The term multiculturalism has a range of meanings within the contexts of sociology, of political philosophy, and of colloquial use. In sociology and in everyday usage, it is a synonym for “ethnic pluralism”, with the two terms often used interchangeably, for example, a cultural pluralism in which various ethnic groups collaborate and enter into a dialogue with one another without having to sacrifice their particular identities.
In reference to political science, multiculturalism can be defined as a state’s capacity to effectively and efficiently deal with cultural plurality within its sovereign borders. Multiculturalism as a political philosophy involves ideologies and policies which vary widely. It has been described as a “salad bowl” and as a “cultural mosaic”, in contrast to a “melting pot”.
According to an article by Robert Longley, multiculturalism is the way in which a society deals with cultural diversity, both at the national and at the community level. Sociologically, multiculturalism assumes that society, as a whole, benefits from increased diversity through the harmonious coexistence of different cultures. Multicultural societies are characterized by people of different races, ethnicities, and nationalities living together in the same community. In multicultural communities, people retain, pass down, celebrate, and share their unique cultural ways of life, languages, art, traditions, and behaviors.
The characteristics of multiculturalism often spread into the community’s public schools, where curricula are crafted to introduce young people to the qualities and benefits of cultural diversity. Though sometimes criticized as a form of “political correctness,” educational systems in multicultural societies stress the histories and traditions of minorities in classrooms and textbooks.
Multiculturalism is the key to achieving a high degree of cultural diversity. Diversity occurs when people of different races, nationalities, religions, ethnicities, and philosophies come together to form a community. A truly diverse society is one that recognizes and values the cultural differences in its people. Proponents of cultural diversity argue that it makes humanity stronger and may, in fact, be vital to its long-term survival. In 2001, the General Conference of UNESCO took this position when it asserted in its Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity that “…cultural diversity is as necessary for humankind as biodiversity is for nature.”
Ruth Wodak underlines the fact that the idea of multiculturalism involved conciliation, tolerance, respect, interdependence, and universalism, and it was expected to bring about an ‘inter-cultural community’. Over time, it became perceived as a way of institutionalizing difference through autonomous cultural discourses. According to Wodak, the debate on the end of multiculturalism has long existed in Europe. It seems that the declaration of the ‘failure of multiculturalism’ has become a catchphrase not only of right-wing parties but also of centrist political parties throughout the continent. In 2010 and 2011, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, UK PM David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy heavily criticized multi-culturalism for dubious reasons. Geert Wilders made no apologies for declaring that ‘We Christians should be proud that our culture is better than Islamic culture”. Populism blames multi-culturalism for denationalizing one’s own nation, and disunifying one’s own people.
Anton Pelinka explains how populism simplifies the complex realities of a globalized world by looking for a scapegoat: “As the enemy – the foreigner, the foreign culture – has already succeeded in breaking into the fortress of the nation state, someone must be responsible. The elites are the secondary ‘defining others’, responsible for the liberal democratic policies of accepting cultural diversity. The populist answer to the complexities of a more and more pluralistic society is not multiculturalism… Right-wing populism sees multiculturalism as a recipe to denationalize one’s nation, to deconstruct one’s people.”
According to an article by Will Kymlicka, across Europe, and around the world, we see popular discontent with diversity, but this new narrative tells people that their discontent is not with diversity as such, but with a misguided and naive ‘multiculturalism’. Kymlicka writes that “multiculturalism is offered up as a handy scapegoat for popular discontent, in the hope that this will undercut support for populist, anti-immigrant or anti-Roma, xenophobic parties. The narrative says ‘don’t take your frustrations out on minorities; your objection is not to diversity, which is a good thing, but to the extreme multiculturalist ideology that we have now safely put behind us’.”
To Kymlicka, viewed as a social science diagnosis of popular discontent, this blaming of multiculturalism is implausible. The evidence suggests that popular discontent with immigrants is in fact higher in countries that didn’t embrace multiculturalism, and there’s no evidence that adopting multiculturalism policies causes or exacerbates anti-immigrant or anti-minority attitudes.
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