Multiculturalism is something stronger than a mere appreciation of different cultures. ‘Isms usually mean ideologies, and multiculturalism is no exception. If you’re a multiculturalist, you think that institutions and political communities should have some sort of official sponsorship of the values and practices of other cultures, especially cultures that have minority representation or which have at some time in history been treated badly.
The problem with multiculturalism is that it’s a self-defeating ideology. Here’s why. If you take stock of the things you value, you’ll see that there are some which you consider to be universal values and some which you consider to be personal or local values. For example, you might have the belief that it’s proper to wear a tuxedo when you get married. But you’d be silly to think that any man getting married anywhere should wear a tux at his wedding. It’s a local value; you think it only applies to a certain culture, for example modern Western culture. (That’s probably too broad; I actually don’t know what’s the proper dress for grooms in Denmark or Austria. But you get the idea.) By contrast, your belief that people who are governed should have some say in how they are governed is a universal value. You think it applies everywhere there are people governed, regardless of the current authoritarian practices or beliefs of some community.
Now look at multiculturalism. We can suppose that there are local and universal varieties of multiculturalism. A local variety would hold that one’s own community should be multicultural; a universal variety would hold that all communities should be multicultural. The problem with universal multiculturalism is easier to see than the problem with local multiculturalism, so I’ll start with it. Universal multiculturalism, if implemented, would become uni-culturalism. The culture of every community would just be to affirm the culture of every other community. Soon we’d have nothing to affirm except copies of ourselves. We’d all look reverently on a past that included many cultures, maybe promote the study of culture as a historical phenomenon. But we’d no longer have a plurality of real, live cultures to affirm. So as good multiculturalists we shouldn’t want universal multiculturalism.
The problem with local multiculturalism is that it doesn’t extend to one’s own culture the same reverence it does to others’. If I’m a multiculturalist I want all those primitive tribes in Africa and South America to be able to go on doing their thing without interference from the outside world. I want all the strange, local customs to endure all over the world. I don’t want them to be obliterated by the ominous evangelism of American missionaries, American pop culture, and American foodstuffs. I want cultures to go on being cultures. But I don’t want this for my own culture. My adoption of multiculturalism has forced me to look at culture, all cultures, including my own culture, from the outside looking in. But you can’t inhabit a culture if you’re looking from the outside. And there’s no culture to inhabit if everyone’s looking from the outside. So as good multiculturalists we shouldn’t want local multiculturalism, either. But this means that multiculturalism entails anti-multiculturalism, which is a contradiction.
The motivation for multiculturalism is to avoid the sort of cruelty that is born of ignorance. “You’re not like us, so we don’t have to treat you with the same respect with which we treat ourselves.” And cruelty born of ignorance is very good to avoid. So the thought is that if we could get everyone to just play down their membership in their own cultures and be more knowledgable about and affirming of other cultures, we’d be better to one another. One way this is done in practice is to teach children about all the bad things their own culture has done, and all the good things about other cultures. So for example it’s very popular to subvert inspiring narratives about revered leaders. But this is a sort of cruelty too. A cruelty born, maybe not out of ignorance, but out of fear. It’s cruel to the culture which instilled in you the liberal values that have allowed you to appreciate other cultures, and it’s cruel to those young people who won’t have the chance to inhabit authentically any culture.
The best way to really value the wonderful diversity of cultures is to sustain your own.