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Debating Multiculturalism: Should There Be Minority Rights? by Peter Balint & Patti Tamara Lenard

Elaine Coburn navigates differences.

How do we navigate cultural differences in multicultural societies? This question is the subject of heated public debates. What clothing is appropriate for a public swimming pool, say, or for swearing-in during a citizenship ceremony? Should publicly-funded schools give instruction promoting just one religion? How should the state adjudicate among citizens who have radically divergent values on issues such as abortion? In Debating Multiculturalism: Should There Be Minority Rights? (2022), political scientists Peter Balint and Patti Lenard argue vigorously about how states and societies should answer such questions. As the title suggests, they are especially concerned about minority rights in the context of diversity.

They address debates about a wide range of cultural differences, and remind us that these differences are often profound, going far beyond varying traditions around food and dress. People disagree about questions like the right to a medically assisted death, for instance: whether or not it is ever allowable; or, for instance, only allowable in specific, well-defined circumstances. Given deep-rooted moral differences over real-world issues such as these, how can we live together in multicultural societies?

Balint takes the liberal view, that what’s required is tolerance. To achieve this, states should aim at neutrality, which can take various forms. The state can support all religions, by, for instance, choosing to subsidize all forms of religious schooling. Or the state may support no religious perspective, and instead ensure that all schooling is secular. Both approaches meet the criteria for a neutral, and hence tolerant, state. The importance of achieving such neutrality is that it gives no specific favour or disfavour to any particular group, whether it’s the majority or a minority.

But there are limits to state neutrality, as Balint acknowledges. A just state cannot be neutral when confronted with ways of life that harm others. The state cannot sanction violent extremisms, for instance; nor can it be neutral about safety measures that protect people – for example it needs to put in place laws that forbid driving under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. Generally put, the state must neutrally protect the rights of the majority and of minorities to distinctive lifestyles, but only when these lifestyles are consistent with justice, interpreted primarily as the avoidance of harm.

Like states, citizens too have responsibilities to be tolerant. For moral reasons (religious or secular), we might strongly object to another’s views on, for instance, medically assisted death or abortion. Balint argues that such objections are perfectly acceptable in a multicultural society. In fact, he argues that profound differences on such questions are characteristic of a truly diverse society. We can maintain our profoundly divergent views and still be tolerant, he says, by refusing to act on our objections and repulsion. Whatever we believe, a tolerant society demands that we act as if we’re indifferent to others’ opinions and values. Such ‘active indifference’ is easier and therefore more practical than demanding mutual appreciation from those holding strongly contrasting views, especially on divisive moral questions.

There are important advantages to tolerant states and citizens. Above all, Balint argues, they enhance freedoms for all citizens, not just for minority groups. He provides the example of Orthodox Jews’ religiously motivated refusal to vote on Saturdays. Given this commitment, if an election is held on Saturday, they will be deprived of the right to vote. Instead of creating laws granting Jews specific minority rights to vote on another day, the neutral state can for instance allow for voting over several days. This improves the freedom of all citizens, including citizens who work on Saturdays, and not just Orthodox Jews. Similarly, whatever our personal views on the attractiveness or religious importance of beards, we enhance everyone’s freedoms if we are actively indifferent to whether or not people wear beards. Like the neutral state, the citizen who is indifferent in action amongst those of different opinions while holding onto their own values and preferences, is desirable, because her tolerant practices are freedom-enhancing for all.

In her defence of minority rights in multicultural societies, Patti Tamara Lenard rejects these arguments. She argues that such accounts do not address dilemmas that arise in the real world. She observes that in many (likely most) societies, people from minority cultures are routinely treated with less respect than those from the majority culture. Their voices have less authority in public spaces, which compromises their participation in political and social life. But creating the robust shared public life necessary for meaningful democracy, Lenard maintains, demands the active participation of all citizens, including those from minority cultures. Special rights should therefore be granted to people from minority cultures if they improve political inclusion, which she understands to mean substantive participation in all aspects of public life. In Canada, for instance, observant Sikhs in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) receive an exemption from the standard issue hat, because you can't wear a turban and a stetson at the same time. This exemption, specific to the Sikh minority, is justifiable to Lenard because it removes an obstacle that would otherwise exclude observant Sikhs from the RCMP.

Matt Hsu's Obscure Orchestra Group
Matt Hsu's Obscure Orchestra Group. Photo G Planetrecipe 2022 Creative Commons 4

One advantage to such exemptions is that they contribute to a shared national culture that actively appreciates the differences. In Canada today, Lenard observes, the RCMP turban is widely embraced as a symbol of Canada’s welcoming multiculturalism. And developing a public appreciation of diversity is beneficial to cultural minorities, in that it encourages their inclusion in various aspects of political life.

Lenard argues that cultural minorities require other special rights too. Language minorities, for instance, must have the right to the translation of political, medical, and legal materials into their own language. Such translation is necessary for such minorities to access basic political, medical, and legal goods, and so fosters vital inclusion, across different realms of public life.

‘Assistive’ minority rights such as the right to translation may have beneficial consequences for the broader public, too. The sharing of public health information in many languages during the pandemic, Lenard observes, helped to ensure that regulations limiting the spread of Covid were broadly known. This supported the health of those in the majority, as well as of those speaking minority languages. However, some assistive rights are more controversial. Affirmative action policies are widely debated, for instance, since they provide preferential ways for minorities to access education, employment, and so on. Lenard maintains that affirmative action policies are necessary in a context where minorities have been systematically excluded from powerful social and political positions. Affirmative action helps remedy this injustice by helping cultural minorities be fairly included. So as a minority right, affirmative action responds to real-world inequities and helps to remedy them, improving the inclusion of cultural minorities.

However, there are some cultural minorities that do not seek greater inclusion into the broader community. Some Amish communities, for instance, pursue isolationist policies. What of their minority rights?

In determining what the rights of isolationist minorities should be, Lenard argues for a careful consideration of potential harms. Amish families’ demands to exempt children from education for farm labour should be respected, she argues, since ‘forcibly intervening’ to mandate children’s participation in schooling causes significant harm. Amish children should not, however, be exempted from labour laws that protect them from particularly dangerous forms of farm work. This is the sort of way that special rights for minorities must be carefully balanced against the potential for significant harms in those rights. There are broad benefits to respecting minority cultural values in isolationist communities, Lenard argues. Such respect fosters the trust that’s necessary for cooperation between the minority and the majority culture. Given that isolationist cultural movements are never entirely autonomous, this trust therefore fosters a more inclusive political life.

Lenard argues for politically inclusive multicultural states that support minority cultural rights and celebrate cultural differences. Balint meanwhile makes the case for a tolerant, neutral state, and for citizens who practice active indifference to those with whom they disagree. But it is a strength rather than a weakness of the book that Balint and Lenard do not try and settle their differences. They offer no resolution, but instead, offer the different principles underlying their opposing views, so helping us to think in new ways. In the polarized times in which we live, their dialogue is a salutary reminder that we can respectfully disagree. If we are to live together in culturally diverse societies, such carefully argued debate is one good place to start.

© Elaine Coburn 2023

Elaine Coburn is Associate Professor of International Studies at York University in Canada.

Debating Multiculturalism: Should There Be Minority Rights?, Peter Balint & Patti Tamara Lenard, OUP, 2022, £19.99 pb, 320 pages

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