Some would have us believe that multiculturalism is a new phenomenon, an aberration from the historical norm pushed by globalizing elites. But from the dawn of human civilization, different cultures have coexisted side-by-side throughout the world. Tribe and tribe, village and village, people and people, a variety of nations with wildly different customs have always lived near one another. Sometimes they loved each other and sometimes they hated each other, but usually they just went on with their lives.
History reveals patterns, allowing us to discern our human nature by observing those that repeat themselves in a variety of times and places. Human nature is in many ways a constant; our political, cultural, and social patterns are malleable only up to a point. Perhaps humans are meant to be diverse and different from each other, forming tribes of culture, ethnicity, and in today’s world ideology.
Religious literature alludes to this. The Bible has it that (Genesis 11:6–8, emphasis added):
The Lord said, ‘If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.’ So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.”
Of course, even people with different languages and cultures come to do business with one another, form friendships, eat together, and sometimes marry if they live in the same space. But this is not the same as assimilation, the “melting pot” model whereby different sorts of people are gradually welded together into a homogenous society. Ultimately, what emerges is something akin to the oft-derided “salad bowl” model. Cultures interact, partially mixing and borrowing from one another and sometimes forming oases of cosmopolitanism, but generally keeping their own distinct qualities because of the human disposition toward tribalism.
This is not to say it’s impossible for new cultures to form or for nations to mix together thoroughly. But such a process takes time and is rarely deliberate, and there will always be differences within such a society, as well as many unassimilated groups of people.
If humanity has a predilection for multiculturalism and diversity, this is something we should make the most of, while also trying to find virtue and joy in it. Yet despite the weight of historical evidence, both the conservative right and the progressive left seek their own forms of assimilation and homogeneity, in an attempt to create the elusive uniform society.
The right’s desire for assimilation and linguistic and ethnic convergence is relatively recent; it is the byproduct of the originally liberal romantic nationalism that swept Europe in the 19th century. Prior to this, bonds of kinship, religion, or political institutions, or social arrangements understood by everyone, held societies together. There was no need for the flattening power of homogeneity.
Consider Japan, a linguistically and religiously homogenous country that nonetheless had, in premodern times, vast differences in the customs of its regions, villages, and groups such as the samurai and peasants. Or consider France, where even in 1789 less than half the population spoke standard French. Within its boundaries, there were hundreds of dialects; various local saints and religious practices; communities of Jews, Romani, and foreigners; as well as members of various professions and guilds all following their own ways of life. While this was hardly the most idyllic and frictionless of societies, it was a society in which there truly was a diversity of customs and ways of life.
And even in medieval times, France was a relatively homogeneous country compared with some of the various multiethnic empires of the past, such as the Persian Empire or the Roman Empire, whose numerous ethnic groups’ customs were respected and permitted as long as they paid their taxes and worshipped the emperor. The assumption that different groups should be left alone to practice their customs as they so wished was common in the ancient world and underlies works like the Odyssey, the Mahabharata, and the work of Herodotus. For example, there is this passage from Herodotus’ The Histories (1.140) that highlights the differences between various groups without imposing any judgment on them (emphasis added):
The Magi differ a great deal from the rest of the human race, and particularly from those priests in Egypt, who think it impure to kill any living thing except for the purpose of sacrifice. The Magi, however, will kill everything with their own hands except dogs and human beings, and even compete with each other for the privilege of killing ants, as well as snakes, and all creatures that creep and fly. Since they have observed this custom from the beginning, let it be.
Let it be. But this sort of heterogeneity would not be appreciated by the left, either, though perhaps classical liberals and live-and-let-live libertarians would be more open to it. The left all too often values only a hollow sort of diversity, one that promotes outward racial and religious tolerance over the diversity of thinking that actually accompanies a multicultural society. For where there are a plethora of religions (including secularism) and ethnicities, there will be many distinct customs relating to family life, food taboos, gender relations, marital practices, and more. This acceptance of customs and traditions doesn’t fit in well with the progressive view of a society that has transcended history, where all people, regardless of their original races and religions, live their lives through the same prism of individualism and consumerism.
What’s happening in America and Europe is in many ways a return to form, a return to a premodern pattern where everyone in a society doesn’t eat or live or marry in the same way. In countries such as Israel and India, which inherit some of their traditions from precursor states (the Ottoman and Mughal Empires respectively) that allowed communities some autonomous self-organization, this type of multiculturalism is still the norm today. In those countries, family law—marriage, divorce, and so on—is particular to various religious sects. As long as different groups can peaceably get along with each other, assimilation and homogenization need not be the end goal of policy.
It is true that multiculturalism can threaten the standing of the dominant culture in a society. Confident cultures, however, do not feel threatened by the customs of others, as they are sure of what they are, where they came from, and where they are going. The Roman Empire eventually spread its culture not because it forced people to assimilate but through gradual acculturation: people wanted to become Roman and could do so while maintaining their own customs if they so wished.
Multiculturalism and diversity are historical norms, recurring through time and place, rooted in human nature. Going against this grain is unworkable and counterproductive. If and when there is acculturation, it will happen naturally and slowly. Rather, by accepting the tendency of humanity toward tribalism and difference, we can embrace instead the fun and interesting aspects of diversity: the variety of clothing, music, food, and customs in this world.
Akhilesh Pillalamarri is an editorial assistant at The American Conservative. He also writes for The National Interest and The Diplomat.