Philosophy Hammer
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118: Charles Taylor Part V:
Multiculturalism, The Politics of Recognition

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

In his 1992 essay “The Politics of Recognition” Charles Taylor looks at the problem of how multiculturalism can function within a liberal democracy. The current narrative of the politics of multiculturalism is that the demand for recognition is a main force behind nationalist movements and subaltern group rights. The argument is that identity is partly shaped by recognition, misrecognition or lack of recognition and getting the recognition wrong can cause real harm to a population.

This sense of a need for recognition is historically a new phenomenon which came about as a result of the loss of value in honour and the rise in the value of dignity. Individual identity or authenticity created a new need for recognition that needs to be won or earned from the other. The possibility of a failure to recognize recognition is new in our modern age and creates the increase in the demand for recognition which is more and more prevalent in our world. The rise of dignity as a universal ideal coupled with this increasing demand for recognition has led to a modern politics of equal recognition.

Dignity manifests itself within discourses on universalism, equality, rights, citizenship, etc. Recognition, authenticity and identity take us in a different direction: into the politics of difference. “With the politics of equal dignity what is established is meant to be universally the same, an identical basket of rights and immunities; with the politics of difference, what we are asked to recognize is the unique identity of this individual or group, their distinctness from everyone else. The idea is that it is precisely this distinctness that has been ignored, glossed over, assimilated to a dominant or majority identity. And this assimilation is the cardinal sin against the ideal of authenticity.” The politics of difference demands recognition for things not universally shared. This can be supported by the politics of dignity but it can also just as easily be opposed. This is the first tension at the heart of the multiculturalism in the modern world: in the debate on where to grant recognition, universality can be either an ally or an enemy to identity and thus to recognition itself.

A second tension is that the universal recognition of worth and respect for an individual or culture comes into conflict with the particularity of individual culture. The notion that every culture has a potential to be great is recognized but every culture has examples of failures to be great and so the difference between and within cultures should not necessarily be equal or deserve equal recognition. The principle of difference-blind non-discrimination can conflict with particularity in “that it negates identity by forcing people into a homogeneous mold that is untrue to them. This would be bad enough if the mold were itself neutral—nobody’s mold in particular. But….the supposedly neutral set of difference-blind principles of the politics of equal dignity is in fact a reflection of one hegemonic culture….only the minority or suppressed cultures are being forced to take alien form.” The idea that there is a universal standard of worth is an unjust imposition on cultures that value other standards of worth. Thus liberality has a contradiction; “a particularism masquerading as the universal.”

Universal dignity is necessary for justice in the modern world but it is not enough to satisfy the need for recognition. Honour no longer works in an egalitarian world; we need reciprocal recognition among equals but this recognition requires a unity of values and purposes that is particular not universal.

Canada is the quintessential example of these tensions and contradictions where “two conceptions of rights-liberalism have confronted each other…throughout the long and inconclusive constitutional debates of recent years.” The Canadian Carter of Rights imposed a universal regime of judicial review of legislation equally for all governments and at all levels of government. This English-liberal regime has to arbitrate between at least three broad groups French Canadians, especially Quebeckers, First Nations peoples and English Canadians. The first point of contention is that this regime is English. It will impose a universalizing (destructive) force on non-English cultures. English speaking Canadians would naturally not see this as a bad thing and often express bewilderment at why anyone would have a problem. However for indigenous and French communities “what was at stake was the desire of these peoples for survival, and their consequent demand for certain forms of autonomy in their self-government, as well as the ability to adopt certain kinds of legislation deemed necessary for survival.” Quebec language laws which are deemed necessary for the survival of French in a globalized English world do violate the principle of freedom and equality as written in the Charter. The Charter is supposed to define a set of rights and guarantee equal treatment of citizens under those rights. “[A] political society’s espousing certain collective goals threatens to run against both of these basic provision of our Charter….First, the collective goals may require restrictions on the behavior of individuals that may violate their rights….[second] espousing collective goals on behalf of a national group can be thought to be inherently discriminatory.”

The view of human dignity as autonomy, as the ability of each person to decide for themselves what constitutes the good life is a very recent development. It has been championed in the 20th century by US jurists. This conflicts with a view of dignity as flourishing within community which is historically and geographically much more prevalent. Both of these notions of the good life can actually bring about a good life (and there could be others) but they are contradictory; both can lead to individual failure or success in their respective domains. “A society with strong collective goals can be liberal…provided it is also capable of respecting diversity, especially when dealing with those who do not share its common goals; and provided it can offer adequate safeguards for fundamental rights.” The author seems to say that rights must be fundamental and universal but not absolute. Practically, absolute freedom or absolute equality or absolute any other right is not really feasible and most people would say not really desirable. Judicial review, that values and takes into account judgments of the good life and integrity of culture, can be a very good thing that tempers the rigidities of procedural liberalism that homogenize difference.

We are living in an increasingly multicultural country. Many cultures living in Canada are not liberal. They do not separate private and public, church and state, nor do they share the same sense of what constitutes the good life. “The challenge is to deal with their sense of marginalization without compromising our basic political principles.” The way in which we in the dominant culture impose our basic political principles on minorities is the pressing issue at hand for it can generate love or resentment of our culture. Recognition is the issue. There are demands that we (in the dominant culture) recognize the equal value and worth of other cultures – that we let them survive in our culture. It has been argued by the marginalized that we have created a demeaning or inferior image of other cultures that has affected their self-image to their detriment; that we are killing them softly.

The demand for equal worth should be a starting presumption; an article of liberal faith. But it must not lead automatically to a favorable judgment on demand – that is a form of condescension – “it would praise the other for being like us.” What is needed is a “fusion of horizons” where in our study we enter into the other culture; understand it from within its history and values – then we can make real judgments of worth of particulars from that culture. What is required is “an admission that we are very far away from that ultimate horizon from which the relative worth of different cultures might be evident.” We must break with illusions held by proponents and opponents of multiculturalism.

© 2008 - 2018, James Jeff McLaren