Multiculturalism (allegedly) v. Liberalism, Episode V

In Sign and Sight, more in the multiculturalism (ostensibly) contra liberalism debate started Pascal Bruckner’s salvo against Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash. This week, a thoughtful entry by Jesco Delorme:

To put it as clearly as possible: All the participants in the Perlentaucher debate so far explicitly affirm a belief in certain universal values; not one of them takes a position of genuine cultural relativism. It is unfounded, to put it mildly, to accuse Ian Buruma, Timothy Garton Ash and Stuart Sim of doing so. Why then, Messrs. Bruckner, Cliteur and Gustafsson, Madam Kelek and Madam Ackermann, do you level that accusation regardless?

I believe the answer is clear: you commit the error of assuming that the multiculturalist position necessarily implies an attitude of cultural relativism, or is subsumed under it.

Observe the thinking of one of the most prominent advocates of multiculturalism: Canada’s Will Kymlicka. He includes under this heading all approaches which maintain that there are certain claims made by ethnic / cultural groups which are in keeping with the liberal principles of freedom and equality, and which justify granting certain special rights to minorities. Thus multiculturalism – in contrast to communitarianism – does not stand in opposition to liberalism; rather, a liberal order is a condition of multiculturalism’s very existence. So Kymlicka terms his position “liberal culturalism.” The multiculturalist calls for certain group rights as complementary to a liberal order. But the liberal order claims universal – not relative – validity. Hence the multiculturalist advocates a monistic or pluralistic world view, not one of cultural relativism!

The real question is: “On the basis of what criteria may the claims which supplement liberalism be differentiated from those which undermine it?” Ms. Ackermann and Ms. Kelek may (or may not) be right when they oppose removing private funds from banks, setting aside beaches for Muslim women, founding Muslim hospitals or the wearing of headscarves as concessions to religious feelings. But they must specify their criteria and their reasons. What, for example, differentiates a segregated stretch of beach where Muslim women may bathe unobserved by men’s eyes, from a local sauna which is set aside for the same purpose on certain days of the week? To what extent does one constitute a danger to our political system, while the other does not?

In order to answer that question we should first agree on which values are essential to the liberal model of society. Only then will we be able to examine whether certain individual or collective actions threaten that model.