Debates concerning multiculturalism are sure to spark controversy. In today’s modern societies multicultural views are seen as progressive and those who oppose these ideas are frequently seen as archaic and ignorant. But what is multiculturalism by definition; does it even have one? The sensitive debates surrounding multiculturalism have only emerged in political discussions in recent times; in today’s societies, those who possess qualities that differ from societal norms now not only reject being silenced by the majority, as has been the case in the past, but also demand a conception of citizenship that both recognizes their differences and accommodates them, too. This demonstrates that multiculturalism is not simply a term which relates to different cultures mixing together, but rather a complex and dynamic idea that contains many elements. These elements establish a vision that promotes a liberal, diverse nation in which all individuals live in harmony and benefit equally from society, regardless of their social backgrounds. The idea of equal treatment is a political idea that has been widely placed in today’s societies to help eliminate the social exclusion that is felt by many minority circles. However, despite the common social rights apparent in today’s world that are meant to create equal treatment, there is still a great feeling of non-recognition and inequality felt by certain cultural groups. I believe that, with proper liberal applications, certain specific group rights not only promote equality between the minority and the majority, but also assist in maintaining a politically stable society. Even today, minorities still face a broad spectrum of social disadvantages, and these culture-specific rights are a way of providing compensation for the otherwise disadvantaged minority groups.
The complex idea of multiculturalism can be broken down into a few key ideas. First, I will discuss the theme of cultural diversity. From a demographic point of view, multiculturalism represents the plurality of ethnic social groups within any given society. Multicultural countries, such as Canada and Australia, are composed of many different and diverse ethnic nations and cultures. Though this is most definitely a key feature of multiculturalism, we must delve deeper into the soul of this political ideology in order to truly understand what it means to be multicultural. This brings up the second element, which I will refer to as equality between cultures. This key idea represents the social equality and tolerance that needs to be both given to and given by the different cultural groups within a pluralist cultural society. In the past, it has been made clear that nations which do not embrace tolerant policies are viewed as distinctly un-multicultural. Although it is a fairly extreme example, Nazi Germany fits this criterion perfectly; a society in which many cultures resided, but were ultimately persecuted and stripped of liberties by the oppressive majority. Using this example, we can come to the conclusion that, if a nation that contains a significant amount of minorities, tolerance is necessary for the society to be regarded as multicultural. Social equality, the idea of a level playing field for every individual, is also an especially key element; in order for social harmony to be obtained, everyone must be on equal grounds in terms of opportunities and benefits received by both the state and members of other groups. This crucial feature of multiculturalism is apparent in many pluralist societies; ‘equal opportunities for all’ is a phrase that is recognizable and understood by any member of a multicultural nation. The idea behind this phrase is fairly basic, but behind it is an incredibly powerful message of social equality. It states that, regardless of an individuals’ cultural background, they should be entitled to the same liberties and opportunities as any other member of that society; whether they be members of another minority group or part of the majority. It is this liberal view which helps us understand the true meaning of multiculturalism: the idea that all are equal under the eyes of society.
One of the main points brought about in the debate of multicultural rights is the concept of equal treatment. Those who oppose ethnic, group-specific rights argue that, in modern society, equal treatment means that each person will be treated in the exact same way that every other individual in the society. Any cultural distinctions are irrelevant, as no group should have more rights than others. At a first glance, this seems like a fair and just point of view. Why should anyone benefit more than anyone else? Shouldn’t standard laws, such as the ones regarding hate crime, be enough to obtain social equality? Supporters of the specific rights of a minority group, such as me, have a slightly different opinion. If both the minority and majority groups are given the exact same rights, then the minority groups are put at a disadvantage because they are not on equal grounds as the majority to begin with, as stated by Kymlica’s “justice of minority claims” (Kymlica, 365). Sure, both the minority and the majority possess common rights of citizenship, but this citizenship should not be defined by a simple set of rules that treat everyone the exact same way. As stated by T.H Marshall, citizenship also includes “a sense of identity; an expression of one’s membership in a political community” (Kymlica, 329). Therefore, equal treatment is not merely a standard set of policies meant to affect everyone the same, but rather an idea that everyone should feel just as much a member of the community as everyone else. It is the policies that will give everyone an equal identity, but not necessarily the same identity. If equal treatment is to be possible, the societal handicaps of minority groups must be eliminated.
A basic idea of ‘liberal culturalism’ (an idea presented in Kymlica’s work) is that most cultural groups want to advance just like the majority group does, and they seek full inclusion and participation in the world in which they belong. They cannot choose what culture they come from; they should not be hindered in their search for success, nor should they be expected to throw away their cultural practices on the way. According to this idea, a certain group’s exclusive rights are justified. But, what happens when a group’s cultural practice infringes upon the freedom and rights of an individual? Does this not contradict the basic liberal values of our society? The evidence and arguments presented in Okin’s work on the negative, illiberal effects of multiculturalism on women are very convincing, and it is necessary to understand her arguments. Okin suggests that, in many cultures around the world, women have been and are still the victims of male domination. She states that this is “inconsistent with the basic liberal value of individual freedom” (Okin, 11). This is most definitely true, and I believe that in order to grant a minority group extra rights in the name of cultural practice, we must first assess the content of that practice.
One way we can do this is by distinguishing between the two kinds of minority rights: those which supplement individual freedom, and those which restrict it. As stated in Kymlica’s work, “A crucial task facing liberal defenders of multiculturalism, therefore, is to restrict the ‘bad’ minority rights that involve restricting individual rights from the ‘good’ minority rights that can be seen as supplementing individual rights.” (Kymlica, 340) The latter, which adds to individual autonomy, comes in the form of external protections: a group seeks to preserve their distinct culture by preventing the decisions of others from acting upon them. This can be referred to as relations between groups, and I believe that these cases are just in today’s societies, as these minorities do not seek to impose their practices on others, but rather just want to keep themselves from changing. However, despite these reasonable group claims to special rights, there are also other cultural practices that heavily infringe upon the individual freedom of an individual. These can be referred to as relations within a group, and though some of them are reasonable, many are seen as unreasonable in today’s society. Okin mentions that “many culturally based customs aim to control women and render them, especially sexually and reproductively, servile to men’s desires and interests” (Okin, 16). Her theme of multicultural rights overriding feminism in what seems like almost every liberal freedom possible presents a big dilemma in the debate of whether specific group rights are just or not. The most stubborn defenders of multiculturalism stand behind their theory that cultural groups are ‘intrinsically good’; any customs practiced in the name of multiculturalism are just, no matter what the content of these practices are. I cannot agree with this position, as I do not believe it be justified simply by its existence. The idea that ‘multiculturalism is good because its multiculturalism’ is insufficient reason to continue the suppression of women’s rights and freedoms, and therefore I must embrace the arguments presented by Okin and take a position similar to Kymlica’s: “the very reason we had for being concerned with cultural membership – that it allows for meaningful individual choice” (Okin, 21). The reason we care about cultural differentiations is to put minorities of equal footing. If their policies heavily discriminate against and obstruct their own members on the path to the liberty, then I believe that policies are not deserving of recognition. A cultural group that claims special rights from a liberal culture must govern themselves by liberal principles; they must not infringe upon liberties that compose the basic framework of the society that they live in.
Dynamic and complex, the issue of multicultural rights is one that must be looked at from a variety of different perspectives to be fully understood. In order to create a society that promotes diversity between cultures, the ideas of liberty, social equality, and identity must be looked at with modern vision and an open mind. I stand firm in my belief that group-specific rights are justified so that social equality and equal treatment can be achieved in a multicultural society, given that these rights do not infringe upon the basic, fundamental liberal rights that modern societies are built upon. Using this knowledge, we can determine that multiculturalism is best defined as a complex network of diversity in which all individuals of varying ethnic and cultural backgrounds can live together in peace and are treated as equal citizens in society. This idea of equality does not only refer to a standard set of rules that affect every individual in the same manner, but rather an idea that everyone should feel just as much a member of the community as every other person in that society. Group-specific cultural rights are an excellent way of expressing this idea of citizen equality. These group rights help eliminate feelings of exclusion that are felt by many members of various minority circles, and also help compensate for any social disadvantages that may occur when a minority group is in the presence of a larger majority group. In spite of the common social rights that now benefit minority cultures in today’s societies, there are still some very real social issues facing minorities. With the help of group-specific cultural rights, these issues can be dealt with in a way that not only helps these minority groups feel a part of their society, but also helps establish a political idea that encourages a liberal, diverse nation in which all individuals live in harmony and benefit equally from society, regardless of their social backgrounds.