Cultural Practises: Beyond the Opposition between Local and Universal

Countries with an avowedly multicultural identity, like Canada, face an interesting question in terms of how they can reconcile respect for the equal dignity of individuals with respect for the diversity of cultures. Some cultural practises seem to violate the equal dignity of individuals and yet are an integral part of certain cultures. For example, clitoridectomy stands out as one such practise as it seems to be harmful to girls and women, and yet is certainly an integral part of certain cultures.

Within this multicultural context, members of particular cultures may say that they should be allowed to continue to engage in a practise that is illegal because this practise is part of their culture. Some, call them multiculturalists, are quite receptive to this sort of exemption for certain cultural practises as they think this is required to respect the diversity of cultures within a state. On the other hand, liberal universalists are critical of this claim and say that if a practise violates laws that are meant to defend the rights and well-being of equal citizens than it really does not matter if the practise is a part of your culture. According to this latter perspective it is not enough to justify the validity of a practise, and its eligibility for exemption from an existing law, to point to the fact that it is a part of your particular cultural tradition. In this debate I tend to be far more supportive of the latter position, than the former, but for the sake of this piece I do not want to focus on the specifics of whether policy should provide exemptions for cultural practises that violate existing law, but rather look at what these kinds of exchanges tell us about the nature of value and its relation to culture. It seems to me that cultural traditions are inexorably linked to universal values, rather than being opposed to them, and consequently we should not speak as if there was such a fundamental opposition. Universal value is an aspect of culture, rather than oppositional to culture.

When someone says that they should be able to engage in a practise because it is part of their culture, or their religion for that matter, what are they saying? On the most literal reading of their statement they are saying that as far as possible people should be able to engage in practises that are part of their heritage, and should not be impeded from doing so by existing law. Liberal universalists tend to take this interpretation of the defenders of multicultural policies of exemption, and as a result quite rightly point out that if this is what multiculturalists mean they are quite simply defending a quite repugnant form of cultural relativism. If a practise causes harm to children or significantly reduces their opportunities in life, but is a part of a culture’s practises it seems quite cruel to say that the practise should continue merely because it is part of a group’s culture. This would be like saying women should continue to be the predominant caregivers of children because they have been in our culture in the past. I gave the example of children as the way that a culture treats children is particularly important because children, unlike adults, do not have the ability to leave their culture if they decide they do not like it until they have reached adulthood, and so they are particular vulnerable to being unjustly harmed by cultural practises.

However, I don’t think all multiculturalists are arguing for this kind of vacuous relativism, and I think there is more sophisticated defense. For example, to defend a cultural practise by saying that it is part of one’s culture can plausible be viewed as suggesting that this practise should be exempted from existing law because it constitutes a unique and significant value, such that by preventing the practise the lives of those who practise the culture would be diminished. On this account culture is not just a mere set of practises that we inherit from the past that has no universal value, but rather culture gives an insightful account of our place in the world and its practises constitute a valuable mode of operation. The value of culture in this sense is not just that the members of the culture happen to like to practise it, but that in a real sense it enhances the lives of its members and allows them to understand what is most significant. Different cultures represent differing notions of what is valuable, but they all purport to answer the question of what is significant. Now, from a policy angle the mere fact that a cultural practise that is illegal can be shown to have significant value is not enough to justify an exemption for it as the law could be protecting a value that is more fundamental. But this interpretation of the multiculturalist argument is not insensitive to the interests and lives of the members of the culture. Consequently it is not open to the liberal universalist charge of uncaring cultural relativism.

Yet, this latter interpretation of the multiculturalist argument would completely change the way we talk about multiculturalism. If cultural practises that are currently illegal should be exempted for members of a particular culture because they provide significant value to the lives of the members of the culture, than why shouldn’t the law forbidding in general be repealed? Once we begin to justify cultural practises in terms of their value to the lives of their members, the practises are not merely valuable for a particular culture, but for citizens in general as there value is universal and not conditional upon cultural membership. In this case, all other things being equal, if a significantly valuable cultural practise is made illegal through existing law than why wouldn’t we just legalize this practise in general? By only allowing members of a certain culture to engage in this practise through an exemption we would be preventing others from accessing a valuable option, and thus denying the principle of equality. Consequently, upon this interpretation of the multiculturalist argument the argument is not about whether a culture should be free to engage in a particular practise that others within the society are not free to engage in, but whether a currently illegal practise should be made legal because it is valuable. Of course, there are some cases where exemption makes sense as a matter of prudence, but these are not the norm.

What the preceding faintly shows is that the defense of cultural practises need not be framed in terms of the opposition between the defense of local cultural practises on the basis that they are part of a tradition and the defense of universal human values. But liberal universalists and multiculturalists themselves are far too often willing to frame their arguments in terms of this opposition. Liberal universalists tend to suggest they are standing up for universal human values, against the particular parochial practises of traditional cultures. We can see this in the debate on the headscarf in France. Liberal universalists justified the banning of the headscarf in public schools based on the fact that they were defending the universal value of equality, as the headscarf symbolizes the subordination of women. On the other hand, the critics of the ban tended to see this as a case of the French majority trying to impose their values on an already oppressed cultural minority who merely want to retain their traditions.

Now, through framing these issues in terms of universal values and local traditions, something deeply important is missed about the relation of culture and value. Cultures are always related to the particular, but value is always mediated and made most present through the particular. Fairness is an example of this. In an abstract sense what fairness requires is very hard to understand. Surely, it is fair to make a decision by flipping a coin, as no party has a significantly better chance of guessing correctly, but it would be odd to say that a fair way of organizing society would be by flipping coins to decide who did what and who had power in that society. Thus, the value of fairness can only be understood in particular contexts. A fair way to decide who should get the last slice of cake after each has had one piece might be through a random selection, whereas in an artistic competition fairness in judging the winner is based on fidelity to criteria that are integral to the nature of artistic competition that is occuring. Likewise, for Christians, what piety requires is very different from civic nationalists, or Muslims, but both are concerned with the same core object of piety.

Cultures are thus not particular traditions that are opposed to universal values. Rather each culture’s practises are a mediation of a related set of values that can plausibly apply to anyone; thus cultures do not simply represent the particular, but rather the mediation of universal values in a particularistic form. Now, some cultures may have a better mediation of one value than another, culture or contain values that we deem are more or less important. Surely, the contemporary culture of Canada has done a better job to mediate the value of compassion than the culture of Ancient Sparta. But this does not change the fact that particular cultures are not opposed to universal values, but an attempt to bring together and mediate a set of universal values in a form of life.

Thus, when we are talking about a culture’s practise and debating its value we should not be framing the issue in terms of the defense of a particular culture retaining its tradition, absent of any claim of universal value, against a claim of the defense of universal human values. Instead, when we are talking about cultural practises, we are talking about mediations of universal values that have their value precisely in the fact that they are not just a local custom, but instead a way of thinking and living life that can reveal what is significant to anyone. Engaging with other cultures is not a matter of respecting their diversity, but of trying to grasp them and see if they reveal something valuable about how we should live.

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On The Canadian Niqab Ban

A few years ago applicants for Canadian citizenship were banned from wearing face coverings like the niqab, during the oath of citizenship. Recently, Zunera Ishaq, a Pakistani woman sued the government for requiring her to remove her niqab during the citizenship oath. The ultimate decision that was made was that Canada’s own citizenship law required that Ishaq and others like her are free to wear the niqab during the citizenship oath, as the citizenship act states that officials must “administer the oath of citizenship with dignity and solemnity, allowing the greatest possible freedom in the religious solemnization or the solemn affirmation thereof.” When this court decision occurred we saw many people in an uproar over the fact that people would be able to wear the niqab during the oath of citizenship and many arguments have been put forth against the niqab. But, it seems to me that none of arguments that have been put forth in favour of banning women from wearing the niqab during the citizenship oath are successful.

One thing that should be specified at the outset is that the banning of the niqab has nothing to do with ensuring security or safety by forcing people to identify themselves, as Ishaq, like all others who apply for Canadian citizenship, was required to undergo a thorough security check which includes presenting photo identification that disclosed full facial features. Ishaq complied with this security check and only refused to remove the niqab during the citizenship oath itself. I bring up this point as some still seem to think that this issue is one of ensuring that people are who they say they are.

One argument that has been put forth is that in order to properly honour the citizenship ceremony one must uncover one’s face as this shows that one is taking the oath honestly and transparently. According to this argument to take the oath of citizenship in good faith one must make the entirety of one’s face visible. This argument trades on the fact that traditionally in Canadian society not showing one’s face is associated with criminality and a lack of trustworthiness, as the image of the face covered man brings to mind the bank robber and the burglar.

However, this argument seems implausible to me as it relies on stretching the meaning of taking an oath honestly and transparently to mean taking the oath in a way that fits with the norms of Canadian culture. It is true that typically Canadians associate the disclosure of the face with trust and openness, but this fact is a contingent element of Canadian culture, rather than a universal and consequently it seems arbitrary to expect a new Canadian to simply adopt our norms in the citizenship oath. In fact if a person were to remove their niqab while feeling it was inappropriate to do so during the citizenship oath this would be deeply disingenuous and an instance of less openness and freedom as the applicant for citizenship would not be authentically engaging in the oath. So requiring the removal of the niqab for the oath of citizenship is less in the spirit of openness and freedom than allowing it.

One other argument that has been expressed is much more explicit in its demand for homogeneity. According to this argument being a Canadian citizen is a privilege and part of gaining this privilege is adopting Canadian norms such as removing the niqab during the citizenship oath. At its most blunt this argument says if you want to be a Canadian you have to adopt certain customs, and reject others.

There is a sense in which this argument is true in that every society has certain fundamental norms that must be adopted in order to become a citizen of that society. For example, one cannot become a citizen of Canada if one uses violence rather than speech as a way of resolving political conflict. But the norm associated with removing facial coverings seems to be a far more incidental and non-fundamental norm of Canadian culture than the requirement of using speech and persuasion over violence to resolve conflicts. I say this because Canada`s political identity is avowedly liberal and multicultural. Part of Canada`s central identity and norms is the notion that we are allowed to display symbols of our heritage culture in public and that while we all come from diverse backgrounds there are certain fundamental rights that we all agree to and respect including the right to religious expression. This has been enshrined not just in an official policy of multiculturalism, and a charter of rights and freedoms, but also in practises of reasonable accommodation for minorities. For example, allowing Sikh men to be members of the RCMP despite the fact that their turban prevents them from being able to dress exactly as other members of the RCMP do. Thus, it seems that Canada as a nation is far better understood as a nation committed to respecting diverse cultures and the rights of individuals, rather than as a nation that establishes trust through the disclosure of the face. So it seems hardly opposed to Canadian values to wear a niqab during the oath of citizenship. If I wanted to dress up in a spandex unitard during the citizenship oath I would be rejecting the norm of appropriate dress for the citizenship ceremony, but in so doing I would not be rejecting norms that are essential to Canadian citizenship. In this sense there are many kinds of norms and customs within a society, and some of these are more fundamental than others to the society. So, while it is necessary for people to follow those fundamental norms to become a part of the society, it is not necessary to follow more incidental and non-fundamental norms.

Of course someone could make the argument that disclosure of the face during the citizenship oath is such a fundamental norm of Canadian culture, even if it has not been enshrined in law. But, I also find this point unpersuasive as even if there is a sense in which this norm is fundamental it seems to be problematic to enforce this norm through state power as this would be antagonistic to basic freedoms. Requiring a certain form of dress for a citizenship ceremony seems unreasonable as forms of dress have no to little bearing on the conscientiousness with which people take an oath, and thus it seems we are merely requiring conformity and restricting freedom because we are made uncomfortable by the niqab, and this hardly seems like a good reason to restrict freedom.

The last argument that is often put forth notes that the niqab is a symbol of the oppression of women and thus in order to ensure that women are liberated from oppression we must ensure that women do not wear it during the citizenship oath as this would legitimize the oppression of women.

It is certainly arguable whether the niqab is necessarily a symbol of women’s oppression; it seems plausible that for many women who wear it, the niqab is a public marker of their own identity as a Muslim woman, rather than something that they feel they have to wear for fear of punishment from their community. That said, even if the niqab is necessarily a symbol of women’s oppression banning women from wearing this garment during a citizenship oath in Canada seems unreasonable. Firstly, this argument is paternalistic in that it suggests that women, who wear the niqab willingly, do not understand that by wearing this garment they are complicit in their own oppression. While it may be true that these women are under the sway of some kind of “false consciousness” a basic principle of any decent society is that individuals have to be able to decide how they will express themselves through their speech and appearance where this does not violate the rights of others. This is why we do not prevent Cosmopolitan magazine from being published, as while this magazine surely does not contribute to women’s flourishing and probably encourages them to be more complicit in their own oppression we allow people to express themselves freely, even if they do so in a problematic way.

Secondly, from a purely consequentialist perspective we have to ask what good is done by banning women from wearing the niqab during the citizenship oath? On one level it may make some Canadians feel more secure that they are fighting back against the Muslim other that threatens their society. But on the other hand it will probably encourage further alienation of the Muslim community in Canada if their symbols are seen as antagonistic to Canadian values. In addition, if the reason that we are banning the niqab from the citizenship oath is because it represents the oppression of women, how does this directive help to reduce women’s oppression? It seems to do nothing to effectively combat women’s oppression. In fact it seems to merely alienate Muslims and make xenophobes feel a little better about the fact that their civilization is fighting the eastern other. Consequently, due to the ineffectiveness and paternalism of banning the wearing of the niqab during the citizenship oath it seems to me that this last argument is also deeply flawed and unpersuasive. Therefore, it seems that none of the arguments that have been raised in favour of banning women from wearing the niqab during the citizenship oath is successful.

Sources

http://ccmw.com/everything-you-need-to-know-about-canadas-niqab-ban-and-its-appeal/
http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/baloney-meter-is-niqab-ban-needed-to-prove-citizenship-applicant-s-id-1.2994562

The Multiculturalism Festival in Canada

Multiculturalism is a policy that is not only enshrined in law in Canada, but also an element of our national identity. It is said that, unlike the US which insists on trying to build a singular homogeneous national culture based on the differing historical cultures of its inhabitants, Canada will have a permanently heterogeneous national culture which celebrates cultural diversity, rather than trying to overcome it. Furthermore, it is noted that Canada is a cultural mosaic, with each culture making up a different part of the Canadian whole. This approach to national identity certainly has the strength of rendering Canada more inclusive and respectful of other’s cultures, but certain elements of the practise of this are less about inclusiveness and generating respect and understanding of other cultures, and more about consumerism, and commodification. One such element of the practise of multiculturalism that is more concerned with consumerism and commodification than anything else is the multicultural festival.

Multicultural festivals are held across Canada, and go by various names such as Heritage Days or Carassauga, but their essential substance is the same. There are pavilions for each culture interesting in creating one, and at these pavilions the general public can try food from the culture, or see the culture’s traditional dress, or dances. Purportedly these festivals provide an opportunity to celebrate Canada’s diversity, but while these festivals offer an opportunity for members of a culture to display elements of their culture which is certainly positive they do not facilitate deep understanding of, or respect for other cultures among the wider population. Most of the attendees at these festivals go to try the food of cultures that they are unfamiliar with and see their traditional dances, dresses or artifacts, but the attendees are not given context to understand the food, dress, or dances of the culture. Rather, people line up and give their money and order their food, or sit or stand politely and enjoy the entertainment provided by the traditional dances, songs and dress of the people. But does this kind of mode of interaction with members of another culture generate understanding of, or respect for another culture? It does not seem to be the case that it does. By purchasing food from a cultural pavilion I merely realize that a culture makes a certain kind of dish, but I have no understanding of what role this food plays in their culture, or what role food in general does. Likewise, if I see a traditional dance, song or dress of the culture I do not learn what the traditional dance or song celebrates or honours, or what purpose is served by the traditional dress. In this way the attendees of the multicultural festival may at most learn a set of facts about another culture (ie what food they eat, what their traditional dress looks like etc), but cultures cannot be understood by learning unrelated facts about that culture. Rather, understanding a culture requires a more overarching understanding of the meanings of the society and how those meanings are embodied in a set of practises. Consequently it does not seem to be the case that the multicultural festival generates understanding of, and respect for other cultures.

Now, it might not be a problem that the multicultural festival does not generate understanding of, and respect for other cultures if this festival was merely regarded as an opportunity to see some exotic dances, songs, and clothing as well as try some interesting, unique food. But shouldn’t part of a festival that honours diversity be a concerted attempt to generate intercultural dialogue, and understanding, rather than reducing cultures to producers of good food, and pleasant entertainment for the consumer? It does seem that honouring cultural diversity would require a concerted attempt to generate intercultural dialogue and understanding, because we only come to appreciate, understand and respect other cultures if we understand the. Furthermore we can only appreciate cultural diversity itself when we come to recognize the value that others cultures have, and this also requires a genuine understanding of the meanings embodied in the practises that constitute a culture. Consequently, the multiculturalism festival fails to adequately meet the end that it avowedly tries to secure, the celebration of diversity, as it reduces cultures to producers of commodities (good food and entertaining dances and songs) for a mass of consumers, and thus it is more of an exercise in consumerism and commodification than it is in the celebration of cultural diversity. We can see that consumerism and commodification are the guiding principles of the multiculturalism festival through the analysis provided earlier, as we see attendees of the festival consuming food and entertainment provided by the culture, rather than engaging in a dialogue with members of that other culture to understand their practises. This is surely a case of consumerism and commodification if anything is.

One further reason why it is problematic that the multiculturalism festival does not meets it avowed aim of celebrating diversity is because this encourages people to see celebrating diversity as enjoying commodities from other cultures. If we are told that by going to a multicultural festival we are celebrating diversity then we will tend to think that celebrating diversity just means being a consumer who is open to enjoying the products of other cultures. Therefore, the multiculturalism festival not only fails to meet the end that it aims at, but rather also encourages people to have the mistaken understanding that celebrating diversity is a matter of being a consumer who does not prejudge commodities based on their cultural origin. But, for the reasons pointed out above, this commodified view of celebrating diversity has little to do with generating the intercultural dialogue required to genuinely celebrate diversity.

It should be noted that nothing in what I have written above means to suggest that the Canada’s multicultural policy is bad, rather I have merely tried to highlight some of the shortcomings of the multicultural festival as an element of Canada’s overall multiculturalism policy.

Inclusion and Public Dialogue: Moving Beyond the Choice Between Tolerance and Identity Politics

A lot of ink has been spilled over the last 50 years concerning the question of how to deal with the problem of how a deeply diverse society can be made fully inclusive for all members of the society. There are two primary approaches to this problem and both of them are implausible because of the deep shortcomings that they possess. The first approach is the tolerance approach and it argues that in order to ensure inclusion within a diverse society we should respect the rights of individuals to pursue diverse practises as long as these practises do not violate the rights of others. The second approach is the identity politics approach which argues that we need to positively value the unique identities of all people in order to ensure society is fully inclusive. To show the shortcomings of each of these approaches I will look at how this approach deals with the question of how we ought to treat others within the context of public dialogue to ensure that society is inclusive. By public dialogue I mean the diverse set of dialogues that occur concerning how we ought to live together. Furthermore, I will sketch out an alternative that, at least at the level of public dialogue, overcomes the shortcomings of both the tolerance approach and the identity politics approach.

Within the context of public dialogue the tolerance approach merely suggests that we ought not violate the rights of others and allow them to espouse their opinions. In and of itself it does not require us to listen to others and try to learn from them in order to facilitate inclusion. It is a merely negative ethic in that it prohibits us from violating the rights of others, or inciting people to violate the rights of others. The problem with this is that members of groups can still be deeply marginalized if no one listens to them within public dialogue, even if their rights are not violated. So, this approach fails to ensure a robust enough form of inclusion to address the problem of inclusion within a deeply diverse society.

Contrastingly, the identity politics approach suggests that in the context of public dialogue we should recognize the value of all diverse perspectives and intently listen to all perspectives as they all provide a distinct value to the public dialogue of a political community. Surely, this would ensure a great degree of inclusion by ensuring that within the context of public dialogue there is real engagement with all perspectives, but the problem with it is that within the context of deeply diverse society it can only ensure this degree of inclusion at the expense of disrespecting people by asking them to say things that they do not necessarily believe. For example, if I believe that Christianity holds more wisdom than other religions and perspectives, it is disrespectful to me to suggest that I ought to affirm the value of other religions and perspectives, as I may not actually value these other religions or perspectives. Consequently, the attitude that the identity politics approach asks people to take within public dialogue may seem effective at ensuring inclusion, but the identity politics approach is disrespectful because it attitude may require me to espouse beliefs that I reject, and thus this approach seems deeply problematic.

Some defenders of identity politics suggest that it is bigoted or prejudiced to think that the perspective of one culture or religion is superior to another and consequently there should be no place in public dialogue for perspectives that adopt such an attitude, but this seems to me to conflate disrespecting a person’s perspective and disrespecting the person. I disrespect a person’s perspective if I say their perspective is inferior to mine, but I disrespect the person if I say they should adopt my values because I think my values are superior. It is absurd that we should avoid disrespecting people’s perspectives, because some perspectives merit disrespect (ie perspectives in favour of footbinding or honor killing) and disrespecting beliefs does not constitute disrespect for persons. Thus, there does seem to be a place in public dialogue for perspectives that say that one perspective is superior to another.

The key to inclusion is not to artificially try to affirm the value of all perspectives, but to develop a citizenry that is reflective enough to recognize that they may not have all of the answers to all questions and can learn from the wisdom of others. Such a reflective citizenry would facilitate inclusion through public dialogue because they would see others as possible sources of insight and consequently listen to them. This would facilitate inclusion as it would ensure that the voices of all members of society were heard and engaged with. Furthermore, it would not require anyone to say or do anything that violates their integrity or any reasonable belief that they hold. Consequently, we should endorse this approach over the tolerance approach and the identity politics approach on the question of how to make society inclusive at the level of public dialogue. Of course the development of such a reflective citizenry is not something that is easy to achieve nor something that we should hope to achieve anytime soon, but by better understanding the kind of citizenry and culture required for full inclusion, we are better equipped to begin making steps towards this goal, and understanding the shortcomings of our current state.