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Multiculturalism without Culture. Anne Phillips. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. - Justice, Gender, and the Politics of Multiculturalism. Sarah Song. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 March 2020

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Book Reviews
Copyright © 2009 by Hypatia, Inc.

Two recent works of democratic theory have the potential to enrich contemporary theories of democracy, justice, gender, and multiculturalism. Both Sarah Song's Justice, Gender, and the Politics of Multiculturalism and Anne Phillips's Multiculturalism without Culture invite us to rethink culture through a democratic lens. Both works engage with and join conventional analytic approaches to multiculturalism and thus are well connected to and engaged with the rich literature on multiculturalism in Anglo–American political thought. Significantly for their potential impact on contemporary theory, both of these works are feminist, not only because they take up questions of gender justice, but also in their critical attention to those pernicious exercises of power that can be rendered invisible under the sorcerer's cloak of “culture.” Both works exhibit a criticism of such power as it is exercised in political life and concealed in the scholarship on multiculturalism. Both rely on a notion of rights to guide political decision-making in order to protect against the abuse of this power.

Because of their critical feminism (see Reference DietzDietz 2003), these works are truly groundbreaking in their reconsiderations of culture. When we understand culture as constructed or as itself only a placeholder for a constellation of forces, what does it mean to accommodate “culture”? Can we assess the exercises of power that are “culture” to determine whether the power that others would conceal and reify within “culture” is politically legitimate or a source of injustice?

However, plausibly the most lasting impact of these two books will be in the discussions that they could spark about how contemporary theories of justice and democracy can be transformed by feminist criticism. In view of their many similarities, the very different answers offered by these two authors might get lost. Feminist readers of these texts will find their own reflections on this question provoked as much by Song and Phillips's differences as by their similarities.

Song reworks multicultural accommodation by putting a politically constructed understanding of culture at its core. She joins and furthers the work of Narayan, Benhabib, and Weeden, among others, on the dynamics of cultural construction, focusing most explicitly on the dynamics between majority and minority cultures. In example after example and with extensive attention to three issues in the United States in particular—the cultural defense (chapter 4), tribal sovereignty and membership (chapter 5), and polygamy (chapter 6)—Song enlarges the scope of considerations beyond those considered in the legal framings of the cases she considers. Interestingly, the thrust of Song's project is directed at what attention to the dynamics of culture reveals about the majority culture and the power dynamics between majority and minority cultures.

And we learn interesting things! For example, in chapter 4, she takes up what scholars refer to as the “cultural defense.”“Although no jurisdiction has formally recognized culture as a defense, it has been raised in many areas of American law in both civil and criminal cases” by individuals asking judges and juries to consider cultural tradition as reasonable bases for determining (for example) custody of children or the state of mind of a defendant. Song shows that the cultural defense does not offer an exceptional defense to minority groups but rather reinforces the majority culture's norms of patriarchy that feminists have been working to erode (compare Phillips, chapter 3). As Song describes it, the cultural defense is in practice a gendered double standard that is (in tenor) apologetic for men's violence against their partners and critical of women's violence against their partners. In chapter 5 she shows that the contemporary gender biases in the Santa Clara Pueblo membership norms were not features of Pueblo culture, but rather a product of the “politics of tradition formation” (Song, quoting Reference NarayanNarayan 1997, 61). Song joins Reference NarayanNarayan (1997), Reference DeveauxDeveaux (2000), Reference KukathasKukathas (2003), Reference BenhabibBenhabib (2002), Phillips, and others in revealing the cross-cultural politics of defining culture and cultural boundaries. These politics can be oppressive and exclusionary of all or just some members of minority groups and distract our attention from inequalities and injustices in the majority culture.

The third example to which she gives extensive treatment is polygamy (chapter 6). The import of this rich discussion is twofold. In addition to seeing the complexity of the context of women in a polygamous community, we see that the legal injunction against and prosecution of polygamy distracts and detracts from the dominant culture's own discussion of gender equality. This latter point exhibits a nuance of the constructive account of cultural dynamics, adding the observation that actors in a dominant culture can use characterizations of a minority culture to their own ends. Twentieth- and twenty-first-century conflicts give us traumatic and deadly examples of this, and Song's critical-historical reading of the polygamy battles will enable students both to distance themselves from, and to approach anew, contemporary contexts of multicultural debates that require humility on the part of those otherwise confident that justice is on their side. While framed in the context of internal U.S. politics and constitutional law, Song's feminist analysis of gender, culture, and the politics of multiculturalism has political and theoretical implications for our study of cross-cultural engagement globally. With close analysis of legal and political contexts, Song makes visible the role of majority cultures in constructing multicultural dilemmas of justice.

Phillips focuses on context differently by attending to what we learn about power by studying how the dynamics within the minority cultural groups in the context of accommodation in a case will affect people within the group. Phillips reworks multicultural accommodation after denuding culture itself as a causal force and revealing instead an understanding of culture as a convenient (and concealing) label for a constellation of social, political, and economic forces whose intersections yield behavior that becomes characterized as “incomprehensible.” Phillips's entire book is full of small “ah-ha” moments that punctuate an attempt to shift our thinking and an appreciation for how hard it is to understand individuals’ interests and needs in a given context even when we shift our thinking enough to inquire about them.

Phillips's book is a treasure, not just for what she argues, but more so for how she makes us think. But read the book and assign it not only for her insights about particular puzzles of gender justice, but more interestingly for the tools that she offers us for asking questions about gender justice in a world in which cultural authority is a fearsome political power. Even after you have forgotten her specific views on the headscarf affair in France, you will remember that she asked us to inform our view of the politics of the situation by considering the views of many, including the parents, girls who wanted to cover, and girls who did not want to cover, for which they experienced harassment in the form of “accusations of impiety” (176).

Obviously, such an approach to culture puts a lot of pressure on the conceptualization of freedom and agency. The chapter on exit and voice (chapter 5) integrates her deconstruction of culture and her analysis of freedom and agency (chapter 4). We can see the chain of conceptual dominos that fall when we work with an understanding of culture as an intersection of forces, not as a reified thing. Freedom is not discrete, it is not “all-or-nothing,” it has gradations. Constrained, people retain agency. I am not sure whether, in recognizing freedom as not discrete, Phillips means to push a treatment of freedom as metaphorically a process rather than an entitlement, but it certainly seems to follow. She is clear, however, that the conceptualization of rights on which she relies is metaphorically a process rather than an entitlement (as are culture, and, I would argue, freedom). In her own words, “The right to exit does not provide enough protection to people living in oppressive conditions, but it also does not offer enough of a solution to those with a strong normative commitment to their cultural or religious group. Voice matters as well as exit. “The right to leave has to be complemented by the right to stay” (157), where staying clearly means enjoying membership.

How can public policy around multicultural accommodation be designed if we conceive of culture, freedom, and rights as processes to be enjoyed rather than as entitlements to be secured? Phillips gives us a careful illustration. In her concluding chapter (which also serves to remind us of earlier examples), she shows that if the theorist relies on dialogue or deliberation (compare Song), she shirks some of her responsibility to work through what is plausibly the most difficult aspect of multicultural accommodation. In practice, “the dialogic approach has tended to encourage the sedimentation of cultural groups and communities, and the selection of specific spokespeople (generally male) who are then in a position to represent their own readings of their culture or community as if these were generally agreed on” (161; compare Reference NarayanNarayan 1997).

Phillips offers advice and caution for policy-makers, with lots of nuanced examples that provide a sketch of such a methodology. She encourages providing multiple modes of being heard that rely on privileging the rights of individuals over those of groups, of persons belonging to groups over groups themselves (164). For Phillips, by comparison with say, Kymlicka, who says nearly the same thing (Reference Kymlicka, Cohen, Howard and NussbaumKymlicka 1999), there are concrete implications of wanting to treat “people as agents, not as captives of their culture” (Phillips, 176). These include concrete suggestions like making sure officials question individuals with the privacy, anonymity, and support services necessary to enable them to give a rich account of their experience of justice or injustice, and attending to those obstacles to giving account that are constructed through the interaction of cultural pressures and government practices.

These are good suggestions, but we should also consider the agenda-setting power of how a question is posed. Both books’ discussions of the headscarf affair in France include characterizations of the deliberations informed by the opinions of girls who cover and girls who do not cover (among many others). The girls who do not cover report experiencing harassment (Song, 174; Phillips, 176). Song quotes Patrick Weil, a member of the 2003 independent commission in France on the subject, who characterizes the headscarf question as a problem because of “a France-wide strategy pursued by fundamentalist groups who use public schools as their battleground.” Both Song and Phillips see the merits of the French decision to ban headscarves in light of these considerations.

This leaves much to debate. Why privilege the right not to be harassed for some girls over the right to an expression of identity of others? Why is banning headscarves a good strategy for preventing public schools from being an ideological battleground? Where are the appropriate ideological battlegrounds? How is their agenda set? How can they be inherently democratic spaces when we understand culture, freedom, democracy, and justice in the ways that Song and Phillips provoke us to do?

These books are part of a collective feminist theory project that is developing the grounding concepts of justice and democracy. In this literature there are some who treat these as regulative ideals (Habermas and Song) and others who treat them as conceptual impossibilities (Mouffe and Phillips). Both require our diligent attention to the ways in which power functions to conceal its own exercise. But these approaches differ, and this difference is reason to read and teach these books together. Both Song and Phillips give rights an important role in the deliberations about how to adjudicate a particular gender- and culture-related question of justice. Both consider the concept of rights to mean their enjoyment, not merely their formal institutionalization. This looks different in the hands of each theorist. If the notion of rights used in the argument is a regulative ideal, then the attempt to adjudicate power differences stemming from cultural authority migrates from the interpretation of culture to the interpretation of rights (Song). Now, perhaps this is unproblematic. From a certain perspective, it seems that there is much more agreement about, and institutionalization for the protection of, rights than culture. But for many of the world's women, this is not their experience of the relative protections of their rights against those wielding cultural authority. Clearly, societies and theorists still debate what rights are universal and to what extent rights can be said to be secure when their enabling conditions are lacking. This makes a theory that relies on deliberative democratic practices supported by rights as a regulative ideal more an extension of contemporary democratic theory, than a challenge to it.

With constraints on time or limited weeks in a semester, one might be inclined to try to choose which of these books to read or assign. Their similarities feed this inclination. Each text has brilliant moments of lucidity that enable us to see and therefore study an important consideration for scholars of justice and democracy. Both books attend to power in contexts and for issues in which cultural accommodation will have implications for gender justice. Both consider multicultural accommodation an appropriate tool of democratization, equality, and justice. Each favors a bounded variation of accommodation, bounded by considerations of liberal freedoms, equality, and public purpose. Readers of works on multiculturalism will find comparisons with Reference Okin, Cohen, Howard and NussbaumSusan Okin (1999a, Reference Okin, Cohen, Howard and Nussbaumb, Reference Okin, Eisenberg and Spinner‐Halev2005), Reference BarryBrian Barry (2001), and Will Reference KymlickaKymlicka (1995) interesting, and their own efforts to approach the questions of justice posed by multicultural accommodation of illiberal practices further nuanced by the analytical aspects of Song's and Phillips's arguments. Readers who approach multiculturalism and feminism as opposed constructions will find Song's and Phillips's feminist multiculturalism an encouraging departure from the polarization of feminism and multiculturalism that was exacerbated by Susan Okin's and her critics’ characterization of “culture” over a decade ago (Reference Okin, Cohen, Howard and NussbaumSusan Okin 1999a, Reference Okin, Cohen, Howard and Nussbaumb). However, while both Song and Phillips use feminism to deconstruct culture, their books contribute very differently to contemporary political theory. The differences between them in their contribution to the field should be juxtaposed and debated.

The care with which both treat their subject gives us hope that this debate will be focused on issues of substance and interpretation. For feminists to enter this field with its history of vitriol, they must be fearless or be making an important intervention. These scholars are both. Quite different from each other, they both offer something provocative and compelling for democratic theorists and theorists of justice. I highly recommend reading them together, as they offer not just a modifying nuance to existing multicultural theories, but also a groundbreaking feminist challenge and reworking of existing theories whose implications for democratic theorizing are quite different.


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Multiculturalism without Culture. Anne Phillips. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. - Justice, Gender, and the Politics of Multiculturalism. Sarah Song. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
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Multiculturalism without Culture. Anne Phillips. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. - Justice, Gender, and the Politics of Multiculturalism. Sarah Song. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
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