A very successful ideology
Perhaps one of the most successful ideologies ever is multiculturalism. For thousands of years it has seen an endless sequence of victories. There were temporary setbacks but the long-term historic trend is unmistakable. The world is gradually becoming one with the help of multiculturalism. Multiculturalism was initially thought of by kings who conquered an empire of different peoples and wanted to rule them all. These different peoples could keep their own customs and settle most of their own affairs as long as they didn’t pose a threat to the social order. This brought peace and stability, which improved trade and brought prosperity. For example, Cyrus the Great, who ruled around 550 BC, was one of the first multicultural rulers. He respected the religions and traditions of the peoples in his empire. For instance, he helped the Jews to go back to Israel and rebuild their temple.
Multiculturalism has been imposed upon conquered peoples with force but the alternative was often war. If the empire lasted long enough, these peoples together began to form a common culture and became one. Over time smaller cultures became integrated into larger cultures. This happened, for example, in the Roman Empire. Many later Roman emperors came from the provinces such as France, Africa or Arabia. When the empire finally collapsed the conquered peoples didn’t reappear as independent nations. They had become Romans.1 Roman culture was dominant. People in the rest of the empire took over many customs from the Romans while the Romans took over some customs from the provinces. Nowadays the world is closely interconnected so a global culture may emerge without conquest.
Why do many people think multiculturalism is a failure? It is hard to believe that multiculturalism is success when foreigners come to your country in large numbers and remain loyal their tribe. This can threaten the social order. If large numbers of immigrants keep on coming, and if they don’t adapt and get a lot of children, the nature of society can profoundly change within a few decades. Many people in Europe and the United States fear that it will not be for the better.
If Europe becomes like Africa or the Middle East, then hardly anyone currently living in Europe will consider this to be an improvement, including the people who came from Africa and the Middle East. Similarly, many people in the United States fear that the their country can become like Latin America and hardly anyone currently living in the United States would consider this to be progress either, including most Latin American immigrants. In most cases they did migrate because life wasn’t great where they came from. Immigration is often caused by poverty and poor government. These problems need to be addressed. The fate of poor people around the world demands for better government.
Proclaiming multiculturalism a failure while it is on the brink of final victory is historical ignorance. It may be hard to foresee how the future global culture will look like but if war can be avoided and human civilisation doesn’t collapse then all the peoples are going to be integrated into a global culture. There will still be differences but tribes will be less important. There will be a framework that allows for everyone to coexist peacefully. This process may require a education, good governance, democracy, a rational approach to matters of importance and a century or so. The more people are educated and agree on using rational debates to resolve differences, the less need there will be for an elite to guide them or for force to maintain the social order.
Setting matters straight
Many people believe that their own culture is superior. Every nation desires to have a sense of pride about its cultural heritage but it is hard to come up with valid arguments why this or that nation, tribe or religion is superior to others. Yet, there is something that can’t be ignored. Many people desire to go to Europe or the United States. Perhaps this has something to do with oppression but more often this has to do with poor living conditions elsewhere. People are migrating to Saudi Arabia too, not for more freedom, but for better paying jobs. If the rest of the world becomes a more like Europe, this could be an improvement. Cultural superiority thinkers are eager to point out that this is because of the superiority of Western culture. But what is this so-called cultural superiority?
It can’t be moral superiority. Huntington wrote that the West didn’t win the world by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion but rather by its superiority in applying organised violence. He believed that the West is still hated because of this.2 But is this really true? Perhaps that is sometimes true, but people in developing nations should also realise that they themselves shape their own future. Blaming former colonisers doesn’t solve the issues of today. Most people in Indonesia don’t hate the Dutch for being their former coloniser, despite the oppression, exploitation and killings that took place during the colonial era. That ended more than seventy years ago and most Indonesians today hardly think of the Dutch any more.
Is there no superiority in ideas whatsoever? During the last 500 years science has completely altered the way we live. That happened because European scientists began to believe that when observed facts contradict religion and tradition, facts should take precedence. In other parts of the world tradition and religion held the upper hand. This made Europeans the masters of the world for several centuries until other countries followed suit. Europeans were so successful in spreading their cultures that billions of people have adopted elements of European culture. Indians, Africans, Arabs, and Chinese learned French, English and Spanish. They began to believe in human rights and self-determination. And they adopted Western ideologies such as liberalism, capitalism, communism, feminism, and nationalism.1
People in Europe weren’t more rational than others. There were rational people all over the world but they didn’t challenge existing wisdom and religion to the same extent Europeans did. Most Europeans remained religious, but when facts contradicted their religions, they learned to deal with it. People in Europe began to separate religion from worldly affairs so that these became different realms. This is reflected, for example, in the separation of church and state. As the search for new knowledge began to take off in Europe, Europeans could conquer the world. But would things have been better if the Chinese or the Africans had developed science and had done the same? We will never know.
Reason overcame religion in Europe. Many social, economical and political experiments have been tried in Europe that have not taken place anywhere else. Europeans developed models for society called ideologies. Tens of millions of people were killed in wars of conquest and clashes of ideologies. The Europeans made more historical errors than anyone else, simply because they had so many ideas to try. And there have been two destructive world wars for the most part caused by errors made in Europe and for the most part fought in Europe. Europe had the most opportunities to learn from its mistakes. That isn’t cultural superiority but experience. It would be a waste of time and it would cause unnecessary suffering to go through all these historical processes including all the wars, again everywhere around the globe, only to discover what you could already have learnt from studying history. In this sense Europe can still be a guide to the world.
Us and them
Us and them
And after all we’re only ordinary men
Me and you
Pink Floyd, Us and them
Humans are group animals. We divide humanity between us and them. Us is the good people and them is the evil others that act differently, look differently, have funny accents and wear peculiar outfits. Welcome to human nature. This is who we are. In modern times it becomes harder to identify who are us and who are them. People differ in skin colour, religion, political preference, or some other quality, so that it is still possible to make distinctions. And that helps us to feel good about ourselves because us is the good part of humanity and them are the evil ones. Even if you think you’re open-minded you are likely to consider the narrow-minded others the evil them. When you are an outsider, and subject to exclusion and regular bullying, life isn’t so great.
The us and them question is often narrowed down to racism and discrimination. Xenophobia is a human trait and racism is a particular expression. There is no evidence for one race being superior to another. There is no reasonable ground for racism. Discrimination is broader issue and much harder to deal with. People have the right to associate with the people they prefer. Most people prefer the company of their own kind. There are all kinds of reasons why certain people are discriminated. It might be ethnicity, gender, sexual preferences or political views. Should that be allowed? It can lead to exclusion, bullying and making certain groups or people feel inferior. And what about the problems caused by cultural differences? White privilege is not only about skin colour and history but also about culture.
White privilege consists of both obvious and less obvious advantages that white people often not recognise they have, which distinguishes it from bias or prejudice. It is the advantage of growing up in the dominant culture. A lot of people from specific ethnic groups have difficulties in finding a place in societies dominated by values they do not share. These groups often have significantly higher crime rates and unemployment rates. Is it because they are discriminated or because they aren’t adapted well enough? The answer is often both and that makes these problems hard to deal with.
There are plenty of people who confirm the prejudices other groups have about the group they belong to. It doesn’t only apply to ethnicities, but also to groups like professions. And certain behaviour harms others. Western culture should also be under scrutiny as it can be harmful to others. It helps when everyone agrees that these issues should be resolved and that a social order should be based on shared values. But these debates are going to hurt feelings and can get easily get out of hand.
Resolving these issues requires a rational approach but it will be a painful process. Multiculturalism has turned many thems into usses in the past that this trend is likely to continue until there’s no real them any more. It is a force that can level out all differences but if it happens in a short time frame then it is brutal. That may be of little solace to those who are discriminated or suffer from the misconduct of people from specific ethnic groups, but there is a perspective for a better future where these differences are gone. To make that possible, we should judge people on their own merits, not on their descent.
Ignoring facts or distorting them out of hate or political correctness isn’t helpful. People from different cultures have different views about what is acceptable conduct and what is not. This can cause conflict. These conflicts are political processes that can be resolved, most notably when there are no fundamental differences in world views, which seems within reach. Bigotry as well as political correctness don’t contribute to that. In a rational debate genuine concerns and reasonable options are discussed. This requires both honesty and respect, which can be difficult as people tend to have different ideas about honesty and respect to begin with.
Multiculturalism is on its way to final victory. It helps when we all agree that we all have equal rights and agree on some basic norms and values. There is a predominant culture. The modern world is shaped by European ideas, most notably scientific progress. A tacit acknowledgement of this fact and acting accordingly, should suffice. There’s no reason to humiliate others. There should be room for the achievements and benefits of other cultures. It is also not helpful to think that European culture is evil because of the things that happened in the past. Any path to unity would have been bloody. Humans are violent.
Indeed, civilisation is a thin veneer that can easily disappear. If the world descends into chaos, cultures, religions and ideologies can’t protect us from our inner nature. Strong states repress this violence nowadays. There can be peace and there can be enough for everyone. There are good reasons for being a cultural relativist, embracing multiculturalism and allowing a global culture to emerge and evolve so that we can deal with the challenges of the future. Being born with a specific cultural heritage is not an achievement nor is it reason for shame. Achievement is overcoming the limits of your own background and upbringing and contributing to a better future.
Featured image: One Ring to Rule Them All. Xander (2007). Public Domain.
1. A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.
2. The Clash of Civilizations And the Remaking of World Order. Samuel Huntington (1997). Simon & Schuster.