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Reform or Destroy?

A response to Susan Okin's "Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?"
Joseph Raz
Copyright (c) 1999 Princeton University Press. This article is now available in an anthology titled IS MULTICULTURALISM BAD FOR WOMEN? edited by Joshua Cohen and Matthew Howard, from Princeton Univerisity Press, 1999. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission, in writing, from the publisher, except for reading and browsing via the World Wide Web. Users are not permitted to mount this file on any network servers. For COURSE PACK and other PERMISSIONS, send e-mail to Princeton University Press.]

I find myself in broad agreement with Susan Okin's concerns, and, so far as practical politics goes, probably little separates us. However, I share neither some of the views which Okin attacks, nor some of those she accepts. In a sense I am a stranger to this debate,1 but the seriousness of the issues raised by Okin made me agree to write a brief rejoinder to her thoughtful article.

Okin focuses her criticism here on "defenders of multiculturalism [who] largely confine their defense of group rights to groups that are internally liberal." I plead not guilty to any charge of advocating the protection of distinct cultures, if their existence is taken to be a good in itself, or a good conditional only on the desire of their members to see those cultures preserved. Furthermore, while I believe that in certain circumstances groups have rights, I do not believe that those rights play an all-important role in protecting or affirming multiculturalism. On both points, I am at one with Okin. She is not interested in defenses of multiculturalism that depend on the good of cultural diversity as such, or on the sheer desire of people to see their own culture preserved. She seems sympathetic to multiculturalism to the extent that it contributes to the quality of people's life. And she is critical not of multicultural group rights, but of any protection of cultural diversity that perpetuates oppressive cultures, or their oppressive practices. See, for example the doubts she raises regarding some uses of the cultural defense in criminal trials: "the primary concern," she writes, "is that such defenses, by failing to protect women and sometimes children of minority cultures from . . . violence, are violating their rights to the equal protection of the laws." But these defenses protect individual, not group rights. Okin's concern focuses on the harm some cultures inflict on their members, or--more precisely--the harm they inflict on women.

1. I think that Okin underestimates the problem with multiculturalism. It suffers from all the problems she mentions, but from others equally serious. Many, perhaps most of the cultures represented in the West have a long tradition of intolerance towards (some) non-members. Many, perhaps most, are intolerant of many of their own members. Repression of homosexuality is probably as widespread as discrimination against women. Intolerance of dissent within the community is widespread, as is blindness to the needs of many people, whose physical abilities or disabilities, or psychological needs fail to conform to the approved ways of the community.

2. If what I will call for brevity's sake "multicultural measures" are to be taken only with regard to cultural groups that embrace and pursue the right degree of toleration and freedom towards both their own members and others, then none will qualify. On this, Okin is absolutely right. But--and this is my second point--we will not qualify either. Who "we" are is a moot point. But if "we" includes all those who are not candidates for the benefits of special multicultural measures, then we are homophobic and racist, indifferent to the poor and disadvantaged at least as much as all those cultural groups for the sake of whose members multicultural measures are adopted. It is probably true that in the recent past we, or some of us, have improved the situation of women in society. But not only are we a long way from eradicating injustice to women, but we are even further away from eradicating other injustices in our societies. I expect Okin agrees to all this. She is merely concerned to point out that we should fight for justice for women in other cultural groups as hard as we fight for it in society at large. And so we should. But just as we do not cast doubt about the legitimacy of acting for the preservation of "our" culture simply because it is unjust to women, and to many others, so we should not hold the injustices perpetrated by other cultures as a reason for striving to eliminate them.

Why is it that, a few people excepted, we think of reforming our culture, rather than of destroying it? For most of us the thought of destroying our culture and starting with a clean slate just does not make sense. It is impossible even to envisage what it could mean. Of course, we can imagine, for example, deciding to emigrate to France and trying to shed any trace of our culture, trying to become French through and through. We tend to find such a course of action undignified. We suspect that those who so behave lack self-respect or self-esteem. But we can understand what it is for a person to try to shed one culture and immerse himself in another. We cannot imagine what it is for a whole national community to do the same, let alone start from scratch.

So if we can think of taking steps to put an end to the existence of distinct cultural groups within our midst this is only because we are outsiders to these groups. Members can disown their group and try to assimilate in the majority group--and we should certainly enable them to do so. Or they can strive to change their group. But they cannot responsibly wish for its extinction. Outsiders can, and members can when they see themselves as outsiders. But, particularly horrendous groups excepted, we should not do so precisely because we are outsiders.

3. These reflections (in conjunction with related considerations) have practical implications: in the first instance, excepting morally repugnant cultures, the state should recognize and support all the cultures significantly represented in it, and encourage respect for them. At the same time, the state should protect its inhabitants from injustice whether of a sexist or some other kind. Just as respect and support for the majority culture does not imply its preservation from change, nor immunity to reform, so with regard to other cultural groups within the country. That this involves difficult problems, with sound values pulling in different directions, is obvious. That no solution to these problems is possible without sacrificing the promotion of some sound values is equally obvious. The need for sensible multicultural measures arises out of dilemmas generated by imperfect reality. They represent the least worst policy, not a triumphal new discovery.

4. In all this I feel that I am agreeing with Okin. I'll mention just one central difference. In some ways Okin shows great sensitivity to the significance of social practices. But in others she seems somewhat blind to them, in particular to the fact that the same social arrangements can have differing social meanings, and therefore differing moral significance, in the context of different cultures. This leads her to judge other cultures more harshly than her own, for she is instinctively sensitive to the context of her culture (and mine) and is less likely to misread it.

5. However, this blindness to the values that other cultures realize, and to the opportunities they afford women and others, has less of an impact on policy decisions than first appears. Practices which are harmless, or even valuable when pursued within the confines of an independent society, often become oppressive and unacceptable when persisted in by immigrant groups, living as they must within an alien culture. The cultural and moral significance of some of their practices inevitably changes in the new circumstances. And often it changes for the worse: turning what was an ordinary aspect of life to a symbol of alienation, of rejection of one's surroundings, etc. Once a culture becomes one among several, within a closely integrated political and economic system, practices which used to shape opportunities may come to restrict them. And they may conflict with aspirations legitimately encouraged by the larger society within which members of that community live. It is a mistake to think that multicultural measures can counteract these facts. Nor should they try. They should not aim to preserve the pristine purity of different cultural groups. They should aim to enable them to adjust and change to a new form of existence within a larger community, while preserving their integrity, pride in their identity, and continuity with their past and with others of the same culture in different countries.

1 For my own views see "Multiculturalism: A Liberal Perspective," Ethics in the Public Domain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, rev. ed., 1995).

Originally published in the October/ November 1997 issue of Boston Review

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