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Multiculturalists find themselves on the opposite side of the political scale from xenophobes. Instinctively they reach out and welcome people from distant shores.

Xenophobes seek to banish the foreign ‘Other’ and protect the cultural integrity of the native born. The often blame foreigners for societies ills.

Multiculturalism is not automatically by definition liberal.

Most multiculturalists believe because newcomers are living in an environment hostile or different to their way of life. They need to preserve many of the cultural practices they bring with them.

In such a way do the demands of multiculturalism and the demands of liberalism come into conflict.

Multicultural Britain


Freedom for the group may not mean freedom for the individual members of those groups. For example, they could engage in practices – arranged marriages, gender segregation, and religious indoctrination.

Liberalism’s most important emphasis is on determining one’s own life plan. We get to choose for ourselves the best ways to live.

Some of those choices will bring us into conflict with the ways of life into which we were born into. They will require us to break with the power that groups in general, and inherited groups in particular, have over us.

It is for this reason that multiculturalism has been criticised. Not only from the conservative right, but from political philosophers who identify with the liberal political tradition.

Elementary students in a library classroom

A Two Way Street

Liberals believe not only in openness but in the growth of individual capacity that openness encourages.

From such a perspective, liberals should insist that openness is a two way street. The liberal promise of individual development works in both directions.

Multiculturalists are right that the benefits immigrants bring to their new country are cultural as well as economic. Because they represent so many different faiths, immigrants expand the religious pluralism that serves as the best protection of religious liberty.

Because they bring with them a different views on such matters as family, friendship, and community, immigrants frequently refresh the literary, musical, and artistic feelings of the countries to which they move.

One way of knowing when immigration has been successful is when novels written by immigrants or their children win literary prizes or dominate best sellers lists.


Better people

When immigration works, the horizons of the native-born expand. They become better people because they live in a more diverse society.

No longer do they need to travel abroad to learn about ways of life different from their own. All they need to do is to go out and buy groceries.

At the same time, immigration offers similar benefits to the new comers. Liberalism’s promise is not just that it will make room for newcomers but that it provides the conditions in which they can learn new ways of life that were unattainable, or even unimaginable, in the societies they left.

Over time, liberal society exercises such a strong and seductive hold on people that later generations find its appeals almost impossible to resist.


Freedom’s hold

That, for the multiculturalist, is the problem. They tend to view liberalisms’ seductiveness as the imposition of an alien way of life upon a more genuine one.

Liberals ought to be proud of the fact that freedom not easily given up. Nor, once experienced, is the opportunity to shape a life of one’s choosing.

When immigrants arrive in liberal societies, the number of liberal citizens in the world goes up. When they travel or move back to their places of birth, they carry liberal ideas back with them.

In such a way does the Liberalism of the world expand.

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This Essay draws on work by the philosopher Alan Wolfe, particularly his book The Future of Liberalism. If you’re interested in learning more click here.


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