Immigration and Multiculturalism

15 March 2019
Should immigrants assimilate into their new society? Or should society adapt to make room for different cultures? Aren’t there some foreign customs we should never accept? This week, we’re thinking about immigration and multiculturalism. 
 
I have to say, I’m a big fan of multiculturalism—that is, of the idea that each culture within a society should maintain its own identity, rather than assimilating to the dominant one. In fact I’m not just a fan but a beneficiary of multiculturalism, having immigrated to the States thirty or so years ago. It’s true that I do a lot of American things—I’ve come to love baseball and basketball, for example—and I’ve ended up talking like a Californian, much to the embarrassment of my family in the UK, but I still drink single malt scotch and Earl Grey tea. And I still love real football, not that strange kind where almost no-one ever kicks the ball.
 
Of course, I understand some of the arguments on the other side—arguments for a “melting pot” rather than a “salad bar.” We are often at our strongest, as a culture, when we focus on what brings us together, rather than on what separates us; part of what I love about the United States, at its best, is the way in which people from all over the world can unite in a common vision. And I recognize the concerns about intolerance: if a sub-community believes it’s acceptable to discriminate on the basis of race, gender, or orientation, the society as a whole needs to push back against it. (As Karl Popper famously argued, intolerance is one thing a tolerant society cannot afford to tolerate.)
 
That said, it would be absurd to think that intolerance is the unique purview of communities coming in from outside—as though no-one born in the United States ever harbored intolerant views! And while it’s vital to focus on what unites us, there is an enormous value in our differences, too. Even those who consider themselves enemies of multiculturalism are almost certainly enjoying the amazing variety of cuisines that would not exist if we lived in a true “melting pot.” And the contributions of immigrant sub-communities go far beyond food. Think of all the Nobel prize winners of immigrant ancestry. Think of music, and literature, and cinema. Think of all the languages we hear around us, and the way those languages enrich the lingua franca of a nation.
 
So while it’s fine and natural for a host country to set some norms for the newcomers it welcomes, I don’t think it should ask everyone to live and pray and think and love exactly the same. I suspect John Stuart Mill’s harm principle may do all the work we need: as long as a group's customs and habits are not harming anyone, we should let them do their thing. Indeed we should want them to do their thing. At the end of the day, it’s going to make life richer for all of us.
 
 
 
 

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