Reform or Destroy?
Copyright (c) 1999 Princeton University Press. This article is now available
in an anthology titled IS MULTICULTURALISM BAD FOR WOMEN? edited by Joshua Cohen
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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
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
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.