The Modern Survival Guide #94
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. Now here’s the catch: I’m a middle-class, straight, privileged white boy from the American South. I don’t recall meeting a brown person until I was in middle school. I was raised Christian, and didn’t interact with a person of a different faith until high school. By all the markers, I come from a relatively homogeneous, culturally limited background. Take this into account when you read my opinions on things.
And I still think multiculturalism is the best, brightest thing we can do with our future in the great American experiment. Which just goes to show you that someone’s background is not an adequate predictor of their opinions.
In the past I’ve written articles on why racism, xenophobia, sexism, and religious intolerance are all bad things. So one would think, then, that it’s fairly obvious that I’d think multiculturalism is a good thing. That’s a dangerous assumption though; not every issue comes with bipolar options. As it happens, in this particular case it would be a correct assumption, and in this article I’m going to back it up with actual reasons. I know, I know, you’re shocked and amazed. It’s like you read the title or something.
So let’s get down to it — what does “multiculturalism” mean, anyway? As I often say, it’s good to know what we’re talking about. As it turns out, there are a bunch of definitions that people associate with “multiculturalism.” The one that we’re going with is as follows:
Multiculturalism: The idea that society as a whole benefits from increased diversity through the harmonious coexistence of different cultures.
Now we’ve got one more thing to cover before we go any further, and it is: what do we mean by “culture” in this context? In the interests of consistency, let’s use a definition from one of my previous articles:
Culture: The customs, achievements, patterns of behavior, and social assumptions of a particular nation, people, or social group.¹
All sorted out on definitions? Great. Now then, I think multiculturalism is good for six main reasons:
- It dispels poor assumptions
- It promotes dialogue
- It increases access to ideas
- It is a good economic move
- It is a good national security move
- It’s interesting
I’ll go into each of these and then end the article by addressing some critiques of multiculturalism, so if you feel these points are self-evident, feel free to skip ahead. Let’s get started.
Multiculturalism Dispels Poor Assumptions
Ignorance is not bliss. It’s just not knowing things. And as we all know, when you assume things it makes an ass out of you and me. If we understand these two points, we understand that a lot of conflict in the modern world comes from cultures interacting without adequate understanding of each other’s nuances.
Let’s say that I come from a culture in which the “OK” hand gesture means “OK.” Let’s say that I’m interacting with a culture in which what I think of as the “OK” hand gesture is instead the gesture for “fuck you.” Let us then assume that we are in a situation in which I think things are OK, and I use a gesture to convey this idea.
Probably I provoke someone. If I’m very lucky, they are more culturally educated than I am. And even in that case, they’re going to be annoyed or embarrassed.
Now scale this up, because this sort of thing happens a lot. A fair piece of the American failures in the Middle East can be put down to not understanding the culture. A fair piece of your interactions with some of your neighbors probably hit the same issue. These are, in whole or in part, products of assuming that one culture is the same as another, and obeys the same rules.
There’s not really a good argument for fostering conflict like this. It’s wasteful of time, resources, and sanity. It doesn’t contribute to a peaceful experience. It doesn’t inspire confidence or harmony with others. Conflict based on ignorance simply isn’t useful in any particular sense.
Multiculturalism is a good thing because as we interact with and learn about other cultures, it pulls the teeth of these kinds of ignorance-inspired conflicts. To put it in someone else’s words (in this case Mark Twain), “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
These days we don’t even have to travel; if we let them, other peoples and other cultures will come to us, and the longer we’re around each other, the fewer ignorance-based conflicts we should see.
Multiculturalism Promotes Dialogue
There’s an interesting story that I’ve heard repeated in various forms over the years, and it goes something like this:
A lifelong bigot is forced, for one reason or another, into close proximity with a person of a different race, creed, or culture. The details change with the story. After some time they come to realize that the person they hate is not so different and is, in fact, just another human being. This causes a positive change in their life and leads to better mutual understanding and respect.
It’s an instructive story. It’s been repeated over and over in real life, and it shows a valuable lesson: you can’t understand someone if you don’t talk to them. You can’t talk to someone unless you are in proximity to them. Dialogue is an important first step in creating a peaceful and reasonably harmonious multicultural society.
Multiculturalism promotes this dialogue by creating a space for different cultures to coexist around each other. This in turn allows people from different cultures to interact on a regular basis, promoting dialogue and understanding.
Multiculturalism Increases Access to Ideas
So what is all this dialogue and harmonious interaction actually for? The next few points will address this. I mean, there is intrinsic good in peaceful coexistence, but besides that there are real, tangible reasons why having people from different backgrounds peacefully interact in a single society is valuable.
Let’s start with this concept of sharing ideas, and this requires some starting premises.
1st premise: We are not omniscient. No one person or group knows everything, or even enough of everything to make a significant dent in that concept.
2nd premise: We learn from each other. People share knowledge and information as part of our social behavior.
3rd premise: Acquiring knowledge is valuable. Our species succeeds through learning about things and acting on that information.
These seem reasonably self-evident. If we take these three premises, we can arguably state that it is therefore beneficial to have as many different perspectives in society as possible. One perspective cannot grasp all the available truths of the universe. Multiple perspectives are needed to arrive at defensible and accepted standards of knowledge, and to challenge concepts that might otherwise become accepted on erroneous proofs.
The more perspectives you have in society, therefore, the greater the odds that you will arrive at defensible and acceptable standards of knowledge — provided that all viewpoints are allowed a voice, and provided that logic and rationality are the standards for discourse.
Multiculturalism is part of that equation. It is not the only part. But it is a major part, because without multiculturalism as a guiding principle you cannot assure that you are including a sufficient number of viewpoints, since, almost by definition, you will be excluding some views from the discussion for bad reasons. Therefore multiculturalism is good because it increases a society’s access to ideas, and thereby increases its likelihood of arriving at new foundations of knowledge.
Multiculturalism is a Good Economic Move
If we accept the point about ideas, this one is a natural follow-on. Ideas are good in an economic system based on innovation and capitalist development. You want ideas in that kind of system to give you the next Fortune 500 company, the next big breakthrough, and the next big product. This is a point I make over and over again in these kinds of discussions, and it still bears repeating:
You can’t invent the cure for cancer if you exclude the person who would have invented it.
Insert whatever you like in the “cure for cancer” section of that sentence.
Without at least some level of multiculturalism in a society, you will by default be excluding at least some people from your economic system. This is inherently limiting the number of smart people, motivated people, and entrepreneurs who have access to your economic system. In the modern world, that’s just another way of saying you’re setting things up to get left behind.
Multiculturalism is Good for National Security
We live in a globalized world. This is not a topic open for dispute; it simply is, in much the same way that snow is cold and giraffes exist. Everything our nation does has implications around the world, and things that happen around the world have implications for our nation.
So it’s probably a good idea if we have people within our nation who are capable of understanding things that happen around the world.
You can’t do that with a homogeneous population. You will lack the appropriate perspectives, historical knowledge, and language skills. You will make bad decisions, have poor assumptions, and promote erroneous signaling. This is a simple lesson that repeats over and over again in history, and it’s still very relevant today.
Multiculturalism is therefore extremely important for national security. The more people we have, from as many backgrounds as possible, the more likely it is that we will have a supply of patriotic citizens who can translate Arabic, or explain the local politics of Indonesia, or forge connections in Turkmenistan, or whatever else the nation needs. This is a serious advantage in a world where most countries don’t have that ability.
Multiculturalism is Interesting
Last but by no means least, and this isn’t a small point — multiculturalism is interesting. It’s fun to learn about new cultures, new ways of doing things, new foods, new traditions. It keeps things lively. Life is made richer by new experiences, and multiculturalism is a good way to stir the pot.
It’s not as persuasive an argument for some, but I personally quite like that I can get tacos, Thai food, Korean barbecue, kung pow chicken, Serbian small plates and American hamburgers all in one block close to where I live. I also think that new influences on TV, new clothing styles, and new music trends are all kinda cool. This isn’t the most important reason I can think of to have a multicultural society, but it’s still pretty cool, in much the same way that art isn’t necessarily the most important part of a society but without it there’s not much point to having a society at all.
Addressing Criticism of Multiculturalism
This isn’t a popular concept in a lot of quarters. Not even slightly. And there are some criticisms of multiculturalism that need to be addressed in order to adequately defend the concept:
- Multiculturalism enables enclaves which never integrate with a broader culture.
This is a constant fear that people raise, and I find it interesting that a lot of people who raise it have Irish surnames, and often seem to live in segregated neighborhoods. So let’s break this down — there have always been immigrant communities in this country. Always. This is where we get the expression “Pennsylvania Dutch,” after all. And if we go by the historical record, these communities always end up integrated with the broader American mainstream over time. It just doesn’t happen instantaneously, because you usually have to wait for the first generation of native-language speakers to grow up.
So historically speaking, we can reject this point. There are currently enclaves of immigrant communities. The odds are fantastic that they will integrate just fine with the broader society. And even if they don’t, America has no particular issue with that on the whole. Nobody seems to be mad at the Amish.
- Multiculturalism destroys a parent culture by changing it.
American culture is not stable, arguably was not designed to be stable, and should not be stable. No democratic, cosmopolitan nation is going to have a stable culture. Cultures change with time, and when you give people freedoms they change a lot faster.
For example, St. Patrick’s Day in the US started out as a show of Irish solidarity to emphasize their growing political strength in a time of rampant anti-Irish discrimination. St. Patrick’s Day is now an integral part of US holiday culture. This would have been shocking to some of the Protestant founders, but there you go.
The crux of this argument rests on nostalgia, and that’s almost never a good basis for a rational assessment. Change happens, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
- Multiculturalism invites in people with competing ideologies who might overwhelm the dominant ideology.
This is one that pops up a lot in recent years, with scares about anti-American values and Sharia Law regularly cropping up. I covered a lot of this in a related article on xenophobia. It’s worth noting that people are almost as divided over what constitutes the “dominant ideology” in the US as anything else, which should tell you something about the validity of this argument.
Bottom line: the only “dominant ideology” we have in the US are the values enshrined in our founding documents — desire for just treatment, desire for liberty under the law, desire for fair governance, desire for economic opportunity, and a belief in democracy. So long as an incoming group does not explicitly challenge those values, their ideology and belief structures are just another thread in the American fabric.
- Multiculturalism breeds social unrest by situating groups with competing values next to each other.
This is true, but it’s also no different from any other Tuesday. America is a land of competing values. Any modern democracy is. That’s one of the points of the whole process, as I noted earlier in this article. Values should not grow stale; they should be challenged, renewed, and replaced as society evolves. Otherwise we’d never have gotten away from slavery. Yes, there is always a fear that the new values are worse than the old ones, but the point of all this argument and dialogue is to make sure that the values that we adopt are on the right side of history. If we fail in that, multiculturalism isn’t the problem.
- Multiculturalism discriminates against people who don’t want to live next to different people.
If this is your argument, you have failed as an American citizen. Part of living in a free country means you don’t necessarily get to choose who lives next to you, and that’s simply all there is to it. Don’t be racist, don’t be sexist, don’t be xenophobic. Be better than that. And if you’re better than that, and I’m better than that, and enough other people are too, it’ll set an example for every incoming immigrant and set the tone of the culture as a whole. Promote virtuous circles, not vicious cycles, and like we say all throughout this series, don’t be an asshole.
Multiculturalism and Survival
This series is called the “Modern Survival Guide,” not the “Modern Be Nice to Each Other Guide,” so it behooves me to bring this all back to a survival-related theme.
Multiculturalism is vital to your survival and good quality of life in a globalized world. It has the tripart virtues of promoting harmonious interactions with neighbors (always a good survival trait), increasing economic activity (which is a survival necessity for many people — jobs are nice), and increasing the opportunities of the nation as a whole (which is a survival necessity over the long term).
The alternative is isolation and stagnation. There is no isolationist nation in the world that is doing well. Not one. They’re all poor, backward, sad places to live.
So yes, multiculturalism is important for your survival and prosperity. Is it always comfortable? No. Is it always challenging? Yes. Is it necessary? Also yes.
One final point: I’ve made a lot of hay in this article about harmonious coexistence of cultures. This has an obvious counterpoint — if there is no desire for harmonious coexistence, on one side or the other, this doesn’t work. So a multicultural society must necessarily be on guard for cultural elements that are opposed to the concept of harmonious coexistence. It’s just an interesting irony that those elements usually come from within, not without.
And now if you’ll excuse me, the pan-Peruvian Asian fusion food truck has pulled up and it’s time for lunch.
¹There’s an interesting point bound up in this definition. Did you catch it? It’s that “culture” is not synonymous with “nationality.” We have multiple cultures and sub-cultures within the US without even factoring in cultural influences from immigration. There’s also a macro-culture in the US for some of our larger concepts that is universally accepted, and a bunch of sub-cultures from that macro-culture that emphasize one or another of its aspects.