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Kymlicka’s Contemporary Political Philosophy 19

July 17, 2017

To accept either of these amounts to seeing such measures not as discrimination but as compensation. The author judges this first aspect of the debate to be more or less settled. By this, he means that it is untenable for most participants to the debate to maintain that multiculturalism is intrinsically unjust. He clarifies:

“I do not mean that defenders of multiculturalism have been successful in getting all or most of their claims implemented, although there is a clear trend throughout the Western democracies towards the greater recognition of minority rights. Rather I mean that the terms of the public debate have been redefined in two profound ways: (a) few people continue to think that justice can simply be defined in terms of difference-blind rules or institutions. Instead, it is now recognized that difference-blind rules can cause disadvantages for particular groups. Whether justice requires common rules for all, or differential rules for diverse groups, is something to be assessed case by case in particular contexts, not assumed in advance; (b) as a result, the burden of proof has shifted. The burden of proof no longer falls solely on defenders of multiculturalism to show that their proposed reforms would not create injustices; the burden of proof equally falls on defenders of difference-blind institutions to show that the status quo does not create injustices for minority groups.” (366)

That this first grounds of opposition has fallen away does not mean that overall opposition to multiculturalist programs is at an end. Rather, attention has shifted to the question of whether multiculturalism inhibits social unity, political stability, civic virtues, common identities and society-wide practices. The author puts this objection as follows:

“Many critics claim that multi- cultural policies are misguided, not because they are unjust in themselves, but because they are corrosive of long-term political unity and social stability. Why are they seen as destabilizing? The underlying worry is that multi- culturalism involves the ‘politicization of ethnicity’, and that any measures which heighten the salience of ethnicity in public life are divisive. Over time they create a spiral of competition, mistrust, and antagonism between ethnic groups. Policies which increase the salience of ethnic identities act ‘like a corrosive on metal, eating away at the ties of connectedness that bind us together as a nation’ (Ward 1991: 598; cf. Schlesinger 1992; Schmidt 1997).” (ibid.)

To this first point is added a second, to the effect that emphasizing a politics of recognition comes at the expense of a politics of redistribution. In short, pursuit of one excludes the other. While Kymlicka is ready to concede that such objections, at least as initially worded, are indeed cause for concern, he is less convinced that they hold water upon closer examination. For there is a decided lack of empirical and conceptual clarity on these counts. To wit:

“But do we really face a choice between these goals? Is it in fact true that multiculturalism erodes support for the welfare state and the politics of redistribution? There has been much armchair speculation on this question, but remarkably little evidence. Reliable evidence is needed here, because one could quite plausibly argue the reverse: namely, that it is the absence of multiculturalism which erodes the bonds of civic solidarity. After all, if we accept the two central claims made by defenders of multiculturalism-namely, that mainstream institutions are biased in favour of the majority, and that the effect of this bias is to harm important interests related to personal agency and identity-then we might expect minorities to feel excluded from ‘difference- blind’ mainstream institutions, and to feel alienated from, and distrustful of, the political process. We could predict, then, that recognizing multiculturalism would actually strengthen solidarity and promote political stability, by removing the barriers and exclusions which prevent minorities from whole- heartedly embracing political institutions. This hypothesis is surely at least as plausible as the contrary hypothesis that multiculturalism erodes social unity.” (367)

The author furthers this line of reasoning with reference to two general cases, that of immigrant groups in countries with official multiculturalism policies and that of national minorities in liberal democracies.

“On the contrary, these two countries [Australia and Canada] do a better job integrating immigrants into common civic and political institutions than any other country in the world. Moreover, both have witnessed dramatic reductions in the level of prejudice, and dramatic increases in the levels of interethnic friendships and intermarriage. There is no evidence that the pursuit of fairer terms of integration for immigrants has eroded democratic stability (Kymlicka 1998: ch. 1). The situation regarding the self-government claims of national minorities is more complicated, since these claims involve building separate institutions, and reinforcing a distinct national identity, and hence create the phenomenon of competing nationalisms within a single state. Learning how to manage this phenomenon is a profoundly difficult task for any state. However, even here there is significant evidence that recognizing self-government for national minorities assists, rather than threatens, political stability.” (367-8)

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