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The challenge of reconciling cultural diversity and social justice





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Social justice theories are not a feature of twentieth century academic endeavours. They indeed were the cornerstone of ancient Greek philosophy and featured prominently in subsequent civilisations including the early Islamic empires where constitutional arrangements were introduced to accommodate religious minorities.


Yet it was during the 1980s and 1990s, that contemporary social sciences  started to witness a gradual paradigm shift  from redistribution, a politics of structural difference, to recognition, a politics of cultural difference that focused on multiculturalist and feminist claims and notions of cultural group identities.


My key argument here is that we need the ‘three Rs’ for any meaningful approach to social justice: Redistribution of resources and goods so that inequalities are overcome; Recognition of cultural rights so that cultural imperialism is lessened as much as possible; and Representation through democratic inclusion in all political deliberations so that disempowerment and marginalisation are eliminated.

In terms of the ‘redistribution’ argument, Rawls’ theory of justice was based on the  notion of  “Justice as Fairness” which postulates that each person should have an equal right to a set of basic  liberties; that   all offices and positions should be open to all; and that  social and economic inequalities should be arranged so that they are to everyone’s advantage.  In other words, inequalities are only permitted if they are to the advantage of the worst-off in society (e.g. affirmative action aimed at indigenous communities).


But the main criticism of this approach has been  its lack of attention to Recognition as well as its ambiguity in relation to the starting conditions for redistribution (witness the debate about the ‘veiled ignorance’ and the ‘indifference principle’). It has also been argued that any theory of justice must also incorporate strong dimensions of democratic representation.


As  Nancy Fraser argues, ‘we ought to resist the presentation of the politics of redistribution and the politics of recognition as mutually exclusive alternatives. Instead we should concentrate our efforts on searching for an alternative framework that can accommodate both types of demands’.


In addition to Redistribution and Recognition, a theory of justice must also allow for  “political participation” and ‘Representation’ as a way for  overcoming political marginalization and exclusion often experienced by minority groups and the more vulnerable amongst us.


These questions of “participation” and “democratization” imply that  democratic justice should be become the ultimate objective of any theory of social justice irrespective of its epistemological foundations. What is required, in this context,  is an approach  that allows the sustainable development of the deeper conditions for the political inclusion and democratic representation  of all in particular minority and vulnerable communities.


Therefore, and beyond the distributive paradigm, justice must therefore concern itself with issues of recognition and democratic participation. More importantly, such a multi-dimensional approach  to justice  must do so at the level of groups, not just individuals. This is because  there are real and legitimate collective concerns which cannot be addressed at the individual level. This is seen for example in  the politics of the new social movements (Occupy; Arab Spring etc…). Indeed, social groups are not simply collections of individuals and are often  held together by the solidarity and  mutual affinities of  their.


As such,  members of these groups can suffer from collective injustices that can’t be accounted for at the individual  level. As we saw in the recent Australian elections, women for example may have the formal right to stand for political office, yet they are often poorly placed to exercise that right because of social expectations (e.g. patriarchy, child care). Such group injustices, therefore, are a function of a complex socio-political climate  in which contemporary liberal democracies continue to deny legitimate differences among groups of people and consequently fail to address reasonable collective claims for social and cultural rights .


This is a short version of the inaugural lecture of the UNESCO Chair, Cultural Diversity and Social Justice delivered on 07/10/2013.


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