On what grounds have liberals criticised multiculturalism?

Liberals, particularly universalist liberals, have criticised multiculturalism on a number of grounds. Liberals argue that cultural diversity should remain in the private sphere; only views that are tolerant themselves should be tolerated; individual rights should take precedence over group rights.

Liberals, particularly universalist liberals, have criticised multiculturalism on a number of grounds. Liberals argue that cultural diversity should remain in the private sphere; only views that are tolerant themselves should be tolerated; individual rights should take precedence over group rights.

Multiculturalism advocates public celebration of cultural difference, known as the ‘politics of recognition’. For them, group marginalisation is a cultural phenomenon that operates through stereotypes and structures. Multiculturalists therefore believe that equality of opportunity and universal citizenship do not go far enough. Thus, they believe that marginal groups should assert themselves by reclaiming an authentic sense of cultural identity. However, liberals argue that cultural diversity should be celebrated only in the private sphere. For liberals, public life must be characterised by a bedrock of shared civic allegiances. Thus, citizenship is divorced form cultural identity, which is seen to be a private matter. Integration, rather than diversity, is encouraged in the public sphere. This can be seen in the way in which proficiency in English and a knowledge of US political history are preconditions for gaining citizenship in the USA, and the way in which the full-face veil has been banned in France and Belgium, along with other symbols of Islam.

Liberals have also rejected the multiculturalist idea of ‘deep diversity’, a type of diversity that rejects the idea of objective standards. Liberals only tolerate views that are themselves tolerant (ideas that are compatible with personal freedom and autonomy). They are therefore unwilling to endorse practices such as female circumcision, arranged marriages and female dress codes even if it is argued that these are crucial for the maintenance of the cultural identity. Therefore, individual freedom is more important than the group’s cultural identity.

This has led liberals to reject the idea that group rights should take precedence over individual rights. Will Kymlicka argued that group rights should be granted in the form of self-government rights, polyethnic rights and representation rights. Self-government rights involve the devolution of power through federalism to political units that are substantially controlled by their members. For example, the Sami Parliament of Norway. Polyethnic rights are rights that help the group express and maintain their cultural distinctiveness. This includes legal exemptions such as Sikhs not having to wear motorcycle crash helmets. Representation rights aim to redress the under representation of certain groups in positions in public life. This leads to ‘positive discrimination’, whereby, for example, a certain number of people from a cultural group have to have positions on a local committee. Liberals believe that individual rights should take precedence over group rights. Cultural belonging is usually a result of family and social background rather than personal choice. Therefore people don’t ‘join’ an ethnic or religious group so they shouldn’t be obliged to follow its practices. This has led to some liberals arguing that rights are only meaningful when applied to individuals.

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