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Liberalism, Minorities and the Politics of Societal Differentiation

F.F. Mansvelt Beck*
Abstract: It is because minority cultures play a crucial role in shaping the identity of their members
that they should be preserved. Only when this is truly understood does it become possible to envision a
liberal model of politics that adequately addresses the specific needs of minority groups. Stating that
the concern underlying the demand that the minority identity must be preserved is in fact the same
concern underlying liberal theory a concern for the individual well-being of individuals this paper
argues that what is necessary for that well-being is that every individual be accorded the recognition
that is crucial to his human development. In pluriform societies, this can be done through a politics of
societal differentiation, which ensures that the societal structures of minority cultures that are crucial
for recognition are maintained.


Justifying minority protection: the liberal deficit

Traditionally, three justifications are advanced for the protection of minority groups in liberal society:

in order to achieve factual equality for its members, the specific position of minority cultures that
of being a minority surrounded by a majority warrants extra measures;

the specific minority identity or culture as such is of value and deserves preservation;

the well-being of minorities contributes to international peace and stability.1

The past 35 years have seen a gradual increase of the relative weight accorded the second justification,
so that it is now seen as the principle reason why minorities should be protected.2 This creates a
problem in liberal theory, for protecting the cultural identity of a group as such can easily conflict with
the protection of the rights of an individual member of the group imprisoning members of minorities
in the culture of their group.3 Though I cant argue it here, I believe that underlying the demand to

The author is a Ph.D.-student in the Philosophy of Law at the University of Leiden, the
1 Oxenknecht, Renate (1987) Der Schutz ethnischer religiser und sprachlicher Minderheiten in Art. 27 des
Internationalen Paktes ber brgerlichen und politische Rechte vom 16. Dezember 1966. Frankfurt am
Main/Bern/New York/Paris: Verlag Peter Lang, pp. 67-75. kermark, Athanasia Spilopoulou
(1997) Justifications of Minority Protection in International Law. London, The Hague, Boston: Kluwer Law
International, pp. 125-126 note 28, pp. 68-83.
2 This is illustrated most graphically by the case law of the Human Rights Committee concerning,
the minority provision of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in which the
survival and continued development of the minority itself is regarded to be of superior importance
to an individuals right to identity. See, for instance, Lubicon Lake Band v. Canada,
Communication No. 167/1984, U.N. Doc. Supp. No. 40 (A/45/40) at 1 (1990); Lnsman et al. v.
Finland, Communication No. 511/1992, U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/52/D/511/1992 (1995); Anni rel
and Jouni Nkkljrvi v. Finland, Communication No. 779/1997, U.N. Doc.
CCPR/C/73/D/779/1997 (2001); Apirana Mahuika et al. v. New Zealand, Communication No.
CCPR/C/70/D/547/1993 (2000).
3 Illustrated by the Canadian legislation seeking to preserve the identity indigenous tribes by
preventing female members of the tribe to marry non-Indians without loosing their tribal identity.

preserve cultures as such is in fact the same concern for the individual members of those cultures that
underlies the equality-based justification of minority group protection. This concern is the result of a
persistent notion that liberal theory, despite its claims to the contrary, somehow comes up short when
minorities are concerned though exactly why it comes up short usually remains a mystery. As we
shall see in the following, the key to unlocking the mystery lies deep in the history of liberal theory.

Charles Taylor and the politics of recognition

In his essay The Politics of Recognition,4 Charles Taylor puts forward the criticism that procedural
liberalism his term for a liberalism modeled on the neutral application of rights fails to recognize
the crucial role society plays in the forming of the identity; his basic claim being that the self isnt quite
as determining as liberals traditionally assume. This failing compels Taylor to critically investigate the
philosophical foundations underlying liberalism.
According to Taylor, the seeds of liberalism were sown during the breakdown of the social hierarchies
of the ancien regime. Delving deep into its history, he uncovers two hearts beating at liberalisms core:
the twin notions of authenticity and dignity. It is these notions that gave rise to the egalitarian politics
of liberalism in the twilight of the ancien regime. These egalitarian politics, the politics of equal
dignity, were crucially shaped by the ideas of Rousseau and Kant. Whereas Rousseau devised the
tripartite system of liberty, equality and brotherhood in order to purge society of the evil effects of the
workings of pride in the ancien regime, under Kants influence brotherhood seized to be of importance,
as long as guarantees were provided for the equal liberty of all. This laid the groundwork for the
procedural model of liberalism that is prevalent today.
The reason that liberalism comes up short, that it is continuously in need of temporary adjustment so
as to address the issues of minorities that remain persistent despite providing equal liberty for all, is the
result of a failure inherent in the politics of equal dignity to recognize that Rousseaus tripartite model
of liberalism is more than the sum of its parts for what these parts combine to create is a substitute for
what was provided for by pride in the ancien regime: recognition.
During the ancien regime recognition had been built into the social fabric. Ones place in society
determined who one was, and pride was the touchstone of ones identity. Thus pride, vilified by
Rousseau, actually played a crucial role in providing recognition. Since the decline of the social
hierarchies, however, in a society in which everyones place, role and identity is undetermined, no one
enjoys recognition a priori. For if ones identity is no longer dictated by ones station, recognition has
to be won through exchange with other members of society. In Rousseaus model this wasnt a

See Lovelace v. Canada, Communication No. 24/1977, U.N. Doc. Supp. No. 40 (A/36/40) at 166
4 Taylor, Charles (1994) The Politics of Recognition, in: Gutman, Amy (ed.) Multiculturalism:
Examining the Politics of Recognition. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

problem, as brotherhood ensured that ones identity was the mirror-image of that of the other members
of society. In modern, pluriform societies, this isnt the case. In modern society, the attempt can fail.
Acknowledging the influence of recognition on the formation of identity has important repercussions
for the politics of equal dignity. For if I am crucially dependent on recognition by others in order to
determine who I am, and this recognition is denied me, the principle of human dignity demands that
this inequality be addressed.
Taylors analysis of liberal theory leads him to conclude that, as the neutrality of procedural liberalism
isnt able to accommodate people of different cultural backgrounds, it must make way for a politics of
difference. He proposes a break with the politics of equal dignity, replacing it with a politics of
difference in which there will be place for recognition and survival of minority cultures. But he places
an important condition for that recognition to be of any value for those minorities: the recognition must
be fuelled by respect the recognition accorded to minority cultures cannot be an obligatory act of
recognition, but it must originate out of actual respect for those minority cultures. This is easier said
than done, for respect is not something that can be demanded or given by right: if the judgment of
value is to register something independent of our own wills and desires, it cannot be dictated by a
principle of ethics. On examination, either we will find something of great value in culture C, or we
will not. But it makes no more sense to demand that we do so than it does to demand that we find the
earth round or flat, the temperature of the air hot or cold.5
So according recognition a leading role in liberal theory creates a catch-22 with regard to minorities.
What they need is recognition, but if recognition is provided because it is needed, and not out of
respect, it isnt recognition, but condescension. Taylors only way out of this bind is provided by
suggesting a politics of equal respect, that can be fuelled by what he calls the presumption of cultural
equality: a starting hypothesis with which we ought to approach the study of another culture, that
all human cultures that have animated whole societies over some considerable stretch of time have
something important to say to all human beings.6


Id., p. 69.
Taylor, supra note 4, pp. 66-67.


The foundations of a politics of societal differentiation


A closer look at recognition

Though Taylor must be credited with pointing out the importance of recognition in liberal theory, the
outcome of his enquiry is not of much practical use, due to the impossibility of providing respect on
command. However, I think that the inevitability of his outcome (the politics of equal respect) is
caused by a confusion inherent in the word recognition.
It is my contention that there are in fact two types of recognition, which I dub original recognition
and reactive recognition respectively. Original recognition is the recognition that an individual seeks
for an evaluation of self-worth, it is recognition by the primal actors in his life, his parents and his
peers, and if the individual is a member of the majority, it is also reflected back at him by society at
large. On the other hand, there is another kind of recognition, a recognition that becomes apparent in
multicultural society the recognition of difference. This is what I call reactive recognition. This is the
type of recognition that Taylor maintains cannot be given on demand without becoming condescension.
It is in the sense of reactive recognition that respect is necessary in order for it to be of any value to a
persons sense of dignity.
Taylors insistence on the impossibility of giving value-statements on demand may unwittingly serve to
prove a point that this reactive recognition isnt in fact what people truly need. For it seems
counterintuitive to say that we are crucially dependent on a value statement made by someone we have
nothing to do with or may even disrespect. It is my contention that this value statement only becomes
crucial if our sense of self-worth is already lacking, if we are in need of some kind of external token of
appreciation in order to gain self-respect. As I pointed out above, true sense of self-worth is nurtured by
original recognition.
This then is why preserving the culture of minority groups is important: because it is only in the
context of that culture that members of minorities are able to receive the original recognition necessary
to fully develop as individual human-beings. The question facing us, then, is how to ensure that
maintain the primacy of original recognition is maintained for all individuals in multicultural societies.
The answer, I believe, is to be found in Will Kymlickas assessment of the relationship between
societal culture and the identity.

The importance of societal culture

Will Kymlickas estimation of liberalism corresponds largely to that of Taylor: liberalism fails to
recognize the crucial role that culture plays in determining the self. Kymlicka, however, attempts to
find a solution within the bounds of procedural liberalism. Shaping his own theory as a critique of John
Rawlss A Theory of Justice, Kymlicka commences by illustrating that the liberal blind spot for the

role of culture ultimately leads to a marginalization of minorities. Stating that, when one acknowledges
the vital role of culture in providing a context of choice for the individual, it is impossible not to give
culture a place within liberal theory, Kymlicka develops a model of differential rights through which
minorities can develop their own context of choice.7
Similarly to Rawls, it is Kymlickas principle concern to ensure that man be able to lead the life of his
choosing, the good life, and that he have self-respect. Kymlicka contends that this concern
necessitates two preconditions: that life is lead from the inside, and that man is free to evaluate that
life. It is on the latter precondition that culture has bearing, and therein it is also related to self-respect.
For if we thought our goals in life werent worth pursuing, then there would be no point to our
activities, and by making sure that there is a point to pursuing our goals in life, we are in fact ensuring
that we have self-respect. The role of culture is to provide the background against which one can see
those beliefs and goals in proper perspective. For without such a background, such an evaluation would
be nothing more than a self-indulging acknowledgement of the status quo, akin to patting ones self on
the back.8
In order to clarify his purported meaning of culture, Kymlicka distinguishes societal culture from the
wider spectrum of culture. Societal culture is the structure through which an individual is taught the
norms of his society and through which he is able to participate in it: the schools, the political and
cultural institutions, and especially the language. It is through the societal culture that a fundamental
part of the individual identity is determined and through which an individual is given the opportunity to
learn about and cultivate differing views on what it is to lead a good life.9
Kymlickas evaluation of the importance of culture in providing a context of choice and as an anchor
of self-identification leads him to argue for a system of group-differentiated rights. Though he
maintains that these rights will be different for different groups in different situations, of fundamental
importance to him is that the group is able to speak its own language, have a degree of selfgovernment, and where possible, be granted territorial autonomy.10
Arguably, Kymlicka takes his argument a step too far to be of practical value to us. Territorial
autonomy, rather than consolidating multicultural societies, tears them apart. Besides, territorial
autonomy answers the question of how different cultures can live side by side by removing the
question, creating homogenous islands in the sea of diversity. Nevertheless, I think Kymlickas

Kymlicka, Will (1995) Multicultural Citizenship: a Liberal Theory of Minority Rights. Oxford: Clarendon
Press. Rawls, John (1971) A Theory of Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press
8 Kymlicka, supra note 7, pp. 164, 166; Rawls, supra note 7, pp. 164, 178.
9 Kymlicka admits that this view on the role of culture and education in constituting the self is
hardly revolutionary, and is implicit in the writings of liberals such as Rawls and Dworkin; indeed
Rawls stresses the importance of education in enabling a person to enjoy the culture of his society
and to take part in its affairs, and in this way to provide for each individual a secure sense of his
own worth. See Rawls, supra note 7, p. 101.Kymlicka, supra note 7, pp. 75-106; 177.
10 Kymlicka, supra note 7, pp. 113-115.

assessment of the necessity of a societal culture is of great value. In fact, I think his expos provides
numerous insights in how a secure base for original recognition can be provided.


The politics of societal differentiation

Though they work from opposite ends Taylor from an individual, Kymlicka from a cultural starting
point they meet each other half way, and compensate for each others deficiencies. As demonstrated,
Kymlicka endorses a system of group-differentiated rights that aims to uphold the institutions that play
a crucial role in protecting the cultural identity that is so important for the individual, the societal
institutions. Taylor, on the other hand, maintains that taking special measures for minorities, such as
group-differentiated rights, are insufficient without an actual appreciation for the culture being
protected by the society. As argued though, I believe that this is due to Taylors implicit assumption
that what I term original recognition and reactive recognition are one and the same. Kymlickas
approach, stressing the role of culture as an anchor of self-identification, substantiates my claim that
these are indeed separate.
The fact that respect isnt as important as Taylor would have us believe, combined with the possibility
presented by Kymlickas group differentiated rights, allows me to venture that it is possible to
provide for recognition without awarding minorities territorial autonomy and self-governing rights. For
if what is crucial is the original recognition, there doesnt seem to be a reason that members of different
cultures cannot live side by side, or even go head to head in political confrontation, so long as the
original recognition remains truly primary, and the reactive recognition secondary for a persons sense
of well-being.
This leads me to advocate a politics of societal differentiation. Such a politics would not be directly
aimed at protecting the cultural heritage or traditions of minorities, but would attempt to support the
institutions that are of fundamental importance for those cultures to be sustained and to develop
naturally: its schools, its political and cultural institutions such as churches and community centers, and
especially its language.11 For the politics of societal differentiation to be a success, I also believe it to
be of paramount importance that the members of the minority are stimulated to partake in the political
affairs of the state, for only then will they truly feel themselves to be on equal footing with the

The most common argument against the use of minority languages in education is that this would
discourage integration and would lead to isolationism. On the contrary, I believe that education in
the minority language actually serves to combat isolationism, even if it is by way of a detour. For
the object of education in ones own language is to provide minority-members with a secure sense
of belonging. It is my contention that this secure sense of belonging provides a stable platform for
participation in larger society, for if the member of a minority feels himself equal to the other
members of society, he will be less inclined to value isolationism higher than participation. Of
course, if a minority is only educated in its own language, the fear of isolationism is well founded.
Therefore it is imperative that members of the minority also learn the common language of the
state they inhabit, so that they can indeed partake in the larger society.


It is impossible to paint a comprehensive picture of the intricacies of the proposed politics of societal
differentiation within the limited scope of this article. However, I hope to have made the possibility and
the necessity of such a politics clear: for it is only through such a politics that the members of minority
groups in pluriform societies will be able to receive the culturally defined original recognition that is so
crucial to their well-being.12 Only through such a politics, therefore, that the liberal concern for the
individual well-being of all members of society can be adequately addressed.


In conclusion: the justification of the politics of societal differentiation

The genesis of this paper was the tension between equality-based and identity-based justifications of
minority protection in liberal societies. Stating that both justifications are the result of a concern for the
individual well-being of members of minorities, it went on to show why egalitarian liberal politics
dont succeed in securing this well-being. This was determined to be the result of a failure of liberal
models ever since Rousseau to accord recognition the importance that is its due in the formation of
identity. The ensuing investigation of the workings of recognition in pluriform societies revealed that
original recognition that is, the recognition provided by the primal actors in life, by parents and
peers is what is of crucial importance. This opened up the possibility of envisioning a model of
liberalism in which original recognition is guaranteed by ensuring that the structures in which this
recognition is given and received, the societal culture, is maintained the politics of societal
In closing, I would like to recall the tripartite justification of minority protection specified at the outset
of this article, and the tension between the equality-based and identity-based justifications of minority
protection. It should be noted that by explaining the right to identity as a need for original recognition,
the tension between the justifications has disappeared. Consequently, in the case of the politics of
societal differentiation, the three traditional justifications of minority rights are complementary: for if
minorities are able to nurture their original recognition, they will be able to take part in society on equal
footing, without being or becoming identical to the majority. Taking part in society on equal footing
will ensure that, supported by a secure cultural structure, the minority feels that it has a voice that is
heard outside the bounds of its own community, thus minimizing dissatisfaction and increasing the
stability of society as a whole.

12 In order to forestall criticism, I must emphasize at this point that a politics of societal
differentiation must always be undertaken in consent with the wishes of the minority if this isnt
so, such a politics will be no better than the erstwhile apartheid regime of South-Africa.