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Charles Taylor, Brains Behind Canadian Multiculturalism, Talks Trump, Brexit And Rise Of Xenophobia

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You may not know Charles Taylor's name, but if you live in Canada, you know his work.

Renowned as one of the world's greatest living thinkers, the 84-year-old Montreal philosopher recently won the inaugural US$1 million Berggruen Prize for having ideas that promote "the advancement of humanity."

Here's where all the philosophy majors pause for a second to email this article to their disapproving parents. When you do, make sure to mention that the McGill professor emeritus has previously won two US$1.5 million prizes. He was also named to the Order of Canada in 1995 and the Order of Quebec in 2000.

professor charles taylorCharles Taylor won the inaugural Berggruen Prize. (Photo: Getty Images)

But even more interesting than a million-dollar philosophy prize, which Taylor will receive during a Dec. 1 ceremony in New York, is that he won it for his work promoting multiculturalism and combating xenophobia. The nine-member Berggruen Prize jury chose Taylor for supporting "political unity that respects cultural diversity" and "demonstrating that Western civilization is not simply unitary, but like all civilizations the product of diverse influences."

Taylor's pioneering writings, including Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity, Multiculturalism and The Politics of Recognition and A Secular Age have helped shape Canada's official policy of multiculturalism. He's also been warning about the dangers of Islamophobia for years, including calling out the niqab debate during last year's federal election.

"In a world that's becoming more xenophobic, his voice is a voice of inclusion and moderation, not one of creating barriers or walls."— Nicholas Berggruen

"He's a very deep thinker and he's got a lot of influence and he's a really a humanist," explains Nicholas Berggruen, a German billionaire whose Berggruen Institute think-tank gave out the new philosophy award. He is also the co-founder of The Huffington Post's WorldPost site that focuses on global stories.

"In a world that's becoming more xenophobic, his voice is a voice of inclusion and moderation, not one of creating barriers or walls," Berggruen says. "The world has been going in the direction [of diversity] and Canada is a product of it in some ways, but there are times when you have big setbacks. I feel like the jury selected someone who believes in human values of cooperation, not division."

The Huffington Post Canada got on the phone with Taylor to talk about the importance of multiculturalism, as well as some of those "big setbacks" like Trump, Brexit, Europe's far-right parties, that "barbaric cultural practices" hotline and the poll showing that 68 per cent of Canadians prefer assimilation.

professor charles taylorProfessor Charles Taylor after winning the $1.5 million Templeton Prize in 2007. (Photo: Getty Images)

The award announcement describes you as "the anti-xenophobe philosopher for our time." Can you elaborate on why you received this honour?

A lot of my work concerns the issue of how you come to understand people with very different cultures. I’m very much a proponent of multiculturalism and, along with Will Kymlicka and a few other people in Canada, we produced a lot of the theory behind it.

The goal of the Berggruen foundation is to improve mutual understanding between different cultures of the world [and] my work has been addressing that kind of issue for such a long time.

How did your work help inspire Canadian mosaic versus the U.S. melting pot approach?

The whole point of Canadian multiculturalism is to produce equal citizenship. So it’s very much concerned with the integration of people from elsewhere, immigrants, into Canadian society and Canadian polity as equals.

The move to multiculturalism is to cancel the assumption which everybody had 50 years ago or more that a Canadian was either somebody from the British Isles or from Normandy if you were in Quebec. But you can be fully Canadian if your ancestry takes you back to Poland, takes you back to Italy, takes you back to India, takes you back to China and so on. So it's an instrument of integration.

Now I don't see why that should be considered political correctness.

laura ingraham
Radio host Laura Ingraham gestures while speaking during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio on July 20. (Photo: Getty Images)

Well, because Trump and others considers their xenophobic worldviews to be anti-political correctness.

Yes I know, and he's trying to excuse or justify his absolutely unconscionable remarks which are totally false in many cases. Like Mexicans are rapists or Muslims are considered a priori to be jihadists unless they prove otherwise.

So he's trying to justify that by saying he's anti-political correctness. It is certainly true that in certain branches of American society, people are leaning over backwards and not saying this and not saying that. That's certainly true. So he has a target there, but he's using that target as an excuse to say things that are totally indefensible.

What did you think about the barbaric cultural practices hotline suggested during the Canadian election?

That made me laugh. One of the most barbaric practices in human history is scapegoating. That's exactly what the Harper government was doing: scapegoating people with niqabs, scapegoating people who are slightly different. That's the most barbaric cultural practice. I felt like phoning them up and saying 'I have one for you'.

That was how I felt when the refugee stuff came up. This is exactly what happened to Jews in the 30s in Canada. How are we making the exact same arguments about Muslims and it's 2016?

Exactly! It’s an absurd thing to do. It’s all holes to fall into. And we have our own version of that in Quebec, because we are very protective of our traditional cultures here and that led to our episode with the Charter of Values a couple years ago, which fortunately we defeated. But it was quite a big struggle.

"One of the most barbaric practices in human history is scapegoating. That's exactly what the Harper government was doing." — Charles Taylor

Simply spoken, these are total stereotypes being imposed on certain segments of the population and are being used as an excuse to remove some of their rights. So you know it's a scam, it is something that’s totally fraudulent and it needs to be denounced.

Now there's a CBC/Angus Reid poll that found 68 per cent of Canadians want minorities to do more to fit in and disagree with minorities being encouraged to keep their culture and language and customs. When I dug into the numbers it was not only almost predominantly older white Canadians. It was also the highest provincially in Quebec.

That makes perfect sense to me, it fits with my experience. Multiculturalism is something which started in Canada roughly in 1970 or shortly after and it encountered a lot of opposition. With each age cohort, it's got less and less strong, so you know that is excellent progress. It’s a statistical norm that people don't like a lot of other people from very different cultures coming in in great numbers and very fast. There is this common fear: are they going to change us?

I heard that again and again in Quebec and the encouraging story in Canada is that that's less and less the reaction of people the younger you get. Even in Quebec as well. The somewhat more discouraging thing is that it is higher in Quebec than the rest of the country. Yes, we’re totally aware of that, once you’ve been in this life and death struggle in Quebec about the Charter of Values and so on and you realize how strong that still is, because we're dealing with a group and a culture that’s been under threat for 200 years from the Anglophone majority in North America. So it has understandable more immediate reactions to this kind of cultural shift.

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While it is a good thing that it's more the older generations and less the younger generations, it's still a huge number. It's a bigger number than it was when multiculturalism became official policy in the 70s and even a bigger number than in the States. To me that ties in with Trump and with Brexit and the nationalist parties rising across Europe. Why do you think that this is happening in Canada and also globally?

There are three reasons why. One is that we have to take this discomfort with a lot of people coming in as one of the givens of human life. Now it's much worse in Europe because they aren’t used to being an immigrant society receiving people from outside.

Secondly, the people that we are letting in at the moment are all people who by definition have a lot of “points," which means that they are highly trained, they have skills we need and so on. Whereas in the European case, very often you have people coming in just to do the most minimal jobs, really low education, so they were much more difficult to assimilate into mainstream society.

"These are total stereotypes being imposed on [the Muslim] population as an excuse to remove some of their rights. So you know it's a scam." — Charles Taylor

Then on top of all that you get [the] 2008 collapse and the very, I think, ill-advised policy of austerity that the Europeans adopted in the face of the Greek crisis, which meant that there was also tremendous pressure with people losing jobs. So that makes for a perfect storm and we were not without some of those elements in North America, too. You know a lot of people in the Rust Belt feel that they've lost jobs as people from outside are being let in. And they feel there is some kind of connection.

And I haven’t mentioned jihadism. There are obviously some Muslims who are wreaking havoc in the most terrible way, so all that together produces a great move of sentiment about closing the frontiers.

That's the reason for Brexit. You look at those Labour areas in the north which are the equivalent to the American Rust Belt. The official policy of the Labour Party was remain but a lot of the voting base voted leave.

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How much of how much of this is long term blowback from colonialism?

A lot of it in Europe is, I would say the French case, very definitely so. In the British case, less so. In the Dutch, also to some extent so but in the French case, unquestionably so.

I've described it as white fright but there is a dominant group that fears it's losing its grip on power because of all the reasons that you've said. So there's a lot of pushback.

I think the losing-the-grip-on-power thing is much more important in the States because it really is clear that that's going to be a minority white society very, very soon, right? Nothing like that is going to arrive even in the distant future in France or U.K. or Germany.

What do you think it is fuelling that specifically here in Canada? There's a lot of anti-Asian racism in Vancouver and anti-black racism here in Toronto and a lot of anti-Muslim racism across the country despite the fact that [Muslims] are only three per cent of the population.

That latter one is to a large extent a product of the geopolitical situation, jihadism and so on. It wouldn't have been there 20 or 30 years ago when they were kind of an unknown quantity yet.

That there's racism, you're pushing an open door. I’m not at all denying that. We see it [in Quebec], too, very, very clearly. But is it of the kind that is going to cause a real serious attempt to undo some of these policies? I don't see that as a force today. But if Trump were to be elected, and I'm pretty convinced he won’t be — I’m wiping my brow in relief — but it’s obviously the case in Europe that this is much, much stronger force which is really turned over whole situations.

"[Multiculturalism has] so obviously been a tremendous source of dynamism economically to our society." — Charles Taylor

So how do we make it better?

I know Quebec much better than I know the rest of the country but in this society we see very clearly what to do, and we're to some extent slowly doing it: get the younger cohorts to see the world in a different way.

But how do we convince older Canadians to also be on board with multiculturalism and cultural diversity?

In the Canadian case, it's so obviously been a tremendous source of dynamism economically to our society. So there’s a talking point there. And then there’s the aspect of fairness, how much do you want your sentiments to be played out in policies that are going to actually hurt people in a quite unfair way.

I think these two things you can appeal to all the time to mitigate that less-good split of opinion between the baby boomers and millennials.