Type to search

The Many Faces of 21st Century Integration

Spring / Summer 2010 Features

The Many Faces of 21st Century Integration

The Many Faces of 21st Century IntegrationMeditations on Values, the State and the Crooked Timber of Humanity

The real world has never been kind to political theory. Actual people and their actual differences never quite fit the Gedankenexperiment models of justification dreamed up by philosophers – the states of nature, veils of ignorance, ideal speech situations and the like. This is so at the level of single societies; it is even more so when we lift our gaze beyond national boundaries and try to take in the bigger, global picture.

Instead of a patchwork of liberal and quasi-liberal states imagined by optimistic theorists, the world of the 21st century is a confusion of abject debtor nations, militant theocracies, authoritarian-capitalist hybrids and post-modern ‘progressive’ states that are themselves transnational in population. The simplest way to characterize the last group – which includes almost all first-world democracies, except perhaps the US – is that they no longer arrange themselves around claims of individual right, but around claims of group right. However, the pattern or delineation of the group is often hazy: religions, ethnicities, cultural formations, even generations.

The result is that the most pressing political problem of the new century is no longer justice in the traditional sense of distributing goods and services among a population of diverse desires, but instead a constant negotiation of differences between groups clamouring for the more spectral goods of recognition, identity or respect. Integration has emerged as the central justice challenge within nations because of the external conditions posed by inequality between nations.

Contrary to caricature, the dream of liberal democracy has never been to eliminate all conflict from politics. For better or worse, politics is synonymous with conflict, and there is no such thing as a neutral state. The aim is, instead, to channel that conflict in directions that are at best beneficial, and at worst not actively harmful – to most or all. Democratic politics resembles a large-scale contact sport, with elements both rough and civil. There is no game without competition; but there is also no game without rules. The state must act, at a minimum, as the underwriter and enforcer of these rules.

Even this modest aim relies on the power of various fictions of the sort that underwrite all games: formal equality, fairness in application, reasonable amounts of goodwill on the part of players, and a tolerably low level of cheating and free-riding. Supposing a population of more or less sane participants, this can be imagined to work. The trouble is that, under current conditions, we cannot suppose, and so cannot imagine, any such thing; hence the problem – really, a cluster of such problems – of social integration. Should radical imams be allowed to foment revolution in British mosques? Should Sikh students be allowed to wear ceremonial daggers in French-Canadian schools? When Canadian Tamils close down a freeway with a protest march, what is the federal government in Ottawa supposed to do?

In the latter part of the last century, democratic theorists were urged to shift their gaze from single-state justification games – where citizens chose or acted in the service of one basic justice structure – to transnational theories that might cope with global complexity. The results were not encouraging. If one considers John Rawls as a representative case, the distance in philosophical plausibility from A Theory of Justice (1971) to The Law of Peoples (1999) is telling. The former set the agenda for a quarter century of political theory, offering the most convincing non-utilitarian account of constrained welfarism in the literature, whereas the latter is little more than a halting gesture in the direction of global cooperation and poverty assistance. Martha Nussbaum, reviewing it in a leading journal, called the theory “inadequate and half-hearted in the remedies that it offers.” Thomas Pogge denounced it as a “rationalization of double standards of economic justice.”

But Rawls’ pragmatic assumptions were clear-eyed about the real state of play in global politics – even if the resulting conclusions seemed feeble. His aim was never to argue for international distributive justice on the order of what could be defended at the level of the national. For one thing, the amount of wealth transfer needed to achieve that goal is radically beyond what net-donor nations are willing to surrender – something on the order of 30 percent of GDP, as against the less than one percent that is now typically offered in aid, charity giving and debt forgiveness. Nor is Rawls’ goal of eliminating poverty – as distinct from eliminating inequality – lacking in normative bite. It falls well short of global egalitarianism, to be sure, but that may be a fact of life in the absence of global government and a single world state. Whether that absolves Rawls or merely confirms the charges against him depends on the seriousness with which one views the goal of global distributive justice.

Absent that outcome, the pressing issue for wealthy nations is that people from poorer and less advantaged nations will want to enter them whenever possible, even if they find their current character repugnant. There would be no problem of integration if only like-minded people immigrated to liberal democracies. Indeed, if there were only like-minded people, there would be no liberal democracies because there would be no need for them. Integration thus merely heightens the tensions that lie at the heart of all liberal states.

Immigration is not the only source of diversity in wealthy nations, but it is the most significant. The search for a better life in the developed world is not so much a matter of a dream – American or otherwise – as it is an adaptive evolutionary move under adverse conditions. Those with the means and the courage will generate the result of successful genetic replication by improving the conditions of life for their children. At present, and indeed for most of the modern age, the most reliable indicator of overall objective well-being and survivability is one’s citizenship: where one happens to be born or to live, and the structural benefits derived therefrom. (Subjective well-being is another matter: evidence consistently demonstrates that poverty is no barrier to reported happiness.) Citizenship is therefore, at inception, a birthright lottery, and one that generates glaring inequalities. Immigration, though it lacks the immediate visibility of levers such as a birthright privilege levy, is one of the mechanisms by which the blind, unequal distribution of the many goods associated with citizenship is redistributed.

Liberalism was born in specific disputes about religious belief – not as a procedural mechanism to distribute opportunities. Part of the religious dispute concerned who could hold offices and property, to be sure; but the prior argument was about freedom of religious belief. John Locke’s influence on the question of private property has obscured the deeper source of liberal thought in, for example, Baruch Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670), which framed the debate squarely as one of religious tolerance. His argument is that we must cultivate an attitude of forbearance in the face of deeply held belief, especially since there is no rational means of adjudicating disputes between different faith positions. A liberal society will be one in which each of us can go as we think meet and proper in the eyes of God.

This is considerably more than – and considerably different from – the limited-government civil contract of the Whig interest. To paint it broadly, Locke belongs to the rights branch of liberal thought, whereas Spinoza belongs to what we may call the virtues branch. Both seek a liberal version of justice, but one defends distribution of possessions, while the other calls for cultivation of attitudes, or even character, that will allow for difference. They are both with us still, though confusions and conflicts between them have generated much mischief in the discourse of liberal societies. Debates about social integration are especially afflicted here because they are a return to freedom-of-belief conflicts after an anomalous century or so of relative cultural homogeneity in many developed nations.

Take, as an example of the problem, recent debates about the traditional Muslim dress called niqab, which includes a full facial veil. In a controversial case just last year, Naema Ahmed, a 29-year-old pharmacist from Egypt, filed a complaint with the Quebec human rights commission after she left a French-language course offered at Montreal’s Cégep St. Laurent. Ms. Ahmed had been asked to remove her niqab so that teachers could watch her mouth movements during language instruction. She had already left another language class for similar reasons.

The telling moment in this case came not with the complaint, but with the response to it from the Quebec immigration minister, Yolande James. “There is no ambiguity about this question,” James told reporters at the time. “If you want to attend our classes, if you want to integrate into Quebec society, here are our values. We want to see your face.”

Much hot air has been vented over this case, with everything from appeals to John Stuart Mill on both sides to discussions of the differences between French and English Canada. Perhaps the most disturbing was a general expression of hostility to the very idea of facial covering, which many commentators claimed to find threatening. The minister’s comments resonate with this last fear. “We want to see your face” takes on a meaning greater than simply, “We can’t teach you French if we can’t see your lips move” (though even that version, instrumentalized in the background to the larger debate as the ‘reasonable’ position, is far from obvious). The key setup for this demand is the conditional statement that precedes it: “If you want to integrate into Quebec society, here are our values.” And one of those ‘values’ is that we want to see your face.

Of course, the human face is the site of much expression – perhaps the locus of human intimacy. And yes, masking the face has long been a means of disguise or threat. Still, there is no ready evidence as to when, and why, Quebec society’s ‘values’ included a demand that all faces be visible all of the time. If a society can have values at all – itself an open question, since who exactly is that society, and how does ‘it’ hold values? – it is hard to believe that one of them is that the state has the ability to trump, for whatever reason, the personal decision to cover one’s face. That claim leads logically, if not rationally, to bans on trick-or-treating and perhaps on hands themselves, since many an embarrassed person has hidden his or her face using them.

This is not to endorse Ms. Ahmed’s claim, of course. Her human rights were not abused in this case, even if her patience – and that of her instructors – was tried. Instead, it is to flag the weasel word ‘values,’ which masquerades here for a specific ideological position. Any political population has a dominant culture, and a certain force of numbers that cluster around agreement on matters of dress, deportment, cultural belief and the like. This is what people usually mean by values. A dominant culture can be good or bad, thriving or stultified. It can be shaky or it can be entrenched. However, in no case can this dominant culture be mistaken for the baseline commitments of a liberal society, which by definition function at a different level of justification. As an even more sweeping, and troubling, appeal to such ‘values,’ note the recent claims made by Luc Chatel, spokesman for French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government, in respect of the recent French bill, following on the heels of the very similar Belgian bill, that would go beyond a mere ban on women wearing the niqab and the burqa while dealing with French officials. The proposed ban would affect “all public spaces,” though no precise definition of such spaces was offered. “We’re legislating for the future,” Mr. Chatel said. “Wearing a full veil is a sign of a community closing in on itself and a rejection of our values.”

These appeals to the dominant culture as the measure of integration are based on a common category mistake: particular cultural values are not equivalent to the principles that make their particularity possible. When so challenged, defenders of the dominant culture then make a corollary category mistake: they complain that appeals to the baseline liberal commitments imply a lack of value, or some manner of post-modern emptiness – as if liberals do not believe in anything; and this, indeed, when the whole point of the liberal argument has always been to manage disputes about such values.

Value language, in short, further muddles the already vexed issue of how to carry the liberal program forward. Values are neither virtues nor rights, but are frequently confused with both. This helps nobody – not the new arrivals (or indeed old dissenters) seeking accommodation within an open society, and not the core-values faction who seek a clear definition of integration. And thus we have the familiar standoffs and stalemates of the recent discourse; thus, too, and worse still, the appeals to state intervention when all else fails – the clear sign of philosophical defeat. This is merely a power play.

Democracy is where quantity becomes quality, Hegel said, not favourably. Today, democracy is where quantity of belief convinces itself that it is equivalent to quantity of argument. If enough people believe in a value, then so it shall be valued. We want to see your face!

Where, then, does this leave the issue of social integration? We can draw the following conclusions without difficulty – though there will be considerable difficulty in following through on their implications. Of course, that has been the challenge for liberal societies from the beginning.


1. Norm distinctions are possible, even if neutrality is not.

There is a difference between the political principles that govern a society and whatever particular beliefs, desires and even values motivate the members of that society. Anti-liberals seek to deny this, conflating all normativity to a single level, and then mocking the alleged neutrality of the liberal state. The liberal state is not neutral; its principles require specific defence, and it is itself, as Charles Taylor once said, “a fighting creed.” However, that creed is not just one among many positions in a competition of beliefs. Instead, liberal principles articulate the rules of fair play (that is, rights) and the norms of sportsmanship (that is, virtues) that must be presupposed for any such competition to take place. If we cannot make this distinction as citizens, then there can be no such thing as a democracy under conditions of diversity.

There are fairly obvious policy levers for preserving this distinction – in particular, freedom of expression and association guidelines – but they require clear thought in application, such that the distinction is not blurred.

2. The democratic process is open-ended.

It follows from (1) that the state of play in any democratic game is both contingent on past moves and open to the innovation of future ones. Once again, contrary to anti-liberal critics, this claim is not equivalent to confessing a belief in nothing. It is, rather, an assertion about the nature of politics as an ongoing series of struggles and accommodations. A set of values that dominates a political culture at one moment has no special validity, except that which belongs to the current state of the game. The late David Foster Wallace defined popular culture as “the symbolic representation of what people already believe.” But the dominant culture is not limited to its popular representations: ‘what we already believe’ is the set of beliefs against which future citizen-moves will push off as they assert their own beliefs. Nothing more, and nothing less.

Game theory suggests that players in non-cooperative games, such as democratic politics, will sometimes reach equilibria that make everyone worse off. Prisoner’s dilemmas, races to the bottom, and tragedies of the commons loom constantly when there is a scarcity of goods – especially the structurally positional goods, such as respect or cultural validation, that are typical of diverse societies. The state can regulate such games in order to reduce the likelihood of these collective action problems, but it cannot do so effectively if control of the state is itself a non-cooperative game – as in competitive electioneering. Controls on election spending and a culture impatient with negative campaigning are preconditions for a realization of the state as the valid arbiter of the overall game’s rules.

3. Integration as such is a false goal.

Again, it follows from (1) and (2) that there can be no endpoint of liberal democracy in which everyone – or every difference – is politically integrated. To conceptualize politics in that fashion is to imagine a single conception of the good finally dominating a society de jure as well as de facto. Incidental de facto dominations are perhaps what make that seem like a good idea to anti-liberals. But such a state is, for all intents and purposes, a theocracy.

Integration, if it means anything at all useful, must describe a process of discursive engagement between citizens – each committed both to a set of personal or group values and to liberal principles of engagement. Can this be done? See (1) above: if it cannot be done, then there can be no such thing as a liberal democracy. Therefore, there is the need for more searching education of citizens in the practices of political discourse – practices that involve questioning one’s own ends, not just expressing one’s desires.

4. Technology is not helping.

Unfortunately, and despite much boosterism, social media of recent vintage have proven to be mechanisms of fracture, rather than engagement. These spectral structures are the online extension of the isolating suburbs and ethnic enclaves decried by an earlier generation. David Riesman’s ‘lonely crowd’ has been realized comprehensively, with person-screen interaction dominating – and sometimes altogether replacing – more direct and challenging encounters. The deindividuation characteristic of these media, which substitute a flattering image of oneself for the realities of responsibility and accountability, is a chanchre on the body politic. Like a chanchre, it may be painless at first, but it indicates a deeper illness below the surface.

There is probably no way to regulate this trend except by starting with something more fundamental. And this leads us to our final volley…

5. There is no substitute for political discourse.

The game of politics cannot generate just outcomes if it is pursued relentlessly as a zero-sum undertaking, always declaring a winner and a loser. Such competition cannot be eliminated, nor would we want to try. Still, the genius of liberal democracy has always been that it functions as both an exchange economy and a gift economy. There is hard give and take, to be sure, but there is also a sense of a shared enterprise – a commitment to ends that do not reduce to transactions. That commitment, whatever precise shape it takes as we negotiate our ongoing differences, is what alone justifies a democratic state.


Mark Kingwell is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto, specializing in political and cultural theory, and a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine.

(Illustration: Dan Page)

You Might Also Enjoy This in GB