Multiculturalism: Liberalism and Social Advancement

Topics: Liberalism, Identity politics, Egalitarianism Pages: 6 (1355 words) Published: June 11, 2013
What is multiculturalism?
Some continue to use the term ‘multiculturalism’ empirically; that is, simply to refer to the existence of diverse cultures, values and traditions within the same society. Multiculturalism, however, is not the same as cultural diversity. Rather, it is a particular approach to dealing with the challenges of cultural diversity and, in particular, to bringing about the advancement of marginalised or disadvantaged groups. However, multiculturalism adopts a novel approach to such matters, one that departs from conventional approaches to social advancement, especially as represented by republicanism and social reformism.

Republicanism (associated with classical liberalism) is primarily concerned with the problem of legal and political exclusion, the denial to certain groups of rights that are enjoyed by their fellow citizens. The key idea of republicanism is the principle of universal citizenship, the belief that all members of society should enjoy the same status and the same entitlements. Republican thinking was, for example, reflected in first-wave feminism, in that its campaign for female emancipation focused on the struggle for votes for women and on equal access to education, careers and public life in general. It is also evident in anti-discrimination legislation, such as the Race Relations Act (1976), which prohibits discrimination on the grounds of race, colour and ethnic or national origin. Republicanism can, in this sense, be said to be 'difference-blind': it views difference as 'the problem' (because it leads to discriminatory or unfair treatment), and proposes that difference be banished or transcended in the name of equality. Republicans therefore believe that social advancement can be brought about through legal egalitarianism.

Social reformism (associated with modern liberalism or social democracy) arose out of the belief that universal citizenship and formal equality are not sufficient, in themselves, to tackle the problems of subordination and marginalisation. People are held back not merely be legal and political exclusion, but also, and more importantly, by social disadvantage - poverty, unemployment, poor housing, lack of education, and suchlike. The key idea of social reformism is the principle of equality of opportunity, the belief in a ‘level playing-field' that allows people to rise or fall in society strictly on the basis of personal ability and their willingness to work. Such social egalitarianism can only be brought about through a system of social engineering that aims to alleviate poverty and overcome disadvantage, in part through the identification of difference. For instance, the stress in the Race Relations Act (2000) on the promotion of equal opportunities forces schools, colleges and universities formally to monitor issues such as staff recruitment and promotion and student performance on the basis of ethnic or racial origin. This, nevertheless, amounts to only a provisional or temporary acknowledgement of difference, in that different groups are identified only to expose (supposedly) unfair practices and eradicate them.

Multiculturalism, for its part, developed out of the belief that group marginalisation often has yet deeper origins. It is not merely a legal, political or social phenomenon, but is, rather, a cultural phenomenon, one that operates through stereotypes and values that structure how people see themselves and are seen by others. Universal citizenship and equality of opportunity, in other words, do not go far enough. Egalitarianism, in both its legal and social forms, has limited value, and may even be part of the problem. Multiculturalism, by contrast, is distinguished by an emphasis on difference over equality. This is reflected in its central theme: a positive endorsement, even celebration, of cultural difference, allowing marginalised groups to assert themselves by reclaiming an authentic sense of...
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