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In a world where the lines between cultures and countries are becoming more and more blurred thanks to phenomena like globalization and mass immigration, one begins to question whether or not multiculturalism becomes an obstacle in modern-day democracies. Multiculturalism leads to the existence of different and at times, opposing values and interests among the people living under one nation and so it leads to the possibility of political turmoil. It is because of this assumption that some insist that democracies function better in culturally homogenous societies. While it certainly poses some challenges to the democratic process, it does not undermine democracy completely. This essay will argue that multiculturalism poses an inevitable challenge that democracies can adapt to and overcome.
Contemporary democracies are meant to reflect the desire of the people, so ideally, every single individual would have the same desires based off their culture. Multiculturalism refers to either “the presence and acknowledgement or feel-good celebration of ethno-cultural diversity” (Kymlicka). Different cultures have different values and so the issue becomes one of whether or not democracies are still reflecting of values when the people no longer share one culture and are instead divided by diversity. In a post-modernist world, cultural diversity is just as unavoidable as immigration, so the question becomes “Is multiculturalism a challenge to democracy?” That depends on your perspective of what a nation is. According to an article published by Allison Jagger, a nation can either be interpreted as either ethnos or demos. Multiculturalism is more likely to be perceived as a threat to individuals that think of a nation is bound by a shared culture, history and identity than those that believe a nation is bound by those who “voluntarily constitute themselves as a state by giving themselves a democratic constitution” (Jaggar).
Some, like the French political philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, will advocate for cultural homogeneity in a nation because the values, interests and goals among the people will be the same, therefore, government that is chosen by the people will reflect the general will. In Rousseau’s theory of the social contract, he believes that in order for people to maintain their freedom under political society is that “[they], since [they are] subject to laws, ought to be the author of them” (Rousseau 83). Rousseau believes that people lose their freedom when they become dependent on a singular, particular will and so, he stresses the notion that government is only legitimate if laws reflect the will of a people as a whole or rather, the general will. Some of the preconditions he sets for the general will are that the people who share power in a political community have to have common interests. In order to maintain this prerequisite, he also insists that society must also maintain cultural homogeny on some level in order to have the same values because this will lead to fundamental unity among the people (Rousseau 88). In a multicultural society, common interests are hard to establish as different cultures hold different values.
In the same way that the laws are made by the general will, the object of these laws must also be general; this means that there can be no special treatment among citizens. What Rousseau perceives as “the most important danger for social cohesion [is] when one particular will dominates over others, and promulgates laws that do not reflect the diverse views of society as a whole” (Brunstetter). Fairness in a multicultural democracy is “brought into question when one observes that the outcomes of such conflicts tend to favour the [other] culture” (Jaggar). To borrow an example from the text written by Jaggar, this is the case with Muslim girls wearing headscarves in French schools but there seems to be no objection to Christian girls wearing crosses. The same would happen if a state outlawed the use of masks in public but Muslim women were allowed to wear a niqab, which is a garment that covers their entire face. In the case of France however, assimilation to immigrants is mandatory. Immigrants are expected to not only learn the language but also the culture of France in order to become part of the body politic. The expectation of assimilation reflects the both the will and desire for a unified culture by the people (Brunsetter). This all suggests that if Rousseau were to s than good. However, is national identity so fragile that it calls for the erasure of differences in culture? Language assimilation is practical as it helps immigrants learn how to maneuver their day-to-day lives in a new country, but where is the line drawn between “expectations of assimilation” and cultural erasure? By saying that you want a country to remain “pure” and culturally homogenous arguably holds xenophobic undertones. In a world where the boundaries between states are diffusing more and more every single day, is it realistic to want to preserve one’s own ‘interpretation’ of cultural identity? Because of globalization, it is unlikely for that preservation to persist.
Multiculturalism does not always result in strife and separation within democracy. In the case of a modern-day representative democracy like Canada, it is because of multiculturalism that it remains unified to this day. In 1995, “had immigrants not voted overwhelmingly against secession in the [Quebec referendum], the secessionists would have won” (Kymlicka). In fact, the support for immigrant multiculturalism “remains at an all-time high” among Canadian citizens (Kymlicka). Western democracies are adapting to multiculturalism as best as they can since it’s something that cannot be impeded for very long. These countries adopt policies meant to “overcome the legacies of earlier hierarchies and to help build fairer and more inclusive democratic societies” (Kymlicka). Democracies can either choose to protect cultural differences or celebrate them in order to counteract any feelings of xenophobia or racism that may be prevalent in the natives of these countries. For example, we see this in the forms of empowerment of indigenous peoples such as the Maori in New Zealand and the Aboriginals in Canada and Australia. These democracies’ have adapted policies that offer the recognition of self-government rights, the upholding historic treaties, recognition of cultural rights, which include language and religious rituals as well as guarantees of representation and consultation in the central government (Kymlicka). Canada is an example of how it’s possible for democracy and multiculturalism to coexist.
In conclusion, multiculturalism may very well present challenges to modern-day democracies, but it is possible to overcome them. The presence and acknowledgement of other cultures does not undermine the structure of democracy since cultural homogeny is not the only way under which a democracy could function, despite what thinkers like Jean Jacques Rousseau believe. In today’s world, we have examples like the country of Canada who is and has been balancing diversity and democracy throughout modern history.
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