, summer 2002
'It's good to be different' might be the motto of our times. The celebration of difference,
respect for pluralism, avowal of identity politics - these are regarded the hallmarks of a
progressive, antiracist outlook.
Belief in pluralism and the multicultural society is so much woven into the fabric of our
lives that we rarely stand back to question some of its assumptions. As the American
academic, and former critic of pluralism, Nathan Glazer puts it in the title of a recent
We are All Multiculturalists Now
I want to question this easy assumption that pluralism is self-evidently good. I want to
show, rather, that the notion of pluralism is both logically flawed and politically
dangerous, and that creation of a 'multicultural' society has been at the expense of a more
Proponents of multiculturalism usually put forward two kinds of arguments in its favour.
First, they claim that multiculturalism is the only means of ensuring a tolerant and
democratic polity in a world in which there are deep-seated conflicts between cultures
embodying different values. This argument is often linked to the claim that the attempt to
establish universal norms inevitably leads to racism and tyranny. Second, they suggest
that human beings have a basic, almost biological, need for cultural attachments. This
need can only be satisfied, they argue, by publicly validating and protecting different
cultures. Both arguments are, I believe, deeply flawed.
The case for 'value pluralism' has probably been best put by the late philosopher Isaiah
Berlin. 'Life may be seen through many windows', he wrote, 'none of them necessarily
clear or opaque, less or more distorting than any of the others'. For Berlin, there was no
such thing as a universal truth, only a variety of conflicting truths. Different peoples and
cultures had different values, beliefs and truths, each of which may be regarded as valid.
Many of these values and truths were incommensurate, by which Berlin meant that not
only are they incompatible, but they were incomparable, because there was no common
language we could use to compare the one with the other. As the philosopher John Gray
has put it, 'There is no impartial or universal viewpoint from which the claims of all
particular cultures can be rationally assessed. Any standpoint we adopt is that of a
particular form of life and the historic practices that constitute it.' Given the
incommensurability of cultural values, pluralism, Berlin argued, was the best defence
against tyranny and against ideologies, such as racism, which treated some human beings
as less equal than others.
This argument for pluralism is, as many have pointed out, logically flawed. If it is true
that 'any standpoint we adopt is that of a particular form of life and the historic practices
that constitute it', then this must apply to pluralism too. A pluralist, in other words, can
never claim that plural society is better, since, according his own argument, 'There is no