Charles Taylor: The Ecology of Recognition- Save the Cultures! Down with Civic Virtue!

Charles Taylor: The Ecology of Recognition- Save the Cultures! Down with Civic Virtue!

The contemporary demand for recognition stems from charges of misrecognition.  In a society dominated by a single political or social culture, differences not only tend to be excluded, but the dominant culture views the other in a judgmental manner.  This is projected on the other, who internalizes the unfavorable judgment, which maintains the marginality and exclusion of the other in politics.  It is this repressive mechanism that drives the proponents of equal cultures to dismantle the notion of national identity as a useful means to incorporate difference in a unifying political process.  This process is presumed to function so that the particulars of identity remain private and the general is shared as a common trait of the democratic citizen.  Therefore, recognition is vital to freedom and human dignity; diversity must be championed in order for politics to be equal for all.

This attack on democratic cohesion, if you will, stems from how we have come to view ourselves.  According to Taylor, it is Kantian identity to a certain extent that lauds the pursuit of individuality where we pursue a unique identity while determining what is good for us.  More recently, it is Lionel Trilling’s “authenticity” that is part of the common Western psyche via Rousseau and Herder (PR,30).  To be authentic means that the individual develops his own moral being while resisting the coercive ideals of the majority- the exhortation “to thine own self be true…” reverberates throughout our culture.  Foucault’s practice of self could be useful here, but authenticity rejects the interaction of the self and the social ethos to foster the ethical.  This ethos is the enemy of identity.

However, Taylor admits that a person cannot determine his identity alone, without social communication.  It is this “dialogical” character of life, where one’s interaction with parents, teachers, friends, and the state contribute to one’s identity (PR,32).  An “identity-composing dialogue” (L,13) occurs between Mead’s “significant others” and other autonomous identities (PR,32).  While doing so, one must beware of misrecognition; that is, do not rely on the other’s gaze to construct your identity, for it may be the root of your oppression:

“thus my discovering my own identity doesn’t mean that I work it out in isolation, but that I negotiate it through dialogue…with others.  That is why the development of an ideal of inwardly generated identity gives a new importance to my recognition.  My own identity crucially depends on my dialogical relations with others (PR,34)”

How does Taylor see this play out in politics?  He makes two crucial distinctions embedded in the politics of recognition.  The first is what is called the “politics of universalism” or the “politics of equal dignity” (PR,37).  Under this rubric all citizens are considered to possess equal dignity, that there is equal respect among persons.  This is the universal ideal that is exemplified by the American civil rights movement and public policies in the socioeconomic sphere to redress what is considered to be past injustice (PR, 38).  The aim is to eliminate discrimination in any form so that all can be equal.  Critics of this vision argue that their distributive measures employ discriminating techniques (similar to what they abhor in the other) and that one group is favored at the expense of another.  With this point, punishment of the perceived beneficiaries by the perceived victims is regarded with suspicion when comprising a scheme to pursue equality, dignity, and justice for all.  On the other hand, the “politics of difference” aligns itself with particularity in the public sphere because of the perception of a hegemonic culture attempting to dominate or eradicate a minority culture within society.  Therefore, the politics of difference begets laws to protect and ensure the future of a distinct culture.  Moreover, it is authenticity that drives this political stance: one must remain loyal to one’s identity and opposed to social pressure to become otherwise.  Assimilation is rejected outright on the grounds that the dominant group projects a negative identity onto the subject, who in turn introjects this identity to remain subservient and inferior.

In “A Tension in Modern Democracy” Taylor characterizes democratic citizen virtue, unfairly I believe, as Jacobin, where “inner exclusion” prevails as citizen virtue excludes difference among citizens (TD,85).  This impels the immigrant or minority group to reject assimilation into civic culture- after all, there is really no such thing as an American, right?  Such groups “demand that the reigning formula be modified to accommodate [their interests], rather than the other way around” (TD,85).  Multiculturalism nurtures the immigrant’s desire to retain his identity in the new society by providing access to services designed to support this without having to integrate.  At this point, Taylor argues that Mexicans really want to become Anglophone Americans, but at their own pace and without losing equal socioeconomic status (TD,86).  If the politics of difference is dedicated to preserving different cultures in opposition to civic virtue, then why should Mexicans want to assimilate?  Would this not be inauthentic?  And, since the politics of equality is designed to suppress individual identity, culture, etc., then what would motivate an immigrant to assimilate?  There seems to be a contradiction in this scenario.  Furthermore, immigrants no longer, according to Taylor, maintain a “sense of…gratitude toward the new country of refuge and opportunity” but reject it (TD,86).  Two social phenomena arise of out of this: first, immigrants strive to change the host country culture rather than assimilate, and second, they maintain an allegiance to their homeland (they act as a diaspora).

It is Sandel’s “procedural republic” that Taylor claims manifests out of the politics of recognition in that it is “more and more in terms of individual rights, and democratic and legal procedures, and less and less in terms of civic virtue” (TD,87).  As the modern politics of recognition is the source of struggle to redefine liberal democracies, citizens must question how they wish to participate.  Does one retain individual identity while adhering to a civic identity that unites all in a political enterprise?  Or does one prefer individual identity, reject civic identity all together and form a state based upon other principles (maybe a separate but equal multicultural society)?  Taylor admits that procedural liberalism has its merits in protecting human rights, although it may be a source of increased social disharmony because divergent groups no longer communicate together in order to emulate the beauty of ‘Herder’s orchestra’ (TD,90).  Instead the political sphere is a cacophony of competitive voices demanding individual or group cultural longevity or hegemony and the right to define the society.  Moreover, during the battle for ethnocentric laws, some could be declared unconstitutional, which would only reinforce misrecognition (TD,92).

So what alternative model does Taylor propose to the politics of recognition forum as depicted above?  He invokes a Herder-Durkheim-Humboldt communion.  The subject develops a self-identity that is not in opposition to the other, but in opposition to an object-as-idea.  Thus, the subject is reflected in the other’s mirror in a partial and complementary manner.  This process can be authentic and ethical in the Levinassian sense of recognizing the other on a conscious level.  The subject strives to recognize the other, not to determine its freedom-in-struggle, but to enrich a “bond not in spite of, but because of difference” (TD,89).  Doing so reinforces Taylor’s reading of Humboldt by claiming that “it is the crucial moral interest that each one of us has in the authentic development of the other” (TD,89).  Again, it is a fusion of difference that propels humanity forward in terms of material and spiritual achievement (TD,89).  Taylor continues this line of reasoning with “Gadamerian hermeneutics” where the subject cannot truly recognize the other without modifying its self.  It is the subject’s adherence to a self that is independent of difference-acknowledgment that prevents recognition.  Hence a subject’s identity melds with the other in a dialog.  This dialectic enables humanity to progress and evolve.

Does this not describe the development of liberal democracies in a post-nationalistic context?  Can one argue that, despite the historical transgressions and injustices, the American republic has done just that?  Was the American project a significant one in that many cultures could leave the “-isms” of their homeland behind in order to forge a new nation absent of that history? Was the point not to commence a new history based upon the formulation of civic virtue while recognizing difference without dwelling on historical baggage?  If true, what is the future of America undergoing the emphatic deconstruction of this project in favor of the politics of difference espoused by multiculturalism?  In any case, Taylor approves of the actions undertaken in Quebec, Canada to which Andy Lamey responds by problematizing Taylor’s theoretical analysis vis-à-vis his Quebec case study.

Lamey’s reading of “The Politics of Recognition” reveals contradictions between words and deeds.  It is the discrepancy between the two that troubles Lamey.  Briefly, the 1970’s Bill 101 prohibits francophone parents and immigrants (regardless of their language) from enrolling their children in Anglophone schools, forbids commercial signs solely in English, and requires businesses exceeding 50 employees to operate in French (PR,52-58).  Such a bill codifies the identity of a group and guarantees its existence in perpetuity by requiring immigrants to conform to the group identity.  And, it forbids the group subjects from forging their selves in the Gadamerian example.  Lamey points out that Taylor endorses the use of techniques that he derides in similar situations.  In fact, Bill 101 is even more notorious in the praise of its explicit coercion and domination of non-francophone Quebeckers.  The Quebecker self must consequently be stunted, for how can Bill 101 allow it to recognize the other’s divergent self and recast itself with the difference in mind as it establishes a moral kinship with the other?  This is the technique of division and identification not of unifying opposites.  Furthermore, Lamey criticizes Taylor for accepting the Quebecker determination of the good life, again illustrating the dominant culture’s intention to monopolize identity discourse.  Taylor also supports the notion that certain rights can be considered universal (habeas corpus, for example) but that others could be rejected on the grounds of which constitute the good life for that cultural paradigm (PR,60).  In this way, cultural relativism is acceptable only up until it interferes with universal principles.  This is strange, since Taylor argues against such universality.  One is not really sure who is supposed to determine the universal principles, or perhaps Taylor is really akin to a Marxist revolutionary seeking to overthrow a dominant group.

Although I agree with Lamey’s critique, I wonder about other questions.  For instance, what if a cultural group seeking preservation is already a victim of misrecognition?  In this case, the multiculturalist may be assisting the enemy he or the group eschews.  Or does the procedure of recognition include historical revision?  Since an immigrant group may be composed of refugees traumatized by the dominant group in their homeland, could they also not be morally damaged in their misrecognition?  Does the host country abet the victim-perpetrator identity that fosters continued enmity between persons or nations?  And what of the role of the “diaspora-American” whose identity is formed by the desire for vengeance?  There are those, like Paul Collier of the World Bank, who advocate restricting the activities of diaspora communities because they are waging regional wars from their comfortable and free host countries.  In such a case, it is no wonder that the immigrant rejects assimilation.  Could this also be viewed as a negative consequence of the Levinas’s self identifying with the suffering other?  The new nation could use military means to rectify the other’s suffering.  After all, to crudely oversimplify, Irish-Americans equip the IRA, Armenian-Americans demand the annexation of Karabagh, and the list continues.  In the end, Taylor must consider the disruptive elements in multiculturalism.  I wonder what his view is regarding the international community’s efforts to do away with ethnic identities in Third World countries as they advocate creating national/civic identities with the purpose of eliminating ethnic strife.  Consider President Paul Kagame’s public remarks regarding his task in Rwanda.

Concluding Remarks:


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