Multiculturalism is not tolerance
National Post 24 April 2012
By Jackson Doughart
In the Spring 2012 issue of Humanist Perspectives magazine, the German-American journalist Soeren Kern reported that the Dutch government will abandon its multicultural policy and reaffirm the values of the native population. This follows a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in some European countries, including Germany, whose chancellor Angela Merkel declared multiculturalism a failed policy in late 2010.
The European practice of multiculturalism is distinct from that of Canada, whose social policies are based on an inconsistent combination of liberalism and multiculturalism. Nevertheless, these developments provide an occasion to discuss the problematic underpinnings of the multicultural ideology, whose tenets are widely respected in Canada. Most importantly, the sacred cow of multiculturalism needs to be divorced from the concept of tolerance, which is rightly considered imperative in a pluralistic society.
Multiculturalism is a government policy agenda that seeks to reinforce and actively promote differences between societal groups and identities. It is built on the premise that individual rights, as guaranteed by the classic liberal-democratic state, do not adequately meet the needs of minority groups, and therefore establishes the concept of "group rights.” It also holds that some individuals can be subjected to, or exempted from, certain laws or policies based on ethnic, cultural, or religious affiliation. This clearly undermines the notion of a legal system that applies equally to everyone.
Some critics of multicultural policies have attempted to articulate a distinction between ‘sociological multiculturalism,’ meaning cultural diversity, and ‘political multiculturalism,’ which refers to the philosophical approaches of Charles Taylor, Will Kymlicka, Bhiku Parekh, and Iris Marion Young. Associating the word ‘multiculturalism’ with both ideas does a great disservice to everyone involved in the debate, since we already have several terms that describe cultural diversity, such as pluralism and cosmopolitanism.
The use of these adjectives also suggests that cultural diversity and multiculturalism are interrelated, when they are in fact radically different sets of ideas. Moreover, the employment of this tactic presumes that critics of multiculturalism need to defend themselves from accusations of racism, when no such preemption is required. In fact, it is multiculturalism, and not criticism thereof, that is allied with racism and sectarianism, since it demands that citizens be identified by their race, linguistic origin, religion, or other supposed markers of culture.
This is particularly egregious in the case of children, who are assumed by the state to identify with the religion and culture of their parents before they are mature enough to decide for themselves. Take, for example, the case of a five-year-old girl in Montreal, whose Muslim parents requested in December that she be exempted from a music program at Bienville School. The school agreed to the accommodation request, comparing the parents’ desire to deafen their child in this way to a special health requirement.
As this example demonstrates, multiculturalism can effectively undermine traditional liberal goals in the name of tolerance. The state’s obligation to provide public education to children is undermined if integral parts of that education can be withheld based on parental beliefs. Such "reasonable accommodations,” which are invariably religious accommodations, render multiculturalism antithetical to secularism, the principle of separation between government and religion. It is only through respecting this separation that authentic confessional freedom can be guaranteed to the practitioners of all faiths, and to people of no faith at all.
Perhaps the most damning consequence of multiculturalism is its dulling effect upon our civil liberties, which we should feel both fortunate and entitled to have. None of these is more important than freedom of expression, which must include the right to say anything, at any time, about anyone, including the members of minority groups. Due to the pseudo-judicial powers of human rights commissions and the constitutional caveat of "reasonable limits,” freedom of expression does not exist in Canada. Responsibility for this unpardonable state of affairs falls squarely in the hands of multicultural theory, which views free expression as a malleable privilege and not an inalienable right.
For all of its talk about pluralism and diversity, multiculturalism actually creates a single culture based on relativism, in which unconditional acceptance is revered and skepticism is discouraged. Instead of being brought to dialectical battle, differences in world view are protected via unqualified and institutional tolerance, which eviscerates the combative and democratic component of politics. Ultimately, the nihilistic nature of multiculturalism profanes tolerance by failing to discriminate between genuine recognition of difference and blind acceptance of illiberal and anti-secular practices.
To the extent that tolerance is a necessary human quality, it can be defended through the individual and universal freedoms that we associate with classical liberalism, secularism, and the Enlightenment era of Western history. Yet multiculturalism, which can only be advanced by curtailing these freedoms, effectively acts as a censure against dissenting views, usually by shaming those who part with the established consensus. And where is the tolerance in that?
- Jackson Doughart is a policy writer for the Canadian Secular Alliance and the author of A Refuge for the Unborn: The Case Against Abortion on Prince Edward Island.