- Multiculturalism and the Good Life:Comments on Bhikhu Parekh
There was a time—not too long ago—when multiculturalism was largely a matter of taste or aesthetic sensibility. Despite occasional skirmishes, the issue for many was one of personal preference: a preference either for the comforts of one's familiar culture or else for the benefits of cultural variety seen as the proverbial "spice of life." With his talent for felicitous turns of phrase, Stanley Fish has aptly described the latter option as "boutique multiculturalism," that is, delight in folkloric entertainment and exotic knick-knacks.1 In many schools and colleges throughout the United States (including my own), it is customary to celebrate each year a "week of cultural diversity," a period highlighted by the display of stunning folkloric costumes and the consumption of Oriental food. Today, under the impact of globalizing pressures, many such practices appear quaint. Samuel Huntington's prognosis of a looming "clash of civilizations" has injected harsh conflictual accents into multicultural debates—accents underscored and confirmed, in the eyes of many, by the grim events of September 11. In light of the dark shadows covering the global scenario, multiculturalism acquires new ethical and existential connotations, beyond the range of private whim: connotations having to do with war and peace, that is, with the possibility or impossibility of the peaceful survival of humankind.
To discuss the topic under contemporary circumstances requires a combination of talents rare among academic intellectuals: broad erudition, sharp theoretical acumen, and practical real-life experience (especially exposure to both the joys and agonies of cross-cultural interactions). Bhikhu Parekh belongs to the small group of writers equipped to undertake the task. Renowned as one of the leading political thinkers of our time, he has devoted much of his life to the exploration of the history of Western political thought, while simultaneously gaining a solid reputation as an expert on Gandhi, colonialism and post-colonialism. Broad erudition of this kind is undergirded by his own cross-cultural background: a native of India he has charted his professional career both on the subcontinent (where he served for a time as vice-chancellor of the University of Baroda) and in England (first at the University of Hull and now at LSE). Academic learning, moreover, has always been accompanied by practical, real-life involvement in the day-to-day problems of inter-ethnic and cross-cultural relations in contemporary society. Among other positions, Parekh has served as Acting Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality in the United Kingdom, and more recently as Chair of the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain. Such concrete experiences give added weight and substance to his theoretical reflections, lending them a quality of seasoned judgment uncommon among academics. It is principally this quality of reflective judgment—the intimate correlation of theory and praxis—which renders his book Rethinking Multiculuralism: Cultural Diversity and Political Theory a genuine milestone in this field.2
Heeding Stanley Fish's admonition, Parekh's book does not deal with matters of private taste or personal idiosyncracies; nor does he dwell on individual lifestyles or partisan preferences. As he observes (2-4), social diversity comes in many shapes and forms, not all of which should be termed "multicultural." Thus, while "subcultural" differences revolve around unconventional practices within an overarching cultural framework, and whereas "perspectival" differences reflect partisan viewpoints chastised or ignored by that framework, "multicultural" diversity is anchored in a plurality of distinct cultural communities, and hence is more "robust and tenacious" than other types. In Parekh's treatment, hence, multiculturalism is not about any and all kinds of differences, but only about those "that are embedded in and sustained by culture," that is, by "a body of beliefs and practices in terms of which a group of people understand themselves and the world and organize their individual and collective lives." Unlike individual tastes or preferences, culturally derived differences "carry a measure of authority" growing out of a "shared and historically inherited system of meaning and significance." Given their communal or collective structure, cultural differences often have political implications not usually associated with personal preferences: basically, they carry in themselves the ominous potential...