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Relevance of Diversity in Liberalism Today


This text was previously posted, in late 2016, as one of the pages in the 'divlib' section of the website 'Arguments and Facts'. It was reformatted as the present article on 2018-01-03.

In this note I shall propose that Diversity in Liberalism (Mångfaldsliberalism, in Swedish) is a valuable concept today. Its value is not in advancing a new and surprising solution to current problems -- because it does not -- but its value is instead as a principled summary and a common-sense point of view with respect to the interface between society and politics in countries such as ours. It can be used in two ways, I think: to designate our own position in the encounter with undemocratic and extremist ideologies today, and as the starting point in a discussion of our own political system and of how it can and should develop to meet today's challenges.

When I write 'undemocratic and extremist ideologies' I have two kinds in mind. First, the extreme right, with its populism and its passion for simplistic solutions to difficult problems. And secondly, movements that combine religious orthodoxy with political aspirations, including political islamism but not restricted only to it. These two kinds are quite different in character, and people disagree in their opinions about which of them is the greater problem. Both will be considered here.

Diversity liberalism may serve as a concrete point of departure for addressing ideologies such as these. Here and elsewhere on this website, the term 'diversity in liberalism' or DiL will refer to the position that has been articulated in the seminal articles by Aleinikoff and Sabbagh which can be reached via the menu to the left. The term diversity liberalism will be considered as equivalent.

However, besides applying the position of those seminal articles to current situations and issues, this website will also contain concrete proposals for extensions and amendments of the DiL position. We shall therefore take the liberty of gradually extending the concept of multicultural nationalism with more content as we go ahead.

Here are two topics that are particularly significant at present, and where DiL and its seminal articles would be an appropriate starting-point for a discussion.

National values

This year there has been a vivid discussion in Sweden about the topic of 'Swedish values', and several other European countries have had discussions on their corresponding national topics. For natural reasons I shall only comment on the Swedish discussion, but I believe some my conclusions from it will be applicable elsewhere as well.

Simply put, our discussion has passed through the following stages:

-- Reports of situations where people have suggested that immigrants ought to adopt 'Swedish values', then were asked to be specific about what those values are, and failed to produce an intelligible answer.

-- Widely published debate articles where several political leaders proposed that it is important for our country to have a common agreement about its basic values, with examples of what ought to be included, and with appeals to discuss this matter. For example, Anna Kinberg Batra (the leader of the largest opposition party) made such an appeal on the national day, June 6.

-- Responses from a number of persons who objected to this idea, and sometimes ridiculed it. Their most common arguments were (1) that there is no such thing as Swedish values, since similar values are upheld in many other countries; (2) that there is no such thing as Swedish values, since values change over time; (3) that a discussion of this kind serves to create differences between 'us' and 'them', since it is impossible to define values that everyone will agree with.

After this the discussion has apparently tapered off, and I shall not delve on the obvious counter-arguments to the three kinds of objections. I mention this debate since the objections represent a cosmopolitan viewpoint, to my mind at least, and since it therefore illustrates how this viewpoint is still alive and well. The seminal papers for DiL take a stand against both cosmopolitanism and ethno-nationalism, but spend more ink on arguments against the former. This may seem passé today when hard-core nationalism is so obviously on the rise. My point is however that proponents of multicultural nationalism will have to advance arguments both against ethno-nationalism and against the view that the concept of nation is largely irrelevant. The view that a nation should not be supposed to have something like 'its own values' is a natural consequence of cosmopolitanism.

From the point of view of DiL, it is clear that what is discussed today as 'Swedish values', 'British values', 'French values' and so forth is indeed quite important. It ties in with clear positions both in Aleinikoff's article and in Sabbagh's article, for example. But the Swedish debate, as well as the debate in France about French values a few years ago, seem to indicate that we must analyze the issues involved in depth: What do we mean by a 'value' in this context? Can we characterize 'values' for example with respect to their absoluteness or negotiability? How do we understand the process where 'values' change, in an individual or in a population? Such issues have not been touched on in the debate in our media, but they must be addressed in order to understand our ideological identity as a country and as a nation.

The status of extremist organizations in a democratic society

The principles of political liberalism (which are often referred to as 'democracy') include rules of individual freedom, such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly. This immediately raises the question what shall happen when a person advocates and acts in support of an ideology that is antithetical to these very freedoms. Is it legitimate to restrict the freedom of expression for such persons, or for the organizations that they create?

The usual way of resolving this question is to declare certain types of utterances and actions as illegal, for example by designating them as 'hate speech'. The individual freedoms are then taken to apply as long as one does not violate any laws. This strategy of course begs the question as to when it is acceptable for a country to make a type of utterance illegal. This must be resolved in pragmatic ways, and different countries do it differently.

However, besides the borderline between the legal and the illegal, our society also maintains a more restrictive borderline between what is consistent with 'basic values' and what is not. This criterium is mostly applied to organizations, rather than to individuals, and it is described in a variety of ways, such as 'democratic', or 'believes in the equal value of all humans'. Transgressing that line does nmulticultural nationalismot lead to legal problems, but it does lead to a variety of restrictions. For example, government subsidies to specific activities in an organization (such as activities for the youth) are often limited to organizations that are considered to be inside this tighter borderline.

Another example of a similar kind occurred recently in Sweden, at a book fair in Gothenburg. Protests erupted when it became known that the right-wing publisher Nya Tider had registered to attend, and had been accepted. A long debate ensued about the freedoms involved, both freedom of expression and other freedoms. No one claimed in this context that the publisher in question had done anything illegal, so the borderline that some proposed should be invoked was clearly of another kind.

Judgements concerning compliance with this 'correctness' criterium usually refer to the policies and activities of an organization as a whole, and not merely to a specific incident. They tend to be made on an ad-hoc basis when a particular situation comes up. This is problematic in many ways. The analysis of the ideological character of an organization may be a complicated one, but the situations where the decision must be made rarely give room for such an analysis. Also, if the matter is raised because of protests against a particular organization, as in the case of the book fair, one must ask whether all participant organizations are judged according to the same criteria.

The position of Diversity in Liberalism creates another possibility in this respect, as I have proposed in a recent book ('Samtal om Sveriges nation', issued in 2015). The basic idea is to consider cultural communities as 'members' of a nation, at the same time as individuals are its 'members'. In this way, the concept of rights and responsibilities of each individual in a nation can be extended in a natural way to rights and responsibilities of the communities that are 'members' there as well. For example, the guiding principle of permeability that Aleinikoff proposes should be seen as being in part a requirement on communities: they must not set up constraints that limit the cross-cultural freedom of their members. And maybe there will also be a need to set down some additional liberties and restrictions that apply specifically to communities within the nation. -- This approach will be developed further in the present website, 'Argument och Fakta'.

References and links

pan-3031    Nationalisme et multiculturalisme.
Daniel Sabbagh i Critique internationale, 2004.

pan-2988    Essay: A Multicultural Nationalism?.
T. Aleinikoff i The American Prospect, 1998.

    Erik Sandewall



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