Review of Multiculturalism Without Culture by Anne Phillips
Multiculturalism Without Culture
by Anne Phillips
We used this book in the second half of my Philosophy and Gender course (the first book we discussed was Feminism: Issues and Arguments, by Jennifer Saul). It's probably one of the best discussions of multiculturalism I will ever read. Anne Phillips provides a marvellous survey of contemporary political and philosophical attitudes toward multiculturalism while simultaneously advocating her approach.
Phillips' thesis is clear: she wants to keep multiculturalism but change how we understand the entire concept of culture, which she argues has become too rooted in narrowly-perceived groups. Instead, we should focus on the cultural rights of individuals. Current efforts to promote multiculturalism often result in treating individuals, especially individuals from minority groups, like cultural robots at the mercy of the tenets of their "cultural group." Phillips argues that these groups are harder to define than most people think, and that individuals should be regarded as autonomous generators of culture instead of robots.
To support her thesis, Phillips shows how current multicultural policies leave the door open to political and social inequality of women and other minority groups; furthermore, she cites examples of civil and criminal cases where a mistaken definition of culture has allowed individuals to commit heinous crimes with mitigated or even no punishment. Finally, she emphasizes the disadvantage to shifting motivations for action from the individual to culture, and notes that our reliance on the idea of cultural groups creates problems when people want to leave those groups and find a lack of willing support services on the "outside." In the book's final chapter, Phillips reiterates her solution to all of these problems: a multiculturalism without groups. While not a panacea, she admits, she believes it will establish an atmosphere better equipped to deal with the types of problems that arise in the application of multiculturalism. Whether or not Phillips is correct remains to be seen; personally, I found her argument convincing.
The beauty of this book is that it advances Phillips' abstract argument on very practical grounds, by pointing out problems with current policies and suggesting possible solutions. She draws on a variety of sources but doesn't religiously support any of them, openly criticizing theorists whom she praised in a prior chapter. Similarly, she praises various governments when they get it right (in her opinion) and notes when they get it wrong. This non-partisan approach firmly places Multiculturalism without Culture in the academic area of arguments, making it a nice break from the politically-biased fiction that, even if entertaining, always leaves me vaguely suspicious at the end.
Multiculturalism without Culture is relatively easy to read—a little long, but all of it is relevant to Phillips' argument—and very well-written. While some books will cover the more specific subjects in depth (Phillips recommends a few in her footnotes and bibliography), this is a great look at contemporary views on multiculturalism.