Multiculturalism is iconic of Canadian society. Canada prides itself on being a tolerant society. But what are the limits of toleration? At what point can (or must) the dominant society draw the line vis-à-vis the accommodation of minority culture practices? Jeremy Webber, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Law and Society at the University of Victoria, addressed this question in an exemplary fashion in a chapter called "Multiculturalism and the Limits of Toleration" in the book Language, Culture and Values in Canada at the Dawn of the 21st Century, published by Carleton University Press in 1996. I use this essay in the “Foundations of Canadian Law” course which I teach occasionally in the McGill Faculty of Law. In the Fall Term 2009, I put the following question to my students on a take-home exam (they had 24 hours, and 1,500 words)
To Defer or Not to Defer
Jeremy Webber is an expert in cross-cultural conflict management. The Quebec Premier’s Office has come to rely on his expertise to help defuse the many tense situations involving cultural friction that have arisen since the Unreasonable Accommodation crisis (also known as the Hérouxville Affair) of February 2007.
a) Briefly summarize the Webber approach to deciding whether or not to defer to minority culture practices
b) State how Webber’s approach would apply to two of the following three fact situations, including what outcome it would suggest.
Sean McConnery is a 12 year-old boy. His parents are ardent Scottish Nationalists. They insist on Sean wearing a kilt, knee socks and Sgian Dhubh (traditional Scottish dagger worn in a scabbard tucked into a knee sock, with a blunt 10 cm long blade) to school. The school board has barred the boy from school premises invoking safety concerns.
The Mainstream Muslim Congress characterizes itself as an association of moderate Muslims. The group has presented a petition to the Premier calling for the Government to ban the wearing of the burqa in public and to remove the crucifix from its time-honoured position behind the Speaker’s Chair in the National Assembly.
Mario Dumont, seeking to make a political comeback, has founded a new political party called the Bloc identitaire. To attract publicity, Dumont and his associates have set up a sort of soup kitchen for the homeless on the sidewalk outside the Gare Centrale. The kitchen serves pork and beans with maple syrup to the homeless, while chanting “Mange du porc!” It is feared that the gathering hordes of university students protesting the discriminatory nature of this repast will result in public disorder (i.e. a riot)
c) Critically evaluate the Weber approach.
It should be noted that these scenarios were all fictional. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is purely happenstance
Here are some model responses to the question by four of the students in the class.
To Defer or Not to Defer by A.G.
Deference according to Webber
In “Multiculturalism and the Limits of Toleration”,1 Jeremy Webber explains how majority cultures should decide whether or not to defer to minority culture practices. Rather than present a checklist of factors to be considered, Webber describes the spirit in which majorities should approach those minority practices that conflict with their notions of justice.
Webber plainly rejects two positions: that which does not allow for any accommodation, and that which presents cultures as cohesive entities to which the majority must fully defer.2 Full integration is problematic for two reasons. First, there is great value for individuals in retaining a connection to their own normative foundations and to the moral debates that that have shaped their views. Second, because no conception of justice is complete, a majority culture can enhance its own notion of justice by interacting with minorities that maintain conflicting normative positions.3
Webber is equally resistant to arguments for full deference. He contends that justice is about making moral judgements and so a society cannot absolve itself from the responsibility to define “good” and “bad” practices. These choices are complicated by the heterogeneity of minority cultures and by the varied nature of cultural practices. The state will have to choose who will represent a given minority culture, and which practices will be accepted as representative of that group. Thus, while a majority should not resist all deference, it must reflect carefully when deciding which practices to accommodate. 4
Building on this analysis, Webber draws the outline of a nuanced approach to deference. First, he contends that a majority can require minority cultures to maintain permeability in the boundaries of their communities and to abstain from violence against other groups. Second, he accepts that a majority will impose some standards which it considers necessary to collaboration. For example, Canadians can say that female genital mutilation is so repugnant that they will not allow it in their community. However, he insists that imposition should be restricted to cases of “substantial, and not trivial, concern.”5 Finally, he rejects as unnecessary the requirement that members of minority cultures must accept all common public values. Within these limits, Webber recommends that when questions of accommodation arise the majority should suspend judgement and resist acting on its first impressions of an unfamiliar practice. Instead, the majority should be guided in the necessary process of judgement, by an ethic of respect and humility.6
Webber’s approach requires majorities to suspend judgement when considering minority practices.7 In the present case, the school board clearly failed to do this. Sean was ordered off school premises because of safety concerns regarding a small, blunt, ceremonial dagger that he carried in a scabbard tucked into his sock. The board assumed it was a weapon even though Sean wore it as a symbol of his membership in a nationalist, Scottish group. Webber might liken this case to that of the Moslem girl in Québec who wore her hijab to school. While many Canadians opposed the wearing of the hijab because they saw it as a symbol of oppression, many Moslem women maintained that the covering is a symbol of piety that offers protection against the degrading sexualisation that women endure in Canadian culture.8 This case demonstrates how the same object can have different meanings in different cultural contexts. Thus, Webber would probably oppose a hasty decision to expel Sean simply on the grounds that he carries a dagger.
Webber also maintains that majority cultures should only impose standards on minority cultures in cases of substantial concern.9 The board may imagine that the dagger could be used as a weapon, however, there are reasons to doubt this outcome. Firstly, the dagger is small, blunt, and sheathed, so it could not easily be used against others. Secondly, Webber might refer to the Multani case (2006) ,where the Supreme Court of Canada found that the kirpan, a ceremonial dagger carried by Sikh students, had never been used for violence.10 This is consistent with the view that daggers are not always seen as weapons by other cultures. The low likelihood of Sean’s dagger being used for violence would undermine the legitimacy of the board’s safety concerns.
Finally, Webber contends that minority communities should allow permeability in their boundaries11 and that majority cultures benefit from interaction with minority cultures.12 From this perspective, it should be a priority to keep Sean in public school with children of diverse backgrounds. This benefit should outweigh the very minor safety concerns of the board.
Webber’s nuanced approach to deference would most likely require that Sean be allowed to attend school. The board may, however, require Sean to secure the dagger more firmly in the sheath to provide greater assurances to other students.
At first glance, the Bloc identitaire’s (BI) public distribution of food to homeless people seems benevolent. However, the name of the group and the intellectual background of its leader, suggests that this gesture is done in opposition to accommodation and in support of one identity for all Quebec. More specifically, the use of pork in all the food and the public chanting of the phrase “Mange du porc!”, suggests an intention to express displeasure with those who do not eat pork (i.e. Moslems, Jews, and maybe vegetarians?).
Webber clearly rejects the position that would require everyone to adhere to common public values,13 especially when the values in question address unthreatening issues such as diet. Moreover, he requires that cultural groups be tolerant of other groups’ existence.14 For these reasons he would probably condemn the message of the BI and its attempt to get minorities to adopt majority customs.
However, it is less clear what Webber would do about the BI’s behaviour. To have the state stop them from serving food to the homeless would be too extreme given that they are not forcing anyone to eat it; this is an instance of individuals making a private choice.15 Similarly, to prosecute the group for its chanting would be an excessive limitation on public expression that might provoke a backlash from other members of the majority.
Webber’s approach points to a more nuanced solution. The gathering of students suggests that, in order to avoid a riot, the state needs to get the group out of the public domain. The BI may be wrong in its message, but the state cannot condone a violent reaction from the students. A compromise solution would require the group to be kept from serving the food on public property (i.e. the state would revoke or refuse a permit to the group), but would allow it to serve the homeless in a private place where their message is not imposed on minority individuals.
Webber’s Approach Critiqued
Webber’s approach is attractive because it addresses the concerns of both minority and majority cultures. The author’s emphasis on the importance of culture to individuals is especially insightful.16 Culture provides a secure context for making decisions, which many people find crucial to their well-being.17 Indeed, it may be especially important for immigrant minorities who are coming to terms with a new environment. To deny the importance of culture in public life, as a system of laicité would do, may not only compromise the dignity of minority individuals but may also lead them to opt out of public life altogether; a result that would not favour social stability. Although proponents of laicité might retort that individuals can still practice their culture privately, this response is unsatisfactory because it denies the value which many individuals derive from the public expression of culture – which is after all a social phenomenon.
Webber’s approach also responds to the concerns of majority cultures. By lending legitimacy to the imposition of majority standards in extreme cases, Webber reminds majority populations that reasonable accommodation does not require them to welcome egregious practices.18 Extreme negative reactions to minorities generally arise from fear19 in the majority that their culture will be overrun by extremists; Webber’s approach provides safeguards against this. Finally, Webber reminds majorities of the benefit they derive from accommodating minority cultures.20
A considerable weakness in Webber’s approach is that it underemphasizes the need for dialogue between groups in determining which practices will be accommodated. His chapter primarily addresses what majorities should do, paying scant attention to the potential role that minorities could have in reaching reasonable accommodation. Webber suggests that majorities should listen to the perspectives of individuals belonging to minority groups, but he also allows the majority to choose who can represent the community.21 Furthermore, in allowing the majority to unilaterally decide to suppress a practice because it is “repugnant”,22 Webber may be precluding a valuable discussion wherein minorities could explain their practice and the majority could relate why they cannot accept it. Although this approach protects minorities from absolute imposition of majority standards, it allows them little agency. A greater emphasis on dialogue in the process of accommodation would remedy this weakness, in what is otherwise a very constructive approach.
To Defer or Not to Defer by M.B.
Webber’s approach to deciding whether or not to defer to minority culture practices is centered on respect, open-mindedness and attentiveness to the contexts and complexities of these situations. He resists oversimplifying these choices and reducing them to dichotomies such as “relativism versus universalism [and] tolerance versus imposition”.23 Webber tries to avoid rash judgments, black-or-white thinking, and universal and abstracted solutions. He believes in leaving room “for the exploration of alternative normative visions”24 and in the “value of competing visions to our own moral reflection”.25 According to Webber, deferring to minority practices can teach us new ways of approaching complex issues and encourage us to reflect on and criticize our own notions of justice, which are necessarily partial. Deference can also provide a degree of stability and continuity for members of minority communities by enabling them to maintaining a connection with their past experiences, traditions and moral debates.26
Webber points out the inherent difficulty in defining the notion of “community”, since each individual belongs to a plurality of communities, the boundaries of which are “dynamic [and] continually evolving”.27 Communities are also heterogeneous, their members having diverse and often conflicting beliefs.28 Webber points out that deference is an active process that entails moral judgments; we help define these cultures when we identify certain practices and individuals as representative of their identity.29 According to Webber, “recognition always presupposes judgments about what are often contested issues of identity and authority”.30 He also points out that our understandings of minority cultural practices are filtered through and therefore influenced by our own cultures and ideologies.31
Webber believes that multicultural societies require a degree of tolerance and cooperation, and that individuals need to make small concessions and respect minimal standards of conduct.32 While people’s cultures should not confer special immunity for their actions33 and while violence within and outside of communities should be avoided, all citizens should not be required to adhere to the same set of public values.34 Webber believes that complete deference fails to capture the normative character of cultural practices,35 he calls for a more nuanced approach to these issues. Although the majority may at times feel the need to impose its standards on minority practices that it finds “profoundly repugnant”, Webber insists that it should limit these impositions “to cases of substantial, not trivial, concern”.36
In short, before making any decision regarding deference, we must ask ourselves why we are opting to defer or to impose our standards, and who we are choosing to defer to within a diverse minority community. Webber sees justice as an ongoing aspiration and negotiation in which individuals should display respect and humility. They should be willing to listen to other people’s perspectives, and should avoid jumping to conclusions based on oversimplified or ethnocentric notions of justice.37 Most importantly, individuals must be prepared to take full responsibility for their decisions.
b) i) Sean McConnery
This case is centered on the school board’s concern for students’ safety. Sgian Dhubhs have already been banned by schools in Britain and the U.S.38 However, it is important to note that the blade of Sean’s dagger is blunt, and that many commercial Sgian Dhubh’s are in fact made of plastic.39 This object would therefore pose only minimal risk as a weapon.
Webber would point out that given Sean’s young age, this situation could cause some intergenerational tension within his family. In immigrant communities, different generations often place different degrees of importance on maintaining traditional practices, with older generation tending towards stricter adherence and younger generation preferring to integrate into the majority culture. Since Sean is only twelve years old, he might want to assimilate in order to fit in with his peers, and he might not share his parents’ enthusiasm for affirming their Scottish Nationalist identity through this attire. Since Sean’s personal preferences are unknown here, and since he is a minor in the care of his parents, a decision to defer in this case would be based on his parents’ convictions.
Webber would also want to look at the context of this request for accommodation. It would be important to find out the jurisdiction in which this school is located in order to research relevant statutory weapon prohibitions. It would also be helpful to know whether the school has a dress code or mandatory uniform in order to decide if Sean would be allowed to wear his traditional clothing without the dagger.
Webber’s approach would likely result in the ban being lifted. Sean would be allowed to return to school with his Scottish attire since much like in the Multani case,40 the Sgian Dhubh is unlikely to pose a real threat to students’ safety. Webber would also point out alternative solutions, such as allowing Sean to wear his kilt and knee socks without the dagger, or allowing him to wear a plastic Sgian Dhubh provided he kept it in his sock at all times.
ii) Mainstream Muslim Congress
This situation involves reconciling conflicting beliefs within a community and determining which individuals and subgroups within this community have the authority to speak on its behalf. The party voicing the complaint in this case is part of a minority, a subgroup within the community of Muslims. A more fundamentalist group of Muslims might disagree with the ban on the burqa, claiming it is an essential component of their Muslim identity. Although some Muslims and non-Muslims might view the burqa as a sign of women’s oppression, much like the hijab, some women may wear the burqa by choice and see it as a defense against their objectification as sexual objects.41 Given this diversity of opinion, it would be useful to involve Muslim women in this debate in order to gain a better understanding of their experiences. Webber would be aware of these tensions and would hesitate to allow the Congress to speak for the Muslim community as a whole.
Webber’s article also notes the influence in Quebec of the French notion of laïceté, which entails the removal of all markers of difference from the public sphere in order to encourage the equal and active participation of all citizens.42 Since this case is in Quebec, laïceté might be considered an optimal solution. One could argue that a religious symbol such as a crucifix has no place in the National Assembly, which is a public and political institution. However, Webber also notes the potential rupture and destabilization that can occur when religious belief is suppressed.43 Since the crucifix has a long history in its position behind the Speaker’s Chair, its removal could upset the continuity of tradition.
Despite some strong arguments for banning these objects, Webber’s approach would likely result in a decision against the Congress and in the continued allowance of the burqa and the crucifix. Although some might find these objects offensive, this would not warrant their universal prohibition without further investigation and proof of their “profound repugnancy”.44
c) Critical Evaluation
Webber’s approach is comprehensive, insightful, and well articulated. It is therefore not surprising that the Premier’s Office has frequently relied on his expertise in cross-cultural conflict management. Short in length but broad in scope, Webber’s article presents the accommodation debate from many different angles and makes several valuable recommendations. Webber’s approach encourages open-mindedness and the suspension of judgment, and it wisely steers readers away from oversimplifying complex situations. He convincingly lays out some of the many benefits of cultural pluralism and deference for both majority and minority populations.
Webber shows that solutions should be contextual rather than universal, since many important nuances are lost in abstractions. His description of the targeted education campaigns opposing female genital mutilation provides an inspiring example of a nuanced approach to a very complex and controversial issue.45 Since the women were actively involved in the development of this solution, the campaign will likely be effective in getting them to consider alternative perspectives. Webber’s discussion of the role of the media and of the differences in the French- and English-Canadian perspectives in the debate over the hijab is particularly thought-provoking, since it encourage readers to consider the far-reaching influences of history and popular culture.
His article could have been enhanced by including a more in-depth look at the hierarchy of authority over accommodation decisions in Canada. Although Webber briefly addresses the role of the state, he glosses over the involvement of school boards, human rights tribunals, and provincial and federal courts without explicitly stating which institutions have the ultimate power to make these decisions. Readers who are inspired by Webber’s approach will certainly be moved to undertake further research on this subject.
Webber’s article nicely complements the call for diversity in the legal system in Nedelsky’s article. Both authors recognize the value of inclusiveness, the necessity of flexibility, and the fluidity of communities in a multicultural society such as Canada, and both encourage readers to view diversity as an opportunity for expansion rather than as a constraint.
To Defer or Not to Defer by R.O
A) Jeremy Webber articulates his approach to the contentious issue of when and whether a majority of citizens should defer to a controversial practice of a minority cultural group in his article “Multiculturalism and the Limits to Toleration”46. The first crucial step is to actually identify the contours of a minority group, recognizing their key shared characteristic (i.e. language, religion, race, etc…). While this may seem self-evident, it can be a challenge in today’s world of fluid and multiple cultural identities47. Webber acknowledges that identifying a ‘spokesperson’, ostensibly authorized to speak in the name of a minority community can be as difficult a problem as the whole question of majority deference48.
Webber concludes that minority cultural practices should be given a wide berth of toleration, subject only to the limitation of “cultural pluralism”49. This imposes a rather thick barrier against intolerance, as in Webber’s view, a minority cultural practice should only be disallowed where it undermines the ability for cooperation in a multicultural society. Thus, minority cultural groups are barred from encouraging acts of violence (both within and without their community), must allow for the permeability of their membership, and, in the extreme, cannot engage in practices that represent a fundamental, irreconcilable offense to the majority of citizens50. While this last criterion may seem rather expansive, the reality is quite different. Webber would place female genital mutilation as an intolerable practice under this heading, and few other known cultural practices would generate that level of offense to so many different people. In other words, an ‘intolerable’ cultural practice would have to be so offensive so as to create a near unanimous consensus against it. This feat is unlikely in most circumstances, especially in multicultural societies comprised of different social and cultural groups. It should be noted that the level of indignation of majority towards a minority cultural practice is likely to be commensurate with how secure that majority feels with the status of its own cultural identity. As Webber notes, francophone Quebecers react differently than anglophone Canadians when faced with similar questions of cultural deferral51.
In reaching this conclusion, Webber’s analysis address the ‘why defer’ issue head on. He offers two responses to those who would question the need to defer to minority cultural practices at all. Webber posits that it is in the interests of individuals to be culturally literate, a continuity enabling them to maintain communal and family ties. He cites the high importance our society places on freedom of religion as evidence of this. It is also in the interest of a polity’s majority to preserve and foster cultural minorities; their practices may offer new social insights, and at the very least, forces the majority of citizens to reevaluate and reaffirm their own beliefs52. For instance, the argument that Muslim’s women’s head scarves actually represents liberation from being treated as sexual objects may have some merit, and at least forces one to consider the claim that women are overly sexualized in Western culture53. Put differently, a cultural majority can be greatly enriched by approaching minorities with humility and respect.
B) Webber’s “cultural pluralism” threshold for deferring to a minority cultural practice would be applicable in the case of a 12 year old Scottish boy, banished from his school for bringing his traditional dagger to class. It is important to note that the dagger is blunt, and is kept covered in a knee sock, and that the school’s bases its decision on safety concerns. The main questions for Webber would be whether the traditional dagger poses a real danger to the child and the other students, whether the boy genuinely wants to carry it (and not being forced to by his parents, community), and whether it is so offensive so as to represent an fundamental affront to the community at large. Using Webber’s criteria and reasoning, it is highly likely that the school would be forced to defer to the boy’s dagger-carrying tradition. The blade, both blunt and covered, poses no more of a danger than an errant ruler, scissor, or pen would. One might assume that the boy genuinely believes in this practice, as he is free to not conform while he is on his own at school (i.e. leaving the dagger in his locker). Furthermore, it is unlikely that the practice would incense a majority of citizens to the point of undermining collaboration with all Scottish nationals (certainly not to the same extent as female genital mutilation). This last point is contingent on the majority of society not feeling insecure or threatened by symbols of Scottish nationalism. Returning to Webber’s rationale for deferring, one could view the dagger as producing a benefit for both the individual child and his peers. The child gains by reaffirming his connection to his culture, and the dagger can serve as ‘teachable moment’ for his peers, exposing them to his culture and point of view (which might encourage some critical self-reflection)54. Since the boy (or his guardians) speaks for himself in this matter, one avoids the need to identify a legitimate community spokesperson.
A group known as the Mainstream Muslim Congress calling for a public ban on ‘burqas’ and the removal of a crucifix in the heart of Quebec’s National Assembly also poses a tolerance challenge. Webber first reaction might be to investigate whom such a group actually represents; is it limited to ‘mainstream Muslims’? If so, what are there numbers relative to the Muslim community as a whole? Do their positions reflect those of a substantial number of their fellow Muslims? Assuming such a group does merit the status of community spokesman, the question would then shift to one of deference. The issue revolves around whether the burqa and the crucifix undermine Webber’s ethos of “cultural pluralism”. Ironically, this scenario features a minority group as the initiator of a claim against deference. It would be hard to view burqas and the crucifix as dangerous; the main applicable criterion would thus fall to the items’ offensive character. It is unlikely that, in Webber’s estimation, either item is offensive enough to warrant an imposition of intolerance. The crux of the group’s request seems to be the institution of ‘laïcité’, a French practice aimed at preserving the public sphere as a forum free of explicit cultural markings so that people relate to one another as citizens first55. However, Webber unequivocally rejects the idea of imposing a “common set of values required for the healthy operation of public institutions”, which ‘laïcité’ would purport to do56. Erasing culture from the public domain essentially imposes the values of secularism. Moreover, such a policy would promote an individual’s cultural alienation, and the public would not benefit from the potentially useful lessons to be garnered from cross-cultural interactions. The group’s request would likely be dismissed applying Webber’s approach.
C) Webber’s “cultural pluralism” model is hampered by some severe limitations. Firstly, the whole majority-minority cultural dichotomy seems to be premised on the assumption that the majority isn’t seriously threatened of becoming a minority (or having its identity diluted) in the foreseeable future. One need only look to sweeping fears in Europe of an ‘Islamification’ of the continent through large waves of Muslim immigration for a contemporary example. This has fueled the popularity of far-right wing parties with anti-immigration platforms, and measures such as the recent Swiss ban on the construction of minarets on top of mosques57. An insecure culture may be less tolerant of other, competing ways of life. Webber’s work may be too firmly rooted in the Canadian context where multiculturalism is almost a given. Furthermore, “cultural pluralism” undermines the development of a national identity, which can galvanize and unify people. One can only claim that multiculturalism is a national identity in as much as schizophrenia represents a person’s personality. Webber’s outright dismissal of universal public values is also problematic. A majority can justifiably negatively articulate which minority practices ‘go too far’ (i.e. female genital mutilation) but cannot positively encourage compliance with some basic norms such as gender equality. Finally, the problems that Webber’s “cultural pluralism” seeks to solve can, and often are, resolved through the formal legal system. Courts are empowered define when deference to a particular minority cultural practice is called for, and when limits on such practices are excessive. The advent of concepts such as ‘public order’ in contract law and broad interpretations of religious faith can only help facilitate the role of the judiciary on such matters. Without addressing these issues, Webber’s work will necessarily remain incomplete.
Article 899, Civil Code of Quebec. 1991, c. 64, a. 899.
Common Law Tradition Module.
Glenn, Patrick H., Legal Traditions of the World, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University
Howes, David. Lecture. November 16, 2009.
Kairys, David. “Legal Reasoning”. David Kairys, ed., The Politics of Law. New York:
Pantheon, 1982. 11-17.
“Swiss voters back ban on minarets in referendum”. Montreal Gazette. November 29,
2009. Accessed at:
Syndicat Northcrest v. Amselem.  2 S.C.R. 551.
Webber, Jeremy. “Multiculturalism and the Limits to Toleration”. Smart and Savards,
eds., Language, Culture and Values in Canada at the Dawn of the 21st Century.
Ottawa: Carelton University Press, 1996. Pgs. 67-71.
To Defer or Not to Defer by E.T.
a.) Webber Summary
Addressing the question of how minority cultural communities might become a part of the broader pluralist society, Jeremy Webber rejects the simple dichotomy of tolerance versus imposition. Analyzing the controversy over the lengths to which society must go in order to accommodate its minorities’ customs – even those of the repugnant kind – Webber proposes two principles for negotiation and two for judgment. When it comes to negotiation, he first emphasizes that cultures and communities are never simply just given, and that communities contain communities within them. The majority’s deference to any community – or certain of its members or characteristics – thus helps to define it and affirm its boundaries.58 The variety and dynamism inherent in communities thus creates a space for both influence and accommodation. Secondly, Webber suggests that the majority has a clear self-interest in accommodating minority perspectives, which springs from the majority’s recognition that its own conception of justice is inevitably partial and provisional in nature. 59 This – that it can and should be supplemented by other cultural perspectives – creates an additional point of encounter where the majority and minority might productively negotiate.
Bearing in mind the opportunities for cooperation outlined above, what are their possible outcomes and how might one pursue them? Noting the partiality of every perspective, Webber acknowledges that justice is but an aspiration, yet remarks that “we still do aspire to something”.60 What we aspire to is to suppress the bad and to affirm the good, and this, in turn, makes complete deference impossible.61 Judgment is thus reintroduced into the pluralist debate as a necessary tool for approaching the views of others and identifying their normative character.62
The question remains of who or what should ultimately set the standards and guide this necessary judgment. Webber proposes a base minimum whereby minority communities ought to refrain from violence toward the outside community as well as within their own. Secondly, he suggests that they should acknowledge the permeability of communities within a pluralistic society, allowing their own members to leave should they wish to do so. Beyond this, it seems, communities must take account of overlapping identities and choose those most appropriate to circumstance. Additional standards may be imposed in the process merely because the majority may not agree to collaborate with people who do not respect them. 63
b.) Fact Situations: What is to be Done?
The Mainstream Muslim Congress
The request of the Mainstream Muslim Congress is two-fold: that the wearing of burqas be banned in public spaces, and that the crucifix be removed from its position behind the Speaker’s Chair in the National Assembly. Though ostensibly concerned with the elimination of religious symbols from the public sphere, the issues are not equivalent and must be examined separately.
Applying Webber’s two negotiating principles – that the majority helps to define the minority community by deciding which of its voices to accommodate, and that the majority seeks to enrich its conception of justice by integrating minority views – it seems that the first question that must be asked is whether the Mainstream Muslim Congress represents a version of the Muslim community which the majority might like to see affirmed. Seeing as how its request to ban the burqa conforms to the Candian majority’s conception of the dignity and equality of women, this may well be the case. To affirm the Muslim community in a guise that also affirms the majority position may indeed lead to a harmonious outcome. Looking further, however, to the possibility of differing views enriching the majority’s conception of justice, one might also wish to ask whether refusing the request might be equally beneficial. Does the burqa itself represent something that might be expansive of the majority’s conception of justice? It is now necessary to pass judgment. Webber’s minimum criteria for doing so has been to demand a rejection of violence and the acceptance of some sort of community permeability. Unfortunately, the burqa does symbolize both the possibly violent oppression of women as well as their enclosure in an impermeable and inferior female space. To affirm it would not be to affirm the good. Therefore, the request of the Muslim Congress should be granted.
The second request of the Congress pertains to the removal of the crucifix from the National Assembly. Unlike the burqa, the crucifix concerns the assertion of a specific and dominant identity not merely in any public space, but in the space of government itself. This space, where the very laws which will steer the course of justice are made, symbolizes the arena in which Webber’s pluralistic debate takes place. Such a space cannot be marked by the symbols of a single identity without suggesting that the majority itself is impermeable and closed, having already passed an exclusionary judgment on all other perspectives. The crucifix should be removed.
“Eat Pork” Soup Kitchen
The “Eat Pork” soup kitchen represents a blatant call to exclusion, of Muslims and Jews in particular, but presumably also of any minority groups that are unwilling to recast themselves in the majority’s image. This enterprise of hate cannot be regarded as a cultural practice in and of itself, and does not therefore merit the sort of elaborate considerations intrinsic to Webber’s analysis. It stands in stark contrast to Webber’s minimum requirements of cooperation: non-violence and the acceptance of permeability. This minimum, if it is to possess functional value, must operate both ways and apply also to the majority. And while a soup kitchen – even if peppered by hate – is not violent in and of itself, it does feed the very sentiments from which violence erupts. It is also an indigestible and therefore impermeable boundary between communities. The soup kitchen should be removed from the public space and its hate soup be consumed in private.
c.) Evaluation of Webber’s Approach
Jeremy Webber proposes a pragmatic and utilitarian approach to pluralism, balancing the various perspectives inherent in a multicultural society in a manner that ensures both their integration and their separateness – as the circumstances might require. There is no doubt that Webber’s majority still represents a filter through which the minority perspective will need to pass, and in which some practices will necessarily be discarded. There is nothing wrong with this approach. Not only does it agree with the principle of majority decision-making that is inherent to liberal democratic society, but it also ensures that the majority should perpetually incorporate additional aspects of the minority perspective.
Reflecting back upon Webber’s bare minimum requirements for cooperation – the rejection of violence and the acceptance of community permeability – one might still question whether these alone, in the absence of common public values, provide enough substance for social cohesion. I believe that they do. That communities should not violently reject one another nor their own dissenting members, and that they should leave their doors open for those who wish to exit and those who wish to enter, is all that is really necessary for a merging to gradually take place. Once this has occurred – once communities have crossed their boundaries and acquired stakes in one another – they have become a part of an indivisible whole.
Finally, Webber’s call that minority perspectives be judged for their normative character represents the ultimate gesture of both accommodation and integration. Webber’s minorities are merely tolerated on the side. To not refrain from passing judgment upon them is, in fact, to engage them in the normative debate. Not every minority practice will survive the scrutiny of judgment, but that which does will become a part of the normative fabric of a pluralistic society. What better way to ensure that minorities too should have a stake in the collective identity and nurture of such a society?