We're All Living in Amerika: A Short Essay
In this essay, I will offer a critique of Kymlicka's approach to minority rights, as this overly liberal approach offers an insufficiently serious consideration of national minorities. Although several thousand languages are spoken worldwide, half the globe speaks only twenty-three so-called "super tongues" (Griffiths 2021). While it is challenging to strike upon a scholarly definition of a minority language, this can be functionally defined as any language whose speakers are numerically fewer than the majority within a defined geographic area. Billions of people are in danger of losing their mother tongue, not learning it in school, and being forced to use another language to obtain government services. Such languages become only a cultural oddity, spoken at home with grandparents rather than used as a function of daily life. As languages are suppressed, either intentionally by government policy or unintentionally through cultural hegemony and tourism, so too are cultural differences suppressed. Language is core to ethnic identity, with distinct ethnic groups often defined along language lines rather than religious or other factors. This is the issue at the heart of the struggle for language rights occurring around the world. My analysis uses the francophone province of Québec as an example of a linguistic minority that must contend with significant anglophone influence, and Quebecers experience this influence as oppressive. The need to protect this language in this situation is seen as accounting for imbalances of cultural power that numerically smaller groups (i.e. national minorities) must contend with. Central to my analysis is the view that preserving language is a matter of profound importance to protecting identity and human dignity.
Kymlicka is generally in tune with the plight of minority societal cultures. His liberal approach toward minority rights involves arguing for group-differentiated rights to promote multiculturalism. Liberal democratic states should accommodate their minorities' linguistic rights, which applies to groups that form societal cultures, from national groups to immigrants. Regarding immigration, Kymlicka argues that native citizens are enriched as they integrate individuals from foreign cultures (Kymlicka 2003). The underlying moral claim here is that differences between human beings are morally valuable (Roberts 2012). For the sake of diversity, it behooves liberal democratic states not to require complete assimilation of immigrants. Kymlicka's claim amounts to an idea analogous to 'meeting minorities halfway.' Since they came here willingly, immigrants are still expected to assimilate (Kymlicka 2003).
What distinguishes immigrants from national cultures is that they were there from 'the start' of the countries' inception in case of nations within nations. In these cases, Kymlicka explains that they are entitled to special rights to safeguard the existing culture. Kymlicka acknowledges that societal cultures require state backing and legal power to counteract their possible assimilation in the face of a larger, imposing demographic. He states that 'people's self‐respect is bound up with the esteem in which their national group is held' (Kymlicka 2003).
But Kymlicka's theory does not adequately address how linguistic majorities exercise a homogenizing force on linguistic minorities. More specifically, his theory does not go far enough to safeguard the dignity of minorities. He alludes to it in terms of 'the dominant culture and its integrative power,' though his thoughts on the relationship between power and culture are never fully elucidated (Kymlicka 2003). One of the main ways in which minorities are oppressed is through their experience of cultural imperialism. Nearly all, if not all, groups said by contemporary social movements to be oppressed suffer cultural imperialism. Cultural imperialism, Young defines, is "the universalization of a dominant group's experience and culture, and its establishment as the norm" (Young, 1990). For many minority groups worldwide, this speaks to the linguistic reality of living alongside a dominant socio-economic groups.(1) The unifying factor amongst minority groups in these settings is their shared struggle as a minority societal culture within a larger demographic which threatens to integrate them. This influence transcends borders and is synchronous with socio-economic power.
The example of Québec is particularly telling, where the homogenizing influence of the English language is felt so intensely that special laws have been enacted and enforced to preserve the use of French in the public sphere. The preservation of the French language has been an issue of linguistic survival amid a dominant anglophone culture, not simply a matter of coexistence, as some might suggest. The use of French in the public sphere is a deeply contentious issue. Native French speakers are often compelled into the undignified process of having to speak English to be understood in multiple settings. The majority of government positions in French-speaking citiesrequire candidates to be bilingual, while this expectation rarely prevails in the anglophone provinces. Québec is also subject to significant American cultural influence from the media and entertainment industry, flooding the market with anglophone products. While the province of Québec remains a good illustration of this dynamic, it is essential to recall that it is not an isolated case. With the spread of English on a global scale, it is evident that cultures around the world must contend with this de facto lingua franca –sometimes at the expense of their language.
I contend that Kymlicka does not account sufficiently for this linguistic oppression. If minorities are truly oppressed based on their language to an extent not provided for in Kymlicka's theory, we must investigate what type of protection would benefit them. While Kymlicka respects a culture's freedom of self-determination, I consider that the appropriate way of preserving cultures is within independent states. I claim this based on the assumption that a nation will strive to preserve the integrity of its language and culture far more efficiently than being a part of a larger state. Kymlicka's theory provides generously for the self-government rights of minorities. In contrast, I believe that where Kymlicka would accept a group's desire for separation and self-determination, he should strive to encourage separatism for the sake of cultural preservation actively.
While I criticize Kymlicka for oversight on matters of cultural hegemony, he lays an effective foundation for minority rights in liberal democratic societies. His approach appears sincere and goes in the right direction concerning group-differentiated rights. However, considering that minorities feel a more significant pressure to assimilate than Kymlicka appears to account for, there are potential solutions that, while disrupting the status quo, could more effectively protect linguistic minorities. I contend that Kymlicka could further protect the rights of linguistic minorities by actively encouraging minority societal cultures to separate into independent states.
(1) For example, the Flemish and French-speaking in Belgium; Catalan and Spanish in Spain; French-speaking Québécois and Anglophones in Canada.
Philosophy student at KU Leuven
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