Multiculturalism is basically an aspiration of the representatives and spokespersons of the various minority groups, to state the legitimacy of their own differences and obtain the acknowledgement of their cultural characteristics. What this acceptance of differences and this cultural acknowledgement actually consists in is a controversial issue that allows for both weak and strong interpretations, ranging from the public tolerance of cultural differences, to requests for support for the survival of a culture of origin.
Multiculturalism therefore presents itself as an alternative to the traditional melting pot, the ideal American assimilation, also summarised in the saying e plurimus unus, where the accent is placed on the unification and integration of all the groups in one single nation. The reasons for this passage from the melting pot to multiculturalism are seen as the failed and incomplete integration resulting from that model: unification in fact meant assimilation into the dominant group, on one hand, and a persistent discrimination and alienation of minorities on the other. Cultural domination and social inequality appeared as a non contingent result of the traditional integration’s ideals and policies, to which disadvantaged minorities, mainly Afro-American, opposed an attitude asserting their own differences and celebrating their own cultural origins.
Towards the end of the Eighties many different claims were presented in the name of multiculturalism. In the United States this began with battles concerning educational programmes, and in particular against the “norm”, hence the ensemble of literature’s classics and those of western schools of thought, traditionally studied in schools. Requests included a broadening of the programme so as to also make time for the artistic and literary expressions of other cultures. An intense controversy arose on this subject that saw opposed on one hand the supporters of differences and multiculturalism, and on the other the defenders of tradition, who counterattacked with a controversy on “political correctness”. The democratic liberals were divided here and there, some accepting the request for fair integration, and others opposing the particularistic and relativist aspects of the celebration of differences.
After this tempestuous debut, multiculturalism emerged from the battle on the curricula and from the United States. It found famous supporters in liberal thinkers such as Will Kymlicka, Joseph Raz, and Avishai Margalit, addressing various requests ranging from tolerance for dress-codes to bilingual schools, changes in school meals and requests for cultural rights. Towards the end of the Nineties it seemed, at least at far as the legitimacy of a public debate was concerned, that multiculturalism had won the battle. Not for long. Criticism of multiculturalism then started in the name of women’s rights. In 1998 Susan Okin wrote a famous essay entitled: “Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?” in which she denounced the fact that the protection of non-Western culture implied neglecting women’s rights in those patriarchal and oppressive cultures.
At a philosophical level, some, like Brian Barry (2000), stated that one cannot remedy discrimination and inequality with other discriminations of the opposite kind and that the only remedy is liberal equality. To this one must add the atmosphere of suspicion surrounding Arabs and Muslims after September 11th 2001, increased by other terrorist attacks, and explains multiculturalism’s rapid loss of credibility as well as that of the policies it inspired. This had the bizarre effect due to which in our country criticism of multiculturalism began before the phenomenon has been really understood, studied and adopted as a guideline for cultural policies.
To the question asking whether multiculturalism inevitably leads to a mosaic-like society, tribe-like in its various traditions, to abandoning women’s rights and those of individualism within cultures, and to a perspective of cultural relativism leaving us helpless facing attacks from Muslim fundamentalism, the answer is no, unless one provides a caricatured and biased version of multiculturalism. If multiculturalism is supported by the universal principals of the liberal tradition (equal respect, non discrimination, tolerance, equal opportunities), as happens in the best interpretations, and if achieved with an open mind, with attempts and errors, trying to accommodate all, for the moment there is no other ideal present to replace it for the coexistence of various groups and cultures.