I am rarely disappointed when reading Areo essays, so Gerfried Ambrosch’s recently published “Making Sense of Immigration: Why Multiculturalism Is at Odds with Integration,” left me feeling not only frustrated, but surprised. I assume Ambrosch wrote this essay with honorable intentions, but his treatment of this important topic perpetuates alarming misconceptions. I will seek to bring some clarity to the concept of multiculturalism, both in the (erroneous) sense in which Ambrosch uses it, and its (quite distinct) meaning in contemporary political theory and policy debates. I will conclude, contra Ambrosch, that multiculturalism is, in fact, not at odds with integration, but rather reflects a particular (liberal) approach to integration.
Ambrosch begins by presenting us with what he views as two extreme and unacceptable approaches to immigration policy: the far right’s endorsement of stopping immigration entirely, and the far left’s support for open borders. At first glance, it is unclear what these two views have to do with multiculturalism at all, but then Ambrosch fills us in: “the identitarian left frames existing disparities as social injustices resulting from colonial oppression and exploitation … Those holding [this] view tend to be in favor of open borders and multiculturalism.”
There are two claims being made here. First, we have a claim about what motivates support for multiculturalism: according to Ambrosch, it is a particular kind of normative social theory, propagated by the “identitarian left.” Second, we have the claim that support for open borders and multiculturalism emerge equally out of this theory, as a kind of package deal. The first claim is tendentious and misleading, while the second is just plain false. They each arise out of a radical misunderstanding of multiculturalism.
Instead of engaging with the extensive literature on multiculturalism—to be found in both academic and legal discourse—Ambrosch references, not the voices of actual persons, but abstract positions which he imagines defenders and critics of multiculturalism universally occupy. This is the only explanation for why one finds a polemic against the identitarian left, in an essay that purportedly examines the pros and cons of multiculturalism as theory and public policy. Although some do hold the extreme positions listed above, the vast majority of defenders and critics of multiculturalism espouse perspectives far more nuanced and sophisticated than Ambrosch’s dichotomous framing allows.
Multiculturalism and the Liberal Tradition
Contrary to what Ambrosch suggests, multicultural theory and policies emerge out of the liberal tradition as it has developed over the twentieth century. Will Kymlicka is one of the most well-known proponents of liberal multiculturalism: that is, the form of multiculturalism that was made national policy in Canada in 1971 under then Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau. As Kymlicka notes in his book Multicultural Odysseys, “Really-existing multiculturalism in the West is liberal multiculturalism.”
According to Kymlicka, multiculturalism is ultimately rooted in the liberal commitments to individual freedom and moral equality. Liberal theorists, including Kymlicka and Joseph Raz, have argued that liberalism’s commitment to individual freedom is ultimately rooted in the value of personal autonomy, and its importance for leading a good life. For these liberals, a life is only lived autonomously if one leads it from the inside. A life that is the result of coercion or manipulation is not an autonomous one—and it is for this reason that liberals are committed to individual freedom. Furthermore, the liberal commitment to moral equality is rooted in a concern for fairness: that is, the principle that all citizens ought to be treated with equal concern and respect. These are related commitments, but they are also distinct.
On Personal Autonomy
Liberal multiculturalism arises out of thinking seriously about the preconditions for leading an autonomous life. It should be obvious that leading an autonomous life comes with certain social conditions, such as having one’s basic needs met and being guaranteed certain basic liberties. For instance, a person who is constantly struggling to find food is unable to live autonomously because the threat of starvation dictates all of her actions, and a person who cannot speak his mind for fear of imprisonment is also unable to live autonomously. But, for Kymlicka, freedom of speech and freedom from starvation are not sufficient conditions for an autonomous life. In Multicultural Citizenship he argues, “the liberal value of freedom of choice has certain cultural preconditions.” Individuals do not exist atomistically—we are constituted by our cultural affiliations and attachments. Insofar as this is true, individuals are dependent upon the existence of a “cultural structure” in order to lead autonomous lives. A cultural structure is an important context for choice, because it provides meaningful options for members of its culture. Thus a Quebecois cannot thrive as a Quebecois unless there exists a Quebecois cultural structure—protected by public institutions and laws—within society, from which she can derive a sense of self. Furthermore, if a minority culture’s cultural structure becomes threatened, the autonomy of its members is also threatened. Rather than cultural relativism, it is a concern for securing the conditions of individual autonomy that underlies the multicultural endorsement of, say, bilingualism in Canada, exemptions from dress codes for certain religious groups, and the establishment of land rights for First Nations communities. Kymlicka merely adds the good of cultural membership to John Rawls’s list of primary goods. Kymlicka writes:
Once we recognize the importance of the cultural structure and accept that there is a positive duty on the state to protect the cultural conditions which allow for autonomous choice, then cultural membership does have political salience. Respect for the autonomy of the members of minority cultures requires respect for their cultural structure, and that in turn may require special linguistic, educational, and even political rights for minority cultures.
Nevertheless, this commitment to personal autonomy does not adequately account for all multicultural policies, and, indeed, it is arguably less relevant to issues of immigration (which Ambrosch is concerned with) than to issues surrounding the existence of multi-nation states. For this we need to look at the liberal commitment to moral equality.
On Moral Equality
Prior to the 60s, and especially in America, it was widely thought that treating individuals equally requires treating them the same. This is what we might call culture-blind liberalism, which does not encourage the state to take into account people’s identities when determining how benefits and burdens are to be distributed in society. However, much contemporary liberal theory would disagree with this interpretation on the grounds that it does not adequately capture what moral equality requires. For instance, in keeping with his culturalist position, Kymlicka argues that individuals are constituted by (and thereby, in some sense, representatives of) the cultural groups they belong to, and therefore we must be attuned to the social standing of groups in society. If one group has been historically seen as less worthy of respect, then liberal equality requires that we instate social reforms in order to rectify this, otherwise the individuals who belong to this group will not hold equal standing in society.
This is the basis for affirmative action, inclusion of ethnic representation/sensitivity in the mandate of public media, and the funding of ethnic group organizations to support cultural activities—classic multicultural policies.
However, contrary to Ambrosch’s claim, this does not require viewing all immigrants as “oppressed victim groups who can do no wrong,” and is only identitarian to the extent that it recognizes what is in sociology a fundamental axiom: that we derive our sense of self from the society and culture we inhabit. It also does not demand we accept the view that all “existing disparities” are merely the result of “social injustices resulting from colonial oppression and exploitation.” For one, sound multicultural policies are attuned to both historical and ongoing social dynamics within societies (distinguishing between the effects of, say, colonialism, systemic racial disenfranchisement and religious discrimination). They are designed with the understanding that patterns of social inequality are shaped according to particular historical legacies, and that any attempt to rectify these requires a thorough knowledge of relevant contextual factors. And, ironically, the statistics Ambrosch cites demonstrate why this should be so.
Ambrosch observes that “black immigrants economically outperform US-born blacks” and that “South America-born blacks even have a higher median household income than the average American.” These findings make evident the impact the history of systemic racism in the US has had on American-born blacks. Blacks born outside the US have not been born in a country where the color of their skin is perceived through the lens of hundreds of years of racial disenfranchisement—that is, they have not grown up having to wrestle internally and externally with the cultural legacies of slavery. This helps explain their comparative success. Indeed, this is precisely what we would expect if racial discrimination were playing a role.
Racial discrimination is not “the whole story” nor are all those who suffer from disenfranchisement merely “oppressed victims who can do no wrong.” That would be absurd—which is why very few people actually make such claims. There is no inconsistency in advocating for policies that seek to redress systemic inequalities that lead to some individuals, in virtue of their cultural affiliation, being stigmatized, and at the same time holding people responsible for their actions. But unfortunately Ambrosch’s analysis implicitly denies this.
Whether or not you are persuaded by liberal multiculturalism (and Kymlicka’s treatment is far more sophisticated than this truncated summary suggests) as theory, it is rooted not in cultural relativism, as Ambrosch supposes, but in the liberal commitments to individual freedom and moral equality.
The Truth About Multiculturalism
First, it is simply not the case that from a liberal multicultural perspective the dominant culture in a liberal democracy “has no more right to assert itself than the rest.” On the contrary, as Kymlicka makes clear in Politics in the Vernacular:
The ‘logic’ of multiculturalism … is not to undermine respect for liberal-democratic values, any more than it is to undermine institutional integration. On the contrary, multiculturalism takes these political values as given and assumes that immigrants will accept them, just as it takes integration into mainstream public institutions as given.
Thus liberal multiculturalism has always been a distinctive approach to integration, not opposed to it.
Second, no liberal multiculturalist contends that illiberal practices like female genital mutilation or the criminalization of homosexuality ought to be accepted merely because they find justification in certain minority cultures or traditions. In approaching these issues, liberal multiculturalists like Kymlicka advocate the following liberal principle: “freedom within the minority group, and equality between the minority and majority groups.” What this means in practice is that minority cultures ought to be externally protected from being dominated or eradicated by the dominant culture (in order to protect the personal autonomy of members who belong to these cultural groups), while at the same time, individuals within minority cultures ought to receive internal protection from illiberal practices or traditions within their own cultures. We can therefore conclude, contra Ambrosch, that liberal multiculturalism does in fact acknowledge that “some ideas are really worse than others” (or, put less polemically, “some practices are liberal while others aren’t.”) Liberal multiculturalists are perfectly willing to prevent the practice of illiberal cultural practices, which violate the autonomy of individual citizens, regardless of whether or not they belong to a minority culture.
Third, it is mistaken to think multiculturalism requires nothing of immigrants and that “it is the host society that must change to prevent such groups from failing.” Liberal multiculturalism has always postulated integration as a two-way street. Indeed, integration is far from optional. If an immigrant breaks the law, they could potentially go to jail. If she doesn’t learn the official language, she will likely not get a job. If they do not accept the social norms of liberal societies, they will likely face serious public (and even private) backlash. The truth is that immigrants face steep learning curves and significant hurdles once they arrive in their adopted countries. Liberal multiculturalism simply tries to offer them the resources that will help them to integrate successfully.
Fourth, it is unclear why Ambrosch seems to assume that those who endorse multiculturalism naturally endorse open borders. Most Canadians favor multiculturalism but do not advocate open borders. Some see these policies as necessarily tied to one another, but this is not true of most. Actual liberal multiculturalism does not require support for open borders.
Fifth, Ambrosch advocates integration over multiculturalism. I wonder what his notion of integration is. He writes, “One cannot fully partake in a society without adopting its core cultural values and principles. Nor can society function without them.” Agreed. But if only it were that easy! As political theorist Wayne Norman notes, shared values and principles are not sufficient to ensure integration. Most Western Europeans and North Americans hold very similar values. A Frenchman and an Englishman may have very similar values, but they nevertheless think of themselves, respectively, as French and English. Hence, liberal multiculturalists have long concluded that “political principles are not sufficient for political unity.”
Ambrosch’s solution is to assert that, “Western society is based on Ancient Greek philosophy, Roman law, the Judeo-Christian tradition and Enlightenment humanism.” Unfortunately, this doesn’t get us very far either, for it’s by no means self-evident how to reconcile these with one another. For instance, polarization in the US can be understood, in one sense, as a conflict between a particular version of Judeo-Christianity and its doppelganger in the form of secular humanism. Though these may emerge historically out of the Western tradition, this far from guarantees their congruence. Thus I cannot see how declaring that we in the West belong to this amorphous tradition solves our problems.
Liberal multiculturalism offers a much more sophisticated conception of how to cultivate and maintain political and social unity. Rooted in the liberal tradition, with its commitments to individual freedom (understood as personal autonomy) and moral equality, it advocates nation-building programs which include the creation of national holidays, citizenship education, mandatory volunteering or public service and free public education, all of which are meant to develop and sustain a broad political culture of human rights and civil rights liberalism—most of which are staples in liberal democracies today. Thus, as Kymlicka notes, “the sort of multiculturalism that has emerged within the West has transformed nation-building, not replaced it.”
Ironically, Ambrosch’s middle way between multiculturalism (as he understands it) and ethno-nationalism strikingly resembles actual multiculturalism. For his solution, he tells us, would consist of “a certain degree of cultural assimilation on the part of each individual immigrant, and a certain degree of openness on the part of the host society.” Indeed, this is merely a vague description of liberal multiculturalism, as I have outlined it here.
Although, if one defines multiculturalism as Ambrosch defines it, it is “inherently self-defeating,” aside from a fringe group of scholars (who, unfortunately, might exert more influence within the academy than their numbers would suggest) few define it this way. Certainly, no proponents of actually existing multiculturalism hold such a view. The issue of immigration at the moment is both highly contentious and deeply important therefore it is crucial that we make clear what precisely multiculturalism stands for. While I recognize there are downsides to multiculturalism as policy, and reasonable people can disagree about its merits, one must at least characterize it appropriately before criticizing it.
Nevertheless, in light of the political turbulence surrounding global migration, and the current threats facing liberal democracies as a result of increased social diversity, I generally view Canada—where multiculturalism has been most consistently institutionalized and promoted—as a success story. Thus it would seem multiculturalism, when implemented correctly, is arguably one of the most successful models of integration we have. We would be foolish to dismiss this.
Edit: Gerfried Ambrosch has responded to this response in comments. See the conversation continue here.