The essay I'm writing this month is about the tension between feminism and multiculturalism and whether there has been a successful resolution by liberal authors. I'm only at the beginning of my reading, but it has clarified a few feelings I've always had.
Multiculturalism has a lot of forms, but the one that seems to be used in this context is the one I have a problem with. It claims that cultures need to be respected and preserved. A number of reasons for why are given, but that isn't really at issue for me. I have a problem with both of those assertions, unless they are very thoroughly qualified.
In terms of respect, I completely respect someone's right to participate in whatever culture they want, as long as that culture doesn't violate the basic rights and values that I think apply to everyone. I don't think I am compelled to respect a culture itself that doesn't deserve respect.
I also have no problem with preserving a culture that is worth preserving.
However, I can't think of a single culture on this planet that I think should be preserved as it is now, or that can be entirely respected as it stands. This, obviously, includes my own. I think all cultures should constantly be open to criticism and reform, because I don't think we even know what a good culture looks like. So no, I don't think we should compromise our principles for other cultures.
But it's not that simple. Multiculturalism as understood as "my culture is not the defining culture and is not more inherently valid than yours" is a Good Thing. Arbitrary laws and norms that have nothing to do with critical values that can't be compromised need to be made more flexible. The working week, for example, is structured around a traditional Christian view of the week, and there is nothing that makes that structure any more inherently valid than any other. It makes sense to move towards a more flexible arrangement that accommodates all religious views.
When we see something in a unfamiliar culture that we find problematic, we need to look at why. Joseph Carens, an author I have just read, has justified accepting gender inequality in Islam on the basis that we accept it in Judaism and Christianity. That strikes me as utterly arse up. We may not pay as much heed to gender inequality in those religions we have lived with for longer because we have become accustomed to it. Maybe, rather than appealing to the lowest common denominator, we should look at why we have a problem with some aspects of Islam and use it to shape up our own society. We should be using the reality of multicultural societies to examine all our cultures. To bring us all a step forward. My culture isn't better than yours, but yours might help me see what I've been ignoring in mine for a long, long time. It might also remind me just how much my culture isn't better than yours.
We've managed in Australia to do it with food - we have integrated food and we have culturally separate food, food is allowed to move between distinctiveness and fusion. Even the most authentic of styles will recognise when a better option comes along, and we all recognise that Thai food isn't better or worse than French or Italian or Japanese. "Australian" food steals something from all of them and adds some local uniqueness. But still, regardless of tradition, food that is spoiled or past its use-by date can't be used. Nor can food that is ethically unacceptable (said with an understanding that "ethically acceptable" is a massively moving target). It's the model we need to adopt with culture, and at the same time, we need to understand that while what is "unacceptable" is a moving target, some things are not negotiable.