Richard Ackland has an enjoyable rant this week about an upcoming UN talkfest in Geneva known as Durban II. It’s organised by the UN Human Rights Council, which in a delightful (but typical of the UN) irony is chaired by Libya. As Ackland points out:
The Human Rights Council is just playing along with another outfit, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, an association of 57 states, which has a “built-in” majority on the UN’s human rights body.
Apparently the Islamic majority is assiduously pursuing a resolution condemning “defamation of religions” and exhorting member States, albeit in vague terms, to move to stamp it out.
“Defamation of religions” apparently would include any suggestions that international terrorism might as a matter of pragmatic observation currently bear more of an association with persons of the Muslim persuasion than any other clearly identifiable group. 1
Of course, contempt for fundamental liberal values of free speech isn’t confined to Islam. George Pell would reinstate the Spanish Inquisition tomorrow if he thought he could get away with it, as witnessed by his strongarming the NSW government into passing extraordinarily illiberal laws to “protect” the freedoms of World Youth Day celebrants by sacrificing the freedoms of everyone else. Fortunately the Court of Appeal put the kibosh on that particular piece of nonsense.
Then there’s the fact that the Rudd government has just ratified the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which the Howard government opposed. I suspect it’s just a totally meaningless gesture designed solely to bolster Rudd’s ambition to win a UN Security Council seat by appeasing the world’s most illiberal regimes by empty exercises in symbolism. The Hawke government used to behave similarly, signing and ratifying treaties on an almost daily basis with no apparent intention ever to legislate to bring them into domestic law and no obvious motive other than to allow Gareth Evans to big-note himself.
Nevertheless, and like the proposed Durban II resolution, the UN Declaration is a piece of pernicious, politically correct Animal Farm-ish doublespeak that deems some people to be more equal than others.
I recently stumbled across an apposite journal article by UQ constitutional law academic Suri Ratnapala titled “Cultural Diversity And Liberal Society – A Case For Reprivatising Culture” which encapsulates my own views on this sort of confused thinking. Incidentally, I understand that Ratnapala was one of Helen “skepticlawyer” Dale’s early legal mentors who nudged her along the path to the libertarian legal themes she’s currently pursuing at Oxford. Ratnapala’s article contains some of the usual libertarian nonsense about abolishing national borders and achieving freedom by forcing the poor and disabled off state welfare and into the tender embrace of private charity. But at least on the question of the proper classical liberal response towards issues of social/cultural values Ratnapala’s nailed it in my view. An extensive extract appears over the fold:
In the imperfectly liberal societies of the real world, there exist communities that do not subscribe to all liberal values. This may be the result of historical resistance to liberalisation in a given country as in India where despite increasing liberalisation of the country as a whole, caste status persists in some communities. Or it could be new growth that results from the very freedoms that a liberal society offers. Large scale migration from less liberal societies as well as home grown movements can create these illiberal social enclaves. Even an ideal liberal society that values the freedom of choice above all else has potential to generate associations that are illiberal. Whereas a despotic regime may impose its cultural preferences on the people or seek to ensure cultural homogeneity, a liberal society that gives pre-eminence to individual autonomy cannot ensure that illiberal groups will not form within itself. Religious cults that persuade people to surrender their property and their autonomy to the cult leaders are known to occur in relatively liberal societies such as the United States. In Europe, large scale migration from Islamic countries has produced ethnic communities that do not accept individual autonomy, particularly as they apply to women. How can or should a liberal society deal with such groups? …
CULTURAL PRESERVATION THE POLITICS OF MULTICULTURALISM
Democracies have witnessed in the last two decades increasing demands from minority cultural groups for state recognition of their identities and assistance for the preservation of their cultures. They have received strong intellectual support from left leaning liberals. Governments in liberal democracies make substantial allocations to support the retention of minority religious practices, languages, arts and crafts. In some countries there is growing demand for state provided schooling in minority languages and in minority faiths. Kymlicka (1995) who believes that freedom of choice of the individual is the fundamental principle of a liberal society argues for state sponsorship of multiculturalism along these lines on the basis that individual choices are shaped by culture. In the case of migrant minorities who have left their societal cultures to live amidst another culture, Kymlicka argues that liberal society should grant what he calls polyethnic rights intended to help ethnic groups and religious minorities express their cultural particularity and pride without hampering their success in the economic and political institutions of the dominant society. (Kymlicka 1995: 31)
There is little doubt that culture has much to do with individual choice. The choices in social life are shaped by both physical and social constraints. Unlike Robinson Crusoe on his lonely island, we find ourselves in society that both inhibits and empowers individuals. Kymlicka argues that a liberal society that values choice has a duty to assist minority groups to retain aspects of their culture. While he is right about the role of culture in the shaping of choice, Kymlicka is in serious error when he infers that the liberal state must therefore preserve particular cultures so that the choices that they generate are not extinguished. I think that this argument misunderstands both culture and liberalism. Cultures, whether dominant or not in a particular geographical space, are forever in flux. They are dynamical systems that respond to information and stimuli. A culture that stands still in a changing world is a dead culture fit for museums. The ways in which culture evolves cannot be predicted with certainty. What is certain is that the adaptive behavior of individuals has much to do with cultural transformation. Cultures that appear to be stable are those that are set in stable environments. Communities that have been spared exposure to other cultures by natural or military barriers may retain ancient ways of life for thousands of years. Such stability, however, is not the result of choice but the lack of choice. In contrast where choice is a feature of social life individuals may embrace new ways of doing things.
State promotion of culture is necessarily redistributive and lies beyond the scope of the minimal state. Apart from this fundamental objection, there are two problems with the argument that if culture is not preserved, individuals are deprived of choices that it offers. The first is that the transformation of a culture may actually increase choices available to individuals. The second is that it involves the assumption that the state knows what choices individuals may wish to preserve in a changing environment. Kymlickas argument makes some sense from the communitarian and socialist viewpoints that subordinate individual choice to some notion of collective good. It makes no sense within a theory that gives primacy to individual choice. The retention and growth of culture will depend on free association and intercourse among individuals. Individuals who choose to live in liberal society must accept that their culture will be relentlessly exposed to the free flow of knowledge, ideas and temptations. The reason is that liberal society as explained previously does not and cannot provide protection against exposure to ideas and information without sacrificing its principles. Such protection can be granted only by drastically limiting the freedom of individuals, in particular freedom of communication and association. A liberal society has no interest in destroying diversity but also no interest in preserving it. As Kukathas rightly observes the appropriate liberal attitude to the question of cultural preservation is one of benign neglect.
The ideal liberal society will not have a state religion even if all members confess to one faith. For it must protect the freedom of every member to embrace another faith. Liberal society does not punish apostasy or heresy. …
LIBERALISM AND NATIONAL MINORITIES
There are few countries in the world that do not have ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities. Countries such as India and Sri Lanka have different religious and ethnic communities who are natives of the land. Some of these communities form nations identified with traditional homelands. In countries such as Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and France, there are both national minorities as well as recent immigrants from different societal cultures. Kymlicka argues that in the case of national minorities such as the American Indian tribes, liberalism requires devolution of power to a political unit substantially controlled by the members of the national minority, and substantially corresponding to their historical homeland. (Kymlicka, 1995: 30)
Liberal society is not an imperial society in the conventional sense though it may be one in the cultural sense. Hence, it has no evangelical mission to liberalise illiberal societies that do not pose any threats to it or to keep within it individuals who wish to quit. In principle, a group within liberal society who decide by consensus to secede and live under different rules should be able to do so, provided that a fair settlement is reached concerning borders and the rights of persons affected are not violated.
National minorities are usually the result of nations and their territories being conquered by or ceded to other nations. The longer these nations are integrated politically and economically with other nations the more complex the solution becomes. A large number of difficult questions arise in reaching a settlement on devolution of political authority to national minorities. The liberal approach to these questions will accord primacy to the principle of choice.
Where national minorities have been politically and economically integrated for long periods, it may not be possible to achieve separation without damaging the liberal character of the society unless the seceding nation is also liberal in its culture and institutions. The reason is that the members of the minority and majority communities may have intermingled geographically and culturally under a liberal regime to the extent that a liberal society may not be able to meet the historical claims of separatists without violating its fundamental commitment to the autonomy of the individual. Individuals who do not wish to leave the liberal society may find themselves within the jurisdiction of the separating entity. In such cases, the terms of separation may have to include adequate compensation to those individuals to enable them to relocate to the liberal society. Where separation is feasible, a number of different models of devolution may be considered by all parties. They range from various kinds of federal arrangements to complete independence. Federal arrangements are useful options not only because they can address the concerns of nations regarding territorial integrity and national security but also because they enhance the freedom of choice of individuals by allowing them free movement and domicile within and among jurisdictions of their choice. Free trade and intercourse that is a feature of functioning federations have proved superior in maintaining liberal society than enforced unity.
- I had personal experience of the perils of this sort of cultural cringe-based political correctness not so long ago. While passing through the x-ray check at Darwin airport I was singled out for a “random explosives check”. As an officious-looking uniformed woman passed a magic wand over my person and possessions, I remarked to Jen that this was the fifth time in a row I’d been singled out “at random” and wondered out loud whether I might look like I was of the Islamic persuasion. “That’s racist!” the officious searching woman exclaimed. “I’ll have you know one of our inspectors is an Indian.” “But most Indians are Hindu not Muslim,” I patiently replied. “And Islam is a religion not a race. Don’t you think you’re being a little silly?” “I’ll get the Federal Police onto you if you’re not careful,” she threatened darkly as I walked away having mercifully been deemed Semtex-free if a racist turd. ~ KP