Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, stated this weekend that multiculturalism has failed, utterly failed, in Germany.  (Dieser Ansatz ist gescheitert, absolut gescheitert).    She’s right, of course — just look at German political debates and the divisions between Germans and non-Germans.  Multiculturalism has failed throughout Europe.   However, what is it?

That raises the question: what is a functioning multicultural society?  There are a couple of things it is not.

1.  It is not the idea that everyone can live side by side with diverse cultures and faiths, mutually tolerant and receiving equal treatment.    That dream, particularly on the left, ignores the reality of human emotions around complex issues like identity and difference.  Moreover, these emotions mean not only that people will often fear and even despise those who think/act/look differently, but politicians will be able to drum up anger, scapegoat, and enhance divisions.

2.  A functioning multicultural society is also not a stagnant default “home” culture to which others must adapt at various levels.   That idea, a favorite of many on the right, is that as long as those from other cultures achieve some level of adaptation — perhaps learn the language, understand customs, respect traditions — then they can have space for their own cultural practice.  The error here is to see a culture as a kind of natural, unchanging core entity.  This leads people to think they have to protect their culture from change.

My dad’s parents came from Germany.   Grandpa Erb was a Lutheran Minister who still gave sermons in German until his retirement in 1963.  Originally all of this sermons were in German, and his Concordia seminary in St. Louis had given him German language diplomas and training.  I have many of his old notes, in German, as well as a German Bible and hymnal.   The Missouri Synod was the “German” branch of the Lutheran church in America, and whether in Brookings, South Dakota or Lester Prairie, Minnesota, he preached to the faithful who spoke very little or no English at all.   By the end of his career he had an English and German version of each sermon, as the number of German speakers declined.

My dad was born in 1935, and given the era, never learned German (I only learned it in college).  Yet from the late 19th century to the mid-twentieth Century a vibrant group of German speakers lived in the Midwest.  Minnesota, where much of my mom’s side of the family came from, had large Norwegian and Swedish communities.

They did not all learn English, and many schooled their children in their home language.   They brought with them German or Norwegian customs, and settled in communities that often shared that ethnic bond.   The children usually did learn English, and over time German became infrequent (perhaps hastened by the world wars) and now I suspect you could walk around Lester Prairie and not hear anyone speaking German as their main tongue.

These people did not adapt to the new culture, they were part of creating it.  America’s culture did not pre-exist the immigrants, it was constructed by them, with each group adapting and constructing the culture at the same time.    Without the Germans, Italians, Norwegians, French, Chinese or Mexicans, the US would have a distinctly different culture.  Who we are is in a state of constant change.   Many on the right decry the fact whites will soon be less than 50% of the population, worrying that American culture will be “lost.”   But culture is always in transition.

Those on the left who want the everyone side by side respecting difference make a similar error.   The immigrant’s culture is seen as something sacrosanct and worthy of protection.   Yet being in a different society will change that person’s approach to life, and offer new perspectives and customs that often will be embraced.   Living in a new country changes people, and to succeed they have to adapt.

My German forefathers kept many of their customs.     They worshiped in German for decades.    They adapted, but they also maintained practices.   To this day we still have the German tradition of exchanging gifts on Christmas eve, while the British/French east coast does so on Christmas morning.   Over time they made their mark on American culture, even as their children and grandchildren adapted to it.

The key is to recognize that immigration and “multiculturalism” is a two direction process.  Immigrants change a culture, immigrants are changed by the culture.   The culture is dynamic and in constant transformation, just as humans entering new societies are transformed by experience.  In fact, humans are by definition always in a state of dynamic transformation going through life, none of us is the same at 50 as we were at 20 — even if there are some really core aspects of the self which persist.

Multiculturalism fails if culture is seen as a natural product, something pure, which should not be changed.   If immigrants don’t adapt and play a role in shaping the overall culture, then you end up with a fragmented society, where fights over identity and difference overwhelm and can potentially destroy community.   The good news is that the changes can come slowly — the first generation may stick to their past cultural practices, but the second and third adapt and take on the new identity.   The overall culture shifts slowly as well, something obvious if you compare 1970 to 2010, but not so visible on a day by day basis.   We should be able to handle that rate of change.

The bad news is that many people do not understand that cultures change and see any different behavior or custom as a threat.    Natives fear the immigrants will change their culture (they will), and immigrants fear their new home will change them and their children (and it will).    They fear the inevitable.  Fear promotes bigotry.    This error is made by both natives and immigrants.

The key is not to fear change or difference.    Germans and Americans should not fear their culture — each so different now than in the past — being shaped by new comers.   That’s going to happen, and it’s OK.   Cultures are human constructs, and it would be boring if we simply produced the same one over and over.  Moreover, those who go to a new country should not fear losing some of their identity because of their new home.   They and especially their offspring will be changed too, and that’s OK.   We are always changed by our choices and our environment.   Fear can be profound when it comes to issues of identity and difference; letting go of fear in those instances can be very rewarding.

  1. #1 by renaissanceguy on October 19, 2010 - 14:24

    Very interesting, Scott.

    My wife’s father grew up in eastern Montana as a Mennonite. He spoke a Low German dialect as a child but has mostly forgotten it, due to being taught English in school and using English everywhere but at home or in neighboring houses. He, by the way, would be among those on the right who think that it is best for everyone to adapt to the dominant culture. If he had his way, we would declare English the official language of the United States.

    One distinction that should be made, I think, is the distinction between superficial aspects of the culture and deeply ingrained attitudes and values. Who really cares if people eat hot dogs or pizza or goulash or enchiladas or dried fish? On the other hand, people care very much if other people commit honor killings against their daughters, for example.

    My view is a combination of what you list as the two opposing views. I think that we should tolerate the various cultures around us and grant people of different cultures the rights that they deserve equally as human beings. To some extent we should even embrace each other’s cultures and enjoy them and learn from them. I also believe that, whether it is officially declared or not, there will be a dominant or predominant culture in a country, and everyone should accept it and adapt to it, and yes, if it changes, they should accept and adapt to the changes. They should do so for the advantages that it gives them, not because somebody is forcing them to do so.

    What I oppose is anyone trying to coerce the changes in a culture or trying to force them on other people before they are ready. Changes should evolve naturally and organically as the majority of people accept or reject them. Unlike you, I don’t see culture as a “human construct.” That sounds too much like somebody deliberately plans and creates a culture. Cultures seems to be what just happens organically when people live together and work together.

  2. #2 by Scott Erb on October 19, 2010 - 16:11

    By human construct I am not implying volition, though I can see how it can sound that way. Culture is a result of choices we make, along with shared norms and understandings we socialized into holding. I see culture as a kind of “social programming” where our basic tastes, ethics, interests, and ways of seeing the world are imprinted on our minds. In traditional societies life reaffirms the existing culture, and thus it tends to be reproduced and seen as “natural.” In modern society where human liberty and individualism is embraced, people are better able to question existing cultural beliefs and transform them — look at changes in music, politics, personal behavior, and issues like interracial marriage and the role of women in society. In that since the constructed nature is more clear in that volitional efforts to change society had an impact.

    In that light Islam and the West have an added problem — the West is modern and change-acceptant, less willing to hold on to cultural norms for their own sake. Much of the Islamic world is still traditional, and thus sees change and questioning of culture as a threat. The shift from traditional culture to modern culture is very difficult. It took the West centuries, as we first moved away from monarchies, mercantilism, slavery, women not voting, etc. When looked at in that way — and taking into account the disastrous Ottoman legacy in the Arab world — it’s clear why there are difficulties.

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