Why multiculturalism is as important as liberal democracy

11May09

Clifford Orwin, a prof at U of T and Stanford, has a column in the Globe today outlining his support for Jason Kenney’s ideas about citizenship and integration in Canada. The short version of his argument is that Kenney is right to assert that immigrants need to be better educated in Canadian values, and those values boil down to liberal democracy – he claims multiculturalism is not nearly so important to Canadians as we have been led to believe.

To a certain extent, I agree with his argument – Canadian society and politics are based on liberal democratic values, and we ignore that at our peril. But translating that prioritization of liberal democratic values into (at best) negativity or (at worst) hysteria regarding the multiculturalist policies and values that have made Canada unique is shortsighted, reactionary and dangerous.

Orwin makes much of what Francis Fukuyama says about goings-on over there in “Europe” – this struck me as a weak point for two reasons: 1) This is Francis Fukuyama of End of History fame, a book that proclaimed the triumph of liberal democracy in much the same way that Bush declared victory in Iraq from the flight deck of the USS Lincoln; 2) Talking about what’s happening over there in “Europe” is sort of like talking about what’s happening over there in “Africa.” I’m not sure if we’re drawing our lessons from the Netherlands, Scandinavia, France, Britain etc. – all of which have different immigrant populations and very different approaches to integration.

Orwin/Fukuyama argues that Europeans are in a “quandary” because they have been too open to new immigrant communities and too incapable of defining what Europe stands for. “Having sought to accommodate the newcomers by reinterpreting Europe as a hollow shell profuse in apologies for its former self,” Orwin states “[Europeans] found that empty vessels exerted weak powers of integration.” Conclusion – we Canadians need to have a strong sense of self based on liberal democracy, and make sure immigrants know what that means.

I question this conclusion for more reasons than I can outline here. The European example I know the most about — France — offers a lot of evidence for the opposite conclusion about integration: that having too inflexible an idea of national identity leads to fragmentation and disunity. Riots in the banlieu didn’t happen because France threw open its doors and forgot what it meant to be France; they happened for many reasons, but partly because the intense anxiety the French felt about Muslim immigration and preserving their identity led to discriminatory policies and (more importantly) lots of discriminatory rhetoric, particularly regarding the veil and gender equality.

I’m a woman. I care a lot about gender equality. I care so much about it, in fact, that I would hate for it (and other watchwords of the liberal democratic tradition) to become a rhetorical device that comes to signify our distrust and dislike of Muslim communities. I fear this is where Orwin and Jason Kenney are going – or that even if they are entirely well-meaning, this will be what happens anyways. The worst-case scenario in the short-term is that our support for (and arrogance about) liberal democracy and “our” values leads to a situation where certain immigrant populations feel justifiably targeted, misunderstood, disliked and discriminated against.

The argument that France somehow forgot what it meant to be liberal democratic France is completely ridiculous – by “Europe,” Fukuyama must have meant “Britain.” The French experience suggests that assertions of liberal democratic identity won’t provide a solution to the problem of integration; in fact, they might very well make things more difficult. Smart multicultural sensitivity that demonstrates respect for, and willingness to learn from, other traditions — combined with a reasoned and calm assertion of values like religious freedom and gender equality — seem to me to be the two pillars of a potential Canadian solution.

A solution to a problem I have yet to hear defined clearly. Nevertheless, I’m open to the argument that in some instances our pendulum has swung too far in the direction of multiculturalist accommodation – but I am upset by any efforts to swing it in the other direction that don’t show an adequate appreciation for the practical success and intellectual innovation of multiculturalist thought. Or an awareness of the great danger of launching Canada into the kind of “Us” versus “Them” debate that multiculturalism was designed to help us avoid – and has helped us avoid for the most part, if we’re really comparing our situation to what’s going on over there in “Europe”.

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