Is multiculturalism compatible with liberalism – or imperialism revisited?

Crowd Listens as Panelists Speak at Human Rights Conference in Ropes Gray Room

Multiculturalism, an ostensibly liberal idea, cannot be so easily reconciled with other aspects of liberal thought. Professor Noah Feldman goes so far to suggest that it is little more than a form of social control handed down from 19th century imperialism. These and other ideas emerged during an HLS conference jointly organized with the educational nonprofit Facing History and Ourselves, “Universal Rights in Societies of Difference,” celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Its intellectual highlight, a panel on pluralism and rights, was attended by academics from both sides of the Atlantic. Among the panelists were HLS Professors Martha Minow, organizer of the conference, and Noah Feldman, who were joined by Jocelyn Cesari of the Sorbonne, Maleiha Malik of King’s College London, the University of Toronto’s Ayelet Shachar, and University of Chicago psychologist Richard Shweder. Prominent French academic Olivier Roy and Canadian MP Michael Ignatieff were also scheduled to take part, but were not in attendance.

Minow kicked off the discussion by asking the panel to discuss the “virtues and drawbacks of organizing a society in which different groups can be self governing,” invoking the examples of religious self-governance in the Ottoman Empire, Canadian proposals for religious self-governance, and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s purported support for British Muslims’ use of Islamic shari’a law courts.

Shweder began with a salvo against what he saw as the intolerance of liberalism, citing anthropologist Clifford Geertz’ assertion that liberals were “incapable of recognizing ties in human affairs as anything other than primitive, backwards, and regressive.” He said that liberals ought to face up to diversity as an obdurate fact, rather than as a value choice, precluding attempts to erase cultural choices that ran contrary to liberal values. He acknowledged, however, that while “for some liberals it’s an anathema to keep these people apart, for some it’s one to keep them together” – a tension which became a theme running through the remainder of the discussion.

Cesari agreed that diversity could not be so easily erased in pursuit of liberal values. The important thing, she said, was the capacity of a culture to “make room for” diversity – something sorely lacking for many Muslims living in the West. Misunderstandings, she claimed, plagued public culture with respect to shari’a law, which was already, in many cases, incorporated into public law – without dangerous consequences. Real transformation of the public sphere, Cesari claimed, could only occur with Islamist political parties in power.

Malik chimed in with what she called a “British perspective,” surveying the two choices she saw for liberalism. One was “recreating homogeneity,” the approach taken by the European Court of Human Rights, which privileged state neutrality toward religion – and a diminution of religious exercise in the public sphere. She preferred the alternative, British approach, embraced in the UK’s Race Relations Amendment Act, which put a duty on public institutions not to discriminate on racial groups, but also to promote equality and good relations between groups. This incremental form of integration, she said, dovetailed with the gradualist approach to reform which had long suited Britain.

Feldman also offered a dichotomous model of states’ handling of diversity. “Nation states,” he observed, used their power to make people give up their individual identities. Meanwhile, “imperial states” allowed previous identities to flourish in order to maintain power over them. This model privileged “offload[ing] authority to someone else [considered] legitimate to achieve imperial dominance.” The administrators of imperial states, according to Feldman, “don’t care about inner life, just getting some advantage.” He pointed out that multiculturalism’s roots lay in the imperial model, which was just another means governments deployed in order to maintain power.

Many of the panelists found Feldman’s portrait of multiculturalism’s imperial origins intriguing but insufficiently complex. Malik argued that old colonials coming “over here” and claiming rights helped shift perceptions of these groups. Cesari noted that one could not just look at political projects defined by the elite – or dismiss them based on their historical origins.

Feldman partly agreed with their points, illustrating Malik’s with an anecdote from a Pakistani who credited his country’s “Anglo-Saxon heritage” for the success of the lawyers’ movement there, meaning the common law’s success in helping South Asians fight imperialism. Yet Feldman noted that this also illustrated how attitudes emanating from imperialism persisted in initial reactions to immigrant groups. The French impulse of the mission civilisatrice, he said, was present in its negative reaction to the headscarf, while the British government preferred an accommodation model. The Archbishop’s support for shari’a courts, he said, was based on a model of governance the British had used in India. In the British case, he continued, there was a public backlash against the use of an accommodationist imperial model with regard to people who had become British citizens. Schacar found this an example of how an emphasis on cultural rights could trigger majority attempts to suppress minorities in the name of defending their own culture.

The panel concluded with commentary on the Universal Declaration and its inadequacy in the face of cultural diversity. Shweder cited it as an instance of “western law globalized,” noting that the American Anthropological Association initially rejected it as a “colonial, ethnocentric document.” Its rights, he said, were inconsistent, reflecting the document’s political origins: some were inserted in order to be “cherry-picked” for the protection of individual cultures. He pointed to the fact that the document called for a right to freedom and expression, but also included a right not to be dishonored, which has been cited in support of those who were offended by cartoons depicting Mohammed.

The discussion appeared to have reinforced Shweder’s original assertion that cultural difference could not be wished away as a problem – by even the most tolerant rights regime. Even in a dispassionate analysis of the United States, he claimed, one would “find tribes everywhere, people concerned with boundaries.” Minow, summarizing the panel in the form of “drawing lessons for use in the classroom,” tried to find the takeaway in the need to teach specific history rather than universalizing narratives, and in coming to realize the fictions of histories as a step toward “loosening the grip on identities,” but these notions appeared as much in tension with one another as the ideals of liberalism and cultural expression: we may live in a world in which groups live or die by chimerical fictions, but untethering them from these identities is not only difficult – it involves supplanting them with little more than a larger lie.

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