A successful idea
One of the most successful political ideas in history is multiculturalism. Multiculturalism allows people from different cultures to coexist peacefully under one government. It is an old concept, even though the modern version of multiculturalism is more about respect for other cultures than peaceful coexistence. Under the influence of identity politics, it has become a recipe for division rather than unity. Nevertheless, many successful empires of the past were multicultural states.
Cultures usually do not change in a short timeframe. Leaders of states that conquered other states often allowed subjugated peoples to keep their customs and religions as long as they did not threaten the political and social order. It promoted peace and stability, which improved trade and prosperity. For instance, Cyrus the Great, who ruled around 550 BC, respected the religions and traditions of the different peoples in his empire. He helped the Jews to go back to Palestine and rebuild their temple in Jerusalem.
If the empire lasted long enough, the different peoples of an empire could form a common culture and become one. In this way, smaller groups became integrated into larger ones. That happened, for example, in the Roman Empire. Many later Roman emperors came from the provinces such as France, Africa or Arabia. When the empire collapsed, the conquered peoples did not reappear as independent nations.1 The Roman Empire did not have an assimilation strategy, but cultural integration happened nonetheless.
The case of Bosnia can illustrate the success and the vulnerability of multiculturalism. For over 500 years, Roman Catholics, Muslims, and Orthodox Christians lived relatively peacefully together under the umbrella of three successive multicultural states. These were the Ottoman Empire, the Austrian Empire, and Yugoslavia. But in the 1990s, identity politics suddenly turned them into Croats, Bosnian Muslims and Serbs, and they started killing each other in a civil war.
Multiculturalism has often been a step towards more unity. There have been temporary reversions as empires collapsed. Still, the long-term trend is unmistakable. The world gradually became more integrated as smaller cultures merged into larger ones. Nowadays, the world is closely interconnected, and a global culture may emerge without conquest. A new unifying religion can accelerate this process like Christianity and Islam did in the past.
So why do many people think multiculturalism is a failure? First, identity politics changed the nature of multiculturalism. Rather than peaceful coexistence, it is now about respect for other cultures. Respect for one person or group is often at the expense of another person or group. It is also hard to see the success of multiculturalism when foreigners come to your country and do not integrate. Large numbers of immigrants can profoundly change the nature of society. Many people currently in Europe and the United States fear that it will not change for the better. That is understandable. Refugees come to Europe and the United States because they see no future in their home countries.
If human civilisation does not collapse, all the peoples are likely to be integrated into a global culture. Multiculturalism can be a step in this direction. There may still be cultural differences in the future, but tribes and nations may lose their meaning. Multiculturalism can provide a framework that allows different cultures to coexist peacefully in the meantime so that forced assimilation is not necessary.
Us and them
Us and them
And after all, we’re only ordinary men
Me and you
Pink Floyd, Us and them
We divide humanity between us and them. Us is the good people, and them is the evil people who act oddly, look differently, have funny accents and wear peculiar outfits. People differ in skin colour, religion, sexual preferences, or other qualities. And that helps us to feel good about ourselves. Even when you think you are open-minded, there are those evil narrow-minded others. Welcome to human nature. Xenophobia is a trait we share. Racism and homophobia are particular expressions of this feature. Many people prefer the company of like-minded individuals and do not like people who are different. The strange people can tell you similar personal stories about bullying, physical violence and exclusion.
Those who do not experience regular bullying and exclusion often fail to understand life under these conditions. That is the meaning of lived experience. For instance, you do not know how it feels to live in a ghetto if you have never lived there yourself. Lived experiences express themselves, for example, in Black Lives Matter, right-wing populism, and #Metoo. These movements highlight the effects of police violence towards blacks, the neglect of the interests of the working class by the elites, and male conduct towards women. But emotions can undermine rational debates. For instance, defunding the police can cause more violence. And right-wing populism is often just anger without a viable perspective for the future. Lived experience is also central to identity politics. More and more groups demand respect for their lived experiences and demand not to be offended by unpleasant facts. It halts progress towards more unity.
If your culture is dominant, you enjoy advantages you may not realise you have. Societies in Western Europe and the United States may be multicultural, but Western culture is dominant. Western culture has such a profound impact on world culture that it may be the most influential culture in the world today. White privilege is being part of the dominant culture. Similar privileges exist for members of dominant cultures in non-Western countries. The most significant cultural advantages do not come from being part of the dominant culture. Some ethnic groups have trouble finding a place in the multicultural society, but others do better than the dominant cultural group.
A multicultural society is a melting pot with growing pains. If it lasts long enough, tribalism may end, and unity may emerge. If we constructively engage the unpleasant facts, then a social contract for the multicultural society can emerge. It can help us to focus on our future together. Adaptation can hurt feelings, and cultural change comes with stress and alienation. It will be painful for everyone, but the existing cultures of today are unfit to meet the challenges of the future. And so, cultural change will be about meeting the demands of the future like living within the limits of the planet and ending poverty.
Being born with a specific cultural heritage is not an achievement nor a reason for shame. Overcoming the limits of your background and contributing to a better future is a real accomplishment. Lived experiences can help us evaluate how our conduct impacts others and renegotiate social rules. Such a feat is much easier to achieve with a new unifying religion. That may happen because this universe could be a virtual reality created by an advanced humanoid civilisation.
Featured image: One Ring to Rule Them All. Xander (2007). Public Domain.
1. A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.