Monday, May 25, 2009
Loners, Losers and Canadian Multiculturalism
Speaking via ForaTv, former US President Bill Clinton explains how the adoption of the principle of majority rules in more and more countries around the world has a potential dark side -- the oppression of those who may not readily be considered part of that majority.
Clinton describes them bascially as "losers" and "loners", and says that the litmus test for any true democracy is whether or not a citizen has enough individual rights that they can potentially lose -- politically, economically, socially, culturally or otherwise -- and still be safe from oppression.
At its basest level, there does seem to be a key dilemma between majority rule and respect for the rights of minorities. As we see in many countries less enlightened than our own, in systems wherein majority rule is considered absolute minorities tend to not have many rights.
Multicultural societies should likely be considered less prone to this kind of absolutism. As Satya Das notes, because of the broad cultural variety of Canadian society Canadians have had to set aside our differences and respect the rights of groups that, if judged by a standard of ethnic -- as opposed to civil -- nationalism would themselves be minorities.
If Canadians continued to discriminate against groups such as Icelandic, Ukrainian or Irish Canadians there would be no shortage of people for those prone to such behaviour to discriminate against. What there would end up being a shortage of is Canadians among the so-called "majority".
This is one of the best reasons for Canadians who may not yet have come around to the idea of multiculturalism to acclimate themselves to it. Within the next thirty years caucasian Canadians will be a numeric minority in Canada. Those accustomed to enjoying a privileged position within Canada on account of being part of this so-called majority will find themselves in a rather uncomfortable position at that point.
But one also has to remember that there can also be a dark side to the group rights promoted by multiculturalism as well. As Benjamin Barber points out group rights -- particularly within minority groups -- can lead to a communitarian ethos in which minority groups demand absolute solidarity from its members, to the extent that members are forced to surrender individual rights in order to remain part of their community what eventually emerges is not a society that is more democratic, but in fact less.
Mixing the notions of majority rule with an overwhelmingly communitarian ethos leads to situations were people are not free, to the extent to which they are very literally enslaved by their communities.
Canada has, for the most part, passed the test of protecting minorities from the tyranny of the majority. Whether Canada has succeeded in protecting the majority from what Preston Manning termed "the tyranny of the minority" is another matter entirely.
Some would argue that legalizing same-sex marriage over what they deemed to be the opposition of the majority -- which was actually the agreement of a minority coupled with the comparable indifference of the majority of Canadians -- empowered same-sex couples at the expense of the majority of Canadians. Many Canadians -- including this author -- would disagree with them, but this case is nonetheless argued.
The case that individuals are subjected to the tyranny of community is much stronger. Consider the case of aboriginal women denied rights granted by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms -- and, through it, Canada's Constitution -- because political elites within the aboriginal community oppose it.
These are merely two examples in which Canadian democracy has either failed, or is argued to fail, to amply balance the rights of majorities and minorities, and communities and individuals.
Although Canada has performed this balancing act better than many other countries, it's certainly been far from perfect, and there are many improvements that could be made.