Embracing Multiculturalism: Why Diversity is Preferable to Universality

Jason Isgrigg

The debate between cultural unity and cultural plurality dates back to at least the ancient Greeks when they disputed whether a true universal human “goodness” existed. More than two millennia later, the issue of whether there exists a common versus a diverse human culture remains contentious. Not only do I argue that a diverse human culture exists, but also that it is more desirable than a universal culture because states are responsible for all people residing within their borders, diversity strengthens societies, and both states and societies benefit from a diverse body politic.

Globalization is commonly examined by simply dissecting its political and economic consequences. As a result, the effects it has on culture are often overlooked. According to U.S. Census projections, by 2043, non-Hispanic whites will become a minority consisting of 47 percent of the U.S. population.¹ Examining the world as a whole, a 2015 study by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs/Population Division found that between 1950-2000, an average of 2.8 million people per year migrated to North America and Europe. From 2000-2015, that rate accelerated to 4.1 million per year. What’s more, this study projects that from 2015–2050, 91 million people are expected to migrate to high-income countries and produce an 82 percent increase in population in those destination countries. Clearly, the prospect of steady migration and the continuing effects of globalization are expected to produce more multicultural societies. Unfortunately for many, however, “foreign” has become synonymous with danger.²

Those who argue for cultural unity maintain that a universal approach to humanity enables the formation of a “cosmopolitan” community.³ Cosmopolitanism is based on the idea that all humans belong to a single global community based on a shared morality.⁴ In this view, everyone benefits from a world in which humans are obligated to one another beyond one’s relatives because it results in more inclusive moral, economic, and political relationships.⁵ A stronger view of cosmopolitanism argues that it “combats provincialism, parochialism, ethnic and racial particularism, and the narrowness of identity.”⁶ Thus, in theory, the establishment of a cosmopolitan community based on shared political, social, cultural and economic beliefs, morals, and norms should result in a stronger, singular community.

However, efforts toward achieving cultural unity often serve as a cover for the exercise of power over others and can result in attitudes of exceptionalism (such as American exceptionalism and Eurocentrism), racism, and even violence. At its worst, efforts toward building a common human culture give rise to fascism and the likes of Hitler and Stalin. At best, dominant powers export their views through forms of cultural imperialism.⁷ Cultural imperialists, or those “of the ruling sector in the center,” “shape the structure and consciousness throughout the system at large.”⁸ This is also true when, in the name of humanitarian intervention, a stronger state imposes its will on a weaker state.⁹

In terms of culture, diversity is the antithesis to imperialism and racism. In terms of language, diversity strengthens the legitimacy and efficacy of institutions and promotes equal access.¹⁰ What’s more, respect for diversity and minority culture is inherent in democratic theory.¹¹ However, some argue that the laws, rules, and institutions of certain societies are biased toward cultural majorities because “what the majority supports does not guarantee citizen equality, and it may be necessary to supplement majority decisions by a stronger regime of minority rights.”¹² So what is to be done?

States should pursue policies that protect and promote cultural identity and plurality for two reasons: first, because it is in their best interests, and also because states are responsible for those living inside their borders. States that ignore or trivialize ethnocultural minorities can harm their citizens and this harm can be as damaging as denying them their inherent civil and political rights.¹³ Moreover, universality naturally requires that people part with their individual values, beliefs, language, and culture, which can result in political conflict and even violence. After the fall of communism in 1989, the assumption that liberal democracy would naturally spread across Eastern Europe was overtaken by the outbreak of ethnolinguistic conflict.¹⁴ Likewise, in Catalonia and the Basque region of Spain, the struggle for minority nationalism as well as ethnolinguistic rights continues to divide the country. Language is inextricably linked to culture. Similarly, language debates almost always result in political debates, which naturally require state involvement.¹⁵ Second, states, by virtue of their existence, are responsible for all people residing within their borders. Failing to recognize minority groups and to adopt public measures that protect and promote cultural identity erodes the legitimacy and efficacy of the state. States that instead selectively repress certain cultural identities run the risk of alienating their citizenry and fostering hostility towards their governing institutions. In short, language and cultural policies that respect diversity also support democracy and bolster governmental legitimacy.

Diversity is a form of cultural tolerance that strengthens societal cohesiveness and promotes stability. A 2013 Center for American Progress and Policylink public opinion research project found that a majority of Americans are more likely to see opportunities from increased diversity than challenges.¹⁶ The U.S. is one of the most diverse countries in the world that has long enjoyed stability, and its citizens maintain relatively close societal bonds. A second study conducted by the UN’s World Values Survey Association found that the most tolerant countries in the world are Anglo and Latin.¹⁷ Perhaps not surprisingly, the Middle East was found to be least tolerant. In this case, it is possible to associate places like the U.S., Canada, Britain, and Australia with tolerance and cohesiveness and the Middle East with intolerance and turmoil. In other words, societies that embrace multiculturalism and diversity are generally more stable. Governments that advocate for a common culture risk disenfranchisement of minority groups and destabilization as a result of disunity. Proponents of a common culture argue that a homogenous nation will be a stronger nation based on the adoption of a superior culture. However, strong opposition to efforts to consolidate cultures is usually met with resistance, and in the case of the United States, resulted in the rise of a “cult of ethnicity.”¹⁸ Instead of homogeneity, political, cultural, and ethnic opposition leaders emerged in order to preserve “ethnic constituencies,”¹⁹ eventually derailing the move toward a post-ethnic future.²⁰ When society rejects the cult of ethnicity, it is comprised of free-thinking individuals who can rationally debate the public good.²¹ In short, unity is best achieved by multicultural societies comprised of citizens whose individual and group rights are respected.

In sum, cultural diversity is an end toward which humanity should strive because states and societies benefit from promoting and protecting diversity. Nevertheless, it is also important to recognize that efforts to create a “cosmopolitan” community can actually function as the exercise of power and become an example of cultural imperialism. True diversity strengthens societal interconnectedness and fosters cohesion, which results in greater stability. Finally, states that adopt policies which promote a so-called “universal culture” end up disenfranchising minorities, suffer from illegitimacy, and are less unified as a result.


¹ Ruy Teixeira, John Halpin, Matt Barreto, and Adrian Pantoja, “Building an All-In Nation: A View from the American Public [PDF],” Center for American ProgressPolicy Link, and The Rockefeller Foundation. October 2013, 1.

² David Rothkopf, “In Praise of Cultural Imperialism? Effects of Globalization on Culture,” Foreign Policy. 22 June 1997.

³ Kwame A. Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), xx.

⁴ Pauline Kleingeld and Eric Brown, “Cosmopolitanism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 1 July 2013.

⁵ Appiah, Cosmopolitanism, xv.

⁶ Jason Hill, Becoming a Cosmopolitan: What it Means to Be a Human Being in the New Millennium (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), 7.

⁷ Rothkopf, “In Praise of Cultural Imperialism? Effects of Globalization on Culture,” 22 June 1997.

⁸ Herbert Schiller, “Communication and Cultural Domination,” International Journal of Politics 5, no. 4: Winter 1975-76, 17.

⁹ Costas Douzinas, Human Rights and Empire: The Political Philosophy of Cosmopolitanism (New York: Routledge, 2007), 80.

¹⁰ Will Kymlicka and Alan Patten, Language Rights and Political Theory (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2014), 3.

¹¹ Will Kymlicka, The Rights of Minority Cultures (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1995), 16.

¹² Anne Phillips, Multiculturalism without Culture (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 11.

¹³ Ibid.

¹⁴ Kymlicka and Patten, Language Rights and Political Theory, 3.

¹⁵ Ibid., 4-7.

¹⁶ Teixeira, et al., “Building an All-In Nation: A View from the American Public [PDF],” October 2013, 1.

¹⁷ Max Fisher, “A Fascinating Map of the World’s Most and Least Racially Tolerant Countries,” The Washington Post. 15 May 2013.

¹⁸ Arthur Schlesinger, The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991),  20.

¹⁹ Schlesinger, The Disuniting of America, 34.

²⁰ Linda M. Alcoff, “Against ‘Post-Ethnic’ Futures,” Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 18, no. 2 (2004): 99.

²¹ Alcoff, “Against ‘Post-Ethnic’ Futures,” 100.

Photo Credit: Huffington Post 

Jason Isgrigg is a mid-career Army officer and graduate student at Penn State University where he is pursuing a Masters in International Affairs with a focus on Security Studies. He is most interested in foreign policy, diplomacy, statecraft, and security. Jason previously studied at the University of North Georgia where he earned a BA in Political Science and International Affairs.

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