One time, back when I was actually semi-active on Google+, I came across a rather heated debate. Someone had posted an article telling the story of a child bride who had died on her wedding night. The post was directed accusingly at self-described proponents of "multiculturalism", an ideology which, in the poster's opinion, was in the same category as "cultural relativism", which he considered deeply depraved.
Unsurprisingly, the debate didn't center around the question of whether child marriage was a horrific practice that needed to be roundly condemned in the harshest terms possible - of course it was, and no one needed convincing - but rather around the original poster's insistence on conflating "multiculturalism" and "cultural relativism". People were insulted.
One of these days I'm going to write something about how people can become emotionally attached to, or emotionally repelled by, certain charged combinations of words. Think of terms like "euthanasia" or "rape" or "life" or "free will" or "consciousness" and you'll see what I mean. I think the original poster, in this case, had an emotional attachment to his own notion of "multiculturalism" and seemed unwilling to entertain the idea that other people might use the word differently.
I don't know the exact, academic definition of "cultural relativism". The everyday one off which I tend to base my opinions is that it's a version of "ethical relativism". It's the idea that you can't really categorize cultures or, perhaps more accurately, cultural practices, as "good" or "bad". To put it more bluntly, it's the idea that one cannot label female circumcision, or child marriage, or sati as evil because, well, that's just how they do things over there and who are we to judge?
I'll say it flat out: if that's your definition of "multiculturalism", then it's not a philosophy to which I subscribe - but, then again, I don't know anyone who does. I'm not a logic expert, but I think this is what's called a "straw man" argument - one defines a concept in such way that you can't help but condemn it, but which bears little resemblance to way the concept is actually (or often) used. I, for example, adhere to a philosophy that I call "multiculturalism", and yet I have no problem condemning a host of practices that I would label as "barbaric" (this is not at all the same thing, by the way, as advocating a dedicated "barbaric practices" tip line. As far as I know, we already have one; it's called "911")
All that being said, here's where it gets a little hazy and here's where I can see some people misconstruing my beliefs.
Like most rational people, I'm unwilling to judge an entire people by the presence of a few bad apples but, more than that, I'm also unwilling to judge an entire culture by the presence of a few bad practices. For me, the term "multiculturalism" unpacks to something resembling a form of libertarianism: a kind of marketplace or buffet of cultures, where you get to pick and choose the best (or at least neutral) bits from each, and reject the rest.
Female circumcision is, obviously, evil, but praying five times a day facing Mecca is not and accepting one does not mean accepting the other. Cultures are not monolithic. They are not package deals. Recognizing this truth isn't ethical or cultural relativism. I'm very willing to label certain cultural practices, and the people who observe them, as unambiguously evil, but I'm unwilling to define an entire culture by its unsavoury elements. I simply try to pick the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, and go on from there.
I'm pretty conventional when it comes to liberal, western values. I believe in free speech, freedom of religion, etc. There are some people who take this to mean that I cannot, therefore, be a multiculturalist, as if the belief that there are such things as shared national values somehow negates the term.
They are, of course, wrong. They're mistaken as to what the term means. More importantly, I believe they're mistaken as to what constitutes a culture.
I have said it before: I don't think there is such a thing as a strong Canadian culture, in the same sense that one would refer to a strong French culture or a strong Chinese culture. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, these do not count - not in the way some people think. These are not cultural artifacts, from my perspective. They are basic human rights. Far from negating the concept of multiculturalism, they are actually necessary for it to work at all. They are the basic substrate underpinning civilized human and cultural interaction.
Together they form, for lack of a better word, a metaculture - a culture about cultures. A general strategy for dealing with people who come from different parts of the world and who now live together in the same physical space. The term is generalized from words like, for example, "metalogic" (logic about logic) and metablogging (blogging about blogging).
I believe in a strong Canadian metaculture. And yes, some parts of some cultures clash with this strong metaculture and must be rejected. This is not the same as rejecting the entire culture. I know it's a cliche, but one does not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
I've sometimes heard Canada's policy of multiculturalism contrasted against the American version by calling the former a "salad" and the latter a "melting pot". I don't know how fair that comparison is, but I like the idea of being part of a salad. Come as you are you, as they say. It makes life more interesting.