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Hope for an inclusive future

by Cynthia Macdonald Sep 3 / 19
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A Q&A with Boundaries, Membership & Belonging co-director Will Kymlicka

All societies distinguish “members” from “non-members.” Making distinctions can lead to increased trust and cooperation towards members, but it can also lead to prejudice, suspicion and injustice towards non-members. CIFAR’s new Boundaries, Membership & Belonging program explores ways to create a sense of community and solidarity without falling back on ideas that produce pernicious divisions and hierarchies.

Program co-director Will Kymlicka’s visionary research on the link between democracy and diversity has “secured him a position among Canada’s most influential thinkers,” according to the Canadian Encyclopedia. Kymlicka holds the Canada Research Chair in Political Philosophy at Queen’s University.  He shared his insights with us from his office in Kingston, Ontario.

CIFAR: What’s the purpose of this new program?

Kymlicka: The Boundaries, Membership & Belonging program is about how we define “us” and “them” in contemporary societies. Collective identities — a sense of forming a “we” — are important because they make collective action possible. But the way people define who’s in and who’s out of the “we” can be unfair and exclusionary.

We want to explore whether these collective identities can be redefined to be more inclusive, yet still be strong enough to enable collective action, solidarity and a generous welfare state. I would say that’s a timeless issue.

CIFAR: On a global level, we’ve seen a rise in protectionism and anti-immigrant sentiment over the last few years. It seems the questions that you’re examining may be just as timely as they are timeless.

Kymlicka: That’s true. On the one hand, Canada, for example, is much more inclusive today than it was 70 years ago. So we’ve made progress. On the other, we’re seeing a backlash against some of the gains in terms of inclusion that have been made since the Second World War, and in certain countries there have been real reversals or retreats. People have started to ask whether the idea of an inclusive collective identity is actually a mirage, and whether we can either have diversity or solidarity but not both.

Both Irene [co-director, Irene Bloemraad] and I want to acknowledge those genuine fears and anxieties, but at the bottom of our hearts we’re both optimistic. We’re hoping that we can indeed construct collective identities that are inclusive, as well as genuinely effective.

CIFAR: The backlash you speak of is real — but perplexing too, since we’re also seeing a renewed vigor in the fight for inclusion. It’s almost as if, when it comes to universal rights, we’re getting both closer and farther away!

Kymlicka: Part of the puzzle — in my view — is that the fight for inclusion, which remains very powerful, is seen as competing with the defense of nationhood, which also remains very powerful. So it’s kind of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. In my own work, I want to see if we can rethink this conflict so that diversity and nationhood work together rather than at odds. 

We could call this a kind of multicultural nationalism: I think that national identities matter, but they should explicitly acknowledge diversity. However, many of the defenders of multiculturalism think of themselves as post-nationalists. They think that we’ll all be better off when we leave national identities behind and move into a more global, cosmopolitan world.

My worry is that this way of thinking does not lead to solidarity. If you are poor and disadvantaged, you want to know that the better-off in your society care enough about you to make sacrifices to protect you. And if the well-off say, “I no longer have a sense of national identity, I just think of myself as a citizen of the world,” then it starts to look like the advantaged have disavowed any sense of mutual obligation towards the poor in their society.

To me, this is important. We need to acknowledge and respect diversity. But we also need to continue to care about each other and make sacrifices for each other. And the nation is the main collectivity through which the advantaged make sacrifices for the disadvantaged -- through the welfare state, which has been the main instrument for that kind of protection in the 20th century.

"We need to acknowledge and respect diversity. But we also need to continue to care about each other and make sacrifices for each other."

CIFAR: As a noted political philosopher, you’ve already been very influential outside academia. With this program, the potential that you and your colleagues have to affect public policy appears poised to continue.

Kymlicka: We’ve deliberately got a mix of disciplines in the group, in part so that we can speak to public policy issues. We’ve got law professors as well as political scientists; sociologists as well as social psychologists, many of whom have experience working with practitioners and policy-makers.

I’ve been involved with the Successful Societies program for over a dozen years and this is one of the things I love about CIFAR. Without CIFAR I would never meet, let alone co-author with, social psychologists. That just doesn’t happen naturally. Philosophy has natural links to law and politics, but it takes an extra step to reach out to certain disciplines that aren’t in your natural constellation, and this is what CIFAR is all about.

CIFAR: You said earlier that you were optimistic about a future in which people are invested with a sense of belonging. What gives you that hope?

Kymlicka: A lot of my colleagues believe that while the period from 1945 to 1980 was an era of progress, since 1980, society has become harsher and more unequal in terms of income and wealth. It’s become more polarized, more angry. In this view, the moment for any significant progress has now passed.

I want to resist that narrative. I think that what happened in the post-war period was transformative. We went through a “rights revolution” that has reshaped our social, civil, political and cultural order. Nothing is irreversible, but I think those changes are now deeply embedded, particularly among the younger generations, and they provide a basis for future progress.

This interview has been condensed and edited.