For a century, Dutch society consisted of identity groups based on religion or ideology. This division was called pillarisation. Religious and ideological groups encompassed several social classes. Social life usually was within your own pillar, and contacts with other people were limited. Each pillar had sports clubs, political parties, unions, newspapers, and broadcasters. Roman Catholics and Protestants also had their own schools and hospitals.
The pillars of Dutch society were Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Socialist, with each about 30% of the population. The Protestants themselves were further divided into smaller identity groups. The remaining 10% of the Dutch were liberal. The Dutch liberals were less organised and opposed pillarisation, but they too had their own political parties, newspapers and broadcasters.
Strong communities are close-knit, have shared norms and values based on ideology or religion, and come with social obligations. The pillar organisations focused exclusively on their own communities. This happened in other places in Europe too. Nowadays, similar models exist in Northern Ireland, Switzerland, Austria, Cyprus, Lebanon and Malaysia.
Nevertheless, the same laws applied to everyone. And the curricula of Protestant, Roman Catholic, and public schools were nearly the same as everyone was preparing for the same state exams.
To make pillarisation successful, the overarching identity, for instance, the nation, should be strong, and the intensity of the identity conflict should be low. Western Christianity, which includes both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, features a separation of worldly and religious affairs, so religious beliefs did not conflict with submission to a state.
The Dutch are famous for their tolerance, which was at times close to indifference. The identity groups accepted each other and minded their own affairs. After 1800, there was no civil war in the Netherlands, nor was it close at any time. Leadership was also important. The leaders of the pillars were willing to compromise, and the members merely followed their leaders.
Nevertheless, identity issues dominated Dutch politics from time to time. For instance, on 11 November 1925, the cabinet fell when the Catholic ministers resigned after Parliament accepted an amendment introduced by a small Protestant fraction to eliminate the funding for the Dutch envoy with the Vatican. A Protestant government fraction supported the amendment.
None of the identity groups on its own was able to dominate society. Instead, they had to make deals with each other. On religious issues, Roman Catholics and Protestants often found each other. For instance, they arranged that schools and hospitals could have a religious identity and that the state would fund them like public schools and hospitals. The Socialists were able to make deals on working conditions and social benefits.
Pillarisation in the Netherlands began to take shape at the close of the nineteenth century. One could say that Dutch society was built upon the pillars. They allowed groups with different worldviews to coexist peacefully and work on a common destiny, which was the future of the nation. From the 1960s onwards, the pillars began to lose their meaning.
Pillarisation can be helpful if people believe in a shared destiny, for instance, the nation-state, but do not share a common background. In that case, everyone can live and work together with the people they feel comfortable with. Cultural and religious differences may subside over time. But as long as these identities remain distinct, people can organise themselves accordingly via pillars, and in doing so, avoid conflict.
Perhaps one of the most successful ideologies ever is multiculturalism. For thousands of years it has seen an endless sequence of victories. There have been temporary setbacks on the path to unity but the long-term historic trend is unmistakable. The world is gradually becoming one. Multiculturalism has been very helpful in the process. It was initially thought of by kings who conquered an empire of different peoples and wanted to rule them all. These peoples could keep their own customs and settle 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. 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.
If the empire lasted long enough, the peoples of the empire together could form a common culture and became one. In this way smaller cultures became integrated into larger ones. 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 The Romans had no assimilation strategy but Roman culture was dominant. People in the empire took over 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. Most empires in history were multicultural. Nationalism hardly existed before the French Revolution.
So why do many people think multiculturalism is a failure? It is hard to see success when foreigners come to your country in large numbers, remain loyal their tribe and do not accept the values your society has been built upon. 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, 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, hardly anyone currently living in Europe will consider this an improvement, including most people who came from those areas. Similarly, many people in the United States fear that the their country can become like Latin America. Hardly anyone currently living in the United States would consider this to be progress either, including most Latin American immigrants. They moved to the United States for a reason. Immigrants usually flee from poverty or oppressive governments.
It is hard to foresee how a 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 somehow. Multiculturalism may be a major step in this direction. There may still be differences but over time tribes and nations may become less important if there is a framework allowing different cultures to coexist. The Roman Empire never had a deliberate assimilation strategy but a common culture appeared nonetheless.
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 more like North-Western Europe, this could be an improvement as the World Happiness Report suggests that life there is the most agreeable. 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. Samuel 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 for that.2 Perhaps this is often true but people in many developing nations 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. Most Indonesians today hardly think of the Dutch anymore.
But 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 religion, they learned to deal with it. People in Europe began to separate religion from worldly affairs. 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.
Reason overcame religion in Europe. Many social, economic 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. Europeans made more historical errors than anyone else because they had so many ideas to try. And there have been two destructive world wars for the most part caused by politics 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 cause a lot of 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. According to the World Happiness Report the seven happiest countries in the world are all European.3 After World War II North-Western Europe was one of the luckiest places in the world. It was under the protection of the United States during the Cold War while many other parts of the world were suffering from this conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. And so Europe has seen a long period of peace and stability. And if we are to improve our world, Europe may be a place you can look at first.
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 of this feature. There is no evidence for one race being superior to another so there is no reasonable ground for racism. Discrimination is a 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, religion, gender, sexual preferences or political views. Should that be allowed? It can lead to exclusion, bullying and making 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 do 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 other ethnic groups have difficulties in finding a place in societies dominated by values they do not share. Unemployment rates and crime rates in these groups are often significantly higher. Is it because they are discriminated or because they aren’t adapted well enough? The answer is often both and that makes these issues 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 alone, but also to professions, for instance lawyers or construction workers. And certain behaviour harms others. It is not only an issue for ethnic minorities in multicultural societies. Western culture can also 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 that can get easily get out of hand.
Resolving these issues requires a rational approach but it can be a painful process as cultural change can cause stress. But 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 can level out differences but that may be of little solace to those who are discriminated or suffer from the misconduct of people from specific ethnic groups. 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.
Bigotry as well as political correctness aren’t helpful. People from different cultures have different views about what is acceptable conduct and what is not. This can cause harm and conflict. These issue may be resolved when there are no fundamental differences in world views. In a rational debate genuine concerns and reasonable options can be discussed. This requires both honesty and respect, which can be difficult as people have different ideas on 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 and acting accordingly, should suffice. There’s no reason to humiliate others as the position of Europe is a historical accident. 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 because humans have a violent nature.
Civilisation is a thin veneer that can easily disappear. States repress violence nowadays. If the world descends into chaos then cultures, religions and ideologies can’t protect us from our violent nature. 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 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. Real 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. 3. https://worldhappiness.report/