Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Future of Communitarianism and (or in) Quebec

I finally got around to reading the 99-paged abridged report--formally titled "Building The Future: A Time For Reconciliation"--of the findings and recommendations of Quebec's "Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences." It hasn't attracted much comment from the American blogosphere, though it should--I can't think of another work of public political thinking nearly as careful yet ambitious and serious as this.

Why did I read it? For a couple of reasons. First, because I care about Canadian politics (see here and here for examples)--partly because of old friends we have there, partly because my family and I have spent a fair amount of time there, but mostly because I think Canada's political environment brings forward issues and ideas that we rarely see expressed in the United States, and yet which are, I suspect, crucial to the future of the modern liberal polity. Of course, this isn't an original observation. Canada's convoluted constitutional arrangements, its struggles over language rights, its frequent arguments over national identity: all have been used creatively and thoughtfully by many scholars in recent decades to explore multiculturalism, liberalism, nationalism and so forth...with the not incidental result of pushing more than a few Canadian philosophers and political theorists who know this material best to the forefront of their respective fields, the greatest example of which clearly being Charles Taylor. Which leads me to the second reason I read the report: Taylor was the co-author of it, along with the sociologist Gérard Bouchard (though both of these men are bilingual, it was typical for Quebec to appoint co-chairs to the Commission, an Anglophone--Taylor--and a Francophone--Bouchard). Sucker for communitarian philosophy that I am, I've read just about everything by Taylor that I could get my hands on (and yes, my blogging of A Secular Age will start...soon) for years now, and this report wasn't going to be an exception. And I'm glad for that, since it was very much worth my time.

To put it in a nutshell, Quebec faces a constant quandary, a question about how to maintain elements of its particular constitutive cultural identity (which is itself hardly that of an isolated, inclosed, premodern Amish community, but rather is actually quite modern and liberal, as far as these things go) in the midst of both the larger multicultural reality without--the federation of Canada, of course, though also in a sense all of North America--and the emerging challenge of multicultural accommodation within--represented in this report mostly by Muslim ethnic and religious movements, but more broadly pertaining to many other such internal challenges as well. In writing this report, Taylor and Bouchard have essentially written an instruction manual for liberal nationalists and communitarians everywhere. What the report has to say about "interculturalism," "harmonization," "public language," and more, all gives examples of what the practical project of maintaining a community--a community without the advantage of being tiny or the ward of an overarching pluralistic state, but rather a community which sees itself as a "nation" and thus must governs itself in light of international trends and realities--requires today.

The background story of the report is pretty straightforward. A little more than a year ago, following a series of continuing controversies over immigration and cultural (in)sensitivity that had grown in intensity (though the report suggests that much of that supposed intensity has been the product of media-enabled misperceptions on all sides), the Quebec government called for the formation of a commission to conduct public hearings, investigate legal claims and allegations, and make recommendations as to how Quebec ought to handle such controversies in the future. The overarching goal was to articulate, within the context of the sort of society Quebec is and presumably wants to remain, a policy regarding the "reasonable accommodation" of diversity and minority claims which greater numbers of Quebecers could accept. This led to the appointment of Bouchard and Taylor, and the beginnings of a long process of dialogue with dozens of communities and representative groups, a great many of which led, unfortunately, to the airing of paranoia and suspicion, and sometimes outright bigotry. Jacob Levy--nicely ensconced at McGill University in Montreal--followed this process for months, and with the completion of the commission's task and publication of its findings and recommendations, he conducted a fine online summary discussion of the report with Globe and Mail readers. Jacob has been able to talk to Taylor about the report, and Taylor is apparently optimistic about it effects; despite the fact that, as Jacob documents, the government of Jean Charest in Quebec immediately squelched the report's most prominent suggested reform--that the crucifix which hangs on a wall in the Quebec National Assembly be removed--Taylor apparently feels that the simple fact that the commission did what it did (note that the front cover of the report carries the slogan, "dialogue makes a difference") will contribute to an improvement in feelings in Quebec...or, at the very least, will have helped prevent feelings and actions from getting much worse.

The report is filled with numerous small details that I would think anyone interested in issues of religion, culture, and democracy would find fascinating. (That France combines a rigorous official secularism with extremely generous state support of religious schooling, for example.) But for those who care about Quebec, Canada, and what both might have to teach the U.S. about community and culture in our late-modern world, there are a few key points in the report which deserve special attention:

1. No amount of theorizing can deny basic demographic and economic choices.

Despite the wishes and fears of unreconstructed, rural, Catholic Quebecers (whether such people are real and numerous or mostly just brought into existence by worried conservatives), communities change, and the basic foundation for those changes are to be found in how individuals in a free society choose to act. The reports spells about those choices and changes bluntly:

Readers should keep in mind that our reflection is delineated by the basic societal choices that Quebecers have made in recent decades. Their low birthrate and desire to sustain demographic and economic growth have led them to opt for immigration. At the same time, many Quebecers have abandoned religious practice and have distanced themselves from the French-Canadian identity in favor of the new Quebec identity. They have also decided (until further notice) to belong to Canada and, consequently, have come under the jurisdiction of its intitutions. They have undertaken to shift to globalization and, as the common expression would have it, "openness to the world." (Abridged Commission Report, pg. 11)

This is not to say that Taylor and Bouchard discerned an easy liberalism hiding beneath the stated preferences of Quebecers, and make recommendations accordingly: they emphasized and respected the deeply felt uniqueness and precariousness of Quebec's situation, acknowledging that, as a "small nation" it is understandable that Quebec is "constantly concerned about its future as a cultural minority" (pg. 40), and that "for Quebecers of French-Canadian descent, the combination of their majority status in Quebec and their minority status in Canada and North America is not easy" (pg. 75). But their ultimate conclusion is once balanced by the communal and moral concerns which invariably follow in the wake of economic and demographic choices:

French-speaking Quebec is a minority culture and needs a strong identity to allay its anxieties and behave like a serene majority. This is the first lesson we should draw from recent events. The identity inherited from the French-Canadian past is perfectly legitimate and it must survive, but it can no longer occupy alone the Quebec identity space. It must hinge on the other identities present, in a spirit of interculturalism, in order to prevent fragmentation and exclusion....[I]t is a question of sustaining through symbols and imagination the common public culture, which is made up of universal values and rights, but without disfiguring it (pg. 75).

2. Interculturalism as a communitarian response to multicultural realities in liberal states.

The report defines "interculturalism" as the preferred mode of response to cultural controversies for Quebec, distinguishing itself from the policy of multiculturalism employed elsewhere in Canada, given that in the rest of Canada "anxiety over language is not an important factor" and that "there is no longer a majority ethnic group...citizens of British origin account for 34% of the [Canadian] population, while citizens of French-Canadian origin make up a strong majority of the population of Quebec, i.e. roughly 77%" (pg. 39). Interculturalism as a policy thus makes sense of how a dominant (but still basically modern and liberal) cultural majority should act upon and deal with diversity: rather than abandoning cultural history and identity entirely to individual choice, rights and differences should be respected and accommodated in light of certain public continuities and practices that have a genuine moral weight in themselves. For Quebec these include, first and foremost, "French as the common public language," as "the intercultural approach would hardly have any meaning if Quebecers were unable to communicate with each other in the same language"; following this comes the importance of the formal "development of a feeling of belonging to Quebec society" through school curricula and "symbols of collective life," all of which is premised upon "[t]he associative idea that places intercultural exchanges in the realm of concrete, citizen action" (pgs. 88-89). Democracy and dialogue are not to be seen primarily in terms of acknowledging and accounting for individual preferences, but as ways to interactively articulate and thereby identify (and help to integrate) common contexts and points of consensus in the midst of cultural diversity. Taylor's deep commitment to certain aspects of the civic republican ideal are clear here: the liberal communitarian or nationalist has to believe that the constitutive underpinnings and worth of their nation or community is not static, trapped in the past and under constant assault, but rather that--note: given shared modes of expression and participation--one's nation or community can grow, adapt, even change, without undermining the value it collectively offers to those beholden to it. (Having been much influenced by Taylor, and in turn by Herder here, this is why I tend to believe that language policy, while surely not disconnected from immigration policy, is nonetheless far more important than it.) And moreover, this adaptation shouldn't be framed in terms of individual rights, but rather as collective harmonization.

3. Local harmony and open secularism as opposed to top-down equality.

Going along with their commitment to delineating exactly what, on the basis of their studies and their public dialogues, Quebec does and does not wanting to see done about the issues of cultural difference, Taylor and Bouchard firmly state that "Quebec's political system is both democratic and liberal," in that "political power ultimately resides with the people," but also that "individual rights and freedoms are deemed to be fundamental and are thus confirmed and protected by the State" (pg. 35). Moreover, those who participated in the commission's public consultations "massively espoused the concept of secularism" (pg. 43). But this gets to the heart of one of the largest problems which the commission faced, namely: what kind of "secularism" is appropriate for a nation where Catholicism has had such a deep and longstanding impact, especially when the secularism of post-"Quiet Revolution" seems to many Quebecers of French-Canadian descent to contrast poorly with the aggressive piety of many Muslim and Sikh immigrants? What accommodations are truly fair and proper, in such an environment? How to address the arguable ostentation of certain immigrant religious practices in light of the historical vestiges of Quebec's own once-dominant symbols, rituals, and practices?

Again, the important point seems not to be necessarily the content of proposed accommodations, but the manner in which they are achieved. (Which--going back again to Jacob's comments--would suggest that the real problem wasn't the Assembly's refusal to go along with the report's recommendation that the crucifix be moved from the Assembly Hall to a different location, but the speedy and almost contemptuous way they did it.) Throughout the report, Taylor and Bouchard are critical of a too-quick resort to the courts and juridical solutions, as opposed to following the lead of managers and interveners--whether they be social workers, union representatives, public affairs committees, neighborhood groups, or others--who are actually working in the field. They call this the tendency to go the "legal route" rather than the "citizen route" of "concerted adjustment" (pg. 51-52). Frequently, in their judgment, the accusations and animosities which lead to public outcries and demands for action spring not from those addressing the dilemma itself, finding instead that often those actually striving to come up with local compromise solutions--especially those dealing with religious claims and differences--end up coming very close to those outcomes which the statements of rights which Quebec (both as a province and as a part of Canada) has committed itself to seem to require, and with less hostility along the way. Such adjustments are part of an "open secularism"--a commitment to a neutral state which recognizes that neutrality itself to be a particular historical and cultural construction, with its own (post-)religious elements as part of it, and therefore a construction whose basic principles are not necessarily compromised by various local religious allowances, regarding food, dress, educational practices, and so forth. Extending a little bit beyond the actual wording of the report here, it seems that Taylor and Bouchard believe that part of the reason for the increase in apparent hostility on broader levels of inquiry and action is that, when conflicts and adjustments are allowed to reach that point, overarching principles of "equal treatment" become voiced ever more vociferously, with the unanticipated result of making different responses to specific problems seem "unfair," when in fact it is the reaction to them which potentially increases--by shifting--the unfairness. The report spells it out thusly:

Sociologically speaking, we have observed that a number of apparently neutral or universal norms in actual fact reproduce worldviews, values, and implicit norms that are those of the majority culture or population....Even if they do not exclude a priori any individual or group, these provisions can nonetheless lead to discrimination toward individuals because of specific traits such as a temporary or permanent physical disability, age, or religious belief. It follows that absolute rigor in the application of legislation and regulations is not always synonymous with fairness....[T]he right to equality and freedom of religion do not necessarily have as a corollary uniformity or homogeneity. According to jurists, a given right may demand adjustments in treatment that must not b equated with privileges or exemptions since they are intended to remedy a flaw in the application of a statute or a regulation. As the experts have expressed it, a treatment can be differential without being preferential.

"Differential without being preferential." For the United States, which continues to operate for the most part--legally, at least, though in much of our popular and political culture as well--under the fiction that we don't have, don't want to have, and don't need to have a common, constitutive culture (instead, we supposedly have a disembodied "creed" if ethnicities and nationalities and cultures don't have ideological and civic aspects to them as well), a line like this one is important. It reminds us the assimilation of cultures--or, worse, the making-irrelevant of cultures through globalization--isn't the only possible response to diversity which still respects liberal equality and freedoms. You could instead, as Taylor and Bouchard encourage their fellow Quebecers to do, take culture seriously...which means, in a liberal state at least, making the decisions necessary to make collective participation in it both available and important to all, and then adapting the particulars of the various aspects of your community accordingly. Sounds like a plan to me.

There's much more in the report than this, of course, with a great many specifics, arising from debates over kosher food, the kirpan, headscarves, and more. If you're into political or legal or cultural debates, do yourself a favor: print it out, and give the whole thing a read. This is one work of "public philosophy" that I suspect will be cited for many years to come.

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