On Community, Part III

This is the third part of a four-part series on issues of community and social cohesion in the United States. In the first part I made the claim that the US lacks a strong sense of community, and in the second part I outlined some of the underlying reasons for that. In this post I offer more reasons, focusing primarily on multiculturalism and its potentially negative effects. I am a proponent of multiculturalism and believe that on the whole its advantages outweigh its disadvantages, but the topic of this post is social cohesion, and viewed from this specific prism, I believe that multiculturalism can have detrimental consequences.

The history of multiculturalism in America is long. After the Native Americans, who were obviously the first human inhabitants of what we have come to call the United States, succeeding generations of Americans have been immigrants in one sense of the word or another. After the first generation of Western European settlers came waves of migrations from other parts of Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and eventually Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. In a very real sense, one generation’s immigrants are the succeeding generation’s natives. As a result, multiculturalism in the United States takes on a somewhat bifurcated if transient state. On the one hand are communities that are long-settled and that form a permanent subculture within the greater American fabric. In contemporary America, Native, European, African, and Hispanic Americans are all members of such permanent subcultures. On the other hand are the recent immigrants, which for every generation come from a different part of the world, and which in due time carve new yet permanent portions of the cultural mosaic. Asians, North Africans, and Middle Easterners represent some of the major immigrant populations in the United States today. When I discuss multiculturalism in this post, I will in general refer to both types, unless it makes sense to distinguish between the two.

Given this long history, it might seem a little too late to be contemplating the effects of multiculturalism on the American social fabric, as it appears that this fabric has long been inherently multicultural. This is partly true, but even so, it does not negate the utility of examining the advantages of monocultures. In addition, while cultural diversity has always been synonymous with American culture, the rate of this diversification has been increasing since Ted Kennedy’s landmark legislation of 1965 which curtailed the quota system. This speed-up presents entirely new challenges, as the rapid pace of change makes it difficult to absorb new peoples and customs into the larger culture.

With this in mind, let me jump into my main thesis. The core challenge that multiculturalism presents to social cohesion lies with the resultant lack of common ground between people of distinct cultural backgrounds. Common ground facilitates communication and shared expectations, which are the cornerstones of any community. When people are unable to communicate with, and are unsure about the expectations of their fellow citizens, it is difficult to see how a community, let alone a socially cohesive one, can be formed. Within this framework I will consider three primary types of pluralisms: linguistic, cultural, and religious, and discuss the effects that each has on community cohesiveness.

Let’s begin with linguistic pluralism, which comes in many flavors. In one version individuals within a community all speak roughly the same set of languages, which in some ways is equivalent to a monolingual culture. Examples of this include Switzerland and Belgium, and arguably this form of linguistic pluralism presents few challenges to social cohesion. Another flavor is where all individuals speak one or more languages that are distinct, but share at least one language in common. The United States, generally speaking, is an example of this, as is India and China. This form of linguistic pluralism also presents little impediment to social cohesion, and can possibly act to enrich the experiences of all community participants by exposing them to unfamiliar languages and associated cultural artifacts such as literature and film. Problems can arise when members of the same linguistic community decide to converse in their language either unintentionally or purposefully to exclude others from comprehension and participation. In the US at least this is considered poor etiquette, and is not a problem that is frequently encountered. The more problematic form of linguistic pluralism is one in which members of the same ostensible community speak distinct languages in a mutually exclusive way. Without even a common language, would be members of the same community cannot share their most basic experiences and aspirations, which naturally prohibits any form of community formation. While mostly a European problem, some examples of this exist in the United States, in the form of ethnic neighborhoods inside cities that are linguistically sealed off from the larger community, and in suburbs and small towns that over time grew to become linguistically monolithic. Within the spectrum of linguistic pluralism lie many possibilities, and perhaps the one that is most representative of the metropolitan United States is that in which most people maintain varying degrees of fluency in English along with one or more languages. It is hard to ascertain how much in practice linguistic barriers act to impede community in the United States. My suspicion is that once a reasonable degree of proficiency in English is obtained, the barriers largely disappear, particularly in cosmopolitan areas whose inhabitants are routinely exposed to a multitude of accents. And so while linguistic pluralism has the potential to become a serious problem, it so far appears to have had limited negative impact on societal cohesion in the United States.

After language comes culture, and I will argue that cultural pluralism presents a more serious challenge than the linguistic one in the United States. This too comes in many flavors, the most benign of which is perhaps culinary diversity! Most people, it appears, are perfectly able and happy to cross the gastronomical cultural barrier, and in so doing demonstrate the most advantageous aspects of multiculturalism: the experiencing of new things, the broadening of one’s perspective, and the challenging of deeply held assumptions. Food, it seems, is where multiculturalism works best. The two areas where multiculturalism does present challenges are in the lack of shared expectations and common experiences. With respect to the former, the basic problem often manifests itself as an issue of etiquette. How late is too late? (E.g. when arriving to a party.) How little is too little? (E.g. when gifting.) What topics are inappropriate for discussion? (E.g. religion and politics.) The problem of shared expectations is much deeper than etiquette however. In essence, shared expectations codify the rules of conduct within a community. Every community in every country and culture has one. If someone on the street is signaling to hitch a ride, should I stop? If I am moving from one house to another, can I expect my friends to help? When stuck in a financial bind, to whom can I realistically go for help? When faced with a traumatic situation, who would be an appropriate person to confide in? All these scenarios can be thought of concretely, in terms of the actual individuals that form every person’s community. But what I am interested in here is the abstract question. What kind of persons would be appropriate to confide in? Co-workers? Classmates? Therapists? Friends? And if so, what type of a friendship? How old must it be? What about the genders? Etc. The point here is that every culture has its own answers. European American culture, relatively speaking, tends to be quite open about emotional issues. On the other hand, expectation of financial or material help from anyone other than close friends is uncommon. The fact that different cultures have different norms is not the problem per se. Every culture has found its own local optimum. The problem is that when multiple cultures collide, as happens in multicultural societies, the solution is typically to settle on the lowest common denominator. The de facto norm becomes the one in which the least is expected, so as not to offend or unintentionally burden. It is the intersection of all cultural norms in play, which, in the end, leaves little culture left and weakens the social cohesion of a community. Because people are unable to set accurate expectations of what they can and cannot expect from others, they end up expecting (and offering) very little. In some ways, political correctness is an instance of this phenomenon. Particularly in terms of race relations in the United States, the expectation of what constitutes appropriate conversation about race varies widely between races. As a result, an appeal to the safest, but also most banal, conversation is made. The fear of causing offense cripples our courage to engage.

Before moving on to the second issue of common experiences, I will share a short personal anecdote that exemplifies the lighter points about etiquette discussed above. Years after immigrating to California, by which point I had internalized many of its shared cultural expectations, a small incident reminded me of just how subtle this process is. I was working with another student on a school project, for which we had to buy some basic stationery. The other student volunteered to buy the material necessary and brought it the next day. Upon doing so, I asked her how much it cost. She replied with the amount, and without thinking, I said: “Are you sure?”. She was naturally offended, and affirmed that she was, in fact, absolutely sure. Cutting my losses, I awkwardly consented and paid her the money. For a fleeting moment I was even confused as to why she was offended at all. Then it dawned on me that she took my question to imply that she was overestimating the amount I owed her. My question was, in fact, asked to insure that she was not underestimating the amount, as it is quite common in Arabic culture to lower or altogether refuse payment for small purchases of this sort. My veil of cultural integration had momentarily fallen, and in so doing led to a small faux pas.

The second serious challenge that multiculturalism presents is the lack of common experiences among members of a community. While the preceding discussion is equally applicable to permanent subcultures and to immigrant populations, this issue is primarily about the interaction of immigrants with the larger population. Common experiences are memories, of activities and events, time periods and cultural fads, which all members of a community have and which serve as a social anchor. Important game matches, national political events, local accidents, songs learned at school, are all examples of common experiences that a community has. They can be on the national level, like the Columbia shuttle disaster or the assassination of JFK. And they can be on the local level, like an especially bad winter storm that left people stranded for days. In a young and genealogically diverse country like the United States, common experiences take the place of a shared history that binds people in older and more homogeneous countries. They are the stuff of which the American social fabric is woven. And thus, for immigrants either coming from outside the United States or even moving within the United States, the lack of common experiences with their large community renders them unable to lay claim to that part of the community. More importantly, in cosmopolitan areas in which seemingly almost everyone is a recent immigrant in some way, there emerges a total absence of common experiences, because no one stays long enough to form them. This leads to a sort of collective amnesia and weakens the community, as without memories of a place or its people, it is hard to cultivate the sense of civic engagement and public service that is necessary for strong social ties.

With that let me move on to the third and final form of pluralism that I want to consider, the religious one. In general, the difficulties presented by having distinct and potentially rival religious beliefs are similar to the ones presented by cultural pluralism, albeit possibly on a more abstract and cerebral level. Such pluralism however only becomes a problem if the community in question is very religious, at which point diverse religious viewpoints can be a source of tension. In moderate religious settings, in which I will include the United States, particularly when faith is considered a personal matter, religious diversity is likely to be less of an issue than cultural diversity. And so the focus of my discussion on this topic will be a little different. Instead of viewing religion through the prism of multiculturalism, I will instead focus on the effects that lack of religious belief has had on social cohesion.

The secularization of American culture, which on the whole I consider to be an extremely positive development, has led to the diminishing of the role of the church, the physical entity, as a place for social gathering and community. Church on Sunday punctuated (and to many Americans still does) the social life of a community. It is where and when people got to meet, mingle, and stay abreast of the general happenings and developments in their community. In many ways no secular alternative has emerged to fill this gap. To be sure, there are many secular spaces for gathering, such as bars, restaurants, even libraries. And while some of them do have some of the features that make churches central to community life, no single one of them simultaneously has all the church’s features. What are these features? I can identify several. The first and most obvious is a shared value system. People who go to the same church ostensibly believe in the same thing, give or take a few commandments. No secular place can replicate this, and it should not. Furthermore I do not think this feature in particular is an important one, as I suspect that churchgoers are likely to have as many philosophical disagreements as non-churchgoers. I mention it only because it is the most obvious one.

There are many other aspects of the physical church that are important however. It occurs on a regular basis, and in some ways implies an obligation to attend. It is open to all ages, a place where the young and old can meet. It facilitates random and unplanned interactions. And it implies physical proximity of its attendees. None of the secular venues typically used for social interactions enjoy this confluence of characteristics. Restaurants are planned places; people go there to meet with prior intention. Bars are age-restrictive, and imply specific social activities. Libraries are poor venues for socialization, and certainly enjoy no notions of regularity. The features of the physical church that I’m describing make it a place where everyone (who chooses to) within a geographic perimeter, of all ages, goes to meet familiar and strange faces on a regular basis. That is the very core of what makes a community; constant and unplanned social interaction. Given the lack of a secular alternative to the church, the secularization of American culture means that fewer and fewer people have a place to go to regularly to participate in the social life of their community. This, in turn, contributes to the weakening of the greater social fabric.

I will conclude on a somewhat pessimistic note. While the historical factors I have outlined in this post and the previous one were initially external to American culture, over time they can become a part of it. In other words, while people may initially settle on the lowest common denominator of social expectation because of their milieu, ultimately their own individual culture would set a different expectation if it could. Over time however, as the situation remains unchanged, the lowest common denominator becomes the social norm, and the behavior gets internalized into the culture. Thus even if the factors that originally drove this transformation are no longer there, people’s behavior changes in a way that is much longer lasting. What started out as extrinsic characteristics become cultural ones, and once they do, reversing them becomes significantly more difficult. Given how long the factors I describe have been at work in America, it is safe to say that that has already happened. In particular, “reversing” the factors described in this series, even if that were desirable, would not work, because contemporary American culture has become intrinsically strained. To fix this problem then, one must not fight the current but embrace it, a topic to which I will return in my fourth and final post.

One comment

  1. Pingback: On Community, Part IV « Some Thoughts on a Mysterious Universe

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