Building common ground: going beyond the liberal conundrum.

Author:Chatterjee, Deen
Position:Essay
 
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Liberalism as a political ideology and a philosophical doctrine has championed individual autonomy, social and political equality, and democratic and inclusive political institutions. Consequently, liberalism is known for its commitment to tolerance and value pluralism. Yet liberalism has been critiqued for being insensitive to claims of culture. (1) Indeed, an attitude of benign neglect toward diversity was once quite common among liberals, as was a general lack of interest in global concerns. Worse yet, according to some critics the liberal tradition--in spite of its purported liberating mission of autonomy and self-determination (quintessential democratic values)--has provided the rationale for imperialism rooted in the liberal assumptions about reason and historical progress. (2) Though these ironies are a clear source of embarrassment for today's liberals, liberalism still displays an uneasy commitment to pluralism. Liberals today are more challenged than ever to look at the dynamics of diversity both at home and abroad.

Central to liberalism's predicament concerning claims of culture is the dilemma of remaining steadfast to its "thick" liberal principles (and thereby alienating various groups and cultures) or compromising its substance to make itself available to a wide range of diverse communities. To stay viable as a political ideology, liberalism needs to show that it can remain true to its universal norms while being responsive to cultural complexities and differences--both within a pluralistic liberal democracy and in the globalized world. In this essay I claim that liberalism can indeed be both substantive and negotiable as it faces the increasingly vocal challenges of diversity. I will show that the task for liberalism in bridging the liberalism/illiberalism divide lies in locating a false conundrum within liberalism itself.

The core liberal value is the autonomy and dignity of the individual, which prompts liberalism to promote human rights. The just path toward human rights demands equality, neutrality, and fairness, which form the core of liberal justice. But on both fronts--rights and justice--liberalism faces roadblocks because both these ideas are highly contested in a diverse world. With reference to human rights, liberalism needs to navigate beyond the two extremes of "timeless universalism" and "die-hard relativism" so that rights talk does not end up being either empty rhetoric or hopelessly arbitrary. On the justice front, liberalism needs to respond to the concern of multicultural and democratic theorists that the liberal commitment to justice creates its own exclusions and injustices. These theorists have pointed out that despite the seeming commitment to equality and impartiality, liberalism's idea of what counts as reasonable has a liberal tilt at the outset of the debate. For them, liberalism needs to recognize illiberal groups' reasons on their own terms; otherwise, they contend, the liberal concept of public reason between reasonable parties is a hollow idea. (3)

Liberal theorists construe the idea of democratic legitimacy in terms of egalitarian justice, yet the democratic ideal of autonomy and self-rule need not yield to such justice. (4) Tensions between group rights and individual rights often pose a dilemma of conflicting equalities for liberalism. Because both rights are in a continual state of flux and readjustment due to the shifting forces of globalization, it has become increasingly difficult for liberalism to work out an appropriate balance between them. Liberal theorists have argued that an impartial liberal theory need not be incompatible with distinct principles of affirmative equality with regard to illiberal groups--within reason, of course. (5) They point out, for instance, that granting schoolgirls the right to wear the hijab would fall within this threshold of reason. For them, the French ban on symbols of difference, such as wearing the hijab in public schools, is a misguided attempt toward liberal neutrality. (6)

What would fall below this threshold? Consider the following case. In a controversial decision in 2007, a German judge cited the Koran in turning down a German Muslim woman's request for a speedy divorce on the ground that her husband routinely beat her. In a ruling that highlighted the tension between Muslim customs and secular European laws, the judge, Christa Datz-Winter, argued that the couple emigrated from a Moroccan Muslim culture where it was not uncommon for husbands to beat their wives and that there were passages in the Koran that supported this behavior. A higher court in Frankfurt promptly removed Judge Datz-Winter from the case, saying it could not support her ruling. (7)

Deciding on these two cases--one relatively unproblematic and the other quite extreme--may seem easy, but sorting out where to draw the line is complicated. The liberal idea of affirmative equality of certain illiberal cultural practices implies that a liberal society can build a common ground based on shared recognition of the importance of group and cultural identities. If a group's policies and practices do not violate the very core of fundamental human rights, then those arrangements should be tolerated out of respect for cultural and group autonomy, though these practices can be targeted in critical public discourse (which may eventually bring changes to those customs). Some theorists have stipulated a variety of...

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