Multi in vitamins and cultures

Harry Drabik

I know a few people who react to the term “multicultural” as if a rocket launched. They soar off exploding over the “destruction” of American culture by outside interests or forces.  Versions of this feeling have been tumbling about near long as I have political recollection. Generations far past, the fire was over waves of European immigrants (Irish, Italian, Poles, etc.) taking jobs. In nearer generations, the storm was over making English our official language. More recently, the stand against multiculturalism has been aimed at Hispanic expansion, and more recently still at the extension of Islam into the Western world in general. It’s a topic with strong vibrations. I’ll put it this way: if it can rouse passion in people on the sedate North Shore, there’s something in it.

I say, however, some of that blustery passion seems wasted, misdirected, and/or misinformed, because most nations (the U.S. especially so) are in some way multicultural. In the UK, a Scott doesn’t have the same cultural characteristics as a Cornishman. A Swabian German is not a Berliner. In the U.S., nothing else is like either Texas or Alaska in cultural identity. A particular strength of the U.S. has been its contact between and blending of cultures. At one time not too far in the past, there was the “melting pot” view, now out of favor in the lens of “diversity.” As I see it, each is a strategy or conceptual way to organize and deal with the stresses of cultural contact and change. Change is not easy. It is a constant challenge to see old assumptions fall, as once-sure things appear as passing as the once rock-solid standard of U.S. gold followed by U.S. silver followed by Federal Reserve Notes. Changes unsettle a culture by adding uncertainty. With uncertainty comes the volatility of unease and fear of the future.

Even small changes with good odds will upset us. Say you’re looking at minor surgery with a 99 percent chance of no complications. You’re bound to some fretting—maybe not a lot, but some. For an individual or a culture, any change to the status quo is unsettling in ways minor or major. If you add conflict over ways of doing things to what is changing, then the prospect of tumultuous upset is that much greater. If all you want is a burger and discover the only way to get one requires you walk backwards through a door and beg forgiveness, you might not react well and act peckish. “I don’t care about the sanctity of beef. Just give me a burger!”

The first ten years of my life (the Chicago years) were spent in a mixed urban neighborhood countered by the distinctly Polish neighborhood where I was trucked to parochial school on a daily basis. In those postwar years, the city had many ethnic areas where different languages were heard along with differences in styles and foods available. It did me no harm whatever as a child to use English at home but hear and be exposed to Latin, Polish, Italian, Hebrew, and other languages when Mother dragged me along shopping. I did not develop much understanding of those cultures or languages as a result, but exposure to “others” wasn’t a bad thing. It opened a door by a degree, however small.

So is this a rosy picture? It is to the extent of the cultures in contact being more or less equally open and relatively alike. I doubt there was a place in Europe (or the world) where one group or another didn’t have a past geographical or religious issue with another faction. I consider that ordinary (though regrettable) conflict and would not want to confuse it with supremacist conflict such as was seen in fascism in the past and other movements continuing to the present. But let me put this another way. Multiculturalism is workable when there is approximate equity among parts being different but equal. On the other hand, I think multicultural societies face an immense (possibly impossible) challenge trying to work with (much less assimilate) supremacist monocultures. Making room for one another has to be mutual. In my view, a society is neither multicultural nor healthy when accommodation is made for discriminatory sectarian demands.

My view may be simplistic, but as an approach to understand what has been and is a perennial area of human conflict, here goes. Say some group believes their god made women inferior beings not to be educated because their main purpose is breeding, so they should be wed and so used as quickly as possible. In a multicultural society such as ours, is some group allowed to believe so? Yes. Is a multicultural society obliged to support or cooperate with those practices? I think we are not. Did we suffer Nazism a universal right of Aryan supremacy? We did not. Are we to cooperate with male supremacist views because they are part of a religion? I think we are under no such obligation.

I’ll put it in as simple language as I can. The burden to change is not on multi-culture by making
it less free and or open. Use of freedom and multiculturalism as a method or excuse to limit the
liberty and dignity of others is a perverse misuse of ideals that help make a society dynamic and
better able to cope with the stress of change. A group, no matter how well-intentioned or god-
inspired its claim, will not, does not, and cannot present a viable alternative by turning back the  clock or imposing “age-old” categories. If orthodoxy and regression were successful ways into the future, we’d be the Neanderthals with not a worry or care for anything resembling climate
change. The last thing a progressive society should consider (if at all) is giving up its ideal of
diversity to accommodate a monoculture or supremacist view. The ideal is to improve the nature
and quality of human life. To sacrifice that is to give up too much for too little return.