Politics of Difference

… a core concept in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100

Concept description

Leslie Pal (reference below, p. 64-65) describes the way that thinking about the politics of difference has evolved:

“The old argument with liberalism was that differences mattered but essentially that they should somehow be overcome. The objective for liberal universalism was still the same. The modern argument of difference challenges the core assumptions of liberal individualism by insisting that differences matter in a positive way, that equal treatment of individuals as abstract citizens ignores fundamental social and cultural characteristics that define identities (though there is a line of thought that special treatment for minorities as protection against majorities, is consistent with liberalism; see Kymlicka, 2007). It encourages a policy of multiculturalism, which Canada pioneered, and which aims both to protect and celebrate diversity. This politics of difference argues that many important differences are routinely and systematically oppressed. Indeed, it is the fact of oppression that gives these groups special claims within the political system. Note that a “difference perspective” emphasizes collective identities as a basis for claims and urges the importance of those identities in making public policy. It explicitly privileges cultural identity as a normative base for making specific, countermajoritarian rights claims on behalf of individuals who are members of specific groups. This cluster of ideas leads to the conclusion that the application of universal rules will serve only to further disadvantage these groups and suppress their legitimate differences. Multiculturalism policy has, from its beginnings, been a program that recognizes and celebrates differences (Pal, 1993; Ryan, 2010).

“From a policy perspective, the impact of postmaterialism, rights talk, and cultural pluralism is complex and often contradictory. For one thing, it has contributed to the widely noted decline of deference among the Canadian population and democratic citizenry in other countries. Citizens trust their governments and politicians less than they used to. If they trust less, they inevitably demand a different type of policy process. They want to be consulted, they want to participate, and they want their voices to be heard (Norris, 2011). Another consequence has been a new emphasis on identity and the politics of recognition. Demographics play an important role in this, and Canadian society is increasingly ethnically and racially diverse, indeed, one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world. But new sensibilities abound as well, some of them encouraged through government policies such as multiculturalism, bilingualism, and equity employment, and recent court and human rights tribunal decisions. People increasingly identify themselves strongly with nonterritorially based groups – religious, ethnic, gender, linguistic, sexual, generational, or some exotic combination.

“From a policy perspective, this kind of identification raises two challenges. One is the potential for social fragmentation and the importance of supporting some sort of social cohesion. Pluralism and diversity are certainly to be valued in any society, but by the same token, the balance between the two needs to be carefully managed. This is not simply an abstract philosophical principle, since social solidarity underpins the willingness of citizens to share burdens and benefits with each other, most notably through the redistribution of the welfare state (Barry, 2001). The second challenge is dealing with thorny issues of “ways of life” and collective rights. Both citizens and policymakers are often willing to compromise on material interests, but ways of life are intrinsically more precious and less negotiable.”

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Diversity, Identity, and Rights (core topic) in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100 Governance and Institutions.


Leslie Pal (2014), Beyond Policy Analysis – Public Issue Management in Turbulent Times, Fifth Edition, Nelson Education, Toronto. See Beyond Policy Analysis – Book Highlights.

The sources cited by Pal in the above quotation are:

Barry, B. (2001). Culture and equality: An egalitarian critique of multiculturalism. Cambridge: Policy Press.

Kymlicka, W. (2007). Ethnocultural diversity in a liberal state: Making sense of the Canadian model(s). In K. Banting, T. J. Courchene, & F. L. Seidle (Eds.), Belonging?: Diversity, recognition and shared citizenship in Canada (pp. 39–86). Montréal, QC: Institute for Research on Public Policy.

Norris, P. (2011). Democratic deficit: Critical citizens revisited. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Pal, L. A. (1993). Interests of state: The politics of language, multiculturalism, and feminism in Canada. Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Ryan, P. (2010). Multicultiphobia. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 27 March 2017.

Image: Flow, Stage Left: Glee and the Textual Politics of Difference, at https://www.flowjournal.org/2009/12/stage-left-glee-and-the-textual-politics-of-difference-lucas-hilderbrand-university-of-california-irvine/, accessed 27 March 2017.