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Multiculturalism: For or Against?
Multiculturalism has many forms, and some of them are integral to America.


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These aren’t just multiculturalist values. They are longstanding, deeply rooted American values. And they have been (or at least could be) seen as serving at least four different goals.

1. Multiculturalism as increasing minority members’ happiness: Religious tolerance — coupled with federalism and localism — has often let people live, be free, and pursue happiness in America without having to sacrifice or hide their belief systems.

2. Multiculturalism as an engine of the search for truth: Both federalism and religious diversity often produce a wide range of options — ideological and governmental — that then compete with one another. In federalism, this is known as the “states as laboratories of democracy” model. For religious and other ideologies, this best fits the metaphor of the “marketplace of ideas.”

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3. Multiculturalism as a source of valuable citizens: The tolerance for a wide range of religious belief systems has drawn more people to this nation, and has avoided forcing people into exile. America’s development of the atomic bomb during World War II, which relied heavily on European (and often Jewish) scientists who had fled Hitler, is one illustration of the value of ethnic and cultural tolerance. The benefits Americans have gotten from past generations of immigrants is another.

4. Multiculturalism as a source of knowledge for dealing with a multicultural world: The world is filled with lots of different cultures, whether we like it or not. Experience with different cultures within the U.S. helps us deal with different cultures outside the U.S. — for instance, by giving us a pool of American citizens who actually know the foreign language and culture, and more generally by making our citizens more familiar with people of other cultures.

Again, these are not unalloyed benefits. Multiculturalism can create domestic tension; consider the Civil War, as I mentioned above, plus of course many ethnically, culturally, and religiously based civil wars in other countries. Some cultures may teach their members to prey on outsiders. Some 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 try to completely stifle all rival identities (whether Catholic, Jewish, or Baptist; Irish-American, Chinese-American, or Mexican-American; 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, as we have done for centuries in countless ways. But we shouldn’t (and generally don’t) accommodate objections when the accommodation would substantially harm others.

Still, it’s also important to recognize that many forms of multiculturalism are not valueless, alien, or new. Even without reference to specific valuable aspects of specific cultures, they have some general value. And they are deeply linked to fundamental aspects of our American constitutional culture.

It’s a mistake, I think, to condemn multiculturalism in general, just as it’s a mistake to praise multiculturalism in general. Rather, we should think about which forms of toleration, accommodation, and embrace of differing cultural values and behaviors are good for America — in the light of American legal and social traditions — and which are bad.

Eugene Volokh is Gary T. Schwartz Professor of Law at the UCLA School of Law, and a coauthor of The Volokh Conspiracy blog (http://volokh.com).



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