Solidarity in a pluralist age

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Societies will only hold together through dialogue and openness, writes Charles Taylor, professor emeritus of philosophy at McGill University in Montréal and permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna.

Charles Taylor is professor emeritus of philosophy at McGill University in Montréal and permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna. His most recent book is 'A Secular Age'.

"Solidarity is essential to democratic societies; otherwise, they fall apart. They cannot function beyond a certain level of mutual distrust or a sense on the part of some members that other members have abandoned them.

Many view the development of an individualistic outlook as the greatest threat to solidarity nowadays. But this is closely linked to a diminishing sense of common identity.

It is no accident, for example, that Europe's most successful welfare states were created in ethnically homogeneous Scandinavia. People in those countries had the sense that they could understand their neighbours and fellow citizens, and that they shared a close link with them.

The challenge nowadays is to maintain that sense of intense solidarity amid diversifying populations. There are two ways to do this. One is to hark back to older modes of solidarity. French identity, for example, is based on the country's unique brand of republican secularism, known as laïcité. But France's efforts to shore up solidarity by insisting on laïcité and erecting a dam against Muslim immigrants are both ineffective and counter-productive, because they exclude from a sense of fully belonging to the nation many people who are actually in France already.

The other way to preserve solidarity is to redefine identity. All democratic societies today are faced with the challenge of redefining their identity in dialogue with some elements that are external, and some that are internal. Consider the influence of feminist movements throughout the West.

These are not people who came from outside their countries. They are people who in some ways lacked full citizenship, who demanded it, and who redefined the political order by obtaining it.

Today the great task is to calm the fears that our traditions are being undermined; to reach out to people who are coming into our lands from other countries; and to find a way of recreating our political ethic around the kernel of human rights, equality, non-discrimination, and democracy.

If we succeed, we can create a sense that we belong together, even though our reasons for believing so may be different."

To read the op-ed in full, please click here.

(Published in partnership with Project Syndicate.)

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