Published on December 29, 2007
After hesitating, I nodded yes. Among my various identities that day, that of driver was the most obvious to her.
This sense of multiple identities is something that Sen himself highlighted mischievously in his book "Identity and Violence". The same person can be, for example, a British citizen, of Malaysian origin, with Chinese racial characteristics, a stockbroker, a non-vegetarian, an asthmatic, a linguist, a bodybuilder, a poet, an opponent of abortion, a bird-watcher, an astrologer, and one who believes that God invented Darwin to test the "gullible".
Only a minimum of introspection shows that our difficulty in answering the question, Who am I?, arises from the complexity we face in distinguishing between our identities and understanding their architecture. Who am I, indeed, and why should I accept people reducing me and the richness of my identity to only one of its dimensions? Yet such reductionism lies behind one today's dominant concepts, multiculturalism, according to which one of our identities must prevail above all others, serving as the sole criterion for organising society into distinct groups.
Nowadays, we are often told that there are only two ways for people to integrate into a society: the British model of cultural pluralism, and the French model, based on Republican values and, above all, the concept of equality.
According to the conventional wisdom, Britain's social model is based on coexistence between different communities, with each continuing to observe its conventions and customs while respecting the country's laws. But that common wisdom is grossly mistaken, because British law grants immigrants from all the Commonwealth countries something extraordinary: the right to vote in British elections.
Citizens know by experience that democracy does not consist in universal suffrage alone, but also requires a public sphere that is equally open to all. In the UK, a large group of immigrants thus share with native Britons the right to participate in public debates on all matters of general interest. Because fundamental equality is granted in this way, the British system manages to cope better than others with a greater expression of distinctive identities.
Nowadays, however, Britain's government itself seems to be forgetting the bedrock conditions of this British model by trying to satisfy the desire of particular communities for public recognition by officially promoting things like state-subsidised denominational schools. According to Sen, this is regrettable because it leads to people giving one of their identities - religious, say, or cultural - priority over all others at a time when it is essential that children broaden their intellectual horizons. By embracing the kind of separatism that such schools represent, the British are now saying, "This is your identity and you can have nothing else." That approach amounts to communitarianism, not multiculturalism.
In the last few years, the French model has also been subjected to misinterpretation, due to confusion about its basis of genuine inclusion in the life of society, which means genuine equality in terms of access to public services, social welfare, education, employment and so on. Republicanism grants equal rights to achieve universal equality. It does not deny distinctive identities and gives each the right to express itself within the private sphere.
The temptation of communitarianism comes from the wish to turn the failure of genuine equality into something positive. It offers integration by default within the differentiated communities - a sort of imprisonment by civilisation, Sen would say. But you cannot dress up failure as success. As long as urban areas are deprived, communitarianism will only serve to mask the violation of the principle of equality. Social groups are then measured in terms of their ethnic differences.
Because the social conditions of the French model have been so neglected, the model is now a contradiction of its core principle: equality. To reverse the trend, French republicanism must, like English multiculturalism, contradict itself in order to fulfil itself. The French must recognise that equality before the law is a core principle, but a weak one; it needs to be complemented by a stricter vision of how to achieve equality.
This vision should make republican efforts proportional to the importance of people's handicap in order to free them from the burden of their conditions. Genuine equality in the public sphere implies a minimal level of acceptance of a country's history and values. Sen says that what is being accepted here should be thought of as national identity. But this identity must be open. It is an identity we share by living together and by what we have in common.
The appeal of national identity must not be turned into a collective smokescreen behind which inclusion becomes a disembodied dream coexisting with the communitarianism emerging from its failure.
Copyright: Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences.
Professor Jean-Paul Fitoussi