Political Theory and the “Group Rights” Debate

It took a Bertrand Russell to first notice that political ideologies tend to evolve over time into their polar opposites; and it took a George Orwell to point out that words which today nearly all people embrace, such as freedom and democracy, can mean very different things to different people. Today, however, most people are jaded enough to accept and even expect these sorts of insincerities. To point them out at all has become banal.

But every once in a while it is incumbent upon honest people to go back to the drawing board and remind themselves what ideologies represent and what words really mean. Nowhere is this more necessary than in the debates surrounding group rights and multiculturalism.

There are a great many liberal political theorists who still maintain that there are no such things as group rights, only individual rights (I would count myself among them). Yet there are far more theorists now who consider themselves “liberal culturalists” and who use the word multiculturalism to refer to political support for “minority rights,” by which they really mean group rights. These people remain committed to the values of liberal democracy, equality, and individual freedom, at least in theory, and do not admit of any group or cultural rights which would threaten human rights (such as the “right” to commit honor killings or genital mutilation). They simply feel that if members of minority cultures are to have equal access and true personal freedom in diverse societies, they must be accorded special group privileges. I will attempt to show the problems in this line of argument, but one has to respect these self-described liberals for remembering what it means to be liberal in the first place: individual human rights must always trump the demands of the group or the outside culture.

But there is another strand of culturalists thinking which does not even bother to include this stipulation about human rights and individual freedom. Some of these theorists began life as liberal culturalists, but have since apparently dropped the first half of that formulation and become simple culturalists. This is where Russell’s remark about doctrines becoming fused with their opposites seems most apt. Yael Tamir, for instance, was once upon a time a liberal, but has since become responsible for the deplorable article “Hands off Clitoridectomy.” This begins with an assault on liberals and goes on to declare that clitoridectomy is morally commensurate to putting teenagers through braces. While Tamir rejects the practice of female genital mutilation as undesirable, she also declares that those who seek to end the practice reveal a “patronizing attitude toward women, suggesting that they are primarily sexual beings.” Meanwhile, the practice may be painful, but so are braces, she writes. Perhaps both should be done away with, or neither.

One does not know where to begin with such an argument. At any rate, to argue that a woman’s genitals should not be cut apart does not imply that they are of primary significance, but simply that they are the property of the individual woman. To argue against having a slave’s arm cut off as occurred in the Belgian Congo is not to imply that her arm is the most important part of her body, but that it is a part of her nonetheless to dispose of as she chooses. Braces, meanwhile, though widely resented, do not deprive young people of a part of their selfhood.

Tamir is only one example of a school of thought which now privileges the demands of groups, cultures, and identities over the freedom and autonomy of the individual. Bhikhu Parekh, another political theorist, embraces even harsher conclusions. His book, Rethinking Multiculturalism, does not in fact rethink anything at all; it merely pursues the most illiberal tendencies in communalist thinking to their obvious conclusions.

It is my goal to defend liberal political theory from these particular enemies: namely, those who subscribe to multiculturalist or group rights theories. Admittedly, liberalism has many enemies, most of whom, including the most belligerent culturalists, are on the right. But the conflict of these thinkers with liberalism is obvious enough. My goal is to argue against those who consider themselves liberals or leftists but who nevertheless embrace culturalist assumptions. Hypocrisy is, we would all admit, more irritating than honest cruelty.

First of all, let it be said that I do not mean to attack a certain variety of multiculturalism and pluralism which has always been a part of liberalism. Liberalism itself was born out of cultural conflicts: namely, conflicts between rival religious sects. If people were all similar or held the same beliefs, liberalism would not be necessary. But because people have different cultures, practices, and worldviews, the only thing a fair society can do is allow each individual as much freedom to pursue any one of them as is consistent with the freedom of everyone else. I can think of no other way to manage difference and diversity that is not coercive or unjust. It is this liberal freedom which allows Yael Tamir to publish nonsense about clitoridectomy but does not allow anyone to practice it. The former is Tamir’s right as a free agent, while the latter compromises the rights of others.

These are rather obvious and banal conclusions, perhaps, but they allow for tremendous multiculturalism and diversity. They allow for free religious practice so long as such practice does not involve unjust impositions. They allow for a society in which states respect the beliefs and opinions of others and do not try to silence them. Finally, because liberal societies rely on a notion that all people are equally human and of equal moral worth, they tend to encourage those “political correct” behaviors which upset conservatives so much. Some politically correct taboos can be detrimental, of course, such as those which insist that all cultural practices must be treated with equal respect, even those which violate rights. But most of the P.C. taboos against sexist, racist, or homophobic remarks are part and parcel of liberalism. As Martha Nussbaum has pointed out, they are ways of getting us to recognize the humanity of those we might otherwise denigrate. This is a venerable and worthy variety of liberal multiculturalism. But it has been hijacked by liberal culturalists and defenders of “group rights,” much to its own detriment.

Are there really any such things as “group rights?” I think not, at least within a liberal conception. Rights belong to individuals for the obvious reason that an individual is made up of a single mind in a single body. This mind is either free to think what it wants or it is not. A group cannot be either free or unfree in quite the same way, because whatever condition it may be in as a whole, there may still be unfree individuals within it. Nations, for instance, may escape from foreign rule, but there could still be oppressed people within them. Wole Soyinka has chronicled the oppressions of both colonial despotism and post-colonial dictatorships in Africa, famously concluding that the boot of oppression is the same, regardless of the color of the foot that wears it. His memoir Aké describes the anti-colonial struggle in Nigeria and the cruelties it faced, but it also does not turn a blind eye to the injustices of traditional African cultures. The young Soyinka recalls, for instance, young children being beaten and publicly humiliated, and an old woman being accused of witchcraft and driven out of the community, where she is assaulted and abused by passing rascals. African nations are now thankfully free of colonialism, but such practices as these continue, and cannot be said to produce free individuals.

Of course, groups are quite often oppressed, whether by colonial dictatorships, racist governments, or patriarchal practices. Yet this is undesirable precisely because it restricts the freedom of the individual members of the group and cruelly harms their interests. The answer, therefore, is not to speak of “group rights,” but to speak of human rights. The defenders of multiculturalism seem to be under the impression that they alone are concerned by the oppressions faced by minorities and other groups. They forget how long and how arduously liberals have been fighting against racism and unequal treatment. Their reason for doing so, however, is not that minorities have special rights, but that they have the same rights as everyone else.

No multiculturalist has to remind me of the cruelties faced by immigrant populations, to take only one example. The enemies of immigrants are not restricted to far-right and openly racist groups such as the BNP, but can be found in every level of society. They are represented by those in the United States who advocate an enormous fence across the Mexican border or who spit venom every time they have to “press 2 to speak English” on the telephone. In Europe, meanwhile, anti-immigrant tendencies may be even more widespread. Human Rights Watch has documented that over the past year, one in three Muslim immigrants has experienced discrimination, while one in ten has suffered a racially motivated assault or threat. These are not purely the concerns of multiculturalists.

Some group rights theorists would say, however, that even if universal human rights were achieved, the claims to neutrality and equal treatment of the liberal states which honor them would still be a sham, because immigrants face more challenges than natives. Even if liberals succeeded in their goal of doing away with all racism and discrimination, in other words, we would still not be living in fully equal societies. Most liberal countries, after all, have a single national language in which business is conducted. Those immigrants who do not speak it are at an automatic disadvantage. Multiculturalists also point to cases such as a law in Britain declaring that all construction workers must wear hard hats. This seems like a mild, egalitarian ruling, yet they point out that hard hats restrict the ability of Sikhs to wear turbans. Is this not discrimination, they ask?

There is a certain amount of legitimacy to these points, yet I do not see how they lead one to believe in “group rights” necessarily and to reject the paradigm of one law for all. If immigrants should have equal opportunity, it is not because they constitute a group and all groups must have certain privileges. To believe that people can be so easily defined by their ethnic or religious identity is profoundly illiberal. Rather, individual immigrant people have a human right to equal treatment.

A liberal state has a commitment to neutrality, and if one can see in it signs of unfair treatment, these are not failings of liberalism, but vestiges of old cultural biases. For instance, liberal states may have official government holidays around Christmas but not around Hanukkah. This is fairly mild, as discrimination goes, but there is an argument to be made that it is discrimination nonetheless. Clearly, however, culturalist paradigms get us nowhere. To state that government holidays should not be specific to one religion at the expense of others is to make a claim for “difference-blind” liberalism rather than multiculturalism. Meanwhile, the culturalists insist that we are all hopelessly “culturally-embedded” and that each religious or ethnic background must achieve “recognition.” If they are correct, and culture really has such a legitimate claim to determine policy, then majority Christian countries would be perfectly justified in defining their holidays by their Christian culture: religious minorities be damned. It is precisely because culture has no prior claim over individual rights, and because liberal states are committed to neutrality, that ancient Western traditions and holidays should not determine the policy of modern states.

There is something to be said for multiculturalist arguments that people should not have to adapt their beliefs and practices to the dominant culture if they don’t want to. Sikhs, if they would like to wear turbans, should be free to do so in all circumstances. Just as Dickens regrets in Great Expectations that Pip has to turn against his working-class roots in order to succeed in the world of London business, we should regret any instance in which people feel ashamed of their background. But again, this has nothing to do with “group rights” or the public recognition of “difference.” It has to do with the liberal commitment to transcending difference.

As Brian Barry argues in Culture and Equality, the debate over turbans and hard hats should not revolve around whether or not certain groups have a privilege to their own headgear. It should be between two universal standards which apply fairly and equally to all people: either freedom of religion for all people, including the freedom to refuse to wear a hard hat if one chooses, or universal hard hat requirements. Both, again, are laws which would apply equally to all people, which is the only sort of law which makes sense in a liberal society.

But as I said earlier, we can at least count liberal culturalists as allies on the issues that really matter. They may support some special privileges, but they do not allow group rights to interfere with the basic individual freedoms of members of communities. For Will Kymlicka and similar thinkers, for instance, genital mutilation would not be a group right, because it sacrifices human rights and human dignity to the whims of the community.

The reasons for including this caveat about individual rights is clear enough. It is why Ibsen wrote A Doll’s House or Ghosts, the former depicting the courageous decision to transcend Victorian morality and the “good of the community” and the latter showing the horrible effects of sacrificing one’s autonomy to both. It is why Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter and “My Kinsman, Major Molineux.” These also engage with perennial human conflicts between the individual and the collective.

Individual rights are not Western prejudices; nor can they be thought of as simply one more culture among many. They are a way of transcending culture, including Western culture. Historically, Western traditions have been just as opposed to human rights as any others, and liberal humanitarians still struggle to see rights and equal treatment realized in Western societies. People all over the world are capable of responding to demands for human rights, because such demands appeal to primal moral concerns we all share: concerns about weakness, vulnerability, and unrestrained cruelty.

But what is one to make of those political theorists who, despite these rather obvious points, insist on sacrificing individual rights to the claims of culture—the Parekhs and Tamirs of the world? At least such thinkers admit to the full illiberal implications of their beliefs. This makes them honest, but difficult to argue against, as one cannot prove categorically that they are wrong. But one can ask them whether or not they would truly like to live in a world in which individual rights were not respected. As a woman, would Yael Tamir like to live in a society in which her genitalia might be mutilated? As a human being with a free mind and a free conscience, would Bhikhu Parekh like to have his beliefs regulated by the will of the majority? I believe that neither could answer that they would.

But if we do not perform this test and simply accept their views at face value—even then, are they consistent? Parekh seems to embrace a certain amount of cultural relativism. He claims that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is “admirable” but he regrets its “liberal bias.” He maintains that there are a few universal human values, such as respect for human life and dignity, yet he also maintains that different cultures have very different understandings of what such respect entails. When it comes to the right to human dignity, Parekh maintains that liberals foolishly cling to a notion of individual autonomy as the only way to maintain dignity, whereas in some cultures, to have one’s parents choose one’s marriage partner, say, would be profoundly dignified.

This is one of many occasions on which Parekh fails to understand the implications of liberal freedom. In a liberal society, one is perfectly free to ask one’s parents advice when one is getting married: one could even ask them to choose a suitable match. Yet one is also free to escape from their decisions and marry a person of one’s choosing. The fact is that most people, given the option, would like to make their own decisions in life, which is the real source of the reluctance of traditionalists to grant it to them, but they may still choose not to do so in a liberal society.

As for conceptions of what “respect for life and dignity” entails, no doubt many cultures differ, but their conceptions are not all equally legitimate. US Army general Philip Sheridan notoriously declared that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Sheridan clearly had a normative idea of how to best grant human dignity to Native Americans: by killing them. Such racist views were no doubt “culturally-embedded” in the nineteenth century; would our modern defenders of “difference” declare that they are therefore valid?

Parekh is not a complete moral relativist. He at least justly condemns racism and the imposition of cultural norms on the unwilling. He clearly believes that he is fighting against both by fighting against liberalism. Yet is there any truth to this claim that a rational person could accept? Clearly, if we really should divide every society by culture and recognize no universally valid rights or norms other than those which can be slowly realized by endless dialogue, then Parekh would have to accept that the traditional, culturally-embedded racism of white majorities could very well win out in such a dialogue, and he would have no universal standards of human rights and decency to appeal to. As for the imposition of cultural norms, surely the people who do that most often in today’s world are the representatives of “communities” who try to maintain control over the thought and expression of individual members.

Only liberalism and human rights allow one to freely practice one’s culture and tradition (as well as to abandon those cultures and traditions with which one no longer wants to be associated). The only limit on liberal freedom is that one respect the freedom of others. This is really a very small claim to make; and yet it is amazing how much cruelty and suffering it helps us avoid.

The oppression and discrimination faced by minorities, meanwhile, is very much a concern, but liberalism and a belief in human rights are what make it a concern in the first place. It is because people have equal moral worth that one should care about their mistreatment.

This sort of old-fashioned liberalism is often derided by both right and left, who maintain, with De Maistre, that one can find many different culture-bound communities in the world, but “as for man, I declare I have never in my life met him.” Many feel that the old belief that regardless of religion, ethnicity, or skin-color, people are really not so different from one another at a basic level, is somehow painfully naïve. They maintain that liberal universalism was weighed and found wanting in the twentieth century and ought to be discarded. I, however, would argue that the incredible potential for human compassion and creativity which arises out of universalism has never come close to being fully realized. To abandon it now is to give up on humanity.

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