Up against the limits of the politics of recognition

In 2018 questions of national belonging and cultural identity are shaking our political institutions. The resurgence of nativist nationalism forces us to ask where cultural recognition ends and xenophobic arrogance begins. Are fears of the new nationalism hypocritical coming from people who for decades supported multiculturalism and indigenous peoples’ rights? Aren’t those movements equally motivated by traditionalism and nostalgia? I would answer no to both questions. The moral force behind multiculturalism is liberal egalitarianism, not traditionalism.


To better understand what gives cultural claims their normative force, I studied the political appeals to culture and identity made by defenders of fox hunting in the lead up to the creation of the Hunting Act (2004) in the United Kingdom. Research into the rights of minority groups to preserve their culture and identity has tended to focus on claims for cultural recognition made by indigenous peoples or other socio-economically disadvantaged groups. But the campaign to save fox hunting offers an opportunity to examine the normative weight we give cultural claims in our political judgments when the issues of dispossession and socio-economic disadvantage are put to the side.

To its opponents, foxhunting represented the unnecessary infliction of pain and suffering on innocent animals by people whose wealth and political clout had shielded their sport from previous waves of animal cruelty legislation. In response to the proposal to ban hunting, the well-funded but unsuccessful pro-hunting campaign stressed not only the importance of hunting to the rural economy, but the importance of foxhunting as a cultural tradition of the British countryside. Hunting enthusiasts presented themselves as a minority group holding distinctive values setting them apart from the rest of society.

Opponents of the hunting ban consciously echoed arguments about cultural survival and cultural diversity made by indigenous hunters. They claimed that their desire to preserve and uphold the tradition of their ancestors should be respected. From an anthropological point of view it’s not unreasonable to see the hunting with hounds as an important cultural expression of the British countryside.

Yet, while contemporary indigenous hunting practices can prompt conservationists and animal rights campaigners to agonise over the proper limits of cultural toleration, no animal rights activists confessed themselves torn between the rights of foxes and the rights of foxhunters to preserve their centuries-old ritual. Moreover, the House of Lords held that the ban did not constitute discrimination or violate anyone’s human rights, even as it acknowledged the importance of hunting to some people’s identity and way of life.

The conclusion to be drawn is that the politics of recognition is intimately tied to the politics of redistribution. At its heart multiculturalism is about dismantling racial hierarchies. This point is particularly worth making in light of the numerous other relatively privileged groups who attempt to defend offensive practices on the grounds that such practices are tied to their cultural identity and heritage. In the Netherlands for example, Black Pete (Zwarte Piet) – a golliwog-like figure who helps Sinterklaas distribute gifts to children as part of the annual feast of St. Nicholas – has been criticised as an embodiment of racist stereotypes. These accusations have been met with appeals to Black Pete’s importance as a Dutch cultural tradition. In the US South, white Southerners fight to keep the Confederate flag flying over state capitals and defend other symbols of slavery. They claim the right to celebrate the Civil War as part of their heritage and identity.


Here in Australia there are activists seeking to retain a privileged position for British traditions and institutions at the centre of national identity. They are pushing back against moves by local councils to shift the celebration  of Australia Day away from 26 January, the date that signifies the arrival of the First Fleet and the start of Aboriginal dispossession. 26 January is a day of mourning for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Celebrating Australia Day on this emotionally resonant date might feel like an important tradition to a powerful section of Australian society proud of their British heritage, but if we are to build a fair society inclusive of Australia’s First Peoples we need to change the date. The moral force of appeals to cultural tradition derive not from a vital human need for cultural recognition but from the imperative of remedying longstanding inequalities of wealth and power.

Katherine Curchin’s article Testing the limits of the politics of recognition: Fox hunters in the United Kingdom, in International Political Science Review is available for free until the end of January 2018.

Dr Katherine Curchin is an applied political philosopher at the Australian National University