What if Multiculturalism Were Important for Civilization?

You’ve probably noticed that, in ‘Star Wars’, the forces of oppression are literal clones while the forces of freedom are a motley crew of characters.

Star Wars rebels. From Ralph MacQuarrie concept art.

I don’t think that’s an accident.

]There’s a narrative making the rounds now about the good old days, when societies had homogeneous cultures and races and traditions. Then, we feel, things were simpler — neighbors trusted each other because they grew up together and attended the same church. We celebrated holidays together. Our kids married each other. Nobody fought about which god to worship or how to educate children because we shared those things in common. Societies didn’t have to deal with multiculturalism.

Puritans. Unified. From ImageHost.Vendio.com

Then came the strangers, the foreigners. The immigrants. The mixing began in the cities, in Hong Kong and London and New York. Now it’s everywhere — each wave of immigration weakening the bonds that once existed between neighbors and citizens, until only the smallest, most homogeneous societies preserve that unity of spirit and the resulting morality. Scandinavia’s widely admired educational success is, after all, often attributed to the homogeneity of Scandinavian countries and the resulting unity of policy.

But anyone claiming that the world was untainted by multiculturalism until recently would be hard-pressed to make that case.

The most dynamic societies in history — the ones which invented machines, wrote classic books, prevented war — were relatively multicultural. Compare the Roman Empire to the Empire of the Huns. Rome embraced its vassal states, allowed them to practice their religion and guard their own borders, and it survived hundreds of generations. The Huns raped, pillaged, and burned communities who didn’t join their ranks — and lasted less than two generations. And what lasting artistic genius did the Huns leave with us? The early Islamic caliphates, tolerant of Jewish and Christian minorities in their midst, drew on their traditions to perfect intricate geometry in art and architecture. The diverse coastal city of Athens gave us the first artistic representation of a near-perfect human.

Ancient Athens. From ORFFEAS.

Or take ancient Israel, where the Jews had an explicitly tolerant policy for the many “strangers” living in their midst. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks quotes the Tanakh book of Leviticus, on supporting the poor, and then explains that “There is … an obligation to support and sustain a resident alien. Not only does he or she have the right to live in the Holy Land, but they have a right to share in its welfare provisions. … This is a very ancient law.” In other words, the Jews not only supported but encouraged multiculturalism within their ancient cities; they received strangers, sheltered them, and continued helping them even if they stayed on past a short visit. And this group of humble shepherds from Palestine became one of the most powerful and influential cultural groups in the world.

This is not to say that all ancient communities were multicultural. There have been hundreds — thousands — of culturally homogeneous communities. Many African villages shared one culture/race/family line, as did Chinese villages and Medieval European towns. My own ancestors, the Mormons, established culturally homogeneous communities in the deserts of the Western United States, some of which survived largely isolated until radio and TV and internet began to infiltrate over the airwaves. But multiculturalism is not a new phenomenon.

And indeed, the more sophisticated arguments against multiculturalism do not insist that all people were once homogeneous, but rather that a more homogeneous society will simply be stronger and more stable.

Making an argument for homogeneity requires, at very least, research on the downsides of multiculturalism. Since, at least in the modern West, much the scholarly community is liberal, there is not a great deal on this subject. But some scholars are willing to take it on, even — like Robert Putnam — if they think multiculturalism is ultimately good.

Putnam is the author of the famous Bowling Alone, a researcher who focuses on modern human connectedness. With his team, he looked at communities across the United States to examine how diversity affects behavior. He found that individuals in diverse communities tended to react in at least two ways: “hunker down” and “huddle.” The “hunkering” consists of making fewer friends, having less trust in other people, and being less altruistic. The “huddling” is simply the tendency that people have to spend more time at home, often huddled in front of the television (people in diverse communities actually spend measurably increased amounts of time watching TV). Putnam insists that this is probably a short-term effect, and that in the long-term diversity is helpful for society, but the data has been used in many arguments against multiculturalism and diversity.

Putnam on diversity. Level of trust on left, level of homogeneity on bottom. From http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9477.2007.00176.x/full

Or take Samuel Huntington, who wrote the famous Clash of Civilizations and who went on to write about Mexican-US immigration later in his life. Robert Kaplan, in the brilliant Revenge of Geography, paraphrases Huntington as saying: “It is a partial truth, not a total truth, that America is a nation of immigrants; America is a nation of Anglo-Protestant settlers and immigrants both, with the former providing the philosophical and cultural backbones of the society…” Huntington then argues that the current remarkably un-diverse wave of immigration from Mexico is not assimilating well and is “for the first time in America’s history amending our historical memory.” Huntington appears to believe that assimilation to a dominant culture, at least in a successful country, is the only way to maintain strength.

So is this right? Are diverse societies doomed to tear apart under the weight of their differences? And do the examples of thriving, diverse societies in the first section (Rome, the early Muslims) contradict that view?

The problem, I believe, is that there is truth on both sides. Psychologically, sociologically, anthropologically, and by common sense, human beings need to feel they belong to a group or they become isolated and unhappy. In a tight-knit, homogeneous community, individuals are unlikely to be different from their neighbors, while in a multicultural society they are very likely to be different. Thus a diverse community drives some of the very individualism and isolation which plagues modern life. There is no denying that homogeneous villages foster fewer differences and easier interpersonal connection than diverse cities on average. Homogeneity is more comfortable.

Bruegel’s ‘Peasant’s Dance’

But those villages have at least one disadvantage: when differences do arise, as they inevitably do in any community, there is much less space for the different individuals to flourish, develop, and potentially challenge prevailing traditions or ideas. Can’t have children? Too often ostracized. Homosexual? Too often repressed or ostracized. Have a great idea about how to run an electric current through a thin piece of metal to create steady light? Too often ignored or laughed out of town. And where do these outcasts go, when they can? To the city.

City street. By Jim61 on pxleyes.com

Cities are often glorified for having “something for everyone,” but many understand that it’s also a city’s greatest weakness — if you can be anybody in the city, it’s too easy to be nobody. It goes back to Putnam’s research — people in diverse settings, like cities, tend to hunker down and huddle in front of the TV. Depression, anxiety, and loneliness are city maladies, not often found in culturally homogeneous rural communities. Yet these permissive, pluralistic urban centers are also the engines of innovation, the centers of art and education, and the true homes of those who never felt at home in their traditional communities for some reason or another. The engine of the Roman Empire was not the agrarian Italian towns but Rome itself — the Senate, the temples, the schools, the palaces. The epicenter of the American Revolution was in the diverse cities of Boston, Philadelphia, New York, not the quiet agricultural towns of Vermont or Virginia. The epicenter of the French Revolution (and much else in France’s history) was Paris. Multiculturalism breeds ideas, which breed action.

Let’s not stray too far from Star Wars here. If you saw the most recent Star Wars movie, ‘Rogue One’, you will remember that the rebels are hardly the model of military discipline or friendly cooperation. The various factions bicker, disagree, split apart, and come together too late to save a brilliant new heroine and her comrades. But their very weakness is their strength — they strive to rule themselves by persuasion rather than force, a tactic which will fail if we’re looking for short-term efficiency but which over time has the potential to unlock greater human potential.

Rogue One. From bustle.com

On the other hand, societies which attempt to banish dissidents and promote “uni-culturalism” are prone to fanaticism and violence. References to the Third Reich and to the Islamic State are all too easy here, but history affords many examples: the Crusades, the Mongol conquests, even the near-extermination of American Indians by the US government in the 1800’s. In Star Wars, the Empire has the same problem. Its leaders believe they are just trying to bring peace and security to the galaxy, but in the process they are willing to slaughter thousands of innocent civilians and exterminate entire planets.

Winston Churchill once said that democracy was “the worst form of government … except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” I believe the same could be said for multiculturalism. Tolerant, open societies have problems — conflicting moral systems, political factions, mistrust, and the like. But the price we pay for rejecting tolerance is far greater. Every civilization in history has waxed and waned, from the ancient Babylonian Empire to the modern British Empire. But almost universally, those which have embraced multiculturalism more fully have lasted longer and have contributed more to human progress. May we learn from their noble examples.

I wasn’t planning to add this section, but I something struck me while writing and thought it would fit best at the end. Multiculturalism could be beneficially applied in a variety of modern contexts. For example, developing democracies are often fragile due in part to racial or tribal conflict, but perhaps a generous dose of tolerance and multicultural policy would bring those factions together and make them more successful in the long run than less diverse societies. Or perhaps nations facing internal independence movements (UK with Scotland, Spain with Catalonia) could to devolve more power to the regions, supporting a diverse multicultural societies while preserving union.

But I believe the most important implications are those touching our own lives and political opinions. How do we think of immigrants and refugees, particularly when they don’t directly endanger our livelihood or that of our families? How do we let our neighbors who are religiously or ethnically different from us know they’re welcome in our community? How do we hold confident moral opinions ourselves without forcing them on those who believe differently than we do?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I have not always been good at practicing tolerance and promoting multiculturalism myself. But if it can save the Star Wars galaxy, perhaps it could save our world as well.

“I do not understand one thing in this world. Not one.” — Marilynne Robinson, ‘Gilead’

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