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The multi-individual society

The following is an excerpt of an article posted on Indianexpress.com on 9 February 2011.

by Pratap Bhanu Mehta

Source: AP

David Cameron’s speech on “state multiculturalism” at the Munich Conference has evoked sharply contrasting responses. Some see in the speech an attempt to rescue liberalism from its counterfeit cousin, multiculturalism. Others see an enactment of the same narrow politics that produced a crisis in many liberal societies in the first place. Whether the speech will turn out to be a clear statement of liberal principles or a provocative salvo in the culture wars will be determined more by the course of Cameron’s politics than the speech itself. But it is important to be clear about the different issues at stake in the ideological polemics over multiculturalism.

The contest between liberalism and multiculturalism was about the relationship between freedom and diversity. Multiculturalism often fell into three traps in the context of this relationship.

First, it ignored the fact that equal freedom for all individuals is the core value.

If a group can make the argument that no values and laws should be imposed on it, if it has not consented to them, so can any individual within a group. So the rights of individuals are paramount; no collective identity can override them. The burden of justification has to be met at the individual level. If the range of freedom expands, all kinds of diversity will flourish anyway. But this will not necessarily be the diversity of well-defined cultural groups. It will be something that both draws upon culture and subverts it at the same time.

From a distant, aestheticised, point of view, cultures and practices form an extraordinary mosaic. From the practical point of view of individuals living within any of these cultures, these cultures and practices are horizons within which they operate. Even when not oppressive, these horizons might appear to them as constraints.

It would be morally obtuse to say to these individuals that they should go on living their cultures, just because their not doing so might diminish the forms of diversity in the world. In practice, the imperatives of diversity cannot, at least prima facie, trump the free choices of individuals.

Second, instead of saying that your identity should be irrelevant to citizenship and to the goods that the state distributes, multiculturalism made identities the axis of distribution. The more identities become an axis of distribution, the greater the chance of destructive group politics.

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