A very successful ideology
Perhaps the most successful ideology ever is multiculturalism. For thousands of years it has seen an endless sequence of victories. There were a lot of 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 prosperity. For example, Cyrus the Great, who ruled around 550 BC, was one of the first to use multiculturalism to rule his vast empire. He respected the religions and traditions of the peoples he ruled. 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 more wars. 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 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. The world is closely interconnected nowadays so a global culture may emerge without conquest.
Why do many people think multiculturalism is a failure? Most importantly, it is hard to believe that multiculturalism is great 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 coming, and if they don’t adapt and get a lot of children, the nature of society can profoundly change over time. 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. Immigration is often caused by poverty and poor government, and these problems need to be addressed. The fate of poor people around the world should be one of our most important concerns.
Proclaiming that multiculturalism is a failure when it is on the brink of final victory is a form of historical ignorance. It may seem 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 of the world are going to be integrated into a single global culture. There will still be differences but tribes will become less important. There will be a framework that allows for everyone to coexist peacefully and gradually integrate into the global culture. This process may require a similar level of education, governance and democracy all over the globe, and a rational approach to matters of importance. Currently this seems a bit of a stretch to say the least, but the more people become educated and can be made to agree on using rational debates to revolve differences, the less need there will be for an elite to guide them or for the use of 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 either. Many people desire to go to Europe or the United States, and not somewhere else. This has something to do with oppression and poor living conditions elsewhere. One can surmise from this that if the rest of the world becomes more like Europe or the United States, this would generally be seen as 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? There are may people hating the west but people in developing nations should realise that they themselves should be shaping their own future. They can’t blame their former colonisers until eternity. 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. But that happened 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 a while until other countries followed the same path. Europeans were so successful in spreading their cultures that today billions of people have adopted significant parts of European cultures. Indians, Africans, Arabs, and Chinese learned French, English and Spanish. They began to believe in human rights and self-determination. And they began to adopt 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 did the same?
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. In this way the Europeans had more opportunity to learn from their mistakes than anyone else. You can call that cultural superiority if you like, but it might be better to call it experience. And it would be a waste of time and 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
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. Even if you think you’re open-minded you are likely to consider the narrow-minded others as 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.
There is no reasonable basis for racism. Discrimination is a more difficult issue. People have the right to associate with the people they prefer. And most people prefer the company of their own kind. This can lead to exclusion and bullying and making certain groups and people feel inferior. Should that be allowed? And what about the problems caused by cultural differences?
A lot of people from specific ethnic groups have difficulties in finding a place in societies dominated by modern western values. These groups often dominate the crime statistics. Is it because they are discriminated or because they don’t adapt very well? The answer is often both. It helps when everyone agrees on that these issues should be resolved. And western culture and values should also be under scrutiny. Multiculturalism has turned so many thems into usses in the past that this trend may continue until there’s no real them any more. That may be of little solace to those who are discriminated or suffer from the misconduct of people from certain ethnic groups, but we shouldn’t lose perspective. At least we should judge people on their individual merits, and not on their ethnicity.
To a hippie flowers and love can do wonders. Indeed, bringing people together can do miracles. A nationalist may think that everyone should stay in his or her own country. And indeed that could have saved us from trouble, but in the end nations will disappear and the world will become one, unless human civilisation fails, that is. Immigration can revitalise a nation but it can also destabilise it. Most immigrants seek a better life and want to work hard. They are on the move because they don’t see opportunities in their home countries.
But many immigrants aren’t successful and have trouble adapting. Others may not be willing to contribute to a society that doesn’t reflect their values. Ignoring the facts or distorting them isn’t helpful. People from different cultural backgrounds have different views about what is acceptable conduct and what is not and this can lead to conflict. But these conflicts can be seen as historical processes that can be resolved. Bigotry as well as political correctness don’t contribute to improvements. In a rational debate all genuine concerns and options are openly 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 might help when we all agree on some basic norms and values as well as the predominant culture. The modern world is shaped by Europe, and most notably scientific progress. A tacit acknowledgement of this fact, and acting accordingly, should suffice. There’s no reason to use these facts to offend or humiliate others. There should be room for the achievements and benefits of other cultures as well. It is also not helpful to think that European culture is evil because of all the bad things that happened in the past.
Civilisation is just a thin veneer that can easily disappear. If the world descends into chaos, no culture, religion or ideology can protect us from the beast that lives within us all. And there can be enough for everyone. These are perhaps the most compelling reasons for being a cultural relativist, embracing multiculturalism and allowing a global culture to emerge. It is not an achievement to be born with a specific cultural heritage nor should it be a reason for blame. On the other hand, overcoming the limits of your own culture and contributing to a better future might be an achievement, and you could be faulted for failing to do so.
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.