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Australian public policyProgressive ideas in the neo-liberal ascendency$

Chris Miller and Lionel Orchard

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9781447312673

Published to Policy Press Scholarship Online: May 2015

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781447312673.001.0001

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Culture and diversity

Culture and diversity

(p.133) Eight Culture and diversity
Australian public policy

George Crowder

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

Many observers now claim that in Australia, as elsewhere, multiculturalism is in retreat. Perhaps it would be truer to say that the opposition to multiculturalism is more insistent and articulate now than it was in the past. This chapter considers the arguments for and against multiculturalism with especial reference to Australia, leaning ultimately towards a qualified defence. It is important, first, to clarify and answer some salient issues of definition. This will lead to an examination of some questions of philosophical justification. How multiculturalism is justified will, in turn, determine what kind of multiculturalism is being talked about. With these understandings in place, the chapter reviews a selection of standard objections to multiculturalism, and offers some responses.

Keywords:   multiculturalism, recognition, justification, cultural relativism, Will Kymlicka

According to one leading writer, ‘we are all multiculturalists now’ (Glazer, 1997). This claim would be warmly endorsed by many Australians but hotly disputed by many others.1 It would be fair to say that most Australians acknowledge that they live in a ‘multicultural’ society – that is, a society that does in fact contain a diversity of cultures. But whether that fact is something to be celebrated and encouraged as a matter of public policy – whether, that is, Australia should embrace multiculturalism – is a much more contentious question. Along with countries such as Canada, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and New Zealand, Australia has historically been a leader in the field of multiculturalist policy – although one should note immediately that the background and actual experience of multiculturalist policy has varied considerably among these different countries. But criticism has intensified over the years since the policy’s beginnings in the 1970s, to the extent that many observers now claim that in Australia, as elsewhere, multiculturalism is in retreat (Joppke, 2004).2

However, this picture of decline should not be exaggerated. For one thing, Australian multiculturalism still has vigorous defenders, such as the former Minister of Immigration, Chris Bowen (Bowen, 2011). Moreover, even if support for multiculturalism has declined since its inception, the decline may not be as steep as is sometimes claimed. As Geoffrey Levey writes, ‘if we are witnessing a retreat from “multiculturalism”, it appears to be a measured one’ (Levey, 2008: 19). Undeniably, opinions are now more divided than they were in the 1970s and 1980s, or perhaps it would be truer to say that the opposition to multiculturalism is more insistent and articulate now than it was then. However, at time of writing multiculturalism remains the official policy of Australia, although there is no longer a federal Minister of Multicultural Affairs.3 Perhaps the rhetoric has changed more than the actual policies.

In this chapter I consider the arguments for and against multiculturalism, with special reference to Australia, leaning ultimately towards a qualified defence. I begin by trying to answer some salient (p.134) issues of definition. This leads me, in the second section, to examine some questions of philosophical justification. How multiculturalism is justified will, again, determine what kind of multiculturalism we are talking about. At this point I shall be in a position to consider a selection of standard objections to multiculturalism, the topic of the third section.

What is multiculturalism?

Might it be that at least some of the prevalent disagreement over multiculturalism stems from confusion over what the term means? As Geoff Levey writes, ‘it is striking how much of the criticism focuses on the word and its perceived connotations, rather than on the various policies of minority inclusion and equal opportunity for which the word stands in the Australian context’ (Levey, 2008: 19). One gets the strong sense that the ‘multiculturalism’ that some critics attack is only the most radical and least defensible version. Similarly, some supporters insist on describing as central to multiculturalism positions that are at best one form among others.

First, is Australian multiculturalism a description of existing patterns of diversity or a prescription for change? Brian Galligan and Winsome Roberts have argued that Australian multiculturalism is ‘a conceptual muddle’ between the two (Galligan and Roberts, 2004: 96). The policy is sometimes justified as merely reflecting contemporary realities. To this Galligan and Roberts reply that in the Australian context multiculturalist claims of existing cultural distinctions are exaggerated, the truth being that immigrants integrate rapidly into a common Australian identity. Full-blown multiculturalism goes beyond mere description, a role it plays poorly, and it really presents a vision of something quite different from what we have.

On the other hand, Galligan and Roberts continue, the prescription itself is confused. The Australian policy began as a way of integrating new migrants more effectively but ended by emphasising the separateness of their cultural backgrounds. These are very different goals, and they deserve very different assessments. In its integrationist form multiculturalism should be hailed ‘as a humane policy for accommodating migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds, and also as a cultural policy for enhancing the richness and variety of Australian life’ (Galligan and Roberts, 2004: 75). But as a vision of a new form of national identity, dwelling on differences rather than similarities, multiculturalism ‘has been used to hollow out what it means to be and to become an Australian citizen, depriving citizenship (p.135) of its cultural base in a distinctive Australian nationality’ (Galligan and Roberts, 2004: 80). Reduced to a set of abstract liberal-democratic principles, citizenship loses its power to win and retain people’s visceral allegiance. Instead we have multiculturalism, which ‘includes everyone but engages no one’.

Finally, there is ambiguity at a more philosophical level – that of approaches to justification. Galligan and Roberts do not pick this up, but they hint at it when they describe multiculturalism as sometimes the view that all cultural groups ‘are of equal value’ and at other times an ‘equity tool’ (Galligan and Roberts, 2004: 83, 82). This suggests a key distinction between relativist and universalist moral argument. On the one hand, the judgement that all cultures are morally equal is often based on cultural relativism, the idea that moral claims are never universally true but only locally valid from the perspective of a particular culture. On this view each culture is its own moral authority, so all must be equals. This approach implies a strong or unqualified form of multiculturalism that regards liberal democracy as only one cultural form among others. On the other hand, the notion of multiculturalism as an ‘equity tool’ suggests that it may be valuable as a means to justice conceived universally. That lets in the possibility that all cultures are not moral equals in every respect because not all are equally hospitable to multiculturalism. Such a possibility points towards a more moderate or qualified kind of multiculturalism, such as the liberal multiculturalism examined later.

Despite these ambiguities and conflicts, it is possible to sketch a working definition of multiculturalism in three parts in order to frame the discussion.

  1. 1. Multiculturalism includes the empirical claim that most contemporary societies are ‘multicultural’ – that is, they do in fact contain multiple cultures.

  2. 2. More distinctively, multiculturalists respond to that fact as something to approve of rather than oppose or merely tolerate.

  3. 3. More distinctively still, multiculturalists argue that the multiplicity of cultures within a single society should be not only generally approved but given positive recognition in the public policy and public institutions of the society.

Note that, on this account, Australian multiculturalism is essentially a normative rather than purely descriptive idea. It includes the empirical claim that Australia contains a diversity of cultures (item 1), but goes beyond that claim to a response of approval (item 2). Items (1) and (p.136) (2) together are enough for ‘multiculturalism’ in the broadest sense. However, it is only when we arrive at (3) that we have multiculturalism in its most distinctive sense This last sense of multiculturalism provides the focus for the remainder of the chapter.

The three components of the multiculturalist view require some brief expansion. First, multiculturalists accept that under contemporary conditions any single political society is likely to contain more than one culture. But what is a ‘culture’? This concept is itself a major crux of debate, but there is general agreement that a culture is a common set of beliefs and values that identify a group.4

However, there are many kinds or levels of ‘group’, and consequently culture, and depending on which of these is the focus ‘cultural recognition’ can produce a variety of political outcomes. At one end of the scale we might conceivably be talking about the ‘microcultures’ of firms, clubs or associations, although these are seldom discussed in the multiculturalist literature. More commonly the emphasis is on the claims of identity groups such as women or gays and lesbians, connecting with the ‘identity politics’ championed by writers such as Iris Marion Young (1990). At the macro end of the scale are cultures, often based on religions, that have global reach: the subjects of Samuel Huntington’s famous ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis (Huntington, 1996). Usually, however, multiculturalist theory and practice address the claims of either or both of two kinds of cultural minority: on the one hand immigrant groups, and on the other ‘national’ minorities, which include Indigenous peoples and minority nationalities such as the Quebecois in Canada. Cultures of these kinds are the primary concern here. I shall return to the different circumstances of these distinct kinds of group, and to the different cases that can be made for their recognition.

Given this preliminary understanding of culture, the next step is to observe that, for the multiculturalist, nearly all modern societies contain multiple cultures as a matter of fact. There is a sense in which Australia has always been multicultural because of the presence of the Indigenous peoples alongside the settler society. Add to that the fact that, as in other developed countries, levels of migration have increased enormously since 1945 as a result of the influx of refugees from war zones, economic migration in the aftermath of decolonisation, and to some extent the freer movement of people under economic and technological globalisation.5 Successive waves of migrants have arrived from the United Kingdom, Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. The upshot has been the creation of very substantial minority (p.137) communities within Australian society and, as a result, the reshaping of that society.

It is important to note that the multicultural character of Australia is taken here to embrace the coexistence of the two quite different kinds of minority mentioned earlier: namely, immigrant and Indigenous groups. It may be that multiculturalism requires different kinds of accommodation or recognition depending on which sort of minority is being discussed. Indeed, Australian Indigenous peoples have sometimes objected to having their claims considered under the heading of multiculturalism at all, since they see that as out of keeping with their special status as ‘first’ peoples. This distinction between immigrant and Indigenous claims is a feature of the work of the multiculturalist theorist Will Kymlicka, and I return to it later.

But multiculturalism requires more than the presence in a society of multiple cultures; it requires, at a minimum, the second step mentioned above, from fact to approval. Historically, the great majority of responses to cultural diversity within a society have fallen short of approval. Even where cultural difference has not provoked outright violence, many societies have pursued policies and practices of ‘assimilation’: the more or less coercive subsuming of minority groups into a dominant national identity. In Australia this is typified by the past policy of resettling Aboriginal children with white families – the ‘stolen generations’. This is not to say that all assimilation is coercive, since sometimes it is very much desired by those assimilated – by immigrants, for example (Kukathas, 2003: 154). But where assimilation is a goal of public policy, or even where it is backed informally by public sentiment, an element of coercion is often present.

Another possibility, often overlapping assimilation, is ‘toleration’. Here minority cultures are not approved but neither are they actively discouraged or assimilated: the policy is basically one of noninterference. This is essentially the classical liberal approach to cultural diversity, dominant in liberal democracies, including Australia, before the advent of multiculturalism. The principle is one of the ‘privatisation’ of culture: minorities are not prevented from maintaining their own languages, traditions and so forth in the privacy of their own homes and associations, but there is no public recognition of these groups as having special legal rights or political status. Crucially, toleration requires no element of approval or even respect for the beliefs or practices tolerated. Indeed, toleration implies noninterference despite disapproval.

Multiculturalism proper requires the addition of the third element of my definition. Beyond the idea of cultural diversity as a fact to be (p.138) registered, or a situation to be tolerated, beyond even the celebration of cultural diversity as in general a good thing, multiculturalism requires that multiple cultures within the same polity be given positive recognition at an official or public level. Conceivably, there could be a society in which minority cultures are widely admired but receive no official support from the state. Such a society is more accurately described as multicultural rather than truly multiculturalist. Multiculturalism requires, most distinctively, that the value of cultural diversity be recognised in public policy, the political voice of the society as a whole.

Public recognition of the value of cultural diversity may take various forms. At its weakest, recognition may be purely rhetorical or inspirational. This may involve no more than an assertion that the presence of minority cultures in the society is desirable or that certain minorities, usually Indigenous, have a special place in a country’s history and identity. Such declarations can be quite powerful, however, especially when they enter into the institutional symbolism of the society – its ‘official emblems, anthems, flags, public holidays, and the like’ (Levey, 2008: 16) – or when they take the form of special one-off government announcements. An example of the latter is the Australian Government’s official apology to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples delivered by Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, in the Australian Parliament in 2008.

Beyond symbolism, multiculturalism may take the form of the use of public resources to support cultural minorities in various ways, such as the funding of events or institutions. One example is the establishment by the Fraser Government in the 1970s of the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), Australia’s multicultural and multilingual broadcaster, recognising the presence and contribution of minority ethnic groups in Australian society. Public recognition of minority cultures may also involve adjustments to the law. One common form of cultural recognition is exemption from legal obligation: members of a group may be exempt from a law that applies to everyone else. An Australian example is the practice in some states of exempting Indigenous groups from compliance with laws prohibiting the hunting or fishing of endangered species.

A stronger form of minority recognition is the provision by the state of various kinds of special opportunity not available to other citizens. These special rights are typically justified not as superior privileges but as compensation for certain kinds of disadvantage. For example, in Australia people from Indigenous backgrounds are entitled to special university scholarships (‘Abstudy’) not open to others, on (p.139) the ground that Indigenous people have historically received fewer such opportunities than other Australian citizens.

Finally, the strongest form of special minority accommodation is group self-determination. In some countries, certain minority groups, usually Indigenous peoples, are recognised as having the right to govern themselves, in accordance with their traditional norms, within some designated jurisdiction. Self-determination itself can take several forms, ranging from (at the weaker end) advisory institutions such as the Australian Indigenous Council, to semi-sovereign polities like the Canadian Inuit and Native American nations. Beyond ‘accommodation’ altogether there is the possibility of complete secession, where the self-determining group forms a state of its own.

How is multiculturalism justified?

Among the reasons why multiculturalist policy has taken such a variety of forms is the variety of justifications that have been offered for it. One dimension of variation is between the circumstances of ‘settler’ societies such as Australia, Canada and the United States, and ‘traditional’ societies such as the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. In the latter case multiculturalism is directed more to the integration of migrants from former colonies; in settler societies multiculturalist policies embrace both immigrants, often needed for either labour or professional expertise, and Indigenous peoples.

There is also a range of arguments at a more philosophical level. Four leading arguments advanced by multiculturalist advocates are considered here: relativist, compensatory, protective, and polyglot.6 How far do these arguments succeed in justifying multiculturalism?

The relativist justification of multiculturalism was noted earlier in connection with the claim of Galligan and Roberts that multiculturalists see all cultures as being ‘of equal value’. Recall that cultural relativism is the idea that each culture possesses its own unique and authoritative moral perspective. If that is so, then it is a short step to holding that all cultures must be respected equally within a single polity and none must be dominant. All should receive the same level of public recognition. Thus Paul Scheffer writes that ‘multicultural thinking represents a continuation of cultural relativism by other means’ (Scheffer, 2011: 197).

It was also noted that the relativist starting point leads to a quite radical form of multiculturalism, since even the basic principles of liberal democracy would then be seen as expressing merely one cultural perspective among others. On this basis multiculturalist thinking would (p.140) need to press beyond the framework of liberal democracy towards some ‘higher level of philosophical abstraction’ which was more thoroughly inclusive of the full range of cultural difference (Parekh, 2006: 14). This approach is in line with the ‘curriculum multiculturalism’ that informs some current educational practice, especially in the United States, which strives to go beyond the supposed limitations and biases of ‘Western civilisation’.7

By and large, however, the relativist approach goes well beyond current political practice in Australia and elsewhere, and it is not strongly supported by current political theory. Even among those political theorists at the more radical end of the multiculturalist spectrum – that is, those most willing to question the liberal-democratic framework – there are very few leading thinkers who accept an unqualified cultural relativism.

The reason is that cultural relativism suffers from a number of philosophical difficulties that are so serious as to be disabling.8 The most obvious problem is that if we accept cultural relativism then we must also accept as morally justified whatever practices a culture may endorse. Historically, this category has included every conceivable outrage against humanity: racism, sexism, imperialism, homophobia, and so on. This ‘anything goes’ problem is what opponents of multiculturalism such as Scheffer often seem to have in mind, assuming that multiculturalism is the same thing as cultural relativism. If that were true they would have a strong point.

However, multiculturalism is not the same thing as cultural relativism – or at least, cultural relativism is cited as the basis for only the most radical kind of multiculturalism. Indeed, even that link is philosophically dubious because relativism is a poor basis for any political position. In the case of multiculturalism, the values that multiculturalists typically advocate – toleration, mutual respect, the positive valuation of other ways of life – are themselves goods that may or may not be supported by a given culture. Hence, the values of multiculturalism may or may not be defended in a given cultural setting under relativism.

Let us assume, then, that a sensible multiculturalism will not be relativist but rather qualified by a concern for universal values such as human rights. The leading justifications along these lines are broadly liberal, framing multicultural policies within a commitment to individual rights and liberties, toleration, equal treatment, limits on the authority of government, and private property rights. In turn, liberal arguments for multiculturalism can be divided into three main varieties: compensatory, protective and ‘polyglot’.

(p.141) The basic idea of the compensatory argument is that public recognition is needed to compensate a minority group for unjust treatment in the past. In Australia this is most obviously applicable to Indigenous groups whose lands were taken and whose cultures were suppressed by 19th-century colonisers. The remedies sought include the return of land, concessions to traditional practices such as the hunting and fishing of species that are otherwise protected, and rights of self-determination.

There are a number of problems with claims of this kind. Sometimes it is difficult to demonstrate that the alleged past mistreatment occurred or that there is a sufficient link between those bringing the claim and those who suffered the past injustice. Even where such a link can be established, the question is often raised, as it was by John Howard during his time as Australian Prime Minister, whether the current majority can be held responsible for the behaviour of its forebears. Further, it may be argued that, whatever past injustice may have occurred, this has by now been ‘superseded’ by the efforts of the majority in the intervening generations (Waldron, 1992).

On the other hand, it is not obvious that the problems always trump the claims. In the Australian experience the High Court’s landmark decision in the Mabo case, in which the colonial doctrine of terra nullius was rejected and Indigenous land rights recognised, is a strong example of compensatory policy. While there are ongoing difficulties in resolving particular claims, the mechanisms and institutions created to deal with them are now well established and woven into the fabric of Indigenous cultural recognition.

The protective line of argument addresses not what happened in the past but the disadvantages a cultural group allegedly suffers from in the present. Here public recognition is recommended to protect cultural minorities from oppressive treatment or even just unwitting marginalisation by the majority. What form the recognition should take will depend on the nature of the oppression or disadvantage in a particular case.

The leading multiculturalist thinker along these lines is the Canadian philosopher Will Kymlicka (1989, 1995a).9 In his earlier work Kymlicka argued that all cultural minorities are entitled to redress through public recognition because simply to be in a minority is to suffer disadvantage through inequality. The majority has its culture sustained for free, as it were, because its norms are by definition those of the society’s official culture – as reflected, for example, in the state’s official language and public holidays. Minorities, by contrast, have to work harder to maintain their culture. Immigrant groups who want (p.142) to retain their native language usually have to do so outside of the mainstream education system, and Indigenous groups have to ‘bid’ against competitors for control of resources, such as land, that are both essential to the group’s cultural identity and commercially valuable to others.

To this it might be replied that not every disadvantage is unfair. Laws requiring people to keep left on the roads disadvantage those who would rather drive on the right, but no one thinks that is unjust. Kymlicka himself eventually distinguished between two kinds of minority disadvantage corresponding to two different sorts of minority. On the one hand, immigrants (‘ethnic’ groups) have chosen to come to the host country, and in doing so have implicitly agreed to accept the conditions prevalent there. Although they may wish to preserve aspects of their culture, such as language, they accept the host’s institutions – its political, legal and education systems, and so on. They are still entitled to special consideration in order to assist their integration, but that kind of public recognition does not extend to the reconstruction of their full ‘societal’, or institutionalised, culture.10

On the other hand, ‘national’ groups, such as Indigenous peoples or the French-Canadian Québécois, have been subsumed into larger political societies without their consent, often violently. They have never agreed to surrender their societal institutions and usually struggle to maintain them. In these cases, Kymlicka argues, much stronger forms of public recognition are appropriate, including various levels of self-determination.

Thus far Kymlicka’s case for multicultural recognition is based on an ideal of equal treatment among cultural groups, but he also has an argument grounded in individual liberty. For Kymlicka, the maintenance of cultures, whether majority or minority, should be important to liberals because it is essential to the enjoyment of the central liberal value of personal autonomy, or the capacity to choose one’s own way of life. To be able to choose how to live presupposes a cultural context that makes sense of the options that confront the individual and that suggests a way of resolving conflicts among alternatives. Cultures are like maps for navigating our way through life. Consequently, if we value individual autonomy, as liberals say we should, we should value the culture that provides us with a necessary context for autonomy.

But what if the culture in question is not liberal or contains illiberal norms and practices? From a liberal-feminist perspective Susan Okin objects that multicultural recognition is a licence for the protection of the patriarchy characteristic of virtually all traditional cultures (Okin, 1999). (p.143) Kymlicka’s response is that the liberal state should not simply exclude such cultures but instead offer them the appropriate kind of assistance while at the same time trying to liberalise them. This proposal has in turn been criticised as, in effect, giving with one hand and taking with the other – pretending to preserve cultural groups but really transforming them in the image of liberals like Kymlicka (Kukathas, 1992). He is himself uneasy on this point, rightly insisting that a liberal state must in principle be entitled to protect the rights and liberties of individual citizens, against their own groups if need be, but also aware that excessively heavy-handed forms of intervention may be counterproductive. In the Australian context the Northern Territory intervention of 2007 has raised similar issues.

Someone may also question how far Kymlicka’s argument justifies multiculturalism, since it appears at first sight to be consistent with a monoculturalist nationalism too. If what is important is a cultural context for individual autonomy, then why could such a context not be provided by a single dominant, even assimilationist national culture rather than the recognition of multiple minority cultures? Kymlicka’s reply is that few people can move easily from one culture to another, so for most people it is the culture they are brought up in that must be their context for autonomy. Given the fact that under modern conditions the citizens of any developed state come from many different cultural backgrounds, a case for the state recognition of many such cultures follows.

However, this argument provokes a further objection. As Jeremy Waldron puts it, ‘we need culture, but we do not need cultural integrity’ (Waldron, 1995: 108). Granting Kymlicka’s point that in order to make sense of their autonomy people need a cultural context, it does not follow that they must be immersed in a single national or religious culture that governs their lives comprehensively. Rather, they can construct a perfectly satisfactory life and identity by borrowing from all sorts of cultural influences – the life of the ‘cosmopolitan’ individual.

To this Kymlicka responds that even cosmopolitans live in a societal culture, it is just that this is an internally diverse, complex culture that borrows from many sources (Kymlicka, 1995b). That is a reasonable reply but it lets in a different kind of argument for multiculturalism from the protective argument Kymlicka favours – namely, the ‘polyglot’ argument outlined by Robert Goodin (2006). The basic idea is that public recognition of multiple cultures is desirable not because it serves the interests of vulnerable minorities by protecting them, but because it benefits the whole society, including the majority, by giving people a (p.144) greater range of cultural options from which to select when they are choosing how to live.

Kymlicka considers this line but regards it as having limited utility because people seldom exchange one cultural affiliation for another. We do not choose cultures as if from a supermarket shelf. But Waldron’s point is that people can borrow from many different cultures without living in any of them comprehensively or exclusively. The point is effectively conceded by Kymlicka when he allows that a societal culture can borrow from many sources.

Moreover, it could be argued, if the conditions for individual autonomy are valuable, among these is the existence of an adequate range of options from which to choose (Raz, 1986). Multicultural recognition is desirable because it helps to maintain or increase the range of a society’s cultural options. No one has to immerse herself in any one way of life in order to enjoy the benefits of their availability. This argument goes back to John Stuart Mill and his idea of multiple ‘experiments of living’ that provide people with examples either to embrace or reject as they see fit (Mill, 1859 [1974]: 120).

Do the benefits outweigh the costs?

The foregoing arguments suggest that, with allowances for the critical difficulties that accompany any justificatory claim, multiculturalist recognition is capable of being beneficial to a political society in several ways: it can provide minority groups with redress for past injustice; it can protect such groups from unfair disadvantage; it can maintain the cultural context necessary for personal autonomy; and it can expand the range of choices in a society in a way that benefits not only minorities but the majority as well.

But even if all these arguments are accepted, the case for multiculturalism is not complete. That is because the anticipated benefits of the policy may be outweighed by its costs. Three areas of cost are especially salient in the critical literature: political, economic, and solidaristic.

Politically, the worry is that multiculturalist policies will generate a divisive competition for public resources at various levels: between rival minorities, between minorities and the mainstream, and even within minority groups (Kukathas, 1997: 147–9). This objection is likely to be pressed, in particular, by public choice theorists, who are always on the lookout for the way systems of governance can be exploited by self-interested, ‘rent-seeking’ behaviour. What this kind of analysis tends to miss is that people’s motives are often mixed, and (p.145) that the merits of policies cannot be reduced to their motivations. As for the association of multiculturalism with divisive competition, conflict is inescapably the stuff of politics.

Brian Barry (2001) is prominent in his stress on the economic costs of multiculturalism, complaining that cultural recognition distracts egalitarians from the economic redistribution that ought to be their primary goal. For example, policies aimed at sustaining a minority language may have the effect of preventing people from pursuing opportunities for mainstream employment. One response to this objection is Nancy Fraser’s argument that redistribution and recognition are both important policies, pursuing equally legitimate and important goals (Fraser, 2008). Fraser is wary of merely ‘affirmative’ recognition that perpetuates existing hierarchies, but that is not the kind of recognition that Kymlicka and other liberal multiculturalists would defend.

Finally, concerns about the costs of special group recognition to national solidarity take us back to the claim by Galligan and Roberts that multiculturalism ‘has been used to hollow out’ Australian citizenship. One of the most frequent complaints against multiculturalism is that it emphasises the differences between people at the expense of what they have in common, and in this connection the notion of a shared national identity is often singled out as an especially significant casualty. In a large, impersonal world, it is argued, where the individual’s place is often made uncertain by a volatile global economy, nationality is more important than ever in providing people with a sense of belonging. Yet this is undermined by what seems to be the multiculturalist invitation to place minority identity ahead of patriotism.

Tim Soutphommasane (2012) advances an interesting response to this worry. Soutphommasane agrees with the nationalists that modern citizenship requires more than a purely ‘civic’ identification with the abstract principles of liberal democracy. Rather, it depends on ‘prepolitical sources of trust and solidarity’, and these, in turn, are ‘difficult to divorce from historical national communities’ (Soutphommasane, 2012: 65, 67). Citizenship, that is, involves a commitment to a shared national identity, or ‘patriotism’. But this need not be undermined by multiculturalism as long as all parties are open to a continuing public dialogue. In such a dialogue, national identity is subject to constant reinterpretation, in the course of which both majority and minority cultures must be willing to reflect on their own demands and norms. A combination of liberal nationalism and deliberative democracy, Soutphommasane’s proposal aims to reassert the value of patriotism (p.146) and national culture but in a form that does not exclude cultural minorities.

Regardless of how well justified multiculturalism may be at the level of philosophical argument, it is hard to deny that the lived experience of multiculturalism can be disturbing and disorienting for many people, the source of a complex of anxieties and resentments, whether rational or not. In Australia this was shown by the rise of Pauline Hanson and her One Nation party in the 1990s. Behind much of the criticism of multiculturalism is a visceral sense of the ‘host’ as being ‘swamped’ by ‘others’. To some extent this is a question of numbers: small numbers matter little because the effect on the majority’s way of life is minimal, but large numbers change things. Allied to this is the question of proximity: to what extent do the ‘others’ look like and behave like the majority? The less they do the more challenging the task. There is also an issue of whether minorities express a desire to live like the majority or whether they wish to establish their own cultural practices in the majority’s midst. More challenging still is the case where a minority expects (or is perceived as expecting) the majority to change its behaviour and conform to the norms of the minority. All these issues have a historical dimension to the extent that people tend to compare current difficulties with what they once knew or imagined to be the norm. These aspects of multiculturalism ‘on the streets’ are often what make the politics in this area so fraught. Such concerns should not be ignored or belittled. On the other hand they should not be allowed to drown out those voices that speak for the beneficial aspects of multiculturalism, and that are prepared to defend the idea in a properly balanced form.


The first step to reaching a sensible judgement on multiculturalism is to be clear about which variety is being discussed. What many of the opponents of the idea take to be the whole of multiculturalism may be really just the radical version that takes cultural relativism as its starting point. This interpretation the critics are justified in rejecting as ethically objectionable, politically unrealistic and philosophically incoherent.

But a liberal form of multiculturalism, such as Kymlicka’s, is another matter. Qualified by a concern for human rights and personal autonomy, this is a natural outgrowth of liberal-democratic thinking. The liberal tradition, emerging from the movement towards religious toleration in early modern Europe, has always been concerned with (p.147) the accommodation of difference. To this the multiculturalist wing of the tradition adds an interest in redress for past injustice and present disadvantage suffered by members of cultural minorities, and, more positively, a desire to expand the range of cultural choice for all citizens.11

This is not to deny that, even in its liberal form, multiculturalism raises issues of genuine concern – for example, the rent-seeking behaviour of some minorities and their leaders, the possibility of a conflict between recognition and redistribution in some cases, the tension between minority and shared identities, and the persistence of popular anxieties. However, it is far from obvious that these problems need be fatal to a reasoned and moderate version of the multiculturalist project overall.



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(1) For the history of Australian debate over multicultural policy, see Lopez (2000), Galligan and Roberts (2004): ch. 4, Levey (2008).

(2) See also Joppke and Morawska (2003) for the alleged retreat of multiculturalism in countries other than Australia.

(3) The current federal policy document is The People of Australia: Australia’s Multicultural Policy: see Department of Immigration and Citizenship (2011). In the Abbott Coalition Government that took office after the 2013 federal election, Multicultural Affairs has been downgraded from a Cabinet portfolio to part of the brief for the Parliamentary Secretary for Social Services.

(4) For discussion of the idea of ‘culture’, see Carrithers (1992), Jenks (2004), Lawson (2006).

(5) According to the federal government’s official policy document, ‘since 1945, seven million people have migrated to Australia. Today, one in four of Australia’s 22 million people were [sic] born overseas, 44 per cent were born overseas or have a parent who was and four million speak a language other than English. We speak over 260 languages and identify with more than 270 ancestries. Australia is and will remain a multicultural society’ (Department of Immigration and Citizenship, 2011: 2).

(6) Critical discussions of the justificatory arguments for multiculturalism include Joppke and Lukes (1999), Laden and Owen (2007), Modood (2007), Murphy (2012), Rattansi (2012), and Crowder (2013).

(7) For the American debate on this issue see Schlesinger (1992); Hughes (1993); Friedman and Narveson (1995).

(p.148) (8) Critical discussions of cultural relativism include Williams (1972), Ladd (1973), Levy (2002), Wong (1993), Lukes (2008).

(9) See also Taylor (1994), Raz (1995).

(10) ‘Integration’, where a minority culture is included within a larger society but without losing its own character entirely, is distinguished from assimilation by Kymlicka (1995a: 78).

(11) Compare Garton Ash (2012), who argues that multiculturalism contains nothing of value that was not already in mainstream liberalism.