Thursday, 21 June 2012

Charles Taylor's "Pragmatic Contradiction of Liberalism"

This essay will focus on the “pragmatic contradiction of liberalism” as outlined by Charles Taylor in the excerpt from Multiculturism in our textbook, and will attempt to defend Steven Rockefeller1 and Michael Walzer’s2 proposed answer to this problem. I will therefore strive to show that the law in liberal democratic societies must not be either difference-blind or sensitive, but both in a certain precise sense that will be expounded on below. The essay proceeds in three stages. First, drawing primarily from Taylor, the problem faced by liberalism is summarised. Second, Rockefeller’s observations are presented; Walzer builds on these, and his arguments will form the final step.
            Taylor begins his discourse of the politics of equal recognition by considering two major changes that have taken place in Western society, the first of which is the move from a culture of honour to one of dignity. This brought with it the politics of universalism; Taylor refers to it as “the politics of equal dignity.” Universalism emphasises the equal dignity of citizens, and the political fulfilment of this has been in the equalisation of rights and entitlements. He notes that universalism is so appealing, that even persons who wished to deny African Americans voting rights all those years ago, did so under pretexts consistent with this philosophy.
            The second change is the development of the notion of identity, and it has given rise to what Taylor calls “the politics of difference”. Though the notion that every person has a unique identity follows from universalism, its ramifications in the political sphere are different. While the politics of equal dignity requires “an identical basket of rights and immunities” for each person, the politics of difference requires recognition of the uniqueness, the distinctness of each individual; the lumping together of this unique identity with that of the majority group is the “cardinal sin”, as it were, against the idea of authenticity.
            He notes that the politics of dignity clearly has an “entry point” into the politics of difference as on the most basic level, both are concerned with the denunciation of discrimination on any grounds—this is equality in its most fundamental form. A closer examination however, reveals that their interests do not align much further than that; as Taylor says, “The universal demand powers an acknowledgement of the specificity.” In other words, distinct minority groups do exist in our society, and hence the politics of equal dignity is fighting to protect something that really isn’t universally present in the first place. This problem is two-sided however: the politics of difference, in the name of recognising the identity of each human being, often discriminates by providing differential treatment to certain groups.
            While this disconcerting difference of interests might be explained away in the case of groups that have been subject historically to discrimination—here differential treatment is due as recompense, and to raise these groups up to the level that the rest of society enjoys—the seriousness of the divergence becomes apparent when laws that uphold or cherish distinctness on the grounds that one’s culture (for instance) is fundamentally intertwined with one’s identity are considered.
            One way to explain this difference, Taylor proposes, is to consider the underlying intuitions of each value. The politics of dignity is based on the idea that all humans are equally worthy of respect, which in turn can be based on the concept of the universal human potential. It is this potential itself, rather than what a man may choose to make of it, that is worthy of respect. The politics of difference however, has a different sort of potential at its core: here, it is the potential to form and define one’s own identity as an individual, and as a culture. But the main point of contention that the politics of difference has with the politics of identity is illustrated with the Saul Bellow quote, “When the Zulus produce a Tolstoy we will read him;” this remark seems to deny the very principle of equality among cultures. As Taylor says, “The possibility that the Zulus, while having the same potential for culture formation as anyone else, might nevertheless have come up with a culture that is less valuable than others [should be] ruled out from the start.” In other words, the politics of dignity seems to go beyond an acknowledgement of the equal potential of humans and cultures, and places value on what they have made of this potential.
We can here sum up the disagreement: the politics of dignity claims that the politics of difference violates the principle of non-discrimination, while the latter reproaches the former of negating identity and “forcing people into a homogenous mold”. But the complaint that the politics of difference has against the politics of dignity goes even further than that: the “mold” is in fact a reflection of the dominant culture at the time, and it is only “minority groups and supressed cultures that are forced to take alien form.” Therefore the so-called difference-blind society is itself highly discriminatory. Taylor recognises the seriousness of the complaints from both sides and hence does not attempt to provide simple answers where none exist. To further the discussion then, we turn to Rockefeller’s observations on Taylor’s essay.
His main aim is to deepen the politics—and ethics—of equal dignity so that it can make meaningful contact with the politics of recognition, and he undertakes this by examining the politics of dignity in light of (1) the values of liberal democracy, (2) the environmental movement and (3) the religious dimension of experience. He additionally attempts to show that though the politics of difference has a place in liberal democracies, in its extreme form it “threatens to subvert the ideals of universal freedom and inclusive community”.
Firstly from the point of view of democracy, a person’s ethnic or cultural identity is not his primary identity—this is inherent in the above discussion, but Rockefeller makes it explicit. A person claims equal recognition under the law on the basis of his universal human identity and potential. In other words, he notes that Taylor’s argument that human potential is at the center of the politics of dignity at the very least relegates a lower position to the potential to define one’s own identity, particularly culturally, which is at the center of the politics of difference. This is not a mere difference of opinion as to what is “more important” to each of these strands of politics within a liberal democracy; it is rather a question of what is more important to a liberal democracy itself: “To elevate ethnic identity, which is secondary, to a position equal in significance to, or above, a person’s universal identity is to weaken the foundations of liberalism and to open the door to intolerance.” Though this may seem like a rewording of the main contention that the politics of difference has against the politics of dignity, closer inspection reveals that it is in fact not. Here he is arguing that the objective of a liberal democratic culture is to respect ethnic identities and to encourage different cultural traditions to develop fully their potential for expression of the democratic ideals of freedom and equality, “leading in most cases to major cultural transformations [my emphasis].”
He agrees with John Dewey then, that liberalism is the expression of a distinct moral faith and way of life3. One can realise this “good life…by living with a liberal spirit, showing equal respect to all citizens, preserving an open mind, practicing intolerance, cultivating a sympathetic interest in the needs and struggles of others, imagining new possibilities, protecting basic human rights and freedoms, solving problems with the method of intelligence in a nonviolent atmosphere pervaded by a spirit of cooperation.” Liberal democracy, understood in this way, is first and foremost a way of individual life, and its moral meaning is realised when institutions become instruments of human growth and liberation.
Thus “when a liberal society faces the question of granting special privileges, immunities, and political autonomy to one cultural group…it cannot compromise on fundamental human rights.” The liberal democratic ideal is opposed to the rigid idea of cultural survival, and instead calls for the moulding of values according to the ideals of freedom and equality, among others that democracy upholds—“cross-cultural dialogue that transforms human understanding” deserves a special mention here. So if a culture is so preoccupied with its own protection and growth that it wishes the law to make exceptions in its favour at the expense of another culture’s—or individual’s—freedom, it is operating contrary to the very spirit of democracy that it wishes to be a part of.
The environmental movement is used by Rockefeller to demonstrate how a politics of equality might arise from a concern with the preservation of diversity—he attempting to go deeper than the “entry point” discussed above. Like multiculturalists, environmentalists wish to further the appreciation of the distinctness of different forms of life, and by extension, campaign for moral and legal rights of oppressed “groups”. Both philosophies attack hierarchal modes of thought; cultural on the one hand, biological on the other. It can further be argued that cultures are like life-forms; organic and evolutionary. “Each, in its own distinct fashion, reveals the way the creative energy of the universe, working through human nature in interaction with a distinct environment, has come into a larger focus,” Rockefeller says; disease and disintegration are part of evolution, and can hence be accounted for in this framework. Therefore, the multiculturalist contends, all cultures must be treated equally. Closer scrutiny however, reveals that inherent in this claim is the knowledge that cultures are in fact not equal; akin to the notion “to honour everyone is to honour no one”, if all cultures were indeed equal, equal treatment would be a non-issue. Nonetheless, the “biocentric” view—that each culture is unique and hence worthy of respect—is clearly not mutually exclusive from the observation that cultures may not be equal; each has its place in a democracy. To give a concrete example, in the issue of whether textbooks in certain American schools should be rewritten to highlight the histories of particular ethnicities, Rockefeller holds that what is needed is a “new, deeper appreciation of the ethnic histories of the American people, not a reduction of American histories to ethnic histories.” The two views presented above can in fact coexist if the deeper ideals of liberal democracy are adhered to.
The idea of the equal worth of different cultures, Rockefeller goes on, may also be grounded in religious experience; all the arguments that are presented thus far for the equal value of human identity reflect Biblical and classical Greek notions “that there is something sacred about human personality.” But religious perspectives bring heavy implications, as Rockefeller notes eloquently: “[Religion is] opposed to anthropocentrism as well as to all egoisms of class, race, or culture. It calls for an attitude of humility. It encourages a respect for, and pride in, one’s own identity only insofar as such respect and pride grow out of a recognition of the value of the uniqueness in the identity of all other peoples and life forms.”
Building on Rockefeller’s observations, Walzer begins by sharpening the distinction between the two kinds of liberalism that lay immanent in both Taylor’s and Rockefeller’s essay—he calls them Liberalism 1 and 2. Liberalism 1 is committed in the strongest possible sense to individual rights, and by extension, to neutrality. This state has no cultural or religious projects beyond ensuring safety and guaranteeing freedom for its citizens. Liberalism 2 allows for a state to pass laws that encourage the flourishing of one culture, as long as the rights and freedoms of members of society who do not belong to that culture are respected. However, Liberalism 1 can be chosen within Liberalism 2, since the latter presents several options, and one of those is Liberalism 1. This is the option that Walzer himself—quite rightly in my opinion—would choose. It is important to note that he is speaking here primarily of Western democratic societies with immigrant populations and minorities, like Canada and the United States. Walzer reasons, “[Immigrants to societies like this one] intended for, and prepared to, take certain cultural risks when they came here and left the certainties of their old way of life behind…The communities they have created here are different from those they knew before precisely in this sense, that they are adapted to, and shaped significantly by, the liberal idea of individual rights.” So in the United States—and to some extent Canada—cultural groups are left free to fend for themselves, and do not rely on the state for support or recognition of their particular projects, and this is precisely because this is the path that has been chosen through the democratic process and actual life choices of the men and women in these groups. So to frame it in the words of the question that we started with, in a Western liberal democracy committed to equality, law should be difference-blind from within the framework of being difference-sensitive.
We close with the consideration of language laws in Quebec. Do they fit the principles of liberal democracy just discussed? I agree with Taylor and Walzer, who argue that they do. This is a case where Liberalism 2 has taken precedence over Liberalism 1, and this is precisely because democracy gives Quebeckers this power. Quebec is a society with collective goals, and the government sees fit that these goals are given the force of law. Since no fundamental rights of individuals are infringed on, laws encouraging the flourishing of French Canadian culture are completely acceptable by the standards that we have discussed above—recall that Liberalism 1 is merely one option among several that Liberalism 2 presents. What about minority groups in the United States? Walzer notes, “What would the state have to do to guarantee or even to begin to guarantee the survival of all the minorities that make up American society? The various minority groups would need control over public monies, segregated or partially segregated schools, employment quotas that encouraged people to register with this or that group…” Clearly in this case, because of the sheer number of disparate voices calling out for recognition, the people have chosen Liberalism 1 from within Liberalism 2, as we noted above, and this is also in line with the principles of liberal democracy.


1 Steven Rockefeller, “Comment” in Multiculturalism (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994), 87-98.

2 Ibid. 99-103

3 Rockefeller references John Dewey, “Creative Democracy—The Task Before Us,” in Later Works of John Dewey, 1925-1935, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988), 14: 224-30

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