Discord on the road to harmony

Multiculturalism Reconsidered
September 26, 2003

In Culture and Equality, Brian Barry set out to do a demolition job on multiculturalism by arguing that it is the "latest incarnation of the fallacies of the New Left" - an intellectual dead end. What makes Barry's argument especially attractive is that it comes not from the traditional votaries of the right but from someone who professes to be a liberal. Rooted in the universalist liberal political theory of John Stuart Mill, Barry views ideological multiculturalism as deeply flawed, militating against policies aimed at income distribution, and impervious of the reality that liberal egalitarianism can provide a robust accommodation of religious and cultural diversity without the need for major revisions. For Barry, liberal theory does not need extension because of cultural diversity; cultural diversity needs to measure up to the principles of liberal egalitarianism.

Multiculturalism Reconsidered provides an opportunity for some of Barry's protagonists to answer back. As is often the case with such efforts, much space and energy is taken up countering allegations and accusations of deliberate misrepresentation. However, once the reader wades through the ritual preliminaries, there are some interesting responses to which Barry, in turn, is required to reply.

The contributors to this volume fall into three categories: those who are generally sympathetic to Barry's overall project but highlight shortcomings, for example, the extent of rule exemption for minorities allowed for under liberal democracies (Samuel Freeman, Paul Kelly, Simon Caney and Ian Shapiro); those for whom Barry's framework is limiting in the choices and burden of costs it imposes on cultural minorities or insufficiently sensitive to distinctions between identity and diversity politics (Susan Mendus, David Miller and Judith Squires); and those for whom Barry is engaged in multiculturalist caricatures to create phantom targets (James Tully, Bhikhu Parekh and Chandran Kukathas). The last group is incensed at being described as anti-Enlightenment relativists. Parekh asserts that "Barry has said nothing to challenge the central beliefs of multiculturalists" - this despite several contributors pointing out logical inconsistencies in his argument.

In general, there are some thoughtful responses worthy of more detailed consideration. The most sustained argument, aired by several contributors, is that developed liberal democracies have failed to grapple with structural inequalities based on race, ethnicity and gender, and an egalitarian outlook ought to bring Barry much closer to his opponents than he would like. Yet, as Kelly points out, it "is only as a result of adopting an unduly Millian approach to the claims of his [Barry's] multicultural opponents that he fails to take the issue of equality of status and outcome more seriously".

In his response, Barry is unrepentant. He has no patience for "touchy-feely time engaging in 'mutual recognition' and 'intercultural cultural dialogue'", and disabuses Tully and Parekh of the notion that their multiculturalisms are devoid of essentialist and relativist reasoning.

Official protestations are not important but "the logic of [the] proposal" is. And, according to Barry's logic, the concerns of his critics over equal opportunities are also misplaced. Instead of entrenching groups' rights or creating an asymmetrical constitutional order, equality of opportunity is guaranteed by procedural rights and a commitment to a more equal distribution of income. Of course, no liberal western democracy approximates to a fair baseline of equality as far income is concerned, and this does raise significant problems, but the case for group rights is untenable. The case for the state to democratise illiberal cultural and religious groups, as some multiculturalists insist, is even more problematic if taken seriously from a libertarian perspective. Barry points to the example of the Sikhs in Britain as a group that has achieved political success without the need for special rights. The irony that in India they have been campaigning for a personal law - assimilated into the Hindu Code Bill after 1947 - seems to have been lost on Parekh in his writings on multiculturalism in India and his advocacy of the Sikh case in Britain as an exemplar of a subject-dependent case of equality.

Although there is a sense of nothing new in the dialogue of the deaf between the "tireless debunker" (Barry) and the purveyors of "sanctimonious earnestness" (multiculturalists), this should not detract from the many fine contributions in this book. There is a danger that multiculturalists will ignore Culture and Equality or interpret it as the credo of "Merrie England's" libertarian particularism with which Barry is only too happy to be identified. However, as this book makes clear, this will be difficult to do for those seeking a better understanding of diversity.

Gurharpal Singh is professor of inter-religious relations, University of Birmingham.

Multiculturalism Reconsidered: 'Culture and Equality' and its Critics

Editor - Paul Kelly
ISBN - 0 7456 93 5 and 94 3
Publisher - None
Price - £55.00 and £16.99
Pages - 243

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