Multiculture and Anti-culture

This book review and thought piece on multiculturalism in Canada was published in the Autumn/Winter 2020 edition of the Dorchester Review. The full version is now live on the website here.


Image taken from the website: http://www.dorchesterreview.ca

Multiculturalism in Canada: Constructing a Model Multiculture with Multicultural Values. Hugh Donald Forbes… 2019, Reviewed by Peter Copeland

MULTICULTURALISM – A REALITY, a political ideal, and a buzzword that has as many meanings as it does uses. Multiculturalism in all these variations, and in its specifically Canadian context, form the subject matter of Hugh Donald Forbes’ 2019 book Multiculturalism in Canada: Constructing a Model Multiculture with Multicultural Values.

Forbes treats both how multiculturalism has been promoted concretely in Canada, and what some of its most eminent thinkers have had to say about it from a theoretical perspective.

On the empirical side, he takes us back to Pierre Trudeau’s development of official multiculturalism, and its precursors in changing immigration policy in the ’40s through to the ’60s. On the theoretical side, he focuses on the works of two prominent Canadian political theorists, the liberal Will Kymlicka of Queen’s and the communitarian Charles Taylor, an eminence grise of the philosophy world and Professor Emeritus of McGill.

He argues that in the Canadian context today, multiculturalism is a “celebration of diversity.” Unlike the “melting pot” version in the United States, or Quebec’s “interculturalism,” Canadian multiculturalism can be seen as a modification of the original Enlightenment ideas of toleration. We no longer seek “merely” to tolerate and live with one another’s substantial differences, but actively to “affirm” and “celebrate” them.

From ‘Vision’ to Bureaucracy

Forbes argues that the genesis of Canada’s policy of “Official Multiculturalism” – the unintended byproduct of the 1963 Bilingualism and Biculturalism Commission – was that it was part and parcel of Trudeau’s national unity strategy.

The politics of multiculturalism was in service of a “visionary idea” – anti-nationalism, of a sort; a project of building national sovereignty on different grounds. Multiculturalism is a tool in service of an anti-nationalism that “distinguishes support for the principle of nationalities from support for the nations themselves in the sense of historic cultural or ‘sociological’ formations.”

Federalism – as envisioned by Trudeau – was the political model that served as the vehicle for the move to the post-national order, which would be governed by administrators and bureaucrats, with their “functionalist” use of reason.

After this detour into history, Forbes takes up different conceptions of equality. Unlike “earlier forms of cultural pluralism” multiculturalism is distinguished “by its commitment to treating all cultures equally.” But it’s nothing like “difference-blind” classical liberalism, with equal treatment under the law.

He settles for this formulation: “treating people differently in order to treat them equally.” Of course, the devil is in the details. In this case, all in the operational meaning of words like equality, differential treatment, and so on.

To see how these new meanings can be consistently parsed and applied to the multicultural project, he turns to two of Canada’s best-known political theorists, Will Kymlicka and Charles Taylor.



Multiculturalism in Canada: Constructing a Model Multiculture with Multicultural Values. Hugh Donald Forbes, 2019 – H.D. Forbes is Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto

From the Ivory tower

Kymlicka argues in Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights, published in 2003, that multiculturalism gives people greater capability to act on their own judgments and values, rather than those of a dominant culture or ideology. This capability is called “cultural freedom,” which “requires the opportunity and ability to make good choices,” rooted in access to cultural preconditions. “Cultural freedom offers its members ‘the good of cultural membership’ – that is, access to the ‘cultural heritage’ that is most meaningful to them.”

“Group rights” are the key. They’re made palatable by distinguishing between types of group, to which certain rights correspond; and the acceptable from the unacceptable claims for cultural accommodation, which must only protect the existence of the culture, not its character.

National minorities are involuntarily formed; therefore self-government, political representation, and polyethnic rights are conferred. In Canada’s context, the Québecois and First Nations are examples of this kind of group. Immigrant minorities on the other hand, are voluntarily formed, as they most often choose to migrate; they therefore receive only polyethnic rights.

But many would argue that we need much more than what this promotes, mere “boutique multiculturalism”: the acceptance and availability of ethnic cuisine, art, and the like, but nothing too substantive. On then to Charles Taylor.

Authentic Selves

It becomes clear through an outline of Taylor’s thinking on multiculturalism that his work better reflects the spirit of our contemporary moment than does Kymlicka’s. Taylor shows how contingent historical preconditions make different “social imaginaries” (ways of conceiving of one’s social identity) possible. In books like Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (1989) and A Secular Age (2018), Taylor draws on Hegel’s concept of “mutual recognition” as something that is essential to the psychic development of human persons, and later imports it into contemporary social and political theory. A key concept in his work is that of “the buffered self”; the self-conception common to the modern, western person who sees herself as self-sufficient, as “master of the meanings of things.” It is somewhat of a foil for Taylor’s communitarian critique of the atomistic social life that characterizes contemporary, mostly Western countries.

Taken together, the idea is that recognition is crucial to psychological and social formation, and that it ought to be applied more broadly to persons, based on a particular understanding of their uniqueness – authenticity.

Recognition of others as persons involves perception, appreciation and evaluation of who they are and how they live. Authenticity in a person is that which is to be recognized; through self-knowledge and self-revelation, a person comes to know and act on that which is most authentically proper to their “inner,” “true” self. It is argued that “equal” mutual recognition of the “authentic self” is an essential component of a person’s development and identity.

Since authenticity must be formed and recognized in dialogue with others, a person’s identity is dependent upon this cultural dialogue, where identities are co-formed in mutual recognition.

To this, Taylor adds the test of the fusion of moral horizons, which he gets from German philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer, and his hermeneutical philosophy elaborated principally in Truth and Method. Authenticity must pass through the “fusion of moral horizons” for it to be acknowledged as worthy of recognition.

In other words, by discussing and debating ways of life, beliefs, and values together, we may strive to differentiate the genuine forms of authenticity from its impostors.

Open horizons

So much for normative theorizing though, how are these ideals to be realized in practice?

In a rare moment of writing in his own voice, Forbes declares that “contemporary cultural accommodation, with its inclusive sensitivity and celebratory tolerance, seems closer to diplomacy than authenticity.”

He points to openness as the value that can do a better job. Again, he is careful to distinguish between its different types: there is a society’s openness to new ideas, the positive exemplar of which is Karl Popper’s “piecemeal social engineering”; the open border, whose rationale is economic efficiency; and open minds, which is the way out of the conundrum created by open borders and open windows (scientific-policy making) – namely, that they conspire to accentuate differences between “immigrants and old stock.”

IT’S NOT DIFFICULT to see how, as we see the emerging political divide shift from a less acrimonious class-based rift to one that is rooted in identities of all kinds. As the common cultural ground that bound different classes together erodes with multiculturalism, the gap between the ever-multiplying identity and cultural groups concentrated in cities, and the “older stock” in the suburbs and rural areas, grows wider.

“Open minds” is to be thought of along the lines of “open horizons.” It is an openness in terms of all kinds of values and norms – ways of knowing and acting.

Finally, Forbes turns to thoughts for the future. How can we get to sunny multiculturalism in the long run? The answer: openness, diversity, and tolerance.

Though he states that some of these ideas – which follow below – strike him as “morally repugnant” today, we must recognize that they may not be tomorrow. For, “yesterday’s science fiction is today’s status quo.”

The roadblocks we have to clear before we enter the multicultural utopia are the idea of having external enemies, and a conception of democracy as the authority of a popular assembly.

We must consider electoral reform in order to increase representation and address the “democratic deficit.” This goes by many names in the political science and theory landscape: making democracy more “direct” (read: unmediated by elected officials, committees, and popular assemblies), more “deliberative” (read: based on the best ‘reasons’ and ‘evidence’), and more “participatory” (read: make decision-making procedures subject to the active participation of citizens).

He looks at the single-member plurality system and proportional representation and suggests more of the latter.

We must extend citizenship more rapidly to immigrants, establish a values test (not to confer honour, of course, but to identify “hate-filled reactionaries”); introduce random sortition into the selection process of Senators, and abolish the Monarchy because of its particular affiliations to “Britishness” (which is presupposed to be non-inclusive and culturally insensitive).

In order to usher in the multiculturalist utopia where all are equally recognized and respected, we need to be intolerant of everything that isn’t “tolerant” – of course, in the intolerant way that good liberals and progressives actually practice tolerance. 

The conclusion he makes is that the Canadian experience since 1968 has been all but a resounding victory by Trudeau, Sr. over “nationalism” in all its forms. Ordinary people and conservatives still snicker when they hear the lesser offspring, Trudeau, Jr., speak of Canada as the first “post-national” society, but it resonates with many Canadians.

For Forbes points out, the “clearest obligation” of the day is the recognition of diverse others. But he is alive to the need to balance a range of goods, and realities in the world. He ends with a humdrum truism – we need balance.

As he says, in a modern world where no rights are absolute, and all higher values are fungible (since they are, “ambiguous and metaphorical”), and laws are “bent to meet new interpretations,” the “goldilocks option” is what we should strive for: not too hot or too cold but just right.

Straight-faced satire?

AT TIMES, IT appears as though Forbes is writing tongue-in-cheek, but it is not as apparent as he may have intended. The book is part of a series – “Recovering Political Philosophy” – whose editors write in the preface that it is a “straight-faced satire” in the manner of Swift, who suggested that the Irish sell their children for food. Conservatives will recognize that it’s just the kind of inhumane totalitarian bargain that is endemic to Enlightenment rationalism, and its progressive wing in politics – whose emphasis on collective projects ends up placing abstract “outcomes” above human persons, and their dignity.

If you missed the series preface, you might miss the satire. Truly, Forbes writes in the straight-faced style. The project of multiculturalism is, according to the series editors, a “world of incoherent doublethink, in which experts nimbly manage internal conflicts at home and practice a bullying imperialism abroad, wherever they can, to export ‘distinctively Canadian’ multicultural values.”

This angle of attack is less surprising when we know that Mr. Forbes was a student of Allan Bloom and George Grant – hardly your typical radical left-wing professors.

Whatever the author’s true intentions, the book is a rare blend of empirical and normative writing, that gives it a sense of completeness that many one-sided investigations lack. If it is short on critical examination of the many pitfalls of multiculturalism, they are at least mentioned with more than a passing nod.

The key insight of the book is that diversity, inclusivity, equity, and tolerance are not the ends in themselves, but rather, are in service of the greater value of recognition through respect. We want the former only so long as it is conducive to the latter.

With these pillars of diversity, equity and inclusion in place, diverse persons can exist in their culturally and individually unique way, living in harmony with others, mutually recognizing and respecting each other’s differences.

The reader begins to suspect, given Forbes’ satirical retelling, that something is missing from this pollyannish description. But I don’t think he goes far enough.

To read the rest of the article, please check out the website and consider becoming a subscriber. In what follows, I write about how the virtue of tolerance has become polarized and extreme; how there are both positive and deleterious types of diversity; and how civil society groups, and the process of the gradual development of cultural norms over time have been, and continue to be instrumental in creating and maintaining a peaceful, inclusive and ordered society.

About the Dorchester Review

The Dorchester Review is a semi-annual publication, featuring pieces on Canadian History and Political science, as well as the odd review and thought piece. Please check out the website to subscribe, or sign up for the newsletter (bottom of home page) to receive a free back copy of the Review.


Image taken from the website: http://www.dorchesterreview.ca
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