Multiculturalism as a Traditional American Value (?)

Eugene Volokh offers 4 points. He identifies the local governance protected in the founding era as protection of distinct cultural groups and practices. That makes perfect sense though we rarely think of the founding era as multicultural and promoting multiculturalism. The comments section contains all the relevant debates — natural law, anti-Western anger, civic pluralism vs. national culture. Here’s the list:

  1. Multiculturalism as increasing minority members’ happiness
  2. Multiculturalism as an engine of the search for truth (marketplace of ideas)
  3. Multiculturalism as a source of valuable citizens (invention and creativity)
  4. Multiculturalism as a source of knowledge for dealing with a multicultural world

Volokh continues:

Now it should be obvious that these are not unalloyed strengths. Multiculturalism can be a sort of domestic tension (consider the Civil War, which had cultural components, plus of course lots of other ethnically, culturally, and religiously based civil wars in other countries). Some of the cultures may teach their members to prey on outsiders (consider cultures which endorse slavery). Some of the cultures may teach their members to prey on insiders, so that tolerating the culture may give extra happiness to some members at the expense of other members. Some of the immigrants from other cultures may come to be dangers to the nation rather than assets. There are doubtless other possible problems as well.

And it should also be obvious that, because of this, we should properly calibrate our tolerance for multiculturalism with our insistence on also supporting a unified national culture. We shouldn’t completely stifle all rival identities (such as Catholic, Jewish, Irish, Chinese, or whatever else), but neither should we neglect the building of an American identity. We should accommodate some religious or cultural objections to generally applicable laws, and of course we have done so for centuries in countless ways; but there are some that we shouldn’t (and don’t) accommodate, for instance when the objection would lead to substantial harms.

But it’s also important to recognize that multiculturalism is not valueless, alien, or new. Even without reference to specific valuable aspects of specific cultures, it has some general value. It’s a mistake, I think, to try to fight multiculturalism in general. Rather, we should defend those aspects of American multiculturalism that have served us well — and are likely to continuing doing so — and fight those aspects that are likely to be harmful.

As usual, Eugene offers a thorough, new take on an old theme. Thoughts on Sharia in Britain?

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