brian barry’s culture and equality: a critical review

Culture and Equality

Brian Barry, in his monograph on the “politics of difference” or the “politics of recognition,” is skeptical of the degree to which current multiculturalism policies have in fact advanced “the values of liberty and equality,” to the extent that “the implementation of such policies tends to mark a retreat from both.” Multiculturalism introduces more problems than it solves. Furthermore, a critique of “culture” is absolutely quintessential to understanding Barry’s argument of why the special treatment of certain groups within a society, does not pass the liberal egalitarian’s ‘test of universality.’

However, a few caveats require mentioning: Barry accepts the Enlightenment as fundamental in establishing universal citizenship. While Barry does engage in a critique of current multiculturalism policy and its ineffectiveness at solving the proverbial riddle of a ‘heterogeneous nation-state,’ he is also implicitly undertaking a social engineering agenda. Recycling platitudes, critical ‘rhetoric,’ by Barry’s standards, would find the Enlightenment project’s instrumental compartmentalization of human beings, rather amusing. To carefully and parsimoniously classify subjects into neat, pre-determined and rational categories is as incoherent and worrisome as is the idea that liberal egalitarianism, coupled with its liberal conception of a democracy, will solve the multiculturalism “problem.”

Barry’s implicit theory of morality implies that moral universalism is valid and that at a bare minimum, “human rights are what all human beings need in order to live minimally decent lives.” For Barry, the “members of a group may suffer not because they have distinctive culturally derived goals,” but because they do poorly in achieving generally shared objectives. A generally shared objective is defined as a good education and a desirable and well-paid job. This is precisely why rational choice theory is poorly equipped to address the complex nature of human beings, both as they act as individuals and as they are found in social groups. Although it may be rational and efficient for one individual to pursue an education and in return be rewarded with ‘a well paid job,’ others may very well wish to live in different conditions that require a different set of pecuniary inputs. This should never imply that those who choose such a lifestyle are “suffering.”

The Sikh example provided by Barry further illustrates the point that the regulation of human life and human activity, has become so ubiquitous and pervasive, that the encroachment on traditional practices, norms, conventions and more precisely, the means and ways by which individuals introduce certainty in a largely uncertain world, is bound to be met with various degrees of resistance. There is no need to speculate the reasons for why Sikhs oppose the wearing of a crash-helmet when riding a motorcycle; religious considerations must be part of it, but that cannot possible provide the entirety of their resistance. It would be a gross misunderstanding to interpret the aforementioned activity as negligence – Sikhs are probably equally aware of the dangers of engaging in such activity without the proper protection. The choice to wear a helmet should be left to those who ride motorcycles. It is not only Sikhs who are at an increased risk of dying from life-threatening trauma to the brain that follows as a result of not having worn protective equipment.

If one buys into the argument that certain policies, including immigration and multiculturalism policies are elitist, as it has arguable been the case in Canada, the morality that posits what is “good” and what is “bad” is not then universal, but rather prescribed. The political elites, who advance arguments of morality, are themselves to be blamed for hypocritically entertaining double-standards. While Barry may be correct in arguing that the current status-quo is seriously lacking any problem-solving potential, neither does his approach. Campaigning for a universal and egalitarian understanding of citizenship, while circumventing a distinct set of issues, concerns and problems, also misses the point that those with particular economic and political vested interests, may not be the best at neutrally defining for the rest of a country what citizenship means and subsequently should be.

The problem then, as has already been mentioned, lies in the fixation and obsession with solving the problems that do not exist, or even worse, creating problems to fit those solutions in need of a problem, something that Barry is also critical of himself. However, difference is not romantic. Difference and diversity is absolutely critical to maintain a healthy polity and a ‘thinking society,’ in which complacency does not override the requirement to scrupulously scrutinize and question those who unequally wield power over others.


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Filed under academia, barry, brian, brian barry, canada, critical, critical theory, culture, difference, diversity, double standards, enlightenment, equality, freedom, government, hansen, hegemony, human rights, hypocrisy, ignorance, imperialism, motorcycle, multiculturalism, randall, sikh, Uncategorized

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