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On the Potential of Liberalism and Multiculturalism After 9/11: A Response to Haithe Anderson

by Elizabeth Heilman - March 20, 2004

This article acknowledges intractable differences that challenge hopefulness after 9/11, but asserts that liberalism and multiculturalism offer hope to classroom communities and to a global world in which our cultures and futures are increasingly interconnected. The essay challenges five basic arguments put forward by Haithe Anderson pertaining to the limits of liberalism and multiculturalism. It argues against Andersonís generalizations about multiculturalism, characterizations of liberal theory, confusion of philosophical justifications with actual legislation, utilizing loaded terms such as evil and the exchange of one set of interpretations with another set that only leads to limitations rather than understandings/knowledge. These critiques are supported with a variety of sources, including: John Stuart Mill, John Rawls, Martha Nussbaum, and John Locke. In the end, this debate emphasizing liberalism and multiculturalism as tenuous, complex, and promising encourages thoughtful discussions about the nature of pluralistic society.

In the TCR article, “On the Limits of Liberalism and Multiculturalism,’’ Haithe Anderson (2002) asserted that neither liberal theory nor multiculturalism, “its most recent educational philosophy,” can adjudicate cultural differences without bias. She suggests that the dramatic events of

September 11, 2001 show the limits of liberalism more forcefully than anything because liberals and multiculturalists will not tolerate “the kinds of differences represented by al-Qaeda or the Talaban.” Yet, liberal theory does a better job of wrestling with these issues than Anderson acknowledges. Liberalism and multiculturalism are most relevant when tolerance seems most challenging. Anderson ’s argument relies on presentations of liberalism and multiculturalism that are difficult to reconcile with important theoretical literature in these areas. She states, “since there is no final way to adjudicate unverifiable opinions, as Enlightenment philosophers reasoned, the only viable option is to tolerate the wondrously diverse views of the world that people inevitably inhabit.” Anderson presents liberal and multicultural tolerance as an attitude “assumed to be without bias” based on assumptions that “all ways of knowing are on par” and that “cultural differences are largely interpretative.”

But in the liberal view, to “tolerate” is not to accept passively, as

Anderson implies, or to “embrace differences,” but something very much different. In John Stuart Mill’s famous letter, “On Liberty of Thought and Discussion,” he details the reasoning behind liberal toleration for diverse views that have resulted in the American constitutional protection of freedom of speech. Article one of the Bill of Rights states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Mill explains the value of protecting the freedom of speech on differences, even differences that are clearly troubling and antithetical to the core values of a most Americans. Mill provides four distinct grounds for the freedom of opinion and freedom of the expression of opinion.

First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.

Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.

Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth, unless it is suffered to be and actually is vigorously and earnestly contested, it will by most of those who receive it be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds.

Fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost or enfeebled and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct; the dogma becoming a mere formal profession inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction from reason or personal experience. (Mill, 1859/1982)

The purpose of classical liberalism is not to maintain “all prevailing opinions outwardly undisturbed” as

Anderson writes. Mill would like for any potential “dissentients afflicted with the malady of thought” to be required to exercise reason in a public setting to explain, air, defend and potentially modify their beliefs. In the liberal environment John Stuart Mill envisioned, the al-Qaeda terrorists who lived among, and even barbequed with, Americans, would ideally have a good talk with their neighbors about their ideas of the good and evil of society and how to make a better world. This discussion might have changed the terrorists’ views, but it also might have changed the views of the Americans, if only to help them better understand the rational grounds of their beliefs by having had a chance to vigorously and earnestly discuss and defend their views.

This wouldn’t be an easy conversation. It would be hard for both the terrorists and the American neighbors to listen. There are both multicultural and liberal theorists who understand that in order to have a meaningful conversation in which diverse views are vigorously and earnestly contested and are treated with the sort of seriousness and respect that allows each person to be willing to learn something, a certain measure of tolerance is required. Yet, this is a very active and demanding idea of tolerance and requires something Nussbaum calls “world citizenship.” Martha Nussbaum cites Marcus Aurelius in describing how the world citizen should become “a sensitive and empathetic interpreter” but explains that “‘world citizenship’ does not and should not require that we suspend criticism towards other individuals and cultures” (Nussbaum, 1997, p. 63).

The world citizen may be very critical of unjust actions or policies, and of the character of people who promote them. But at the same time Marcus [Aurelius] refuses to think of the opponents as simply alien, as members of a different and inferior species. He refuses to criticize until he respects and understands. He carefully chooses images that that reflect his desire to see them as close to him and similarly human” (Nussbaum, 1997, p. 65)

As Nussbaum suggests, liberal multiculturalism, with its notions of world citizenship, does not advocate an uncritical “celebration of cultural difference.” It is unclear to whom Anderson is referring when she refers to the ideas of “multiculturalists” since multiculturalists actually operate from a diverse range of philosophical assumptions. There may be multiculturalists who fit Anderson’s characterization, but Anderson uses broad brush strokes in describing multiculturalism, failing to pinpoint specific authors. It is a mistake to discuss “multiculturalism’s biases” without identifying and detailing specific theories or acknowledging the rich debates that occur within the field and, thus, it is unfair and inaccurate to characterize multiculturalism as celebrating all forms of diversity as though they were morally equivalent.

It is interesting to note that John Stuart Mill writes against the sort of tolerance that Anderson describes as “acknowledging the inner life of cultural difference” but not involving itself in active communication and engagement with diverse cultures and views. It is dangerous for democracy when diverse views, such as religious fundamentalism, are merely tolerated. As Mill writes, in this situation:

…heretical opinions do not perceptibly gain, or even lose ground in each decade or generation; they never blaze out far and wide, but continue to smoulder in the narrow circles of thinking and studious persons among whom they originate, without ever lighting up the general affairs of mankind with either a true or a deceptive light. And thus is kept up a state of things very satisfactory to some minds, because, without the unpleasant process of fining or imprisoning anybody, it maintains all prevailing opinions outwardly undisturbed, while it does not absolutely interdict the exercise of reason by dissentients afflicted with the malady of thought. A convenient plan for having peace in the intellectual world, and keeping all things going on therein very much as they do already. But the price paid for this sort of intellectual pacification, is the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind (Mill, 1859/1982).

The writings of John Stuart Mill and other more traditional presentations of liberal theory should be criticized, not because liberal theory suggests differences should be passively tolerated or celebrated without regard to morality, but because traditional presentations of liberal theory make the process of vigorously and earnestly debating difference seem more problem free than they really are or can be. As Nussbaum described above, active tolerance requires emotional sophistication. The liberal approach to debate also relies on a faith in the process of rational argument that transcends identity. As Rockefeller explains this:

From the democratic point of view, a person's ethnic identity is not his or her primary identity, and important as respect for diversity is in multicultural democratic societies, ethnic identity is not the foundation of recognition of equal value and the related idea of equal rights. All human beings as the bearers of a universal human nature – as persons – are of equal value from the democratic perspective, and all people as persons deserve equal respect and equal opportunity for self-realization.…To elevate ethnic identity, which is secondary, to a position equal in significance to, or above, a person's universal identity is to weaken the foundations of liberalism and to open the door to intolerance (Rockefeller, 1992, p. 88).

The problem with both Mill’s presentation and Rockefeller’s presentation is that not everyone sees themselves as the bearers of a universal human nature or even as rational people. Not every human identity, culture or religion prepares one or even permits one to engage in debate or make use of freedom of speech in a way that would make debate fair. To some people, ethnic identity is a stronger imperative than rational discourse. Liberal theory asks that diversity be actively aired and explored; more contemporary iterations of liberal theory acknowledge both philosophical and practical problems (such as differences in the cultural value placed on discussion, differences in power) with such a process. But liberal theory does not recommend passive tolerance.

Anderson also seems to mix up the philosophical justifications and the actual legislation for freedom of speech and for equal protection. American democracy provides for equal protection for very different reasons than it provides for freedom of speech. Equal protection refers to equal protection of the laws while freedom of speech is a democratic value that insures a healthy discourse community. Anderson erroneously claims that equal protection rests “on the assumption that the search for metaphysical meaning is a private affair and that it should, therefore, be secured and held in place by extra political means.” The Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits states from denying any person within their jurisdictions the equal protection of the laws. A violation occurs when a state grants a particular class of individuals the right to engage in activity, yet, denies other individuals the same right. The Equal Protection Clause secures the protection of civil rights, not metaphysical beliefs. This is an important distinction. As John Locke (1689/1990) wrote in A Letter Concerning Toleration “the business of laws is not to provide for the truth of opinions, but for the safety and security of the commonwealth and of every particular man's goods and person.” In American democracy, beliefs are not ever protected, nor are they against the law. Actions are against the law; people are protected. It is not the case that “ideologies are granted equality before the law.” By denying states the ability to discriminate, the Equal Protection Clause is crucial to the protection of people’s civil rights. Equal protection rests on the assumption that state law and its administration may not discriminate based on classifications such as race, national origin, or, in some situations, non U.S. citizenship (the suspect classes). This law does not having anything to do with a person’s “search for metaphysical meaning.” People are granted equality. Ideologies are granted the chance to be expressed and to be vigorously and earnestly contested.

Confusion on these matters might come from the fact that contested beliefs are treated differently in different realms of society. In education and in cultural life in the democratic public sphere, differences in belief, including metaphysical beliefs, are to be explored and aired. Yet, when people in a democracy must inevitably make policy decisions around areas of disagreement they aim for practical fairness not metaphysical truth. As John Rawls (1985, p. 230) explains:

Thus the aim of justice as fairness as a political conception is practical, and not metaphysical or epistemological. That is, it presents itself not as a conception of justice that is true, but one that can serve as a basis of informed and willing political agreement between citizens viewed as free and equal persons. This agreement when securely founded in public political and social attitudes sustains the goods of all persons and associations within a just democratic regime. To secure this agreement we try, so far as we can, to avoid disputed philosophical, as well as disputed moral and religious, questions. We do this not because these questions are unimportant or regarded with indifference, but because we think them too important and recognize that there is no way to resolve them politically. The only alternative to a principle of toleration is the autocratic use of state power. Thus, justice as fairness stays deliberately on the surface, politically speaking…public agreement on the basic questions of philosophy cannot be obtained without the state's infringement of basic liberties. Philosophy as the search for truth about an independent metaphysical and moral order cannot, I believe, provide a workable and shared basis for a political conception of justice in a democratic society.

To secure this practical political agreement we try, so far as we can, to locate shared philosophical, as well as shared moral and religious, questions. This is a compromise.
As Rawls (1993, pp. 22-28) describes this, politicians tend to look for “overlapping consensus” between diverse moral perspectives. Yet, the need for political negotiation does not suggest that any individual ought to tolerate or compromise with beliefs they find objectionable. Also, the parameters for political dispute and agreement are established, however uneasily, by law. All potentially disputed philosophical, as well as moral and religious, questions are not up for procedural toleration or political negotiation. For example, there is no question that cultural beliefs such as forbidding school children to engage in debate about creationism, or stoning women adulteresses, might be tolerated or supported by law. Yet, a person believing or disbelieving in these practices should be given the chance in the public sphere --- and, I think, in school -- to vigorously and earnestly contest them.

For practical and philosophical purposes, individuals are not the same as cultures, cultures are not the same as nations, and ways that diversity might be approached are different for and among individuals, among cultures, and among polities. This brings me to another equally troubling concern that I have with Anderson’s essay. Under discussion are “the kinds of cultural differences represented by al-Qaeda or the Talaban.” Soon this is expanded in Anderson’s writing: “al-Qaeda, however, is not our only archenemy; Iran, Iraq and North Korea have recently been identified by President Bush as ‘the axis of evil’ because they ostensibly house terrorist activities.”

It is important to be very specific when assigning terms such as “evil” and dismissing the humanity of a person or a group to the extent that they are no longer considered bearers of a universal human nature or people we can talk with personally or collectively. The terrorists attacks of September 11th were enacted by a couple of dozen terrorists, mostly Saudi in origin. Neither these Saudi-born terrorists nor al-Qaeda represent a “culture.” This well-educated, ironically somewhat Westernized, terrorist sub-group does not even seem representative of al-Qaeda, which is populated by illiterate men from several different Afghan and Pakistani sub-cultural groups, by educated, alienated middle class exiles from Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan and Palestine, and alienated Muslims raised in European states in the West. It is hard to know to what extent their mobilization in a fundamentalist Islamic political movement, an apocalyptic movement that seeks to throw off Western influences and restore a mythic Caliphate, can be said to be “a culture.” The murderous acts committed by the terrorists are also so beyond the pale of what most individuals and any contemporary recognized culture or nation finds to be acceptable, that this does not seem to be a matter concerning the “tolerance of cultural difference.” The need to secure domestic safety from lunatic terrorists is a different issue entirely from the need to find agreements within a democratic polity, within a democratic public sphere, or within an international arena challenged by discourses of difference among peoples of different power, among a range of ethnicities, religions, cultures, and states. It is worth noting that this need to secure domestic safety against terror is an issue affecting people in the East as well as the West.

Liberal theory and multicultural theory would not be needed if the world were a simple place. They exist because “the going gets tough,” not until the going gets tough, as Haithe Anderson asserts. Anderson (2002) writes:

All human beings, in the view offered here, are fully committed to their way of seeing the world and this includes Americans in all their diversity, but also al-Qaeda, the Iranians, the Iraqis, and the North Koreans. Humans can and do switch interpretative allegiances, of course, but when we do so we have not transcended to a purer or higher realm that is any less partial than the interpretation we left behind; all we can ever do is trade in one set of limitations for another.

I hope this is disingenuous. Wouldn’t

Anderson be pleased if one of the al-Qaeda members who lived among ordinary Americans had switched “interpretive allegiances,” drifted from the movement, and decided not to participate in the events of September 11th after having had good talks with neighbors about how make a better world? Wouldn’t it be positive if one of the children of these terrorists, who attended American public school, felt that his or her culture was actively explored and tolerated at school in the manner that Martha Nussbaum describes, and also felt that he or she had a chance to truly consider and tolerate other cultures? Pragmatism doesn’t require Anderson ’s dismal view of changes of opinion. As Rorty (2001) sees it, reformist liberalism with its commitment to “the expansion of democratic freedoms in ever wider political solidarities is an historical contingency which has no philosophical foundation, and needs none.” Further, I think that Rawls (1985, p. 230) is right in stating that, “The only alternative to a principle of toleration is the autocratic use of state power.” Tolerance is immensely complex and problematic, but autocratic state power is clearly a good deal more problematic. Pragmatic liberalism has found ways to address tolerance in a robustly pluralistic society and world without requiring all to adhere to universal values and without abandoning hope. There are intractable differences that surely challenge hopefulness, but liberalism and multiculturalism offer hope to classroom communities and to a global world in which our cultures and futures are increasingly interconnected.


Anderson, H. (2002). On the limits of liberalism and multiculturalism. Teachers College Record. http://www.tcrecord.org/Content.asp?ContentID=11009

Locke, J. (1689/1990). A letter concerning toleration.

New York : Prometheus Books.

Mill, J.S. (1859/1982). On liberty.

New York : Viking Press.

Nussbaum, M. (1997). Cultivating humanity: A classical defense of reform in liberal education.

Cambridge : Harvard University Press.

Ramberg, B. (2001). Richard Rorty. Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rorty/

Rawls, J. (1985). Justice as fairness: Political, not metaphysical. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 14, 223-251.

Rawls, J. (1993). Political liberalism.

New York : Columbia University Press. Rockefeller , S.C. (1992). Comment in Charles Taylor and Amy Gutmann (Eds.), Multiculturalism and the politics of recognition: An essay (pp. 87-98). Princeton , NJ : Princeton University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 20, 2004
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11291, Date Accessed: 12/6/2021 3:58:48 PM

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About the Author
  • Elizabeth Heilman
    Michigan State University
    E-mail Author
    ELIZABETH HEILMAN, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University whose research explores the ways in which identity, belief systems, school contexts and power structures influence the understanding and teaching of curriculum, particularly as it relates to the political and social imagination Her work has appeared in journals such as Educational Theory, Theory and Research in Social Education, Teaching Education, Youth and Society, and The High School Journal. She is the editor of Harry Potterís World: Multidisciplinary Critical Perspectives (Routledge).
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