Multiculture and Anti-Culture

Review by Peter Copeland


Multiculturalism in Canada: Constructing a Model Multiculture with Multicultural Values. Hugh Donald Forbes. Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.



MULTICULTURALISM  A REALITY, a political ideal, and a buzzword that has as many meanings as it does uses. Multiculturalism in all these variations, and in its specifically Canadian context, form the subject matter of Hugh Donald Forbes’ 2019 book Multiculturalism in Canada: Constructing a Model Multiculture with Multicultural Values.

Forbes tackles both how multiculturalism has been promoted concretely and what some of its most eminent thinkers have had to say about it from a theoretical perspective.

On the empirical side, he takes us back to Pierre Trudeau’s development of official multiculturalism, and its precursors in changing immigration policy in the ’40s through to the ’60s. On the theoretical side, he focuses on the works of two prominent Canadian political theorists, the liberal Will Kymlicka of Queen’s and the communitarian Charles Taylor, an éminence grise of the philosophy world and Professor Emeritus at McGill.

He argues that in the Canadian context today, multiculturalism is a “celebration of diversity.” Unlike the “melting pot” version in the United States, or Quebec’s “interculturalism,” Canadian multiculturalism can be seen as a modification of the original Enlightenment ideas of toleration. We no longer seek “merely” to tolerate and live with one another’s substantial differences, but actively to “affirm” and “celebrate” them.


From ‘Vision’ to Bureaucracy

Forbes argues that the genesis of Canada’s policy of “Official Multiculturalism” — the unintended byproduct of the 1963 Bilingualism and Biculturalism Commission — was that it was part and parcel of Trudeau’s national unity strategy.

The politics of multiculturalism was in service of a “visionary idea” – anti-nationalism, of a sort; a project of building national sovereignty on different grounds. Multiculturalism is a tool in service of an anti-nationalism that “distinguishes support for the principle of nationalities from support for the nations themselves in the sense of historic cultural or ‘sociological’ formations” (p. 64).

Federalism – as envisioned by Trudeau – was the political model that served as the vehicle for the move to the post-national order, which would be governed by administrators and bureaucrats, with their “functionalist” use of reason.

After this detour into history, Forbes takes up different conceptions of equality. Unlike “earlier forms of cultural pluralism” multiculturalism is distinguished “by its commitment to treating all cultures equally.” But it’s nothing like “difference-blind” classical liberalism, with equal treatment under the law.

He settles for this formulation: “treating people differently in order to treat them equally.” Of course, the devil is in the details. In this case, all in the operational meaning of words like equality, differential treatment, and so on.

To see how these new meanings can be consistently parsed and applied to the multicultural project, he turns to two of Canada’s best-known political theorists, Will Kymlicka and Charles Taylor.


From the Ivory tower

Kymlicka argues in Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights, published in 2003, that multiculturalism gives people greater capability to act on their own judgments and values, rather than those of a dominant culture or ideology. This capability is called “cultural freedom,” which “requires the opportunity and ability to make good choices,” rooted in access to cultural preconditions. “Cultural freedom offers its members ‘the good of cultural membership’ – that is, access to the ‘cultural heritage’ that is most meaningful to them.”

“Group rights” are the key. They’re made palatable by distinguishing between types of group, to which certain rights correspond; and the acceptable from the unacceptable claims for cultural accommodation, which must only protect the existence of the culture, not its character.

National minorities are involuntarily formed; therefore self-government, political representation, and polyethnic rights are conferred. In Canada’s context, the Québecois and First Nations are examples of this kind of group. Immigrant minorities on the other hand, are voluntarily formed, as they most often choose to migrate; they therefore receive only polyethnic rights.

But many would argue that we need much more than what this promotes, mere “boutique multiculturalism”: the acceptance and availability of ethnic cuisine, art, and the like, but nothing too substantive. On then to Charles Taylor.


Authentic Selves

It becomes clear through an outline of Taylor’s thinking on multiculturalism that his work better reflects the spirit of our contemporary moment than does Kymlicka’s. Taylor shows how contingent historical preconditions make different “social imaginaries” (ways of conceiving of one’s social identity) possible. In books like Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (1989) and A Secular Age (2018), Taylor draws on Hegel’s concept of “mutual recognition” as something that is essential to the psychic development of human persons, and later imports it into contemporary social and political theory. A key concept in his work is that of “the buffered self”; the self-conception common to the modern, western person who sees herself as self-sufficient, as “master of the meanings of things.” It is somewhat of a foil for Taylor’s communitarian critique of the atomistic social life that characterizes contemporary, mostly Western countries.

Taken together, the idea is that recognition is crucial to psychological and social formation, and that it ought to be applied more broadly to persons, based on a particular understanding of their uniqueness – authenticity.

Recognition of others as persons involves perception, appreciation and evaluation of who they are and how they live. Authenticity in a person is that which is to be recognized; through self-knowledge and self-revelation, a person comes to know and act on that which is most authentically proper to their “inner,” “true” self. It is argued that “equal” mutual recognition of the “authentic self” is an essential component of a person’s development and identity.

Since authenticity must be formed and recognized in dialogue with others, a person’s identity is dependent upon this cultural dialogue, where identities are co-formed in mutual recognition.

To this, Taylor adds the test of the fusion of moral horizons, which he gets from German philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer, and his hermeneutical philosophy elaborated principally in Truth and Method. Authenticity must pass through the “fusion of moral horizons” for it to be acknowledged as worthy of recognition.

In other words, by discussing and debating ways of life, beliefs, and values together, we may strive to differentiate the genuine forms of authenticity from its impostors.

So much for normative theorizing though, how are these ideals to be realized in practice?

In a rare moment of writing in his own voice, Forbes declares that “contemporary cultural accommodation, with its inclusive sensitivity and celebratory tolerance, seems closer to diplomacy than authenticity.”

He points to openness as the value that can do a better job. Again, he is careful to distinguish between its different types: there is a society’s openness to new ideas, the positive exemplar of which is Karl Popper’s “piecemeal social engineering”; the open border, whose rationale is economic efficiency; and open minds, which is the way out of the conundrum created by open borders and open windows (scientific-policy making) – namely, that they conspire to accentuate differences between “immigrants and old stock.”


IT'S NOT DIFFICULT to see how, as we see the emerging political divide shift from a less acrimonious class-based rift to one that is rooted in identities of all kinds. As the common cultural ground that bound different classes together erodes with multiculturalism, the gap between the ever-multiplying identity and cultural groups concentrated in cities, and the “older stock” in the suburbs and rural areas, grows wider.

“Open minds” is to be thought of along the lines of “open horizons.” It is an openness in terms of all kinds of values and norms – ways of knowing and acting.

Finally, Forbes turns to thoughts for the future. How can we get to sunny multiculturalism in the long run? The answer: openness, diversity, and tolerance.

Though he states that some of these ideas – which follow below – strike him as “morally repugnant” today, we must recognize that they may not be tomorrow. For, “yesterday’s science fiction is today’s status quo.”

The roadblocks we have to clear before we enter the multicultural utopia are the idea of having external enemies, and a conception of democracy as the authority of a popular assembly.

We must consider electoral reform in order to increase representation and address the “democratic deficit.” This goes by many names in the political science and theory landscape: making democracy more “direct” (read: unmediated by elected officials, committees, and popular assemblies), more “deliberative” (read: based on the best ‘reasons’ and ‘evidence’), and more “participatory” (read: make decision-making procedures subject to the active participation of citizens).

He looks at the single-member plurality system and proportional representation and suggests more of the latter.

We must extend citizenship more rapidly to immigrants, establish a values test (not to confer honour, of course, but to identify “hate-filled reactionaries”); introduce random sortition into the selection process of Senators, and abolish the Monarchy because of its particular affiliations to “Britishness” (which is presupposed to be non-inclusive and culturally insensitive).

In order to usher in the multiculturalist utopia where all are equally recognized and respected, we need to be intolerant of everything that isn’t “tolerant” – of course, in the intolerant way that good liberals and progressives actually practice tolerance. 

The conclusion he makes is that the Canadian experience since 1968 has been all but a resounding victory by Trudeau, Sr. over “nationalism” in all its forms. Ordinary people and conservatives still snicker when they hear the lesser offspring, Trudeau, Jr., speak of Canada as the first “post-national” society, but in many ways, it resonates with many Canadians.

For Forbes points out, the “clearest obligation” of the day is the recognition of diverse others. But he is alive to the need to balance a range of goods, and realities in the world. He ends with a humdrum truism – we need balance.

As he says, in a modern world where no rights are absolute, and all higher values are fungible (since they are, “ambiguous and metaphorical”), and laws are “bent to meet new interpretations,” the “goldilocks option” is what we should strive for: not too hot or too cold but just right.


AT TIMES IT appears as though Forbes is writing tongue-in-cheek, but it is not as apparent as he may have intended. The book is part of a series – “Recovering Political Philosophy” – whose editors write in the preface that it is a “straight-faced satire” in the manner of Swift, who suggested that the Irish sell their children for food. Conservatives will recognize that it’s just the kind of inhumane totalitarian bargain that is endemic to Enlightenment rationalism, and its progressive wing in politics — whose emphasis on collective projects ends up placing abstract “outcomes” above human persons, and their dignity.

If you missed the series preface, you might miss the satire. Truly, Forbes writes in the straight-faced style. The project of multiculturalism is, according to the series editors, a “world of incoherent doublethink, in which experts nimbly manage internal conflicts at home and practice a bullying imperialism abroad, wherever they can, to export ‘distinctively Canadian’ multicultural values.”

This angle of attack is less surprising when we know that Mr. Forbes was a student of Allan Bloom and George Grant – hardly your typical radical left-wing professors.

Whatever the author’s true intentions, the book is a rare blend of empirical and normative writing, that gives it a sense of completeness that many one-sided investigations lack. If it is short on critical examination of the many pitfalls of multiculturalism, they are at least mentioned with more than a passing nod.

The key insight of the book is that diversity, inclusivity, equity, and tolerance are not the ends in themselves, but rather, are in service of the greater value of recognition through respect. We want the former only so long as it is conducive to the latter.

With these pillars of diversity, equity and inclusion in place, diverse persons can exist in their culturally and individually unique way, living in harmony with others, mutually recognizing and respecting each other’s differences.
The reader begins to suspect, given Forbes’ satirical retelling, that something is missing from this pollyannish description. But I don’t think he goes far enough.


Is Recognition enough?

Being charitable, we must recognize that multiculturalism can mean a certain amount of respect, of toleration; of kindness in the street, in the store, and at work; of affirmation of one’s behaviours and practices in public, even if one does not agree with them. But plainly, it is not what is meant by the term in practice. To see why, we need to look at the spirit that truly animates it.

The chief values of today’s multiculturalism — recognition and respect — stem from a strand of Enlightenment thinking that emphasizes the will, abstract reason, and choice as the sources of value, rather than aids in its discovery.

Charles Taylor explicitly draws on Hegel for his understanding of recognition, its importance in determining values, and how social change and development occurs over time. For Hegel, his many influences, and now many modern people — the “rational is the real.” In other words, the rational activity of the human mind projects the reality of concepts onto the world, rather than discovering them therein.

The authentic person, in dialogue with others – what is called the criterion of “intersubjectivity” – is the standard by which we come to differentiate the true from the false, in its scientific, philosophic, moral, and aesthetic forms. In other words, truth is not determined objectively but democratically. As such, claims to truth, and rightness in values are only loosely connected to an objective understanding of one’s own nature, and the natural world, but are instead a reflection of popular consensus, of a crude sort.

Freedom today is not the ability to choose what is good for us according to our natures on the basis of a sound mind.  Rather, it refers now to the lack of constraint in choice – whatever is desired is what should be chosen. Desire is not thought of as something that should be refined and cultivated, but is seen as good in its raw, “authentic” form.

Equality does not mean a measure of similarity between things, but to evaluate radically different things as equal in a moral, or aesthetic sense, so long as the things compared are united in the fact that they are the product of “choice.” 

Authenticity is not living out one’s personal uniqueness as a vocation and a calling, but willing and actively creating a persona with a restless spirit and convincing oneself that so long as one wills it, it is “good.”

Recognition is not of that which is noble and good in all persons — their inherent dignity as people — but of whatever they do, again so long as they have willed it.

“Values” are projected onto the world by the will, and the actions themselves are good or bad according to whether they are “consciously chosen,” not whether the content of those beliefs and practices is itself good according to a standard outside the solipsistic world of the modern navel-gazer.

Many of the buzzwords that are the meat and potatoes of multicultural theory referenced in the book illustrate this same fundamental shift – from definitions grounded in reality to those based on willed outcomes alone. 


CHIEF AMONG THEM is tolerance. To tolerate, you first must disagree with those behaviours or beliefs that you tolerate. But when it is used today, it is so bound up with affirmation and positive acceptance that it can scarcely go by the name.

Its classic, true, and coherent meaning identifies some things that one affirms and values; others that cannot be tolerated because they are objectively bad; and those that one does not affirm, nor go out of one’s way to denounce or reject, but which one tolerates.

The new toleration has only two extremes. It is the expression of a tokenistic and indifferent affirmation of a culturally broader variety of behaviours, practices, and beliefs, counterbalanced by strong opposition, and increasingly overt, and fanatical hostility to any view that would challenge it.

Why are politics so divisive today? Why can people find so little common ground? In no small part because the theory of multiculturalism is flawed, and so is its practice. It is rooted in the recognition of “values” that are the product of a will that projects and creates, rather than discovers. Practically, its pace threatens to limit the ability of people to share a life in common and develop a culture.


The pursuit of multiculturalism is therefore more than just increasing immigration, respect for a pluralism of cultures, legal safeguards and policies aimed at making things fairer and more accommodating for national minorities, and migrant cultures — all good things up to a point.

Multiculturalism is as much an anti-culture as what its proponents claim it to be – the respectful encouragement of cultural diversity. It emphasizes variety, but only the kind that lacks substance.

It is rightly perceived as the hollowing out of culture. Ultimately, it can lead to social dissolution as it is presently conceived and according to the picture that Forbes paints of it.

As Robert D. Putnam and Frank Fukuyama have shown in their work over the years, a certain amount of diversity can lead to a decrease in social trust. Putnam’s studies demonstrate that trust decreases in the short term with diversity, but over time, the effects are not as pronounced; suggesting pace of change and processes of integration are key.*

In his 1995 book, Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, Fukuyama argued that the health of civil society is crucial to the creation of social capital, a key ingredient of which is social trust. In his more recent Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (2018), he argues that identity politics is somewhat of a fool’s errand. It ignores that much of what is sought after - recognition and respect – are by definition scarce goods with relative value; an increase for some, means less for others.

Taylor understands that recognition is demanded so much today because people have no identity, no roots, and their lives are in a state of constant flux. The basis of social status and hierarchy has changed from one rooted in the cosmic order to merit and striving. Consequently, people tend to think that their dignity and recognition rests in increasing their social status, not in living a good life according to their natures.

A casual observer can easily recognize that interactions in the Western world have become much more brief, transactional and private due to a simple lack of homogeneity in basic norms and customs. If you do not shake hands the same way, speak in the same dialect, have similar mannerisms, holidays, belief systems, and interests, then the complexity of the most basic social interactions begins to mount. It is not systemic racism, structural injustice, or any of these faddish buzzwords that are too often used where they do not apply, but the dizzying increase in social complexity that fragments, rather than unites.


THE POINT IS NOT that multiculturalism, or “cultural diversity” is bad, or that it is good — it is that it is neither on its own. Descriptively speaking, it is a statistic with no positive or negative evaluative connotations.

Observations such as these, and many others like them, simply confirm the obvious – that pace of change, amount of diversity, the scale and size of the polity, are all things that matter vitally to the health of a society.

When multiculturalism involves immigration at too fast a pace, clustered in certain regions, to the detriment of a common culture; when it embraces relativism, rather than toleration, acceptance, and respect from the perspective that is grounded in the recognition of that which is objectively good — it creates balkanization, sows division, and leaves people rootless, without a home and a sense of belonging. For in such a place home is nowhere: there are only places.

It inhibits the ability of a community, a state, a province, or a nation to cultivate better people — something that takes time. 

A chief problem is that today, multiculturalism is being placed near the centre of political projects at the expense of the more important values – peace and order (and good government, for that matter).

A society is like an ecosystem; its integrity dependent upon its composition. A polity is strong and healthy when the parts work harmoniously toward common goals, when the boundaries are porous (rather than open or closed) and when its inhabitants share values, practices, and commitments in meaningful ways that are developed through interaction with one another over time.

An ecosystem goes out of whack when radical change is introduced that upsets the balance. It is interesting that the most fervent advocates of multiculturalism do not seem to recognize this, because they understand it so well when it comes to environmentalism. They never say, “no species is invasive,” or “open borders for all flora and fauna.”

Rather than presume that multiculturalism and diversity are simple inputs, whose outputs are openness and mutual respect through recognition, and the social goods of peace, harmony, and belonging, the assumption should be questioned outright.

No amount of social engineering, bureaucratic committees, “culture” funds, or gruel from the CBC is going to create the social goods that are in danger of being eroded.

Culture is the precondition, for it is through it that persons with character are formed. Indeed, it is the social good par excellence. Culture is not the product of primarily rational, planned activity, but of time and effort between groups of people across generations, the fruits of which are social cohesion, commitment to one another, public life in common, close ties, and cultural products, like the arts. For it to be real, and dare I say “authentic” (in the good sense of the word), it must be organic.


Migration Post-Covid

Until now the Western world has lived with a pact between the liberal and conservative parties when it comes to multiculturalism and immigration. On the one hand, the liberal parties believe increasingly in a one-world, utopian future beyond culture and nationhood, but are pragmatic, and content for that world to evolve “slowly” according to their understanding of the term. The conservative parties are split, with the cultural and social conservatives bemoaning the erosion of the values that they believe made their countries what they are, and the economic conservatives valuing cheap labour for domestic firms to continue economic growth, which enables more “freedom” as they understand it. The unspoken agreement is that both the left and right political class want more migration because it is good for their respective voters and donors, but for different reasons.

Migration is also a practical necessity. Projections today show a looming fertility crisis for not only western democracies, but much of the developing and developed world. A rapidly aging population will not be able to sustain massive welfare states, and pension programs for the elderly in societies whose youth cannot provide the tax-based to sustain them.

It is an open question whether men and women will wake up and realize that they are members of a sexually reproductive species. Will people realize that we are, at our core, mothers and fathers who nurture and protect? Probably not – the test-tube baby sometimes seems more likely and appealing to a post-humanist Brave New World.

The tendency for Western cultures, unless they experience a significant shock from war, serious economic decline, or internal conflict from balkanization due to increasing pluralism and moral relativism, will likely be to seek more and more migrants, COVID or not.

That may prove a false hope. First, because immigrants soon have fewer children, as the modern malaise sinks in after a generation. Secondly, ordinary people who lean either left or right want less rapid social change from the confluence of immigration, technological change, economic growth, and a nihilistic ideological agenda pushed by extremists on either side.

The global pandemic has thrown the future of worldwide migration into question, and at least for the short term it will decline substantially. Perhaps this is just the jolt needed for the lotus-eaters, yuppies, and rebels without a cause of the West to recognize that the false idols of pleasure, power, success, honour, glory, and wealth promise little but prolonged adolescence, and ultimately, emptiness. The goods of this world are – in a place as magnificent as Canada – right under our noses: in family, friendship, community, and the freedom to live as one ought under the rule of law, but only when that world is a home, not just a place.


Peter Copeland works as a Senior Policy Advisor in the Ontario Government. He has degrees from Guelph, Waterloo, and the Universitet Arhus, Denmark. This review was originally published in the Autumn-Winter 2020 print edition of The Dorchester Review, pp. 79-85.



* See “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-First Century; The 2006 Johan Skytte Prize Lecture,” Scandinavian Political Studies 30, no. 2 [June 2007], pp. 137–74.

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