IV.4: Cultural Divisions and Melting Pots

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Cultural Divisions

If people divided themselves into local communities along ethnic, religious, or cultural lines, would there be more violence and disorder?

More to the point, does a melting pot democracy like America require a single one-size-fits-all culture? Some would say“yes” to both questions. For example, one writer said that of the acclaimed British political philosopher, John Stuart Mill. This author says Mill argued that democracy would generally not do well in “multiethnic societies”. In other words, cultural divisions cause problems for democracy. (Lijphart 2001, p. 340)

But I disagree. I think separate sovereign communities would produce less violence and disorder, not more. And so I think they would produce a more fertile ground for democracy than mixed communities. That is, every cultural group should be free to express their own culture openly within their own local community. If so, they would be much happier and less prone to hostility with other groups.

But what did John Stuart Mill actually say about cultural divisions?

I have great respect for John Stuart Mill, so I read the book where he wrote about multi-ethnic societies. And what I found was that Mill’s view was much more nuanced than what that author claimed above. First, Mill said mixing is good for a multicultural society when it can be accomplished:

[T]he admixture of nationalities … is a benefit to the human race. Not by extinguishing types … but by softening their extreme forms, and filling up the intervals between them. (Mill, 1861, 16.8)

Second, Mill said there are cases where mixing will cause disorder:

The cases in which the greatest practical obstacles exist to the blending of nationalities are when the nationalities which have been bound together are nearly equal in numbers and in the other elements of power. In such cases, each, confiding in its strength, and feeling itself capable of maintaining an equal struggle with any of the others, is unwilling to be merged in it…. (Mill, 1861, 16.12)

So Mill did not say that democracy won’t do well in multiethnic societies. What he actually said was that mixing cultures softens the extremes. And then he said further that cultures will resist being mixed or merged if they have the power to do so.

But my point is that we don’t even have to mix or merge them at all. Instead, we could allow cultural divisions. give them the freedom to express their own cultures in their own separate local communities. And together these separate communities could form a larger multi-cultural nation.

Of course, America, the “great melting pot”, has been dealing with the tensions from cultural divisions from its beginning.

We have many tensions along racial, religious, political, and philosophical lines. But I argue that those tensions are not so much about different cultures, but that they tend to occur when cultural divisions fall along the same lines as economic status.

If we were so offended by cultures other than our own, why would we spend our vacations seeking to experience other cultures? Clearly, these tensions are in fact about economic snobbery and inequality, not about cultural differences.

Why would we force cultures to mix through sterile national one-size-fits-all standards? Instead, why not work on producing true equality of opportunity for persons of every culture?

Furthermore, why not allow all cultural groups to fully and openly express their culture, including their race and religion (or anti-religion, if they so choose) in their own local communities? Then our cultural differences would threaten far less violence than they do today, because people would be free to do as they choose.

This libertarian approach to local community racial, religious, and cultural expression would be far better than our current approach of treating all such expression with antiseptic.

That anti-septic trend strangles all but government-sanctioned culture for everyone out of the fear of offending anyone. Yet it actually ends up offending everyone. What a drab, boring, lifeless, and meaningless world, and even violent world, we can look forward to under that trend!

Do you agree? Has American culture become stale, sterile, and violent in trying to avoid offending anyone? Do you enjoy reading about or visiting cultures different from your own? Would you really care if people who don’t live near you openly expressed other cultures in their communities? If all citizens were free to openly express their culture locally, would you enjoy your community more?

This site is for discussing how to improve our political system. It is NOT for discussing party politics or political figures. So if you have a non-partisan question or comment, feel free to leave it below.

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Lijphart, Arend. 2001. “Democracy, Multiethnic”. In Political Philosophy: Theories, Thinkers, and Concepts, ed. Seymour Martin Lipset. Washington: CQ Press.

Mill, John Stuart. 1861. Considerations on Representative Government. London: Parker, Son, & Bourn.

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