Charles Taylor

This article is a preview from the Spring 2017 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

Identifying the world’s greatest living philosopher used to be something of a niche parlour game. The billionaire Nicholas Bergrruen, however, upped the stakes when he established his eponymous $1million prize to create a kind of Nobel for philosophy. In December, the Canadian Charles Taylor formally became the first recipient of the award at a glitzy ceremony in New York.

He is a worthy winner of a prize “for ideas that shape the world”. Taylor is a model of an engaged intellectual, set not only on understanding the world but changing it. He was one of the founders of Canada’s social-democratic New Democratic Party in 1961. His 2007 Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences, co-chaired with Gerard Bouchard, was pivotal in shaping the Québec government’s policy on cultural diversity. At the same time, books such as Sources of the Self and A Secular Age have established him at the very top of academe.

Taylor’s thought defies easy characterisation because it balances values often found in tension. He is a practising Roman Catholic who is a strong supporter of secularism, in the sense of state neutrality towards religion, not hostility to it. He is also an advocate of the value of community who nonetheless promotes opennesses to immigration, change and difference.

However, Taylor has won the Bergrruen Prize just at the moment when many of his key ideas appear to be losing the cultural battle. Across the West, open, pluralist liberalism is being beaten back by populist, border-closing conservatism.

“At the moment our team is losing yards, if I can use an American football expression,” he told me over the phone from Montréal, his home and birthplace. “We’re down to the ten-yard line. But the game isn’t over and it couldn’t be over.” In the long run he thinks the forces for openness are just too strong, not least the simple demographic ones which mean the West needs immigrants to pay its ever-growing pension bill.

Taylor’s characteristic emphasis on the material and historical drivers of change reflects the enduring influence of Hegel. For some, this betrays an unjustified faith in the inevitability of progress. John Gray objects that for Taylor, “the mix of phenomena commonly described as populism can only be a dialectical interlude on the way to liberal or social-democratic internationalism – a view as remote from historical realities as anything in Marx.”

Whatever the longer-term prospects, Taylor believes that the current retreat is the result of a perfect storm caused by three independent factors, two of which relate to new social divides identified by several commentators. First there is a “cultural discomfort” about foreigners, rooted in “a long standing force for cultural closure”.

This is part of a wider “closed” nationalist and local communitarianism common outside big cities, which contrasts with the open values prevalent among cosmopolitan, educated urbanites.

This has been exacerbated by the second factor: economic pressure caused by austerity which has opened up the divide between the haves and have-nots, the winners and losers of globalisation. He cites Marine Le Pen’s Front National as an example of one of many xenophobic movements which have “now managed to add considerably to their power by saying the elites have led us into this globalised situation in which you’re all losing your jobs.” These elites are seen as indifferent to the welfare of ordinary, working-class whites and obsessed with minorities and the global poor.

Taylor believes that mainstream politicians have allowed themselves to be dismissed as out of touch elites because of their ill-advised embrace of austerity, something he calls “one of these great tragedies”. Although he is a strong supporter of the European Union project, “it shot itself in the foot when it responded to Greece, Spain and Italy and so on in that appalling way.”

Those on the social-democratic left, as he locates himself, have failed to counter this populism because they “failed to keep that sense alive that there is leadership, which is always some kind of elite, and there are leadership ideas, which are also the work of elites, which are four-square in favour of what we need.”

The third factor on top of the cultural discomfort and economic pressure is “fear of terrorism”. In many ways this is a comforting analysis, since it implies that opposition to cultural diversity has shallow roots and will wither if this fear recedes and austerity is eased.

This contradicts the more pessimistic view that liberals have underestimated the disruptive effect of mass immigration, particularly on the low paid. David Goodhart, for instance, has argued that a welfare society depends upon a sense of shared history and social contribution which is undermined when too many newcomers turn up too quickly and start receiving the benefits without fully integrating.

Taylor accepts that this is possible in theory but in practice, “I don’t know anywhere that I know well where that actually does work out to be the case.” When you look at the facts on the ground, he finds the cultural fears around immigration to be simply “based on illusions”.

This opinion was forged in the experience of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, which reported in 2008. It found that in cities like Montréal people have good experiences of diversity. While there was more fear of the unknown in remote regions, in many cases that was cancelled by the need for immigrant labour.

The most negative views were found between the two, where people had no sense of their economic interest in immigration (“they had one,” says Taylor, “but it was much too abstract”) nor any first-hand experience of its reality. The only ideas they did have about immigrants were based on unrepresentative and often inaccurate media reports. Taylor is scathing about those who play up fears, citing “this awful French novelist Houellebecq” whose novel Soumission [Submission in English] portrays “how not very many years from now a Muslim president’s going to be elected in France.”

Québec is not Europe of course, but the pattern Taylor describes has parallels elsewhere. In Britain too, fear of immigration are lesser in the big cities and greater in areas where the minority population is tiny. But a crucial complication is that fears are also high in places where immigration has increased quickly, such as Boston, Lincolnshire, where the (almost entirely EU) migrant population rose 460 per cent between 2004 and 2014.

It would be wrong, however, to suggest that Taylor is blithely unaware of the problems mass immigration can cause. “It’s high-stakes stuff to accept immigrants because it either goes very well or it tends to go very badly.”

The “interculturalism” that he believes maximises the chances of it going well strives to achieve integration without eliminating difference, all the while fostering the development of a common identity. This contrasts both with the assimilationist model that demands of newcomers that they adopt local norms wholesale, and the kind of multiculturalism that has often been practised in Europe, in which toleration for difference is given priority.

That’s why Taylor says a Canadian is puzzled to hear “Sarkozy saying le multiculturalisme est mal, and hear Merkel saying multiculturalism ist kaput.” The only idea to have died is ‘go off in your ghetto, don’t bother us, we won’t bother you’. That’s totally not what we’re about and that is guaranteed to produce this kind of very deep division.” In contrast, the interculturalist mantra is “integration, integration, integration”.

Sunder Katwala, director of the identity and integration think-tank British Future, is one of many who are sceptical that interculturalism in reality offers a significantly different model to multiculturalism.

“Interculturalism versus multiculturalism is primarily a debate within the academy and struggles to reach beyond that,” he told me. “We need to work much harder to have the debates in the language that people themselves choose when they talk about how we live together, locally and nationally, if we want a shared society.”

Taylor accepts that the intellectual argument is “never going to be the whole ball of wax”. Nonetheless, he insists ideas and arguments have “a very important role”. For instance, his most recent book The Language Animal argues that our discourse has a capacity to change the “moulds” which shape our thinking. One such pernicious mould is a default essentialism, in which we tend to think of our identities, especially national ones, as deep, natural and unchanging. But “if the mould is that the norm – particularly in the modern world – is constant change, redefinition, renegotiation, then it’s a lot less threatening.”

Such a mould is more natural in the American continent, which has for centuries been built on immigration. But in Europe, the national identity is often rooted in an idealised and romanticised nationalism that is not of its nature inclusive.

“It’s not easy anywhere,” Taylor says, which is why we need to make the case for it. “I say to people in Québec: your kids are going to change you more than all these immigrants. I’m a grandfather now and I see what has happened over these two generations and it’s huge. We dropped the central religious identity of Québec in this time, nobody forced us from outside.”

Taylor also sees power in getting people to think about their ethical commitments. For example, in Québec in 2013 the then governing Parti Québécois proposed a Charter of Values that would limit the wearing of “conspicuous” religious symbols by public sector workers. Surveys showed about 56 per cent approved, but when pollsters asked “How many people do you think should be fired as a result of this legislation?” Taylor says opinion “flipped around, like 60 per cent said nobody should be fired.”

Similarly, in Europe: “People in the cultural fear camp squirm when you say, look, what this means is these kids are going to get drowned in the Mediterranean. How about that? So you just cannot discount the power of ideas.”

More powerful still is positive experience. “It’s not totally cerebral,” he says. Positive experiences create win-win situations. If immigrants’ aspirations for freedom and a better life for their kids are met, “immediately those people are happier, and because they’re integrated, irritating differences get less. They’re not necessarily going to rush off into a mosque where people are denouncing perverse England with its homosexuals and so on.”

France, however, provides “the saddest story of the last ten years in the Western world”. Taylor says that while President Sarkozy actively alienated the children of North African immigrants, many of whom live in poor suburbs, Hollande missed his chance to consolidate their support.

“Nothing happened to integrate them, because of this damned austerity policy. These people are sitting in these banlieues, they’re discriminated against, they send in their CVs and when [employers] look at the postal code they never look further, they’re having fights with the police.” So “now they are just the perfect prey for recruiters from Islamic State. And then on top of that you have this Valls guy who’s on against the burkini.”

Taylor accuses the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls of “endangering the French population”, saying “the guy should be put in jail”. For Taylor, this illustrates the negative power of ideas that mould; in this case, a mistaken conception of secularism. Taylor advocates an “open secularism” that demands state neutrality on matters of religion but not the purging of all religion from the public square.

This contrasts with French-style laïcité, a “republican secularism” that keeps faith behind locked doors. This, argues Taylor, is unjust, unnecessary for state neutrality and poisonous for social relations. Saying “no” to a kid wearing a hijab in school, for example, is “saying our culture is OK, your culture stinks. That’s not the way to integrate people.”

Taylor may be celebrated as a philosopher, but there is a sense in which for him arguments can only claim ultimate victory by their practical fruits. He agrees that although intellectual persuasion matters, the most urgent task at the moment is to get the economy working in ways that work for the many rather than the few. If we could do that, making the philosophical case would become a lot easier.