Are we a salad bowl or a melting pot? Do we build a wall or welcome the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”?
The answers aren’t as simple as it might appear.
At times, it feels like we’re being asked to reconcile two principles that seem almost irreconcilable: diversity on the one hand and commonality on the other. But reconcile them we must, because despite the inherent tension between the two, one can’t function without the other.
If we don’t look for common ground, we’ll find ourselves at odds with everyone. We’ll be so focused on our differences, we’ll expend all our energy trying to eliminate them by forcing everyone else to “be like us.” We’ll turn the melting pot into a crucible.
On the other hand, if we don’t embrace one another’s diversity, the salad bowl will become walled off into compartments of lettuce here, tomatoes there, and salad dressing way out on the fringe somewhere. The flavors will never be allowed to mix and complement one another.
Forgetting how to learn
Our two-party system has one inherent flaw: It encourages us to view the world in black-and-white terms. There are only two possible outcomes: win or lose. Whoever is not for us is against us.
That’s not how the real world works. There is, or should be, a third potential outcome: learn. That’s how we teach our children how to compete in Little League (at least when we’re not being overly zealous and trying to live vicariously through them). You do your best, try not to repeat your mistakes, work to improve your skills and accept the results gracefully, win or lose. Because, either way, you learn.
When we focus so much on winning that we forget the graciousness and willingness to learn that come afterward, we increase the chances we’ll lose the next time around. If you don’t win gracefully, the other side will just become that much more determined to defeat you the next time. And if you stop learning, even in victory, opponents can catch and surpass you by continuing to do so themselves.
This attitude of complacent self-importance is, at its essence, a form of fundamentalism.
Most people think of fundamentalism in conjunction with religious terms such as “Islamic” or “Christian,” but it’s a mindset that can attach itself to anything from communism or fascism or issues ranging from gun laws to immigration.
However it manifests itself, I’m convinced it is, civilization’s greatest enemy, because it encourages the belief that we know everything already. Not only does this mindset stop internal progress, it also creates a vulnerability to external attack. Imagine, for instance, that the company behind your computer’s antivirus stopped updating its software. Don’t think for a moment that hackers on the other end will stop looking for ways to get around it.
And, eventually, they will.
That’s not to say walls are the answer. Walls assume the those on the other side are somehow all bad people who need to be kept out. That may apply to hackers, but it doesn’t apply to human beings on the other side of a border or in the yard next door.
Appropriation or appreciation?
Yet it’s disturbing to see people on both ends of the political spectrum so eager to erect walls based on that flawed assumption.
Donald Trump’s proposal to build a wall along the Mexican border is only the most obvious example. The same thing is occurring among so-called “liberals” who’ve exchanged diversity for a sort of siege mentality.
The walls here aren’t physical; they’re psychological. They’re the kind of walls that shout, “You can’t possibly understand our situation, because you’re not one of us!” and accuse people of cultural appropriation if they decide to adopt some of your culture’s expressions.
Whatever happened to “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”?
There is such a thing as cultural appropriation. Just ask black musicians who, for decades, saw their works reissued by white recording “artists” without receiving a dime for their efforts. “Cultural appropriation” doesn’t go far enough in describing such actions. They’re theft, pure and simple. But wearing your hair in a certain style or enjoying food that originated in a different culture? That’s appreciation, not appropriation.
The opposite of appreciation is disdain, which just promotes fear and creates more walls. Is that what we really want?
Some of us obviously do.
These folks are scared of affirm our commonality because they see it as a threat to their diversity. Or they’re scared to acknowledge diversity for fear it will destroy any sense of common purpose. Yet they only see things this way because they’ve become mired in the false dichotomy of winners and losers, and they’ve forgotten how to learn.
It’s by learning from one another that we enrich ourselves. It’s by affirming one another in our diverse means of expression that we strengthen our sense of commonality.
In an ideal world, we’d be neither a salad bowl nor a melting pot, but a cauldron of vegetable soup that shares a common flavor but also contains carrots, peas, celery and other goodies that make the entire concoction far tastier.
What we’ve been cooking up lately, by contrast, is tasteless and fast growing stale.
Unless we learn to reconcile our diversity and our commonality, we run the risk of poisoning ourselves with the result.