Culture and Equality: An Egalitarian Critique of Multiculturalism

Language: English

Pages: 418

ISBN: 0674010019

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


All major Western countries contain groups that differ from the mainstream and from each other in religious beliefs, customary practices, or cultural ideas. How should public policy respond to this diversity? Brian Barry challenges the currently orthodox answer and develops a powerful restatement of an egalitarian liberalism for the twenty-first century.

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It would be more correct to say that the condition of most societies that have existed in the world has been one in which the public sphere has concerned relations between households: in effect, the polity has been a league of households, represented by their heads. Within the household, its (male) head has had a more or less free hand over his wife (or wives), children, servants and, where they have existed, slaves. Thus, John Stuart Mill observed in The Subjection of Women that ‘the man had anciently (but this was anterior to Christianity) the power of life and death over his wife.

Most countries have always contained people with different religious beliefs and other divergent ideas about the right way to behave: these are typically transmitted within the family or some wider social group from one generation to the next. Here, too, there is nothing new. Nor is there anything new about conflict arising from difference. Conflicts between different Christian denominations, and between Christians and Jews, have been endemic in Europe. Adding to the religious and cultural mix Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Rastafarians and others in the last half century has undeniably created tensions which have given rise to harassment and occasionally lethal violence in Britain, for example.

4 At the same time, ‘some writers emphasize an ideological and normative aspect’. 5 The trouble is that one and the same writer is liable to switch between the two uses without notice. Thus, the author of the first of these two quotations cites as an illustration of the descriptive use of ‘multiculturalism’ Charles Taylor’s essay on ‘The Politics of Recognition’. 6 But in that essay Taylor also uses ‘multiculturalism’ to refer to a set of public policies that would give different cultures some kind of official ‘recognition’.

What this means is primarily that, while membership of the group can be made contingent upon submission to these unequal norms, those who leave or are expelled may not be subjected to gratuitous losses. (I shall give this idea more specificity at the end of the chapter. ) What I want to emphasize here is that the value underwriting the freedom of groups to operate in illiberal ways is not respect for their culture but rather an acknowledgement of the significance in people’s lives of free association.

7 million Americans, the top 1 per cent, will have as many after-tax dollars to spend as the bottom 100 million. ’3 Right at the top, the gains have been even more remarkable. In 1980, ‘the typical C. E. O. of a big American company was taking home about forty times the annual earnings of a typical worker on the factory floor’. 4 By 1990, ‘they took in about eighty five times as much as factory workers’. Then ‘between 1990 and 1998, . . . the annual “compensation” of C. E. Os. at large firms rose from $1. 8 million to $10.

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