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Kymlicka’s Multicultural Citizenship

In this post, I provide a summary of Will Kymlicka’s very influential book on multiculturalism, titled Multicultural Citizenship: a liberal theory of minority rights. This book is important for everyone interested in multiculturalism since it initiated the contemporary debate about group-differentiated rights. One needs not to fully agree with Kymlicka to acknowledge his courageous effort to challenge liberalism’s atomistic individualism by promoting an interpretation of traditional liberal values which demands special treatment to members of some (minorities and immigrant) groups. In doing so, Kymlicka challenges the long assumed neutrality of the liberal state. His thinking and argumentation comes within liberalism itself, which is what makes his case distinctive (if anyone dares to give a concrete definition of liberalism, be my guest).

There are of course fundamental aspects of his book that I find troubling: firstly, his treatment of culture as a more or less homogenous entity; secondly, the clear cut division of national minorities and immigrant groups; thirdly, the use of ethnicity as the marker for cultural identity which is often advanced at the expense of other identities; and finally, his comprehensive liberal approach to autonomy being the ultimate value that the state needs to safeguard.

As this is not a review but rather a summary of the book, my personal opinion will be put on hold for a future post. In what follows, I will try to illustrate Kymlicka’s arguments. Let us begin.

According to Kymlicka, a nation is a ‘historical community, more or less institutionally complete, occupying a given territory or homeland sharing a distinct language and culture’ (p.11). The modern state is multinational since it consists of more than one group with a distinctive national identity. These additional groups, are called national minorities and are disadvantaged in comparison to the dominant majority culture, since the state, contrary to the contemporary liberal assumption of cultural neutrality, is ethnoculturally biased in favour of the dominant societal culture.

Kymlicka, promotes group rights for the purposes of cultural accommodation, since the maintenance of culture as context-of-choice is pivotal to individual autonomy. Therefore, his theory of MC is a liberal one, since it is justified on the grounds of freedom of conscience that treats autonomy as the ‘most basic liberal right’ (p.26). Autonomy according to Kymlicka, is the ability to acknowledge and revise one’s beliefs and convictions. In this context, culture is the structure whose translational abilities provide meaning to the world. Hence, the existence of many cultures as vehicles of interpretation, does not threaten the solidarity of the modern state, since nationality is detached from patriotism and patriotism is defined as a shared commitment to diversity, rather than as a product of ‘a common national identity’ (p.13).

In order to grasp the complexities of cultural pluralism, Kymlicka distinguishes immigrants from national minorities. Immigrants, in so far as they have voluntarily entered the country, are expected to ‘participate within the public institutions of the dominant culture’ (p.14) and they are not ‘asking for a parallel society’ (p.15). The demands they put forward to the host state, are claims for recognition of their cultural particularity in order to integrate better in the society. National minorities on the other hand, often articulate demands for political or territorial autonomy.

The group-differentiated rights that Kymlicka promotes are self-governmental rights, polyethnic rights and special representation rights. Self governmental rights are answers to claims put forward by national minorities who ask for ‘political autonomy or territorial jurisdiction’ (p.27); polyethnic rights are responses to demands articulated by immigrant groups and can take the form of anti-racism policies like modification of the educational curricula, funding, and exemptions from the law; and finally, special representation rights are seen as ‘corollary to self-governmental rights’ (p.32) and are utilised in order to counterbalance the historical exclusion that members of disadvantaged groups experience.

In order to ensure that individuals enjoy freedom of conscience, Kymlicka suggests that the liberal state should support external protections to minority cultures and at the same time reject internal restrictions (p.37). By supporting external protections, the state must take action in order to ensure that the group is not treated disadvantageously at the inter-group level. In the same way, the guarantee that no internal restrictions take place, is to make sure that the basic liberties and freedoms of individuals at the intra-group level are secured as well (p.35-36).

In defending his theory, Kymlicka introduces a modern twist to traditional liberal arguments, demonstrating that group rights are not a thread to national consensus or individual freedom. His argument is that group rights are justified based on liberal principles, since liberalism should not be (and has not been) restricted to ‘universal individual rights’ as it is often uncritically assumed. Kymlicka advances his theory by utilising John Stuart Mill’s argument in favour of solidarity through national homogeneity and traces its evolution within the liberal (and socialist) literature in order to identify the roots of the commonly-held liberal view against group-differentiated rights (p.52). He outlines three sources of discontent: firstly, ‘a realpolitik fear for international peace’, secondly, ‘a commitment to racial equality’, and thirdly, ‘a worry about the escalating demands of immigrant groups’ (p.68). Kymlicka’s response to these worries is that ‘ethnic revival involves a revision in terms of integration, not a rejection of integration’ (p.67) and therefore, national and ethnic recognition are not sources of division, but rather means for better integration on the grounds of equality rather than on the grounds of assimilation.

In order to avoid assimilation, cultural membership must be maintained, since culture is the structure within which a person is able to live a good life. A good life, according to Kymlicka is not restricted to freedom of choice, but rather is defined as the life that reflects one’s interests, beliefs and desires, all of which are open to reconsideration and revision (p.81). Therefore, Kymlicka aligns cultural accommodation with traditional liberal principles like freedom of expression, association, autonomy, and information (p.84). Cultural membership is so important, because it ‘provides meaningful options’ and also ‘affects how others perceive and respond to us’ (p.89). Moreover, culture as a source of identification, is more secure because it depends on ‘belonging and not [on] achievement’ (p.89), and is directly related to our self-esteem and dignity. Therefore, ‘as long as polyethnic rights to immigrants and self-governmental rights to national minorities secure access to a societal culture, then they contribute to individual freedom’ (p.101).

Kymlicka places special emphasis on language, in order to demonstrate that the policy of ‘benign neglect’ is neither realistic nor practically plausible, since either deliberately or by implication, the state is bound to support one specific societal culture through the use of its language in public documents and institutions. Even if the institutions of the state seem to be neutral, the ethnocultural background of the national majority will be reflected in it decisions, leaving the members of minority cultures exposed to the will of the majority (p.113).

Therefore, cultural minorities according to Kymlicka have a legitimate claim for group representation under two conditions: firstly, they must experience historical and structural disadvantage, and secondly, they need to demonstrate that their claim for self-government reflects the will of their members (pp.144-45). The kind of representation varies; it can either be mirror representation, where the group is represented by some of its members as is the case with women who are often guaranteed 50 per cent proportional representation, or it can be like the case of Maori whose representatives do not necessarily need to be Maori, as long as they are accountable to the Maori voters (p.149).

Along the discussion of group representation comes the discussion of autonomy and illiberal cultures. The worry is expressed as follows: what if minority cultures do not want more rights, but rather want to be left alone; in other words, what if these cultural groups ask for tolerance rather than autonomy. Even more worryingly, how should the liberal state react to an illiberal culture that restricts its members’ individual freedoms? (pp.153-55)

In response to these worries, Kymlicka argues that the principle of autonomy should be defended at all venues, public and private, political or civil, because it is autonomy that makes liberal tolerance possible. As he claims, ‘what distinguishes liberal tolerance is precisely its commitment to autonomy; that is, the idea that individuals should be free to assess and potentially revise their existing ends’ (p.158). Therefore, he promotes a comprehensive account of autonomy, similarly to the one supported by Mill rather than the one put forward by Rawls. Contrary to Rawls who treats autonomy as fundamental only at the political level, Kymlicka promotes autonomy as a value that must be endorsed at all the venues of human interaction (p.162).

Even though Kymlicka is not willing to drop his commitment to autonomy, he is not eager to justify intervention to minority cultures. The promotion of autonomy or the abolition of illiberal and oppressive traditions is not a justifiable reason to intervene he argues (p.167). Liberal countries should treat illiberal cultures in the same ways as they treat countries whose laws are illiberal. Like a foreign country does not intervene in another country that might have oppressive laws, so should the liberal state abstain from intervening in cultures whose practices are deemed as illiberal by the majority (p.168). Instead, the liberal state must provide incentives for liberalisation and integration, through deliberation and cooperation. Of course, this should not be taken to its logical extreme, since intervention is not absolutely forbidden; rather, it is justified only in ‘gross and systematic violation of human rights, such as slavery or genocide or mass torture and expulsions, just as these are grounds for intervening in foreign countries’ (p.169).

It is by now evident that Kymlicka is well aware of the fact that groups might have different conceptions of the good life upon which it is impossible to ground social unity (p.187). He also acknowledges that a shared commitment to political values is not enough to settle the worries expressed by Mill and more recently by David Miller, about the need for a common identity as a source of social unity. In respond to these worries Kymlicka proposes a theory of MC based on Taylor’s understanding of ‘deep diversity’ where citizens must ‘not only respect diversity, but also respect diversity of approaches to diversity’ (pp.189-90).

For Kymlicka, neither secession nor assimilation is an option. In the case of secession, the challenges of diversity are maintained since the newly created groups rather than being homogenous, are rearranged entities that encompass within them the same problems that existed prior to the division (p.191); and cultural assimilation is not an option either, since as empirical data shows, cultural groups have been historically resistant to assimilation despite the variety of culturally imperialist forces that were utilised for their assimilation. Additionally, as Kymlicka suggests, assimilation is counterproductive, especially in the case of immigrants, since their integration to the host country’s society is smoother and faster if their ethnic particularity is recognised.

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  1. Dear sir,
    I am currently preparing for my exam and have this topic to study for a particular answer, every other article I read seemed complicated and difficult to reproduce or even interpret! Finally I came across this piece written by you and finished studying in no time… Leaving this comment with a heartfelt thank you.

  2. Nationalism and patriotism are entwined in the national context, only the Englishman will understand what it is to be English. The love and devotion to England, as opposed to for example the Syrian migrant. The Syrian living in England will not relate to patriotism and solidarity in the same way as an Englishman who remembers his team winning the world Cup in 1966, would do.

    This is a useful article to help me understand Kymlicka’s work on multiculturalism.

  3. Very well written article on such a delicate theme! Loved how you manage to summarize his work in an impartial manner even though you said in the beginning you disagree with some of his points. Great job!