The Poppadom Paradox:
'As Life-transforming events go, the arrival of poppadoms at the table hardly counts as the most dramatic. But it gave Saskia the kind of mental jolt that would profoundly alter the way she thought.
The problem was that the waiter who delivered the poppadoms was not of Indian descent, but was a white Anglo-sSaxon. This bothered Saskia becaus, for her, one of the pleasures of going out for a curry was the feeling that you were tasting a foreign culture. Had the waiter served her a steak and kidney pie it would have been no more incongruous than his skin colour.
The more she thought about it, however, the less sense it made. Saskia thought of herself as a multiculturralist. That is to say, she positively enjoyed the variety of cultures an ethnically diverse society sustains. But her enjoyment depended upon other people remaining ethnically distinct. She could enjoy a life flitting betweeen many different cultures only if others remained firmly rooted in one. For her to be a multiculturalist, others needed to be monoculturalists. Where did that leave her ideal of a multicultural society?'
'Saskia is right to feel uncomfortable. There is a problem at the heart of liberal multiculturalism. It advocates respect for other cultures but what it values above all is the ability to transcend one culture and value many. This places a major constraint on the extent of its respect. Te ideal person is the multiculturalist who can visit a mosque, read Hindu srciptures and practise Buddhist meditation. Those who remain within one tradition do not embody these ideas, and so, despite the talk of 'respect', they can be seen onlyt as inferior to the open-minded multiculturalist.
There is something of the zoo mentality in this. The multiculturalist wants to go around admiring different ways of living but can do this only if various forms of life are kept more or less intct. Different subcultures in society are thus like cages, and if too many people move in or out of them, they become less interesting for the multiculturalist to point and smile at. If everyone were as culturally promiscuous as they were, there would be less genuine diversity to revel in. And so the multiculturalists must remain an elite, parasitic on internally homogenous monocultures.
It may be argued that it is possible to be both a multiculturalist and a committed to one particular culture. The paradigm here is of the devout Muslim or Christian who nonetheless has a profound respect for other religiions and belief systems and is always prepared to learn from them.
However, tolerane and respect for other cultures are notht esame and valuing all cultures more or less equally. For the multiculturalist, the best point of view is the one which sees merit in all. But one cannot be a committed Christian, Muslim, Jew or even atheist and sincerely believe this. There may be tolerance, or even respect, for other cultures, but if a Christian really believed that Islam is as valuable as Christianity, why would they be a Christian?
This is the multiculturalist's dilemma. You can have a society of many cultures which respect each other. Call that multiculturalism if you want. But if you want to champion a multiculturalism which values diversity itself and sees all cultures as of equal merit, then you either have to accept that those who live within just one culture have an inferior form of life -which seems to go against the idea of respect for all cultures - or you have to argue for erosion of divisions between distinct cultures, so that people value more and more in the cultures of others - which will lead to a decrease in the kind of diversity you claim to value.
In this concrete example, for Saskia to continue to enjoy a diversity of cultures, she must hope that others do not embrace multiculturalism as fully as she has."