Liberalism and the politics of cultural authenticity

Politics, Philosophy and Economics 1 (2):213-236 (2002)
Abstract
In this paper, I consider one possible defense of the presumption, common among liberal legal and political theorists, that we should respect culture. Specifically, I examine the view, forcefully articulated by Joseph Carens, that we can identify those attachments or practices that are candidates for one or another form of legal protection by determining whether they are `authentic' in the sense that members of some relevant group accept or embrace them as an integral component of their culture. I first sketch in detail Carens's view and show that despite appearances his position is central to liberal arguments that we should respect culture. Next, I recapitulate the empirical case (the complicated cultural politics on the islands of Fiji) that Carens uses as a vehicle for his argument. I then challenge the implications that Carens draws from the Fijian case. In particular, I argue that claims to `authenticity' are themselves artifacts of strategic political processes, that they and the institutions they purport to justify are in fact morally arbitrary, and, therefore, that `authenticity' cannot afford a basis for justifying policies aimed at protecting culture in Fiji or elsewhere. I suggest in conclusion that by invoking authenticity in this regard Carens courts a brand of relativism that is especially pernicious in that it erodes the terrain of democratic representation and deliberation. This is ironic to the extent that Carens seeks to defend democracy as well as difference. On this basis I recommend that, for purposes of justifying social, political or economic arrangements, we abandon the language of authenticity altogether. Key Words: liberalism • authenticity • culture • strategy • justification.
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