutions that govern their lives or the relationships that give it meaning and purpose. We are not alone in creating our world vision: our choices are guided by the influence of our relatives, neighbours, coreligionists, work colleagues, and so forth (Walzer, 1990, p. 13).
Returning to the previous argument, the second argument proceeds to say that even if the liberal goal of neutrality were possible, it would be highly undesirable (Walzer, 1990, p. 14). Neutrality would leave our political institutions weakened and deprived of the ability to enact regulations that define legitimate collective goods, and impede those institutions’ ability to prevent those goods from being undermined (Weinstock, 1994, p. 179). Further, in convincing us of the abstract, neutral, and individualistic nature of our society, liberalism deprives us of understanding our own “communal embeddedness” (Walzer, 1990, p. 10) and thus we lose not only collective goods, but we also lose touch with our own selves.
The two communitarian arguments thus converge in stating that the influence of liberal atomism on modern society has shaped it so forcefully that meaningful associations and shared meanings are no longer recognizable to us (Taylor 1992a, pp. 1-3 and 1992b, p.10; Walzer 1990, p.10).
Rejecting the atomism of the liberals, the communitarians say we are essentially social beings. While earlier liberal critics of the 1960s referred to Marxism, the latest critics surfacing in the 1980s looked to Aristotle and Hegel (and subsequently, were more conservative in their views than earlier critics (Gutmann, 1985, pp. 308-9)). Following what Aristotle laid out in the Politics (c. 328 BCE), this wave of communitarians argued that man is by nature a social animal. For Aristotle, man needed to live with others in a community; citizenship was primarily a duty to act in accordance with the good of that community. This, for the communitarians - as it was for Aristotle - is the foundation and starting point of politics. Our identity as human agents is formed though social roles, in relation to a community of others. As MacIntyre describes it: “I confront the world as a member of this family, this household, this clan, this tribe, this city, this nation, this kingdom. There is no “I” apart from these” (1981, pp. 160-1). Thus, there are never “persons-by-themselves”, but always “persons-in-societies” (Walzer, 1984, p. 326). We do not develop individually, but alongside others. Many of these connections to others we do not make ourselves, but we inherit (Walzer, 1990, pp. 9-10). As Walzer explains, “the individual lives within a world he or she did not make” (1984, p. 324).
To a certain extent, the communitarians are saying that our choices are already laid out before us before we are born, by the society we are born into, and our position within it. We are born in certain “identities”18(situation in life, certain family, certain allegiances) not of our choosing and we identify with certain groups based on the identities we are born into. Based on these memberships, a system of values is presented to us as we grow up, as Taylor puts it, our understanding of “God, the good, [or] the cosmos” are “handed down to us” (1993, pp. 216-7). Thus, the “comprehensive doctrines” (Rawls, 2003, pp. xvi-xx) which Rawls describes are inherited and not of our own creation. Developing our own self-understanding is tied to understanding the society we live in and our own position and role within that society. There is some room for movement and choice, yet this is largely circumscribed by the norms and social patterns of our society. As Walzer says “by acting in more or less distinctive ways within the patterns, networks, and communities that are willy-nilly theirs.” (1990, pp. 9-10).19
“Modern social imaginaries” is a term coined by Charles Taylor to describe the relevance of culture and community to our lives through the lens of the social. Borrowing from Benedict Anderson’s famous notion of “imagined communities” (Anderson, 1983/2003), Taylor developed the concept of modern social imaginaries as the “socially shared ways in which social spaces are imagined.” (Taylor, 1998a, p. 196). The modern social imaginary is basically a “map of social space” that sets the tone, the limits, and the pace of a society. Taylor says that though it can be influenced by theory, it is unlike theory in that it is accessible to all; it speaks in a language all can immediately understand, for it sets the social standards of acceptable actions. Yet, despite its prevalence and its ease of being quickly grasped, those who know it can never adequately capture or sum it up. Our modern social imaginary is too diverse, too “unlimited and indefinite” to pin down explicitly (Taylor C. , 2004, p. 107). Like magic and myth, it lays beyond the scope of instrumental reason. It has deeper sources that go beyond pure logic or calculations but get to the very heart of our being, portraying what we are now, and what we aspire to become. Standards of right and wrong, good and evil, just and unjust are only possible within a closed community of shared beliefs and traditions. Social imaginaries are thus the “common understanding that makes possible common practices and a widely shared sense of legitimacy” (Taylor C. , 2004, p. 106). Without such solidarity on societal values, and a standardized education to inculcate those values, there can be no justice, nor valour or achievement (MacIntyre, 1983, p. 591). As Mark Redhead author of Deep Diversity notes, the communitarians say this is because our identities are “always partly defined in conversation with others or through the common understanding which underlies our practice of society” not on their own (2002, p. 85). Walzer also describes how in the political community we come closer than ever to “a world of common meanings. Language, history, and culture come together…to produce a collective consciousness” (as cited in Bader, 1995a, p. 219). Our humanity is stamped upon us by social practices and the institutions that shape them.
Like a map that assists us in physical navigation, the social imaginary helps us to navigate the social world: knowing when to say what, in what situation manners are required, to whom should we display affection and respect, and in what ways (Taylor, 1993, pp. 216-7). This “social” map varies from society to society. For the members of any given society, the social map is an unreflective understanding, as Taylor calls it, “second nature to us” (Taylor, 1993, pp. 216-7). Taylor explains by referring to Bourdieu’s “habitus”, the habits and behaviour that are trained and instilled in us from birth, such that we do not even think about them but accept and understand them naturally (Taylor, 1993, pp. 216-7).
Indeed, for communitarians culture is the path to human freedom. We do not choose our culture; it chooses us. After all, say the communitarians, our culture provides the horizon of meaning in our lives and as such guides and dictates the choices we make, in Taylor’s words, as “transcendental conditions” (as cited in Weinstock, 1994, p. 174). Culture is therefore critical for self-development. Our culture is a context of choice that gives our lives meaning and value. Only my culture can give my life meaning, show me what is valuable, what is to be cherished, what is the “good life”. We ourselves are not capable of actually choosing the good life; instead, the communitarians say it is already set within the map of socialization in which we were raised, such that, to find the good life, we only need look deep inside ourselves to discover it. As Taylor says, “
For each individual to discover in himself what his humanity consists in, he needs a horizon of meaning, which can only be provided by some allegiance, group membership, cultural tradition. He needs, in the broadest sense, a language in which to ask and answer the questions of ultimate significance (Taylor, 1993, p. 47).
But while our freedom of choice is circumscribed by our culture it is also made possible by our culture. Freedom, say the communitarians, is in living in accordance with those cultural guidelines, possible only when we are given the ability to live according to our deepest convictions (Van De Putte, 2003, p. 73). To deny access to a stable cultural structure is therefore to deny access to something integral to our human freedom.
The Need for a Common Good or the Need to Be in Common?
Since we are such cultural, community-centred beings, the obvious question when faced with a pluralistic society Charles Taylor poses is “How can people live together in difference granted that this will be a democratic regime, under conditions of fairness and equality?” (Taylor, 2011, p. 142) If culture is so important and is second nature to us, then what happens when a group within our group does not share the same cultural “habitus”20 with us? For Taylor, it is clear: when minorities live within a larger society they are disoriented and at a disadvantage because the social map that tells them how to live and behave is dissimilar to that of the ruling majority culture.
Taylor’s argumentation proceeds as follows: It makes sense that if the state has a standard education and institutions that reflect a particular official language and culture, that this is “obviously an immense advantage to anyone if this language and culture is theirs” (1998a, pp. 193-4). Put differently, if your political systems do not reflect your own language and culture, then you are going to be disadvantaged against those whose language and culture it does. Taylor is rightly concerned about what the disadvantages faced by minorities means for the legitimacy of our democracies. If a particular group is isolated in some way from the public sphere, unable to contribute on equal terms with their fellow citizens, restricted from communicating freely in their own native tongue and feel unrecognized by the state, then as Taylor points out, there is a genuine problem of democratic legitimacy. (1998a, pp. 193-4) As Taylor says,
We see that the modern state must push for a strong common identity. And thus, if a group feels that this identity does not reflect it, and if the majority will not accommodate by modifying the definition of common identity to include this group, then its members feel like second-class citizens, and consequently experience an assimilative pressure. Trouble of some sort must follow. (1998a, p. 203)
Taylor casts his defence of group rights as a defence of democracy where decision-making is shared by free and equal autonomous subjects. Democracy requires a degree of patriotism and nationalism “can provide the fuel for patriotism” (Taylor, 1998a, p. 229). Those who are outside the main cultural or linguistic background of the majority feel isolated and silenced. Minorities of course, who thus find themselves at a disadvantage, naturally wish to be removed from this unequal position and begin to contest to have their own language and their own state borders. From this, says Taylor, the national instinct is born (Taylor, 1998a, p. 234).
Taylor makes a case for measures of recognition for ethnic and linguistic minorities, since it is important for communitarians that the people share common goals and identities. Indeed, Walzer calls membership in a community the primary good to be distributed (1983, p. 31).21 Communitarians conclude that ethnic communities should live and be ruled separately.
Flaws in the Communitarian Critique
A non-liberal theory however, communitarianism tends towards saying that culture is a key value, worth preserving even it is means sometimes sacrificing the individual will for the common good or communal interest (Kymlicka, 2000a, p. 28). Illiberal measures can be justified and implemented to protect culture, which is to be preserved at all costs, even if it means the loss of individual freedom. Measures such as denying women voting rights – much to the consternation of feminists – could be justified if the cultural community traditionally advocated this. As Amy Gutmann points out, whereas earlier Marxist critiques of liberalism in the 60s viewed “the role of women within the family [as] symptomatic of their social and economic oppression”, a near counterview is found among more recent communitarians wherein “the family serves as a model of community and evidence of a good greater than justice” (Gutmann, 1985, p. 309). While the communitarians are correct in pointing out the value of community and the importance of culture, the cultural structure depicted by communitarians is rigid and unchanging, circumscribing our horizon of choice.
As Gutmann points out, the extremeness of the communitarian position leads “into a series of dualisms” which are neither helpful for advancing liberalism nor the communitarian project itself, and “tyrannizes over our common sense” (Gutmann, 1985, p. 317). She continues,
The communitarian critics want us to live in Salem, but not to believe in witches. Or human rights. Perhaps the Moral Majority would cease to be a threat were the United States a communitarian society; benevolence and fraternity might take the place of justice. Almost anything is possible, but it does not make moral sense to leave liberal politics behind on the strengths of such speculations. (Gutmann, 1985, p. 319)
As Goodman says, however, the Priority of the Right and the Priority of the Good are not in a zero-sum position. The communitarian critique misses the point that liberal politics is well suited “for reconciling rather than repressing most competing conceptions of the good life” (Gutmann, 1985, p. 318).
Contrary to the liberal position, communitarians would have us enshrine a particular culture in law and protect it from influx of change. In a sense, our freedom of choice is determined and limited by our culture; as Kymlicka says, “communitarianism is defined by its rejection of the liberal view about the importance of being free to revise one’s ends” (2000a, p. 27). Though we are free to choose, it is a limited freedom; the sets of choices we make are constrained to the cultural structure we were born into. Yet this poses several serious risks. First, a protected culture may become stultified, outdated and unreflective of the naturally occurring changing beliefs of its members. Non-reflective, frozen cultures can no longer properly – to borrow Taylor’s term – “map” the social anatomy of the group.
The communitarians criticize liberals for being blind to the differences of minority groups. They assert that minorities need their rights protected, part of those rights include the ability to choose based on their cultural preferences and not to have those preferences disallowed simply because the dominant majority deems those preferences unworthy. Yet despite this, and although one of the main critiques of the communitarians against the uniform system of rights and privileges of liberalism is that it is blind to difference, the communitarians unwittingly perpetuate a similar neglect of difference through seeing communities as discrete units that are linked to a primordial past and bound to pre-established rules and moralities. Though the communitarians critique the liberals for their flawed and abstract intellectualist conception of human nature and society, they overly neglect important findings made by recent sociology including important post-structuralist works by thinkers such as Derrida, Bourdieu, and Foucault, who helped us to see the ways that culture is continually reinterpreted, reinvented, and renegotiated. Culture (and indeed selfhood) properly understood in this light is not coherent and static but in a continual process of becoming. We are not circumscribed by our cultures nor chained to our culture indefinitely.
Humans can alter their culture, adapt it, and grow with it over time. As Seyla Benhabib aptly puts it, engrossed with their critique of the “unencumbered self” the communitarians have forgotten Kantian “noumenal agency” and “reflexive role-distance” (Benhabib, 1992, p. 45). While embracing of the significance of our communities for constituting our identity, they unwittingly lead towards conformist stances and an uncritical stance on duties and obligations, says Benhabib. She warns the communitarians, that if they wish to:
Be able to differentiate their emphasis on constitutive communities from an endorsement of conformism, authoritarianism, and from the standpoint of women, patriarchalism, they should not reject the specifically modern achievement of being able to criticize, challenge, and question the content of these constitutive identities and the “prima facie” duties and obligations they impose on us” (Benhabib, 1992, p. 46).
In this sharp critique, Benhabib adeptly illustrates the deficiencies in the communitarian standpoint, which through its rejection of modernity, liberalism and Enlightenment reasoning, pits culture against liberalism in a zero-sum game.
Cultural communities are not uniform, nor are they static over time. This dangerous tendency towards essentialising cultures and peoples naively ignores the intersecting relations of cultures and the overlapping horizons of choice they offer. The difficulty with the communitarians’ conclusions is that they can easily lead to resistance to internal change of the cultural community. Such protection of a culture can lead to it becoming frozen in time. “Mummification” is a term introduced by Frantz Fanon, to describe a traditional culture which has become essentially frozen: while it may remain fashionably referred to in certain circles (particularly among academicians and the colonialists themselves), it is nonetheless disconnected from living communities (as cited in Cornell & Murphy, 2002, p. 422). Cornell and Murphy elaborate on Fanon’s definition of mummification as:
The future orientation of the culture as incarnated by its members is ignored in favour of only apparently respectful attention paid to a stilled and silent image, a synecdoche that is forever split off from the whole living world to which it refers (Cornell & Murphy, 2002, p. 422).
This “respectful” and perhaps condescending treatment of traditional cultures often engrains colonial supremacy in reverse; no longer annihilating cultures physically colonialism takes on a new form of enslavement through creating unchained stilled images of their former selves. As such, official recognition can actually “mask continued cultural hierarchization associated with Eurocentrism” (Cornell & Murphy, 2002, p. 422).
A further tension apparent in the writings of the communitarians (which later we will also see appearing in the works of Kymlicka) is that identity politics should on the one hand be actively articulated by group members (invoking currents of change and new understandings), and on the other hand, should be defined by group members seeking to distinguish themselves from non-group members (essentialised cultures). As Mark Redhead explains in Deep Diversity, “Identity/difference claims are inherently unstable, contestable, revisable and negotiable. Yet to found a politics, they must be presented as if they were not so” (Redhead, 2002, p. 123). In other words, while seeking political recognition, groups often present themselves in exaggerated terms, pronouncing their difference vis-a-vis other groups, which is not always an accurate mapping of their social reality.
Lastly, the communitarians point out the way that liberalism is flawed for delegating culture to the private sphere, for pretending it has no influence over our political institutions. Yet, they implicitly remove culture from the political agenda when they protect culture against currents of change and remove them from public scrutiny and dialogue. To the contrary, Weinstock says that challenging and redefining our mythological conceptions and constructed histories is necessary for a healthy and functioning democracy. He says that “the state should defend standards of evidence and free enquiry so that the members of different sub-groups can participate in a spirit of openness and mutual toleration” in what Weinstock argues is an “ongoing moral debate” (1994, p. 183). A further critique comes from O’Neill, who argues that there are three important factors the communitarians forgot: 1. Although our identities are developed together in groups, they are also developed on a smaller, more personal scale; 2. Various group memberships overlap one another, reducing the importance of one particular membership over another; and 3. Groups are not naturally closed, but have much movement back and forth between them, with many living along the periphery (O'Neill, 2003, pp. 376-7). In other words, while group memberships do contribute significantly to our self-understanding, they are not the only things that matter to it and their importance is largely over-exaggerated by the communitarians.
The Good Life Under the Microscope
As put forward by Bellah et al. in “Habits of the Heart”, the language of liberalism is only capable of spelling out our differences, it has no ability to capture the reasons for our solidarity and why this adds so much meaning to our lives – in sum it cannot show us the meaning of “our own heart’s habits” (as cited in Walzer, 1990, p. 10). The authors argue that “American individualism”, takes a “sink-or-swim approach to moral development as well as to economic success” which does not benefit the community in the long run (Bellah, Madsen, & Sullivan, 2007, p. xiv). This form of fierce individualism has, they posture, only survived because it has been “checked” by other strong moral currents running through American society (Bellah, Madsen, & Sullivan, 2007, p. xv). This theoretical deficiency leads us in practice to fail to form effective and meaningful associations.
In a similar vein, Charles Taylor says in his 1989 article “Cross-Purposes: the Liberal-Communitarian Debate” that “common allegiance to a particular historical community” sharing a “socially endorsed end” is needed to promote civic pride in a country’s cultural and legislative institutions (as cited in Weinstock, 1994, p. 182). Liberal “neutrality” means that there is no place for advocating a particular conception of the good (Walzer, 1990, p. 16). Communitarians on the other hand, require that a specific conception of the good be endorsed, that is “deliberately non-neutral” (Walzer, 1990, p. 16)22. In other words, the identity of a society ought to be reflected in its political institutions and its educational settings.
This leads the communitarians however towards a major contradiction of their very aims: the communitarians aim to acknowledge difference but since they still view cultures in terms of uniformity they are unable to solve the problem of difference and how to make a plural society work. In a sense, the communitarians replicate the very failures they attribute to the liberalists for improperly addressing "difference". In the end, both traditional Liberal arguments and those of the communitarians fail to adequately resolve the issue of minorities.
The Beginnings of Liberal Culturalism
In defence of liberalism, Walzer writes that while liberalism is a “self-subverting doctrine” in need of “periodic correction”, it should not be argued that the liberal doctrine itself is unintelligible or that pre-modern times were better ages than the present (1990, p. 13). Walzer admits that the communitarian arguments have some inherent contradictions and thus, communitarian detractors of liberalism will always be coming in and out of fashion like corduroy jeans or pleated pants (Walzer, 1990, p. 6). Communitarianism, implies Walzer, is largely a corrective more than a self-standing theory on its own. Gutmann also agrees (Gutmann, 1985, p. 320), and says that the communitarian critique can be viewed as a reminder to ourselves that we are not merely isolated individuals but are also communal beings. These authors remind us that even our liberalism itself is an outgrowth of a culture of a particular historical community.
The communitarian challenge to liberals is then: can we have liberalism that can think culture and community? (Gutmann, 1985, p. 320) Do group/minority rights have a place within liberalism? Can liberalism think culture without sacrificing the individual on the altar of group rights? Can we begin to think both equal and different at once? Can we create a community of equals that values each other’s unique points of view and the benefits they contribute to the common good? Indeed, can there be a common good for a community of different individuals?
It did not take long for the liberals to respond back in kind against the critiques that had been launched at them. A politics of recognition and of difference rooted in liberalism arose. As Bader and Engelen say, political philosophy has been grappling with finding a way to “construct a ‘contextualized morality’ that is sensitive to the particularities and complexities of actual moral reasoning but does not succumb to the temptations of relativism” (Bader & Engelen, 2003, p. 375). Liberal thinkers such as Miller (1995), Spinner (1994), Margalit (1996) and Raz (2001) began to emphasize the importance of group for the well-being of its members. Habermas (2004) spoke about how cultural rights can set a framework for tolerance, and in light of the aforementioned criticisms, Rawls himself revisited his own theory (Rawls, 2001).
It is within this context of these back and forth arguments about the importance of culture versus the importance of the individual that we must understand Kymlicka’s theory. Kymlicka, writing in favour of both group rights and of liberalism sought to overcome the divide between culture and neutrality and to sew the liberal tradition back together once again.