Timothy Garton Ash in the NYRB:
“Multiculturalism” has become a term of wholly uncertain meaning. Does it refer to a social reality? A set of policies? A normative theory? An ideology? Last year, I served on a Council of Europe working group with members from eight other European countries. We found that the word meant something different, and usually confused, in every country.
Some, though not all, of the policies described as “multiculturalism” over the last thirty years have had deeply illiberal consequences. They have allowed the development of “parallel societies” or “subsidized isolation.” Self-appointed community leaders have used public funds to reinforce cultural norms that would be unacceptable in the wider society, especially in relation to women. This has come close to official endorsement of cultural and moral relativism. A perverse effect has been to disempower the voices of the more liberal, secular, and critical minority within such ethnically or culturally defined minorities.
If, therefore, you want to elaborate a version of multiculturalism that is genuinely compatible with liberalism, as some distinguished political theorists do, you have to spend pages hedging the term about with clarifications and qualifications. By the time you have finished doing that, the justification for a separate new “ism” has evaporated. Why not simply talk about the form of modern liberalism suited—meaning also, developed and adapted—to the conditions of a contemporary, multicultural society?
When understandings of liberalism were expanded to embrace equal liberty under law for people of all social classes, it was not thought necessary to speak of “multiclassism”; nor, when extended to those of all skin colors, “multicolorism”; nor again, when to those of all genders and sexualities, “multigenderism” or “multisexualitism.” Painful though this will be to those who have expended their academic careers on multiculturalism, the term should be consigned to the conceptual dustbin of history.