TO what extent are there tensions between multiculturalism and liberalism?

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To what extent are there tensions between multiculturalism and liberalism?
It initially appears that multiculturalism and liberalism are highly similar ideologies, championing the
rights of minorities. Multiculturalism itself was inspired by liberalism due to such ideas. In addition to
this, similarities exist in the multiculturalist and liberal support of principles such as equality, justice
and pluralism. However, tensions between the ideologies exist, including the tension between the
classical liberal promotion of the rights of the individual and the multiculturalist rights of a culture or
ethnic group and the argument over essentialism and the nature of multiculturalism.
Despite both multiculturalism and liberalism promoting the rights of minority groups and pluralist
societies, tensions lie over the focus of this promotion. Classical liberals such as John Stuart Mill stress
the importance of the individual, promoting the rights of the rights and sovereignty of all individuals,
and therefore of ethnic minorities; "over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is
sovereign". On the other hand, multiculturalists promote the rights of cultures and ethnic groups,
assuming that minorities adopt the will of their cultural community over individual self-centredness.
Liberals argue that this threatens genuine liberty as cultures can continue to oppress individuals,
evidenced in the issues such as forced marriages and the wearing of the burka. As Tariq Modood
argues that "multicultural rights flow out of the fact that individual autonomy depends upon
membership of a `societal culture'; this is a highlight
Another tension between multiculturalism and liberalism regards the question of essentialism,
referring to the multiculturalist belief that each culture is a single entity, with all individuals
compromising the culture share essential intrinsic characteristics. This contradicts the liberal argument
of the sovereignty of the individual; it is a threat to individualism and social cohesion. This
essentialism element of multiculturalism causes tensions between liberalism as they believe it
threatens national unity and, as the liberal former Commission for Racial Equality in the UK, Trevor
Phillips, argued, it creates inter-cultural conflict amongst minority groups and segregation between
minorities and majorities, thus threatening the social cohesion of a society.
However, there is some common ground between multiculturalism and liberalism which allows the
two ideologies to work alongside one another, evidenced in the theory of Kymlicka, which Mamood
described as "rightly concerned that toleration and freedom of religion should not simply be seen as
an inter-group feature" and "directed towards justifying special support or differential rights in
relation to language and indigenous people". This strand of multiculturalism is concerned with
tolerance over the questions of sovereignty and liberty, thus supporting a desire to uphold freedom
of choice based on morals, especially with arguments relating to religious beliefs and practices.
Closely linked with the advocating of tolerance, liberalism and multiculturalism also both endorse the
distinction between the private and public life. Both liberals and multiculturalists promote tolerance
and cultural diversity in the private life, such as religious practices; the state and nation has no right to
intervene in the sovereignty of the individual or a cultural minority. This key belief of both liberalism
and multiculturalism also implies that citizenship to a nation is divorced from the ethnicity of an
individual or group. This relates to the concept of tolerance in that it promotes inclusion in the public
sphere of society. However, this promotion of conclusion creates some tensions with the more

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In conclusion, the foundations of the tensions between multiculturalism and liberalism lie in the
fundamental perspectives of the core tenets of the differing ideologies. Liberalism crucially supports
the sovereignty and the liberty of the individual, contrasting the multiculturalist promotion of the
rights of specific cultures and ethnicities.…read more


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