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Why You Can’t Have Cultural Diversity Without Cultural Distinctions

Eiffel Tower, French culture

In the last few years, several British actors and comedians have made Twitter waves, criticizing their country’s stance toward multiculturalism and free speech. Recently, John Cleese gave fodder to the professionally outraged by declaring matter-of-factly that some cultures are preferable to others. Rowan Atkinson has opined that criticism of a belief system that engages in abhorrent practices is not only reasonable, but necessary. In saner times, these opinions would have been self-evident and their articulation unnecessary.

Another British celebrity, Morrissey,the  front man for the ’80s band The Smiths and already infamous for provocative quips over the years, recently added to his substantial repertoire blunt criticisms about race, borders, and multiculturalism. These opinions have most assuredly ignited the ire of the political correctness crowd, an effect certainly satisfying in itself.

But to me, what was most interesting was a comment he made regarding Germany’s sweeping embrace of immigrants. He is quoted as saying, “If you try to make everything multicultural, you will not have any culture in the end,” and added, “I want Germany to be German. I want France to be French.” This comes very close to expressing a view I have long held, that achieving diversity involves a paradox that no one in the multi-culti crowd appears to have considered.

A Cultural Conundrum

The current Western mania for cultural diversity rests on the assumption that the ideal composition of society is a heterogeneous mass of people positively teeming with cultural differences. At the antipodes of this view is the notion that the ideal society is composed of a relatively homogeneous population, sharing, for the most part, a single culture.

Now, I say “relatively” and “for the most part” because never, since mankind emerged out of caves into the daylight of agricultural toil and the stability it required, has there been an absolutely homogeneous ethnic population. Archaeology and anthropology reveal that tremendous geographic movement and ethnic intermingling among humans has occurred for thousands of years. We’ve even just discovered that Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon mated. Quelle surprise.

But groups of people living in close proximity develop common characteristics and practices regardless of their specific genetic makeup. This is what we call culture, and apparently, to the contemporary Western mind, a plethora of different cultural practices in close proximity is preferable to a single culture of common, shared practices, despite that culture consisting of ethnic variety.

However, there’s a conundrum here. To have cultural diversity, there must first exist cultural homogeneity. You simply can’t have diversity without it. For what is cultural diversity but many distinct homogeneous zones clustered together?

Conjuring a Culture

For instance, when I go to a restaurant devoted to the foods of a specific ethnicity, I am entering a zone of relative cultural homogeneity. All of the elements that make up what I experience as ethnic in the restaurant — the food, its presentation, the architecture, the decor, the music — all developed over a long period of time in a comparatively homogeneous environment. And each element is infused with the spirit of all the rest, which is why I don’t comprehend each of them discretely without conjuring the entire culture. All of the individual elements retain the flavor of the whole.

This is easily understood when you consider what happens when one encounters images of cultural icons. Take, for instance, an image of the Eiffel Tower. A picture of the Eiffel Tower conjures Frenchness, rather than the monument exclusively, in the same way that a Pagoda conjures Japan, not just an architectural style. All over the world, images of specific cultural artifacts do the same work. They conjure the entire culture from which they derived, both for those inside the culture and most especially for those outside it.

In the case of the ethnic restaurant, for most people it is a pleasure to enter such a zone, even if briefly, because we experience it as something completely different from ourselves or from what is familiar to us, which is precisely what we are seeking at that moment.

Now, in order for us to comprehend a cultural zone as different, it must be composed of a multitude of elements that adhere to something — the “Frenchness” of France or the “Russianness” of Russia, for instance. And for that adherence to occur, the zone must have developed in such a way that all of its discrete parts share their cultural source.

Then, when such a zone is transplanted whole to a new place, its totality is experienced as unfamiliar, or different to the inhabitants. When many such homogeneous zones are transplanted to one place, we have cultural diversity. An interesting paradox, non?