Even more on multicultural dystopias

Some things that are, again, too long for the comments.

Slavery

Some commenters think they have a knockdown argument by bringing up possible atrocities under a multicultural order. Slavery seems to be a popular example. I think this is a very weak response. Let me explain why.

In the US, opponents of gay marriage and other homosexual rights often argue that if homosexuality is granted legal status, this opens the door to all sorts of behaviors traditionally thought of as sexual perversions. Bestiality is a popular example, as is necrophilia. (As an Oklahoma senator recently put it, “Sexual orientation is a very vague word that could be extended to extremes like necrophilia.”) Many with religious right political convictions treat this as a knockdown argument exposing the absurdity of an anything-goes legal regime regarding sexuality. Where does it stop?

They’re not being entirely delusional. By giving legal recognition to one kind of sexual behavior once considered unthinkable, you do, even if ever so slightly, open the door to legitimizing other sexual behaviors beyond the pale. Moreover, quite a few conservatives suspect that the liberal philosophy behind extending recognition to homosexual unions cannot sustain a barrier to, say, necrophilia. They can imagine a horror story of a future, perhaps a few decades hence, where necrophilia is accepted since it only involves one consenting person and there can be no possible harm done to a dead body, after all. And indeed, once “perversions” become a matter of political negotiation rather than a complete taboo, no one can guarantee where the political process will lead. If preventing necrophilia is a matter of overwhelming concern for someone, dominating over all other interests, they probably will want to keep traditional morality and laws intact.

I think the proper response to such a conservative is to point out that they are letting their imagination run away with them. None of the actual proposals under discussion have any connection to necrophilia. There is no constituency demanding necrophilic rights. And if they think that liberal political thought has no resources to discourage necrophilia, they are speaking from a position of ignorance. Liberal thought may not deliver as absolutely thundering a condemnation of necrophiliac behavior as traditional religious morality, but for practical, legal purposes, there is no reason to think sanctioned necrophilia should be on anyone’s list of concerns.

Indeed, I think we can pretty clearly see that what the religious right politicians are doing here is moral posturing. I’m probably being too charitable even by trying to explore why they’re not being entirely delusional. Maybe US conservatives do have a case to make against recognizing homosexual partnerships. But worries about bestiality or necrophilia are not part of any case that deserves to be taken seriously.

I think that bringing up slavery when discussing multicultural proposals actually in play is similarly mistaken. Slavery is not on the table here. There is no slippery slope. Even religious traditions that have historically sanctioned slavery are now part of a consensus that slavery is not acceptable. (Let’s not blow a few Saudi clerics out of proportion.) They have, in fact, developed internal, theological reasons for their stand. Anyone who says that giving ethnic and religious communities recognition opens the door to slavery should take a deep breath, take a closer look at what the actual political debate is all about, and try to come back with something more substantial.

Freedom

Many liberals seem quite convinced that their favored regime of individual rights approximately maximizes freedom, or at least does a clearly better job of providing freedom than its rivals.

Things are not so clear cut as that. Almost everyone agrees that freedom is a good thing, so it might seem that considerations of freedom are a promising basis for a universally acceptable political order. Why freedom should be the only consideration, or at least the overwhelmingly dominant consideration, is a good question. But let me go along with that modern assumption.

Even then, the problem is that what people mean by freedom can be quite different. There are different sorts of freedom. Some may be incommensurable. Some conflict. Speaking of increasing or maximizing freedom seems uncomfortably similar to talking about maximizing utility. Putting all “utilities” together and adding them on a common scale turns out to be unworkable. And so, perhaps, with freedom.

Even within the liberal tradition, we have competing notions of how to handle freedom. For example, libertarians emphasize self-ownership and freedom of contract. Any interference in market exchanges becomes coercion: a violation of freedom. But other liberals, who I am considerably more sympathetic to, take an approach where they try to improve everyone’s capabilities to make choices. This version of liberalism is in direct, and I think irreconcilable, conflict with a libertarian or neoliberal vision. There are other ideas about how to realize “freedom,” going further left in the liberal tradition. Putting all these together with right-wing libertarian concepts, it’s easy to think that even within the liberal tradition, there no single coherent, commanding idea of freedom.

And then, we can step outside liberal thought. For example, in many philosophical and religious traditions, there is the idea that freedom is not the same thing as power to do what you want. You can be as technically free as you like under just about every liberal version of freedom, but you’re not truly free as long as you’re the slave of your passions. Freedom comes through self-discipline and the cultivation of virtue, including the ability to discern what is good and freely act in accordance with the good.

Religious traditions have most commonly been home to this sort of conception of freedom. It leads to notions that seem very odd to a liberal, for example, that freedom consists in submitting to the will of God. But from a religious point of view, this makes good sense. Those devout people who say that they experience a deep freedom in submission are not being confused. Monastic life, following the dictates of the Church, discipleship in a Sufi order, and any one of a large array of practices that are available to ordinary believers as well as religious overachievers, does seem to produce a sense of freedom in many. I am not prepared to say that this is obviously self-delusion, false consciousness, or what-have-you. Religious people who say that their religious freedom is restricted due to the roadblocks to community thrown up by a liberal order are not talking nonsense, particularly if it’s this sense of freedom lurking in the background.

So, in negotiating a political order, we are also inevitably privileging some forms of freedom over others. It’s comparatively easy to agree on what constitutes obvious forms of unfreedom. Someone locked in a cell, continually subjected to sleep deprivation and loud music at random intervals, forced to beg for her food—everyone agrees that this is about as unfree as it gets. But once obvious deprivations are removed, liberty is not a single thing that can be increased and measured on a common scale.

Freedom as submission holds no attraction for me, and trying to achieve some coherence is as far as I can go in preventing slavery to my passions. You will only pry my chocolate away from my cold, dead hands. When a religious leader says that everyone should find freedom in submission as they understand it, I get pissed off. But that’s who I am, and the sort of people I tend to befriend. Others are different. As a political actor, I have to figure out ways to live together with difference.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07704269001780299394 D

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07704269001780299394 D

    Have I missed something or have you failed to mention Canada? It seems that most of your rebukes of multiculturalism are based on abstractions rather than examples from the 21st century.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    D: "Have I missed something or have you failed to mention Canada? It seems that most of your rebukes of multiculturalism are based on abstractions rather than examples from the 21st century."

    I've mentioned Canada, but only in passing. I've only been there three times, and my knowledge of Canadian politics is, unfortunately, superficial.

    I would very much like to know more, especially those aspects of Canada which are considered a multicultural success story.

    Are there any books you could suggest?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08000353980872079468 OB

    But Taner, you're the one who brought up slavery – you said slavery might be one example of pushing multiculturalism too far (or words to that effect). I responded to that; I didn't suggest that multiculturalism allowed slavery (though I would say that it could – it is inherently a much broader term than 'gay marriage' is). I've been citing stuff that really does go on in some 'communities' and that what you've said so far doesn't seem to rule out.

    Ophelia

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Ophelia Benson: "I've been citing stuff that really does go on in some 'communities' and that what you've said so far doesn't seem to rule out."

    Slavery? In any of the places where more multicultural politics is under serious discussion? Where? I must be seriously misinformed.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08000353980872079468 OB

    No, I've been citing stuff other than slavery. (I also replied to what you said about slavery, but I didn't bring it up as an example of something multiculti could lead to.)

    Also, I for one don't think I have a knockdown argument. I think knockdown arguments are very very hard to come by on moral and political issues. I said that at my place, if not here.

    Ophelia

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07663505945922022288 Daniel

    Taner Edis,

    I think you missed the point of bringing up slavery (although as Ophelia points out, that WAS you who brought it up).

    Let me try to illustrate what I'm saying using a hypothetical (and not, I think, far-fetched) example.

    You have a community in which the honor killing of a widow is an important part of the cultural tradition. A particular woman whose only tie to the community was her husband objects to this practice. Should the community have the authority to enforce the tradition or should the woman have the autonomy to leave?

    You've mentioned "escape valves." Here is, presumably, where that idea comes in. However, if the community leaders are DETERMINED to kill the woman, and she is DETERMINED not to be killed, some external imposition of force is required to resolve the impasse. If not, the community will certainly impose "its" will on the woman (by which I mean the other individuals in the community will impose their will on the woman). You seem to agree that the latter is unacceptable — that there needs to be some sort of external arbiter of the authority of individual communities.

    But you haven't made clear to me, at any rate, how the existence of such an external entity with the mission of guaranteeing the autonomy of individuals threatened by the authority of their communities isn't tantamount or even identical to the imposition of liberal political ideals on communities unwilling to adopt those ideals. From the community's perspective, our "release valve" prevents them from properly observing their cultural practices. How is this not liberalism?

    That is, it's not that slavery is the inevitable result of letting communities do what they want. It's that when you have any kind of system that's protecting individual autonomy from community authority, you're imposing liberal political principles on those communities. "Slavery" is merely the prod to get you to admit that yes, there need to be some safeguards. But the very notion of safeguards guarantees that what you are talking about is de facto liberalism, even if not in its purest form. In which case, whence the criticism of liberalism?

    Which, as far as I can tell, you really haven't provided. Don't like liquor? Don't drink it. Don't like abortions? Don't get one. Liberalism doesn't prevent individuals from constraining their own behavior to be acceptable to the standards of a given community, but it does prevent communities from constraining the behavior of individuals. The only argument you seem to have against this simple observation is that:

    "Yes, but some communities REALLY WANT to constrain the behavior of individuals!"

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Daniel: "You seem to agree that the latter is unacceptable — that there needs to be some sort of external arbiter of the authority of individual communities."

    Not necessarily. I don't know if the institutional forms that constrain communities have to have to take the shape of an external arbiter, a Bureau of Individual Rights in Communities or something. Quite possibly, given our governmental habits. Say it's so.

    But then, I would also expect such a Bureau to be sensitive to political negotiations between particular communities concerning what kind of exit procedures will be realized. It wouldn't just be imposition of a liberal individualist superstructure.

    But you haven't made clear to me, at any rate, how the existence of such an external entity with the mission of guaranteeing the autonomy of individuals threatened by the authority of their communities isn't tantamount or even identical to the imposition of liberal political ideals on communities unwilling to adopt those ideals. From the community's perspective, our "release valve" prevents them from properly observing their cultural practices. How is this not liberalism?

    It's not so black or white as that. Presumably a multicultural regime in modern times would try to negotiate a balance between (partial, permeable) community autonomy, and (nonabsolute, constrained) individual autonomy.

    That is, short of life and limb, a community would still be able to impose significant costs on members violating internal norms. (Again, the extent of these costs would presumably be up to particular political negotiations.)

    This does not seem identical to a uniform liberal order.

    Don't like liquor? Don't drink it. Don't like abortions? Don't get one. Liberalism doesn't prevent individuals from constraining their own behavior to be acceptable to the standards of a given community, but it does prevent communities from constraining the behavior of individuals.

    It's not as easy as that. Some conservatives (rightly, I think), argue that this form of liberalism assumes atomistic individuals with only chosen associations. It is not able to accommodate notions of unchosen connections, vulnerability, and care-giving.

    Abortion, actually, is a good illustration. Some conservatives (incorrectly, I think), argue that the fetus is a person in a condition of acute vulnerability, particularly deserving of protection. Telling them that if they don't want it they are free not to have an abortion is not to the point at all.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08000353980872079468 OB

    But then, I would also expect such a Bureau to be sensitive to political negotiations between particular communities concerning what kind of exit procedures will be realized. It wouldn't just be imposition of a liberal individualist superstructure.

    Good god, Taner, what are you saying?! That the state has to negotiate with 'communities' about whether or not the communities will let people leave? Are you kidding?

    In light of that claim – please, at last pin down exactly what you mean by 'communities.' You keep brushing off my point that communities are not uniform and that the people inside them have different interests – so please explain what you mean. Who would take part in these negotiations? Just the 'leaders'? The 'spokesmen,' the 'representatives'? Or a wide cross-section of kinds of people including those the 'community' marginalizes and subordinates?

    But anyway, no matter which you answer, the idea that you think there should be any question about whether or not people can leave 'communities' is just…frightening.

    Oh, god – I've read the rest of it now.

    That is, short of life and limb, a community would still be able to impose significant costs on members violating internal norms.

    That's just disgusting. And scary. I give up.

    You're not ambivalent about liberalism, you've abandoned it! Totally.

    Ophelia

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Ophelia Benson: "You're not ambivalent about liberalism, you've abandoned it! Totally."

    If all liberals reacted in such a moral panic to exploring other ideas, I would abandon liberalism, and good riddance too. I don't think that's the case.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08885813390779661738 Bruce

    Taner

    There is a name for the system you are arguing for – Apartheid. It is in fact why Apartheid was called Apartheid.

    Your entire concept has been tried repeatedly (America's segregation movement was all for it too, must feel good arguing on the same side as your historic villains) and been shown to be not just wrong, but actually evil.

    So far you have shown yourself to be so first world, so white, so male and so stupid. Have you even considered what your ideas actually mean for the members of these communities?

    No, I don't think you have. I think instead you arestroking your ego to some massive climax while the rest of us look on in disgust.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08000353980872079468 OB

    You can be as technically free as you like under just about every liberal version of freedom, but you're not truly free as long as you're the slave of your passions. Freedom comes through self-discipline and the cultivation of virtue, including the ability to discern what is good and freely act in accordance with the good.

    Religious traditions have most commonly been home to this sort of conception of freedom. It leads to notions that seem very odd to a liberal, for example, that freedom consists in submitting to the will of God. But from a religious point of view, this makes good sense. Those devout people who say that they experience a deep freedom in submission are not being confused. Monastic life, following the dictates of the Church, discipleship in a Sufi order, and any one of a large array of practices that are available to ordinary believers as well as religious overachievers, does seem to produce a sense of freedom in many. I am not prepared to say that this is obviously self-delusion, false consciousness, or what-have-you. Religious people who say that their religious freedom is restricted due to the roadblocks to community thrown up by a liberal order are not talking nonsense, particularly if it's this sense of freedom lurking in the background.

    But the issue here – the sticking point, the problem, the incommensurability – is with what 'communities' (your word, not mine) can do to their putative members. We all agree that individuals can and should be free to find their freedom in submitting to God. We do not agree that individuals can and should be free to impose that way of life on anyone else. (This immediately gets very tricky when it comes to those individuals' children – and in fact liberal states generally give parents very broad latitude to impose their religious way of life on children; see the Supreme Court decision in Yoder v Wisconsin, for example.) You have yet to confront that issue.

    So: when you say 'Religious people who say that their religious freedom is restricted due to the roadblocks to community thrown up by a liberal order are not talking nonsense,' what do you mean? Does a liberal order throw up roadblocks to people's right to find their freedom in submitting to God? As far as I know, the answer to that is a resounding No. So what do you mean? What roadblocks?

    You seem to be talking about roadblocks to impositions on other people – yet you also seem to be reluctant to spell that out (except the bit about 'political negotiations between particular communities concerning what kind of exit procedures will be realized' and the bit about how 'a community would still be able to impose significant costs on members violating internal norms'). So: if what you mean is that communities, meaning the powerful people within communities, meaning adult men, should have more freedom to impose 'the community's' internal norms on other people, could you spell that out?

    Ophelia Benson

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07704269001780299394 D

    Right now I can't recall the names of sophisticated and in-depth analyses of the success of Canadian multiculturalism. I'll find them when I'm less busy.

    Until then an article by Toronto Star Columnist Haroon Siddiqui may be insightful:

    http://www.newint.org/features/2009/05/01/no-room-for-bigots/

    "As for the much-derided Muslims (580,000 in the 2001 census, but now estimated at 750,000) – they are a satisfied lot, according to a poll done for the Trudeau Foundation in Montreal. They register higher levels of pride in Canada than the population at large. They are less likely than Muslims in Britain, France, Germany or Spain to feel that their fellow citizens are hostile to Islam. They did cite discrimination as a problem, but ‘the thing Muslims least like about Canada is the cold weather’, just like all other immigrant groups."

    It notes the lack of *de jure* seperation of church and state as one reason for the success of Canadian multiculturalism, but I'm willing to wager that Canada still has much more *de facto* secularism thanks to a plurality of religions ensuring none could dominate the state.

    The article fails to mention one particular irony: the Muslim Canadian Congress has called for the banning of the burka:

    http://www.cbc.ca/canada/story/2009/10/08/canada-muslim-burka-niqb-ban-government.html

    As a final note, I think the fact Canadian immigration operates on a "points system" where education professionals are prefered may contribute to the overal social liberalism of Canadian immigrants.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07704269001780299394 D

    I made an error in the above post. I meant "educated professionals", not "education professionals". Sorry!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07704269001780299394 D

    http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2008-07-25-kymlicka-en.html

    An interesting interview with the liberal political philosopher of multiculturalism (a former adviser to the Canadian gov't who helped craft Canada's multicultural policy) Will Kymlicka.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13116034158087704885 March Hare

    I have two massive problems with this post:

    1. You equate libertarianism with the right. Libertarianism is not a left-right issue, it is a different dimension. By any given definition a conservative would oppose a libertarian on the majority of issues, especially concerning social liberal aspects. Likewise a progressive would likely oppose a libertarian on social equality and government's role. The libertarian seeks social and economic liberty, the former being at odds with the right and the latter being opposed to the left.

    2. You make some bold claims about what is right and wrong, yet provide no evidence, no reason for why things like necrophilia, incest or cannibalism are wrong.

    People claiming gay marriage is a slippery slope to the things they mentioned are entirely correct. And it is a good thing. The next oppressed group to be freed from society's moral disgust will be polyamorous people who are currently stigmatized by society and penalised by law, to the extent that bigamists will be jailed. Once they have their freedom then sibling relationships will be decriminalised, later moving onto parent-child ones.

    Until the law is based on harm then we are living in a divisive and illogical society where the moral disgust of the many happens to criminalise the peaceful and harmless acts of the few.

    Your argument here is that slavery is the end of a slippery slope that will never happen is simply false. Domestic slavery would happen within a generation of a multicultural society like you suggest. Women unable to leave the house without a spouse or male relative, girls unable to get an education or a job relying on fathers and then husbands for a house, clothing and food. What is that if not slavery?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07704269001780299394 D

    March Hare, you've oversimplified libertarianism. There are right and left versions of it, the left version you failed to mention.

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/libertarianism/#2

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13116034158087704885 March Hare

    D, the left version is unworkable and only barely libertarian.

    You're right though, I massively oversimplified libertarianism which has at least two, possibly more, dimensions, economic and individual liberty being the ones I can think of right now. But I think trying to have a left and right dimension to it is conflating two different concepts. (Yes, I'm arguing with Stanford University… I also argue with Descartes and Plato.)

    PS. To clarify, in the previous comment I was talking about consensual parent-adult child relationships.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07663505945922022288 Daniel

    "It's not as easy as that. Some conservatives (rightly, I think), argue that this form of liberalism assumes atomistic individuals with only chosen associations. It is not able to accommodate notions of unchosen connections, vulnerability, and care-giving."

    I disagree — it makes no assumptions whatsoever about the associations of individuals. That is its strength: communities can use the time-tested (especially religious) techniques of moral opprobrium to reinforce cultural norms. Acceptance by one's community is a powerful incentive for behaving in a certain way; is it really necessary to add power over a person's autonomy to be "fair to the community" (and I'm still not sure what that would mean — fair to the community leaders? or fair to the members of the community? is there some other moral agent that can be part of a "fairness" relation that I'm missing here?)? I say no; if a member of the community is no longer concerned about moral opprobrium as incentive to "correct" behavior, then I think that should be that. Maybe exile, but then we have to worry about property rights as well.

    That is to say, I'm not assuming that unchosen or even semi-chosen (many relationships involve a certain amount of coercion of a moral nature combined with a certain amount of cooperation; if anything, I think you're being more reductive than I am of the types of bonds between individuals) aren't important. I'm ignoring them because I believe that they are important within their own domain and SHOULD NOT BE IMPORTANT in the domain of public law. Being a member of the judge's church should not, in principle, get you a lighter sentence even if it often does in practice.

    "Abortion, actually, is a good illustration. Some conservatives (incorrectly, I think), argue that the fetus is a person in a condition of acute vulnerability, particularly deserving of protection. Telling them that if they don't want it they are free not to have an abortion is not to the point at all."

    I'd suggest you actually look into the research on who gets abortions and why. As it turns out, religious conservatives are recipients of abortions at a rate per capita comparable to those immoral secular liberals. This tells us that either:
    A) the conservatives making this case are hypocrites, much more likely to allow their daughters to have abortions than their rhetoric suggests, or
    B) the attitudes of the conservative community leaders making these arguments differ from those of the members of the community who actually have to decide whether or not to get abortions.

    Either way, it's clear that the notion that "the fetus is a person in a condition of acute vulnerability" is either not universally believed among conservatives whose religion would imply that belief, or that the notion is often outweighed in the moral calculations of such religious conservatives by the concerns of childbirth and child rearing.

    Again and again, we come back to the same point: the identity of the "community" is often determined by the attitudes of its most powerful representatives, people with a powerful incentive to disenfranchise any competing attitudes or changes in power structure within the community. If so much power over individuals is given to the community, we have to ask: who decides what powers the community will actually exercise? Why does that person or group enjoy such a special and hazardous privilege? And should there be checks on their decision-making?

    Asking these questions is what got us liberalism in the first place, so I still just can't see where liberalism is old-fashioned or outdated or anything like the philosophical failure you make it out to be.


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