The issue of the Multiculturalism

  An approximation to the language immersion in Catalonia as a multiculturalist contention



Will Kimlicka, Canadian political philosopher specialist in liberalism, multiculturalism and minority rights, asserts in his book Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction that the traditional model of “citizenship-as-rights” has been challenged lately from two directions:

The first challenge, discussed in the chapter seven of his book, explains the need to intensify the debate on the focus in the relation between the rights and the civic virtues, and the promotion of the active political participation of the population. The second challenge, examined in the next chapter, tries to explain how we could step up the common rights of the citizenship, especially in cases where the political and cultural pluralism is strong, and often problematic. About these questions, debated in this chapter called “Multiculturalism”, is what I am going to discuss about. Trying to expose it in an abridged version especially in terms of “rights of the national minorities”, discuss about it and try to explain these questions applied in a linguistic contention in Catalonia, north-east Spain.

Kimlicka’s definition of the term

As Kimlicka states, this movement of study, this “second challenge” is also called “politics of difference”, “identity politics”, “politics of recognition” or simply “multiculturalism”. The common idea, is basically that they are not about economic or power interests, they are about “identity”, and therefore they are forms of “identity politics”.

In the traditional model of “citizenship-as-rights”, Kimlicka says, the target was to promote a certain sort of common national identity amongst citizens. T.H. Marshall once said that “citizenship is not just a certain legal status […] it’s also an identity, an expression of one’s membership in a political community”(pag.328) . Inside this sentence, inside the word identity, it’s included the need of certain social rights in order to help integrate the possible excluded group in this called common national culture. This certain social rights are good, both from the point of view of the excluded group but also for the state.

This vision of integrate lower classes in the common national culture has been seen in early 20th century, trying to integrate the working class into the “national culture”, previously with access only for the well off citizens. This was not only for altruistic reasons. As Marshall notices, there were fears that if the working class didn’t identify with the loyalist feeling to British civilization, might be tempted to support foreign ideas, as communism and Bolshevism. Therefore, we can see that for the state it’s easier to govern a society when its citizens share a common national language, culture and identity. All the functions of the state work better if there is a certain commonality unity amongst citizens.

As Kimlicka argues, “the right of education is not a right to education in any language the children or parent choose, but rather to education in the national language, since the goal is not just to meet some abstract need for rationality, literacy or knowledge, but also to educate people in a way that will help integrate them into the national culture”. We will discuss this sentence later, in the case of the linguistic contention in Catalonia.

To sum up, with the social rights the citizens gain benefits, trough common public institutions in a common national language, creating and reinforcing a common national identity as a goal.

However, with the time and perspective, we have seen (and we are seeing it nowadays) that many groups still feel marginalized (or stigmatized) despite possessing the common rights of citizenship. They demand “differentiated citizenship”, as Iris Marion Young defines it. The reason is simple; they can’t accommodate their needs in a “standard citizenship” based in the “standard human” -white, male, able-bodied and heterosexual. This stigmatized groups (sometimes out of the standard definition) want to go further and the recognition of rights for their group; they demand a differentiated citizenship.

Supported by, for example, the “national minorities” like the Québécois, Catalans or Flemish, this idea of differentiation clashes with the idea of a single and monolithic common national culture, defended by the larger state. They consider themselves different nations, hence fighting for the survival of their own culture, self-government institutions and the operation of this in their own national language.

Other groups accept the idea of national integration, but seek different forms of treatment, for example the gay people, a clear example of stigmatization.

These groups that claimed differentiated citizenship are heterogeneous, often with the same contrasts as the larger society and internal differences that makes the problem more difficult.

Kimlicka explains that, to oversimplify, in every Western democracy there are two powerful hierarchies: an economic hierarchy (one’s position is determined by one’s relationship to the market or to means of production) that can be tackled with the politics of redistribution, and the Status hierarchy (the closer you are into the standard spots of the “normal or correct” human, the upper step in the status hierarchy you are) also shaped by discriminatory laws. Precisely, the fights against these discriminatory facts (laws or lack of them) generate the “politics of recognition”.

But, in the real world, politics of redistribution and politics of recognition are usually mixed. Although they have strong relation, the status hierarchy is not reducible to the economic hierarchy. For the national minorities, for example, Klimckta states that “they enjoy the same standard of living as the majority and in some cases actually a higher than average income, yet their language and culture is seen as inferior to that of the majority” (ref. pagina 333). Hence, the economic equality has not eliminated the status inequality, therefore they demand and mobilize for a politics of recognition.

Even so, there are people who reject the idea of group-differentiated citizenship as a contradiction in terms. They say that the real democracy promotes that people should be equal under the law. What are the moral arguments for or against such group-differentiated rights? To answer these questions, Klimcka tries to separate out the different groups involved. I will try to focus on the rights of the ethno-cultural groups as national minorities, although they often are the same with other marginalized groups.

These ethno-cultural groups have two characteristics in common: 1) They go beyond the individual citizenship rights of the liberal democracies, and 2) They are adopted to recognize the distinctive identities of the groups. Klimcka use the word “multiculturalism” as the set of claims, or simply “minority rights”.

To understand why nowadays these claims are in the forefront of the political theory, we have to take a look after the fall of the communism. This deep change caused a revival of the conception of the ethnicity and nationalism (sometimes aside the refusal of the immigration) and the growth of the nationalisms inside old Western democracies (Quebec in Canada, Scotland in Britain, Catalonia in Spain..). Hence, it’s obvious that the problem of the minorities in Western democracies it’s far to be solved, and that’s why is increasing, as Klimcka points out, the debate of these kind of rights inside the political philosophers. Klimcka defines three stages in the debate.

First stage: Multiculturalism as communitarianism

Dated before the 1989, with analogies for practical reasons, the debate over multiculturalism was equivalent in the debate between liberals and communitarians (let’s say between individualists and collectivists).

On one hand, liberals insist that individuals should be free to decide on their own, arguing that individual is morally prior to the community: The community matters only because it contributes to the well-being of the individuals who compose it. Are the individuals who decide to eliminate or maintain the cultural practices of the community?

On the other hand, communitarians say that individuals are “embedded” in a particular social roles and relationships. They inherit a way of life which defines their good for them. “Rather than viewing group practices as the product of individual choices, communitarians view individuals as the product of social practices”. (pag. 337)

In this first stage, it was the assumption that one’s position on multiculturalism was dependent on one’s position on the debate announced above. Liberal means opposition to multiculturalism and conversely, communitarian means uphold multiculturalism, a way of protecting communities from the effects of individual autonomy. Specially in terms of ethno-cultural minorities, with a “communal way of life still not under the liberal individualism”.


Second Stage: Multiculturalism within a liberal framework

In the second stage, the debate got deeper, out of the binomial “liberalism or communitarianism”. Despite some ethno-cultural groups clearly communitarian (isolationist ethno-religious groups like the Amish), most ethno-cultural groups in Western democracies, like national minorities, want to be included and equal in these called “modern liberal societies”. Creating a distinct society, but in a modern and liberal way, sometimes more liberal than the larger state.

Thus, the debate turned inside the liberalism, amongst the meaning of liberalism and what is the scope for this new vision of the multiculturalism, now within a liberal theory. We can see that there are groups who endorse the basic liberal consensus in terms of democracy, but they disagree (sometimes drastically) in the interpretation of multi-ethnic societies, specially about language, nationality and identities. The main issue now is inside the groups who, despite of sharing the same vision in the liberal theory, still demand minority rights. Why aren’t they satisfied?

Kimlicka echoes the explanation of Joseph Raz, who claims that multiculturalism (acces to the individuals to their culture) helps to ensure the cultural flourishing and mutual respect in a “cultural membership”, that at the same time enforces the national identity in a modern freedom-seeking citizens. This vision, where this cultural interests sometimes need special rights for minorities in the name of the liberal principles of freedom and equality, is defined as “liberal culturalist” position according to Kimlicka.

Some say that people can choose to form a strong link with a particular language or culture, but that is their choice, not a need. We can answer it justifying that language and culture where people are raised in are not chosen circumstances, not voluntarily. And, moreover, abandon one’s culture for another it’s especially easier for minorities than for the larger society, that lives well off in their own.

For the liberal defenders of multiculturalism, is crucial to distinguish the bad minority rights, that involve restricting individual rights from the “good” minority rights, that supplement individual rights. The first, called internal restrictions, involves the right of a group against its own members (protecting against internal dissent). The second, external protections, involve the group against the larger society (protecting against external pressures).

Although there some controversial points between the application of these rights (both are collective rights so both could be found mixed), it’s clear that, as Klimcka affirms, “granting special representation rights, land claims, language rights to a minority often doesn’t put it in a position to dominate other groups. On the contrary, such rights can be seen as putting the various groups on a more equal footing, by reducing the extent to which the smaller group is vulnerable to the larger”. (pag. 341)

We can argue that minority rights are consistent with liberal culturalism if 1) they protect the freedom of individuals of the group and 2) they promote relation of equality (non-dominance) between groups. (Kymlicka 199a: ch.3).

That is what we can observe in the majority of the ethno-cultural groups that seek their rights. In national minorities, the self-government right devolve powers to smaller political units, so that minority cannot be outbid by the majority on decisions of particular importance to their culture (language, education, immigration)… as we saw external protections that helps the minority, and very rarely transformed in internal restrictions. But this second stage also has flaws, and Kimlicka points out it misinterprets the nature of the liberal state, and the demands it places on minorities, giving way to the third stage of the debate.

The third stage: Multiculturalism as a response to nation-building

Kimlicka explains that there is the assumption in the liberal state not to intrude in the multicultural facts, in the name of the “benign neglect”, since is indifferent to the ethnocultural identities of its citizens. In this liberal way, liberal states treat culture in the same way, as Kimlicka points out, as the religion -people is free to choose in their private life, so is not the concern of the state. Therefore, in this vision of liberal neutrality, there cannot be official cultures or the promotion of a particular language or religion in the name of efficiency and the social harmony.

This vision of “benign neglect”, in such case, is defended also for the ethno-cultural diversity. But it has the opposition of minorities and liberal culturalists. They try to show that, departing from the benign neglect, the minority rights supplement, rather than diminish individual freedom and equality. And also, the false assumption that the states are indifferent to ethno-cultural identities. In this liberal-nationalist strategy the state protects and promotes always the majority language, culture and traditions (due to the power of the majority in the state institutions) in the name of the integration in the “societal culture”, with a common membership to enforce.

This liberal-nationalist has awaked resistance inside the state. It’s clear that the institutions that promote this nation-building cannot only promote one societal culture. So the question falls on the role of the nation-building: does it create injustices for minorities? Can we help these minority rights against these injustices? In this part, Kimlicka open a new front, trying to explain this new model in the five models of culturalism that he announces. I will explain basically the model of the national minorities.

Five models of multiculturalism

We’ve seen that in the process of nation-building the majority culture is the one that gains privileges, marginalizing the minorities. How can they face this problem? Kimlicka distinguishes four options. 1)Emigrate in mass, especially if they have a friendly state near them (like Jews from Russia to Israel); 2) Accept the integration in the majority culture, but seeking better terms of integration; 3) Try to defend the rights on self-government to maintain their own societal culture (some national minorities); and 4) Accept the permanent marginalization (like the Amish culture).

National minorities

In this case, (main case I will speak about) we talk about groups as “societies in an historic homeland prior to being incorporated into a larger state”. (pag. 349). Kimlicka divides this group in “substate nations” and “indigenous peoples”. The first ones are nations without a currently state, but in almost all the cases or they have had an state or they seek one. Maybe they’ve been conquered or annexed by the larger state in the past, or they were united with another kingdom (or because a voluntary agreement) and often in terms of weakness by the current minority.

In the case of indigenous peoples, they are groups with traditional lands that have been overrun by settlers, and forced to integrate in the larger state as foreigners; that’s why they seek to maintain traditional ways of life and nevertheless participating (in their own way) in the modern world. They seek recognition of the larger state and respect for all the suffering of the past.

These forms of resistance this nation-building from the state by national minorities are showed in, for example, the claim for a own self-government institutions, operating in their own language and live in their own culture (schools, media, political institutions..) even claiming for the self-determination right to exercise the secession, using the language of the “nation-hood”.

As we can see in this upper definition, the national minorities just wanted to be granted the tools to live in their own societal culture, hence they need the same tools that the majority uses to promote this nation-building. So, now the question is how should liberal democracies respond to such minority nationalism?

These democracies have tried to suppress minority nationalism. Banning language minority languages in the schools, marginalizing traditional customs, persecuting publications and illegalizing political associations of this substate nations. They thought they had to disempower national minorities. Otherwise, this nations could be disloyal or secessionist.

Over the years this attitude has changed. It was mistaken. It simply didn’t work. As Kimlicka affirms, the character of a national identity can change quickly (customs, stories, collective imaginarium) but the identity itself is much more stable. The application of self-government arrangements diminish the options of violent conflict, while the opposite arise the level of conflict. Therefore the best way to ensure this valued loyalty has been to accept, and not attack, this distinct nationality.

The other four models of multiculturalism are models I won’t explain because they are not relevant to the field I want to put the focus on. These models are the immigrant groups, the isolationist ethno-religious groups, the metics (long-term residents who are nonetheless excluded from the polis, as Michael Walzer defines) and the group of African-Americans.

In this third stage, hence, Kimlicka asks to solve the question about how each group’s claims can be seen as specifying the injustices which majority nation-building has imposed on them, and identifying the conditions under which majority nation-building would cease to be unjust. Minorities don’t say that nation-building programmes are inherently impermissible, but they should be under limitations. A majority nation-building in a liberal democracy is legitimate under the following conditions:

  1. No groups of long-term residents are permanently excluded from membership in the nation. They must be able to gain citizenship, and become an equal member of the nation.
  2. The socio-cultural integration which is required for membership should be understood in a thin sense, a pluralist and tolerant one. Trying to accommodate the identity and practices of ethno-cultural minorities.
  3. National minorities are allowed to engage in their own nation-building, to enable them to maintain themselves as distinct societal cultures.

We need new patterns of ethnic relations, in this complex dialectic of state nation-building (state demanding on minorities) and minority rights (minority demands on the state).

These demands are legitimate; really do serve to protect them from real or potencial injustices. What gives the state the right to insist on common national languages, education systems, imposing such things on minorities?

A new front in the multiculturalism wars?

Kimlcika, in this part, puts the accent in the justice of minority claims. Liberal opposition to multiculturalism insists in the “colour-blindness” of the state, but the facts show us that this enforces the mainstream institutions and the larger society in front of the minorities.

Multiculturalism is not giving privileges or discrimination to the majority, but a compensation for unfair disadvantages. In this case, the opposition puts the focus no longer in the justice, but in social unity, a unity which sustains a healthy society. Even though, this is not correct. As we have seen, social unity is enforced when the state helps the integration and the recognition of minorities, instead of trying to deny this rights.

In the claim of national minorities, where there is a distinct national identity, the larger state should recognize the self-government, fact that promotes the political stability. “The political implications of multiculturalism depend in part on whether the people invoking multiculturalism accept the liberal premises about the revisability and plurality of our ends (liberal form which seeks to challenge status inequalities while preserving individual freedom). If not, it’s a conservative form of multiculturalism that seeks to replace liberal principles with a communitarian politics of the common good. But in this respect, multiculturalism bears the same political ambiguities as the nationalism.” (pag. 369)

To finish the chapter, Kimlicka states that there are two dynamics related: liberal forms of nation-building tend to generate liberal forms of multiculturalist responses, while conservative forms of nation-building generate conservative forms of multiculturalist responses.

Once we have seen the theory, causes and consequences of the different points of view of the multiculturalism of Will Kimlicka, let’s see a special case about the controversial case of the linguistic immersion. A fight of a sub-state nation for the minority rights against the larger state, who defends not to permit it in the name of the freedom.


What does language immersion mean?                                                                   

Language immersion is a method of teaching language, usually a second or a minority language. This also called target language, in order to be known by the students, is used for instruction in the majority of the class subjects. The goal is to achieve a bilingual education, where the students, when they finish the study, they should have the same level in both languages, in order to have equal opportunities in the society.

Every society needs to share a common language, as we have seen in the precedent lines. This common language is also one of the tools to unify and to give a common identity, trying to build a same-level-society when it comes to social opportunities, where its members of this society can interact and cooperate with each other using the same language.

In the Catalan case, the main language used in the program of the language immersion is the own language of Catalonia, the Catalan language. Despite it’s not a threaten language in its entirety (more than eleven million speakers and in some parts very good health) it is a minority language endangered by lack of a state to protect it, or enough institutions to defend it from other stronger languages.


Since hundreds of years ago, the Catalan language is divided within three states, and usually this territories where the Catalan is present call themselves Països Catalans, “Catalan countries” (map). The biggest part of the Catalan-speakers are in Spain, in Catalonia, but also in the País Valencià (south east Spain), in Aragón (called Franja de Ponent) and in the Balearic Islands. Also in Andorra, in a small southern part of France called Catalunya Nord and in a small city in the italian island of Sardegna (L’Alguer).

The problem of the language is that, exept the small country of Andorra, any of these states have the Catalan as a first language, or even as an official language. These states, as we have seen in the Kimlicka’s chapter, defend the interests of the larger societies, and the Catalan is seen as a second language, seen as less important than Spanish,  French or Italian. Even usually these states have seen Catalan as a politic enemy, in terms of impede the “national unity and identity” of this big states. It’s normal to find so many laws against the Catalan language in the history (prohibition, banning and persecution, illegalizing the education in this language, associations to promote it etc.). Practically disappeared in Sardegna, suffering in south France and very threaten in the rest of the territories except in Catalonia. Let’s see the reasons.

In 1975, Dictator Franco died. The fascist regime of Franco, during forty years tried to unify Spain under a fascist national Spanish identity, supressing national minorities as the Galician people, the Basques and the Catalans. Catalan had seen as a politic enemy and during this dictatorship was severally damaged.

In 1983, eight years after Franco’s death and with the Spanish state into a transition to the Democracy, the regional authorities agreed that in the Catalan school system children wouldn’t be segregated on account of their parents’ language. So they had the idea to follow effective teaching system in Quebec, Canada, where all the children is schooled in one common language without regard of what they speak at home.

When the pupils start the school, they are schooled in Catalan. When they are between 5 and 8 years, Spanish language is slowly introduced, as well as the English language. Once we have these languages in the teaching system, Catalan is the vehicular language in most of the courses, in order to acquire an equivalent knowledge of  Catalan and Spanish languages at the end of the students’ schooling.

This need to equalize this languages is because there are a lot of children with a Spanish mother-tongue, most of them with parents immigrants from all around Spain that came to Catalonia. Also, with the new wave of immigration this last years, in the Catalan schools there are children from all around the world, with several different mother tongues and with the need to be integrated in a same common language in order to have the same social opportunities as other citizen of Catalonia.

This system, after all this time, has very good results, not only in terms of grade of knowledge of the languages, but in terms of integration of non-Catalan-speaking families: involving them in this education of strong integration, it contributes to generate among immigrant people a feeling of help and reception by this new society, where they are called to participate in it as “normal citizen” do.

But since the creation of this system where the Catalan is the “common language of the Catalan society”, the Spanish nationalism is trying to hinder the normalization of the Catalan language. Especially from the main party who commands the Government of Spain nowadays, which does not agree about this education system.

The right nationalist party of Spain, Partido Popular, tries to undermine the language immersion in the name of the right of the parents to choose the language in which their children should be educated. They propose Catalan or Spanish, trying that the non-Catalan speakers choose Spanish, avoiding so the Catalan.

 Who has the reason? Motifs and arguments of both sides.                                                  

The contention in this case of language immersion is, as we can see, politic. So there are reasons beyond the rational facts, historical and strategic grounds to consider.

For Spanish nationalist speech, language immersion is a nation-building tool too much powerful for a “region” that they say it shouldn’t be so self-governed. They don’t want to ban the language, but the Spanish nationalism knows that Catalan identity is threat inside Spain, and the Catalan is the main icon. If they can reduce the language just into the folklore and the private life (as Franco and the previous governors tried), they would have the control of the Catalan policy in some decades.

They put as a starting point to discuss this case with the Freedom as a flag. In this view, the parents should have the power to choose the language. Spanish or Catalan in an equal terms. It seems, hence, a very good point to start, or a rational speech to defend. If we consider the freedom of the individual a basic right, the right to choose the language of your children should be fair.

We can defend also, as the Catalan-language defenders do, that live the life in the language of your territory is a non-rebuttable individual right. Every citizen should be free and able to use the language of their territory in their territory in all the levels of the daily life. But to fulfil this premise, all the citizens of this territory should know the language of the place where they are, in order to be able to speak with the speakers of the language of this territory. The education in Catalan for all the citizens makes it possible, so this national minority can live in their own language inside their frontiers.

But if we accept the Spanish nationalist premise that defends the right to choose the language, we accept as well that there will be few citizens without enough knowledge of the language where they are, because they have tried not to study the language of the immersion program, so they won’t be able to speak in the language of the territory, in this case the Catalan. We can say, therefore, that this right of choosing languages attacks the right to speak the one’s own language in one’s land, and it contributes to segregate citizens in the moment where there are citizens who know the language of the territory and citizens who don’t, eroding the society.

Spanish nationalists answer this question with identity reasons. The common language of Spain is the Spanish (and by law the single one official), and, as Catalonia is Spain, also the main language of Catalonia is the Spanish, at least. As is said before, the Catalan is relegated in a folkloric and private ambit.

Basically, this fight is not about the language. It is a fight about what does it mean Catalonia, and the role the nation-building tools that Catalonia controls. As we have seen before, every larger state tends to defend one of the languages, in order to build one common society in a common rules. But what if we find national minorities? Catalonia is a national minority and in due to the Spanish nationalist attacks its separatist movement is growing day after day. The Spanish attempts have been to integrate Catalans into the larger Spanish society, the single ones that Spanish establishment says that exists. Catalonia cannot develop its  “own society”, because from the Spanish nationalist point of view, Catalonia is not a nation, it’s just a region as other.

Suggestions to solve the problem                                                                                  

The problem is that for every side there are different problems to solve. In the Spanish nationalist side, the problem is how they can stop the development of a society that works out of the “Spanish social reality”. A society, the Catalan one, that is building, after the prohibition for so many years, their own society. In the Catalan side, the language is not a problem. The problem is how the Catalan national minority can achieve more power in order to be protected from the Spanish nationalism attacks, even asking for the self-determination right, as other nations do (Scotland, Quebec…)

Kimlicka proves that there is only one way to solve the integration of the national minorities into the larger societies: accepting and respecting their own standards of living, even defending it by the larger state. Dialogue, listen each other and talk in terms of equal. If the State and the larger society cannot accept and respect national differences into their own frontiers, there will be a long problem, and it is what’s happening in Spain. J.K.Rowling said that “understanding is the first step to acceptance, and only with acceptance can there be recovery.”

The solution of this issue  is not a magic chimera. It is needed, and it is worth it.

Joan Ferran Sala

Contemporary Political Philosophy: Equality

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I would like to aknowledge the Professor Kostas Koukouzelis

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