A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Notes on a Conversation with Will Kymlicka

Will Kymlicka is Professor of Philosophy and Canada Research Chair in Political Philosophy at Queen's University and Kingston, Visiting Professor of Nationalism Studies at Central European University (CEU), and the world's leading theorist of multiculturalism. He is currently teaching a course at CEU entitled "The Global Diffusion of Minority Rights"; this morning I was able to have a conversation with him relating to issues raised in that course and in the study of multiculturalism more generally. These are my notes on the conversation, so as to keep a permanent record in a readable format. The answers attributed to Professor Kymlicka are almost entirely summaries rather than direct quotations. My questions are in bold, Kymlicka's answers are in normal type, and my thoughts are in italics. Since (a) this was an offhand conversation, not a published article, (b) while I am trying to reproduce what he said faithfully but my memory is not perfect, and (c) this is just a blogpost which for all you know I might entirely be making up, Professor Kymlicka should of course not be held responsible for anything I attribute to him here.

ATP: In your discussion of multiculturalism in Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction, you note that in the early days of multicultural theory people drew a lot of associations between multiculturalism and communitarianism. But multiculturalism started to be practiced around 1967-73, whereas communitarianism didn't appear until the 1980s. How does this fit together?

WK: Essentially, we did multicultural practice without having any theory of it for about twenty years. Then, in the early 80s, communitarianism came along. You're too young to remember this, but back then it was massive. When I was an undergrad, the communitarian critique of liberalism was all the rage, the great issue of the day. So people started casting around for other issues which might be illuminated by communitarianism, and noticed multiculturalism. In my view this was a big mistake, getting the justification for multiculturalism entirely wrong, but that's how it happened.

ATP: The perpetual concern when granting minority rights is that these rights will simply allow the suppression of individual liberty. I'd like to suggest that this is far more common than we often think - in particular, that the practice of teaching minority languages in schools represents a limitation of the liberty of schoolchildren. (I had in my notes a comparison to teaching Klingon in schools, which no-one would advocate, but did not use this in our actual conversation). Time and effort spent teaching a minority language represents time spent not teaching things which may actually be useful to the children.

WK: Yes, Thomas Pogge advocated that position in a book chapter for a book I edited, called "Ethnicity and Group Rights". He argued that the teaching of Spanish in American schools violates the rights of pupils. What I would say is that in general, minorities want to teach their own languages alongside the majority language, and, oddly enough, it so happens that empirically people who learn multiple languages end up better at both of them. [This seems somewhat most-convenient possible universe to me, but then again it's not at all obviously wrong. Certainly, as a result of learning German, I understand grammar far better than I would if I only spoke English].

The other thing I would say is that children don't have a right that education be organised to their maximum benefit - the idea that they do is just implausible. So it's not at all clear to me that such a limitation, if it were a limitation, would be a violation of the rights of children.

ATP: Pogge seems to take it rather further than I had in mind - I had in mind the teaching of Welsh, a language which - though beautiful - is utterly useless. Given the advantages of bilingualism, then, the case to be made is not "Welsh & English" versus just English so much as Welsh versus French - a case which seems to be rather easier to make.

WK: Or Spanish, or Mandarin, yes. That points to what I think is an important mistake in the way many people talk abut multiculturalism, which is to confuse multiculturalism with diversity. Originally people would justify minority rights in terms of justice, but nowadays they often try to advocate the same policies with talk of diversity. Because everyone likes diversity, right? But that raises the question of why you favour this particular form of diversity, rather than a completely different culture. No: multiculturalism and diversity are different concerns: multiculturalism is motivated by concerns about justice, whereas diversity is a value all of its own.

It's also worth saying that the kind of argument you're making doesn't just cut against minority rights. In many cases it may also cut against majority rights too. Think about Estonia - would Estonian children be better off learning in English and German rather than Estonian? Quite probably. Do they have a right to be taught in these languages? I don't think so.

ATP: Speaking of Estonia, do you think the history of how a minority came to be matters? Estonia has a significant ethnic Russian minority, as do many states in the Balkans. But whereas the Balkan minorities exist because the ethnic borders between nations overlap but the state borders don't, the Russian minority exists in Estonia because they were moved in by the Russian state when it militarily occupied the Baltic states. Presumably that has some moral relevance?

WK: Yes, it surely does have moral relevance. I would suggest that the ethnic Russians in Estonia should be seen as immigrants rather than a national minority - that means that they should be accorded certain rights, but not to the full group rights which we might think a national minority ought to have. We can't visit the sins of the fathers on their children: the ethnic Russians have to be able to have Estonian citizenship, you can't leave people stateless from birth. But yes, as a group I think they lack many of the rights that we would attribute to most national minorities.

ATP: In the lectures we discussed the issue of secession, and you were rather down on what you called "Vanity Secessions", since you view a multi-ethnic as being entirely compatible with justice. But is there anything actually wrong with vanity secessions? After all, there are plenty of things that democracies do which fail to contribute to justice, but we don't think that makes these policies wrong.

WK: Let me put it this way. I don't think Quebec has a right to secede; I don't think that the rest of Canada has a right to make them stay. It's hard to make the case that Quebec somehow has a duty to stay. This isn't something where I really know what I think. I would suggest that rather than have a theory of what justifies individual secessions, then, we want a theory of what ought to be the procedure for achieving secession. There are a number of dangers relating to these matters. First, if this is seen as a one-off, irreversible decision, then people can be pushed to a choice which they would not otherwise make for fear of the option being closed off to them permanently. The corresponding danger in drawn-out processes is that one part of the country can use the threat of secession to extract concessions on other matters from the rest of the country. So we want to permit secessions, but we want perhaps to channel secession movements down certain paths to ensure that secession is in response to a genuine grievance.

ATP: Couldn't that work as a criticism of democratic decisions in general? Democratic practice falls, even in the best cases, far short of the standards which political philosophers tend to think it should achieve.

WK: Yes, to some extent. The thing to keep in mind is that most democratic decisions are reversable. But I recently read a paper arguing that for certain irreversible decisions, in particular those relating to the environment, we ought to limit or restrict the scope of democracy, and instead find of way of calculating what is owed to future generations. I'm not certain exactly how that would work, but there is definitely a case to be made.

ATP: Thank you for your time.

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