Multiculturalism vs. the Melting Pot

From the NPR website:

NPR this week is introducing a new team that will cover race, ethnicity and culture. Code Switch is the name of the new blog. Code-switching is the practice of shifting between different languages or different ways of expressing yourself in conversations.

Honestly folks, do we need more “race, ethnicity and culture?”

Do we need more ethnic politics, based on the proposition that, for example, only a ‘Hispanic’ person — whatever that is — can understand the concerns of other ‘Hispanics’?

Do we need more emphasis on ethnic and gender studies in our schools? Especially when such courses are often presented from a separatist point of view, one which emphasizes the victimhood of a particular group and its need for reparations of various kinds?

Do we need to encourage particular groups to see themselves as separate from other groups and in competition with them?

Do we need to create even more hypersensitivity to the slightest instances of ethnic stereotyping? Do we need for these issues to be uppermost in our consciousnesses at all times? Do we need more restrictions on speech due to political correctness?

Tribalism is a normal human characteristic, which evolved as a response to pressures created when disparate groups encountered each other. Like many aspects of human nature, tribalism can be constructive or it can be destructive. Tribalism is the root of patriotism and nationalism, which I see as generally good things (many will disagree, but that’s part of my point). But tribalism can also lead to conflict, and when multiple groups within a nation give their primary loyalty to their group rather than to the nation, such conflict is unavoidable.

In much of the world this kind of conflict is the rule rather than the exception. Lebanon has been racked by ethnic and religious conflicts for generations; Iraq and Syria can only be held together by totalitarian regimes. The most stable countries in the world are ethnically homogeneous, and when this homogeneity is disturbed by an influx of immigrants the result is internal conflict, such as we are seeing now in Europe. Israel faces a tremendously difficult task of finding a modus vivendi among its Jewish and Arab citizens (one could consider the Haredim a separate culture as well).

The US chose a different, but still practical, path. It was intended to be different from ethnically-based nations, following the now-unpopular path of the ‘melting pot’ in which a new, American, culture would be created from people of different cultures who, while retaining some distinctive characteristics, would primarily see themselves as ‘Americans’, loyal to the nation as a whole.

The melting pot was criticized by those who said that it didn’t exist: in fact, they argued, the majority white Anglo-saxon culture simply erased the others, sometimes brutally. Disadvantaged status was inherited and didn’t ‘melt’ away, they said. Individuals lost essential parts of their heritage in the process of ‘assimilation’. They proposed to replace it with a policy of ‘multiculturalism‘:

Multiculturalism is closely associated with “identity politics,” “the politics of difference,” and “the politics of recognition,” all of which share a commitment to revaluing disrespected identities and changing dominant patterns of representation and communication that marginalize certain groups (Young 1990, Taylor 1992, Gutmann 2003). Multiculturalism is also a matter of economic interests and political power; it demands remedies to economic and political disadvantages that people suffer as a result of their minority status.

Multiculturalists take for granted that it is “culture” and “cultural groups” that are to be recognized and accommodated. Yet multicultural claims include a wide range of claims involving religion, language, ethnicity, nationality, and race. Culture is a notoriously overbroad concept, and all of these categories have been subsumed by or equated with the concept of culture (Song 2008). Language and religion are at the heart of many claims for cultural accommodation by immigrants. The key claim made by minority nations is for self-government rights. Race has a more limited role in multicultural discourse. Antiracism and multiculturalism are distinct but related ideas: the former highlights “victimization and resistance” whereas the latter highlights “cultural life, cultural expression, achievements, and the like” (Blum 1992, 14). Claims for recognition in the context of multicultural education are demands not just for recognition of aspects of a group’s actual culture (e.g. African American art and literature) but also for the history of group subordination and its concomitant experience (Gooding-Williams 1998).

Multiculturalism is associated with the academic Left and postcolonialism. An academic fashion, it is a dangerous one. Europe has taken this path, and we can see the results. Much of the criticism of Israel comes from the standpoint of multiculturalism. But Israel’s success is based on the primacy of one culture, the Jewish, Zionist one. It will continue to exist only if it can maintain this. There is no room there for multiculturalism.

NPR, naturally, is squarely in the multiculturalist camp. And multiculturalism is non-trivially different from the melting pot: it rejects equality of opportunity and calls for special privileges for groups deemed historically disadvantaged; it emphasizes accommodation of linguistic differences rather than encouraging a common language; and it even permits some degree of legal or governmental autonomy for special groups.

While there is no doubt that the melting pot had its downside, multiculturalism is a lot more than annoying political correctness. It has the potential to tear a society apart, as it is doing today in Europe. The melting pot, as long as there is also a commitment to equal justice and civil rights, can succeed here and should be given a chance.

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One Response to “Multiculturalism vs. the Melting Pot”

  1. Robman says:

    To me at least, “multiculturalism” has always meant that a given society could be made up of people from a variety of cultural backgrounds, these being derived from their religious or national ethnicity, etc. These people would have the right to maintain their culture/language within their communities and families, as long as this did not infringe upon the rights of others as defined by common law. And, members of these disparate subcultures would have equality before the law, and equal opportunity in employment. That is to say, it would be illegal to discriminate against someone merely because of the race, religion, or national ethnicity. Finally, there could still be a ‘national language’ – we still don’t have this in the U.S., but I believe we should – that would be considered the official langauge of government and business that all would be required to learn if they expected to participate in these realms.

    I suppose you might say I’ve described a “melting pot”, but not quite. I wouldn’t expect people to necessarily assimilate completely into a new mass national/linguistic culture, leaving their roots behind in all respects except for their last name. In my own “multiculturalist” model, people would be encouraged to maintain and celebrate their unique ethnic characterstics, again, as long as they could also function as part of the larger society linguistically, and did not infringe on anyone else’s rights.

    What I describe is not exactly a “melting pot”, but rather, a “stew”, with many distinct flavors, textures, and seasnonings that contribute to a ‘delicious’ whole. I wouldn’t want all of the “flavor” boiled out of the ingredients, so to speak, so that all we have left is a bland gruel.

    I honestly believe that when the term “multicultralism” first came into use, it was meant in the way I describe, as a positive answer to an oppressive, national cultural conformity. It simply means that a national polity can funtion as a unified whole even as it is comprised of many distinct cultural elements.

    But, what multiculturalism has become, unfortunately, is what Vic has described. Rather than a “stew”…it is rather like combining the elements of an explosive device. Not very appetizing. The key difference between what it should be and what it is, is the difference between saying “all cultures are accepted” on the one hand, and “all cultures are equal” on the other. The latter concept is patent nonsense. While contributions to humanity come from many different cultural directions, the idea that “all cultures are equal” is as absurd as saying that all people are “equal”. As with individuals, some contribute more than others, and some can be downright dangerous. And, when one becomes pathological, its members ought to police themselves…or find themselves sanctioned by the others.

    That said, if any of you believe that the recent tragedy in Boston has ANYTHING to do with Islam, you are WRONG. It has NOTHING AT ALL to do with Islam. If you think that, you are guilty of HATE THOUGHT. And you should be ashamed of yourself.