The Backlash Against Multiculturalism Revisited

Phil Ryan

[From Policy Options, September 1998, pp. 54-55. The version presented here differs slightly from the original.]

Comments? Questions?:

With the "refinement of debate," Clifford Geertz once noted, "what gets better is the precision with which we vex each other"1. Judged by this standard, the debate over multiculturalism remains unrefined. The construction of imaginary beasts, followed by their heroic slaying, remains the order of the day. Jonathan Kay's "Explaining the Modern Backlash Against Multiculturalism" (Policy Options, May 1998) is a case in point.

Kay begins with Charles Taylor's alleged assertion that "the philosophical essence of the multiculturalism doctrine is the 'presumption' that other cultures are of equal worth" (30). Kay goes on to argue that this "cultural relativism" leads to "serious public policy problems" (31). Fortunately, as Kay shows with highlights from his "pile of newspaper clippings" (32), "the idea of multiculturalism," as he construes it, "tends to evaporate in every instance that genuine rights-based conflicts are at stake" (31). Despite official multiculturalism, Canadians reject the idea that supposedly "core element[s] of certain immigrant cultures," such as female circumcision, should be "tolerated, if not encouraged" (32).

Kay's argument rests on two central errors: (i) that multiculturalism entails cultural relativism; (ii) that such relativism entails tolerance of all practices of all cultures. I will begin with the second error. The refusal to countenance certain practices does not imply a rejection of cultural relativism, because such relativism does not require that all cultural practices be respected. The link between relativism and acceptance of all cultural practices is broken in two ways. First, tolerance in general is not entailed by relativism: to declare "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" in no way contradicts relativism. One can demand that newcomers drive on the right, simply because it is the local practice, without claiming that this practice is intrinsically superior to the alternative.

Second, the relativist's refusal to judge between cultures as a whole in no way requires a refusal to judge between specific practices. Kay's own examples support this point: he argues that "liposuction, bulimia, breast implants and lower rib removal are a part of western culture" (33). Surely Kay does not believe that anyone who claims to respect Western culture must extend that respect to all these practices.

Yet Kay misses the implication of his reference to such practices, as his article is dominated by a vision of cultures as seamless wholes. He concludes by urging us to embrace the "monolith of modern Western culture" if we truly wish to promote equality (34). But no such monolith exists. "Our" culture is not a consistent set of principles, beliefs, or sentiments. There is no single "Western" religious outlook, nor a unified view on the proper relation between religious beliefs and the political sphere, nor a unified definition of equality, racism, and so on.

Thus, cultural relativism does not require toleration of all practices, as Kay assumes. Kay's other key error is to believe that cultural relativism itself is the "philosophical essence" of multiculturalism. A serious reading of Taylor, whom Kay invokes on this point, would demonstrate the opposite. Taylor has little patience for a relativism that dogmatically asserts the equal worth of all cultures. Such an assertion "is paradoxically --perhaps one should say tragically-- homogenizing. For it implies that we already have the standards to make such judgments"2.

Instead of cultural relativism, Taylor offers as "an act of faith" the "presumption" that "all human cultures that have animated whole societies over some considerable stretch of time have something important to say to all human beings"3. Such a "presumption" involves neither relativism nor a mindless refusal to judge practices. It simply asks that we give things a hearing, that we approach the practices of another person or culture as Gadamer would have us approach a text: "prepared for it to tell [us] something," open to the possibility that it "could be right"4. Such multiculturalism asks merely that we not behave like Plato's "noble dogs," kind towards the familiar and hostile to the strange5.

The receptiveness counselled here in no way disarms us in the face of "misogyny, homophobia and racism" (34), as Kay seems to believe. Multicultural sensitivity does not require that we tolerate violence or doctrines of hatred and inequality. To draw again upon Gadamer, openness involves neither "neutrality" nor "extinction of one's self"6. We can approach the practice of another, open to the possibility that it "could be right," and yet conclude that it is, so far as we can see, quite wrong. But in the process of arriving at a seriously reasoned judgment regarding the practice, we also come to a greater understanding of our own position.

Thus, multicultural sensitivity does not force us to accept practices that violate the core principles of our society. It does, however, require that we be open to an ongoing society-wide dialogue to clarify what those core principles really are, and to articulate those principles in a way that does not privilege the particular interests of Canadians de souche over others. I do not believe we can responsibly avoid this dialogue. In coming to Canada, an immigrant makes a moral and legal commitment to adapt. How far does this extend? Which matters does this commitment cover, and which does it exempt? These questions cannot be answered justly in the absence of multicultural dialogue. Nor can another question: what obligations do those already here accept in admitting an immigrant?

Kay hints at an answer to this latter question: the immigrant is owed equal treatment and respect for a "zone of autonomy" (32). This leads him to argue that "every liberal democracy must be multicultural to the extent that it is liberal, and monocultural to the extent that it is democratic" (33). That is, democracy demands uniformity on matters of law, while liberalism allows diversity on "aesthetic" issues. Even if one accepted this "simple bifurcation," however, its application in a way that Canadians of all backgrounds find just would still require a dialogue grounded in multicultural sensitivity.

Note, first, that the "zone of autonomy" is not given once and for all, and its definition is a point of conflict both within and between cultures. We are not agreed, for example, on whether a parental decision to use corporal punishment falls within this "zone of autonomy." Second, the equality that should reign in public matters is multi-layered. Public measures that involve differential treatment can often be defended in the name of equality, an obvious example being the dedication of special resources to teach English or French to new Canadians. Equality-based defences of differential treatment are often controversial, as in the case of affirmative action, and people have reasonable disagreements on such questions. These disagreements can be addressed in dialogue or by fiat. As a democrat, I prefer dialogue.

"What does it mean," asks Kay, "for a country to proclaim itself to be 'multicultural'"? It has never meant that any resisdent of Canada is excused from the obligation to respect the laws of the land. It has never meant that Canadians must be so all-accepting and open-minded that our brains fall out. Perhaps some day we shall find the maturity to allow discussions of multiculturalism to move beyond these caricatures. The prospect is both promising and threatening, as it involves pulling our beliefs into what Habermas aptly terms the "vortex of argumentation"7. Perhaps this is the fundamental root of the "Backlash Against Multiculturalism": while its critics often charge that multiculturalism encourages immigrants to keep a death grip on their past, its real sin may be that it does not allow "old Canadians" to do just that, to freeze their own traditions and renounce the task of working out anew just what being Canadian should mean for us.


1. Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 29.

2. Charles Taylor, "The Politics of Recognition," in C. Taylor et al, Multiculturalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 71.

3. Ibid., 66.

4. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2d edition (New York: Continuum, 1989), 268, 292.

5. The Republic, 375e.

6. Gadamer, op. cit., 269.

7. Jurgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996), 339.

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Updated September 11, 1998