A personal question: As an Arab-American, I try to maintain my children's ties to Arab culture and the Arabic language, going out of my way to make sure that they speak Arabic fluently, and sending them to Arabic class and attending various Arab-American community events etc...to give them a "sense of identity". But of late I have been wondering what's the point? I have Irish great grand parents from one side of my family, but it would seem silly for me to go out of my way to instill an Irish identity in my kids, or to make sure that we spoke Gaelic at home. Moreover, if one them was to marry a person of Philippino-Jewish decent, what identity are they going to instill in their offspring? Are they going to speak Tagalog on odd days, Arabic on even days, and Yiddish on Weekends? At some point it starts seeming pointless, why not just give up and adopt the dominant cultural identity of the society you live in.

Moreover, it seems immoral for me to impose on them that they marry inside the group the way many groups do to their children in the name of protecting ethnic and religious heritage.

On the other hand, it seems totally reasonable to me that a group which has come under sever oppression and violence (Jews, Armenians,...) or that is so small that it is in danger of extinction (Cajuns, many Native American Nations,...) would seek to protect itself by forcefully insuring the perpetuation of its language and values through its children and preventing or at least minimizing intermarriage with other groups.

In addition to that, it seems that if the ideal American melting-pot model succeeds and gets extended to other geographies, in a few generations humanity will end up being one uniform, boring group with little or no cultural and genetic variation at all. Think of the number of languages that have gone extinct just in the 20th century.

Some might see such a unification as a positive thing (less conflict, no sectarian strife, no racism, et....), but to me it would make for a very poor planet indeed.

My questions:

  • Other than religious motivations, what are the justifications for maintaining or protecting one's cultural and linguistic identity in the face of larger or dominant Cultures?
  • From an axiology/value theory point of view, how can one say that a diverse society is better than a uniform one, especially given the negative effects of diversity (racism, sectarian conflict, problems arising from extreme cultural relativism,...)?
  • Which philosophers and critical theorists have engaged with the concept of diversity?
  • 1
    Good question. But why do you think a cultural unification would make for a poor planet? There would surely be room for diversity which isn't cultural, don't you think? – Eliran May 21 '16 at 10:43
  • @EliranH I don't know. Probably the real gist of my question is: How do you achieve such a benign nonidentity based diversity? Right now cultural groups and the almost inevitable xenophobia that result from them seem to be the only way to maintain such a richness. – Alexander S King May 23 '16 at 16:01
  • Truth includes consideration of every possible point of view, see e.g. Adorno, Minima Moralia, § 153. William James, Helmuth Plessner and Hannah Arendt could be said to have similar views towards the actual need of (understanding of and openness for) other cultural standpoints, i.e. pluralism, in order to understand what it means to be human and being human (sic!) at all. – Philip Klöcking May 24 '16 at 20:21
  • Seems like a great question, but as asked there's multiple questions here ... can you break it up? – James Kingsbery May 25 '16 at 18:13
  • @JamesKingsbery the first and second bullet points are variations on the same question (from a personal view vs from a group view) and the third is just asking for references w/r to one and two. If I separated them wouldn't I just get flagged for duplicate Q? – Alexander S King May 25 '16 at 22:10

You might compare cultural diversity with genetic diversity, the latter being valuable because, as the environment changes, some individuals will be better-adapted to survive in the new environment. Then if culture~behavior, i.e., individuals from different cultures exhibit different characteristic behaviors, some cultures will be better-suited to different environments than others. So cultural diversity, like genetic diversity, is a hedge against species extinction when the environment eventually/inevitably changes. You might argue that people's intelligence lets them adapt their behavior to changing environments, independently of cultural norms. And that's probably true in small groups. But in our large mega-nations ("nation"~culture, as opposed to "state"), life-long indoctrinated behaviors are typically much more rigid. Business ("business culture") sometimes talks about a "speedboat versus battleship" analogy between small, nimble businesses and large corporations. The "speedboats" can turn on a dime, quickly adapting to changing market conditions, whereas the "battleships" can't easily change course, and sometimes go bankrupt ("extinct") when the market ("environment") changes and they can't adapt quickly enough.

  • +1, comparing cultural diversity with genetic diversity seems an interesting idea. Possibly this approach can create further insights. – Jo Wehler May 21 '16 at 14:13

I think I take your point, Alex— what's the justification for maintaining a cultural identity at the expense of a cosmopolitan sense of inclusion in a "global" community?

Will Kymlicka's book Multiculturalism offers a lot in the way of prescribing when tolerance is appropriate, but although I may simply have missed it, he didn't give a rousing defense of the importance of personal identity when it comes to the sense of belonging with some particular group. Roger Scruton is much harsher on the notion that people's "personal" (qua "cultural/ethnic") identity should be preserved when seeking inclusion in some larger political group, but his justification for maintaining some national identity, and allowing that to supersede individual cultural commitment to, is the welfare of society as a whole, not some principle that a national culture has some intrinsic value of being a culture in its own right.

The problem is multifaceted. Culture is individual, historical, communal, ethnic, religious, racial, traditional, moral, social, and occasionally legal. Sometimes one of these, sometimes all, usually a smattering of the set. It's illiberal to impose culture on people, but simultaneously illiberal to exercise volksliebe when it comes at the expense of the polity. The most accurate definition of a culture I can come up with, is only that it is a collection of social practices in a moral context. That makes it central to the political liberal's project of allowing everyone equal room to develop and pursue what they view as the best life (Rawls). But it suffers from empathy— when I deem such-and-such a life is the best way to go about living, why isn't it morally incumbent to cajole, persuade, or legally require others to follow suit?

In this way, pursuing a way of life which seeks to preserve a culture for the sake of its preservation is inherently illiberal, whether you mean to hold up that way-of-life's myriad virtues or merely want to provide an object lesson to others. Imposing that culture through instruction or obligation on anyone, your own children or otherwise, demands a degree of justification that a politically liberal polity cannot, by definition, provide.

But political liberalism is not the end-all and be-all of living a moral life, or instructing one's children on how to do so. I'm not a parent, and I have yet to argue this successfully in peer review, but it does seem to me that in teaching anyone —our children, wards, whatever— we carry a distinct kind of collective responsibility with respect to the child or student we're training. We have an obligation to help make them a person, capable of weighing outcomes and other perspectives, and with the full weight of social acceptance and eventual personal responsibility that personhood entails. Insofar as that person-in-training needs it, we have a requisite obligation to help them engage with the society they expect to be a part of in an acceptable manner.

However, if— and this is an important conditional —if your culture meshes well with the ideals of a liberal polity, and can help expand or at least maintain it, then by all means you should be passing that culture along. If by preserving your culture, you fulfill your obligation to give your children or wards better tools for engaging in the larger society they will be a part of, then it behooves you to do so.

But that's a big "if". It may not pass for everyone, or everyone's particular cultural idiosyncrasies. It also doesn't really provide much in the way of an intrinsic value to individual culture— but then, what would be?

Sorry for the long answer. Identity politics are tricky, and I'd treat anyone as suspect who claims certainty, one way or the other.

  • And odd as it is to comment on my own answer... Diversity is important first to Political Liberalism (in the Rawls tradition). On the other hand, a diversity of perspectives on what holds normatively is philosophically important, if only because disagreement is what breeds most of what counts as progress in philosophy. As you pointed out, homogeneity in culture and attitude is boring. Worse, it atrophies. As much as we need people to maintain social order, we also need our Diogenes to piss all over it from time to time, and show up our hypocrisies. – Ryder May 27 '16 at 21:41
  • Thanks for the Will Kymlicka reference. "However, if— and this is an important conditional —if your culture meshes well with the ideals of a liberal polity, and can help expand or at least maintain it," -- One can (and I do) pick and choose some parts of the ancestral culture to attempt to pass on while ignoring those parts that aren't compatible with a modern liberal worldview, which is in itself an essentially Wester meta-cultural ideal. – Alexander S King May 27 '16 at 22:02
  • Yes, I agree— and I wouldn't blame you for a passing feeling of having lost the authenticity of practice as a result. Group membership is as big as a philosophical enigma as they come, and the identity of a culture one belongs to may as well be the identity of a cloud in the sky for all that. Sure as hell never feels that wispy, though. Maybe it's due to the way clouds are made of vapor, where culture (more often than not) is built out of blood and repeated stories. – Ryder May 27 '16 at 22:07

1) There is a reason not to let the broader culture dictate the culture of smaller groups. Monocultures lose survival value as they concentrate risk and create pointless competition for resources in specific forms. Ethnic identity is one way to break up a monoculture, but there are certainly others.

2) Ideas, like animals, benefit from 'hybrid vigor'. Lines that have been isolated and combine later are healthier than their sources, while lines that are isolated tend to also maintain their successful traits. So overall temporary isolation and ultimate combination and resegregation leads to an ongoing pattern of improvement over time.

3) Lame answer, but I would point you at global ecologists for perspectives on how genetics does not naturally degrade diversity over time, even in a fairly closed system like a whole planet. For similar notions on a human level, cultural pacifists suggest ways of looking at culture diversity outside the context of its formation in wars, and how it might survive peace without dissolving.

Maintaining an ethnic heritage, or a pastiche of heritage markers, is one way of doing this. But there are surely others. From my own life, religious Commune cultures, movements like Sovereignty (the Rainbow Family), and urban Gay culture come to mind as protected subsystems that preserve sets of memes that do not do well without a certain level of concentration, or that compete openly with wider cultural values.

What is really important has to be the survival of a variety of memes (in the Dawkins sense, not the Internet sense). Like genes, memes may only survive well in various combinations.

We have species for a reason, and the breeding boundaries between species serve a purpose. But that does not mean that the species' continuation demand endless preservation of whole ecosystems. Nature has simply never done that. Species enter and leave systems, and new ecosystems construct themselves out of old ones by trading nicheholders or by adjusting niches themselves.

If one looks at a cultural heritage as an ecosystem (it was a whole way of life comprising all the behavioral niches of some country at some point), rather than as a species, it is clear that the diversity can be maintained without segregating the traditional named patterns -- but that something has to be done to maintain the diversity itself.

  • Thanks. Do you know of any authors who addressed this at a philosophical level? – Alexander S King May 23 '16 at 16:06
  • No, that is why the answer to 3 is so lame. The biology is all analogy from Dawkins' (and Dennett's -- there I threw in one philosopher) discussions of memetic ecology. The notion that diversity will survive peace by recombining significant parts and letting the national identities pass away, with people finding more stable standards to gather around than war-imposed borders, is from wacky pacifist feminists -- in this case Starhawk and Barbara Deming. – jobermark May 23 '16 at 16:29
  • @AlexanderSKing You should have a look into The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt – Philip Klöcking May 28 '16 at 22:10

Cultural diversity and ethnic heritage are great things to expose your children to, especially when they are young.

  1. There are lots of studies that connect multilingual households to higher cognitive ability. LINK

  2. Understanding one's own cultural heritage can assist children in understanding cultural diversity and tolerance.

  3. If they live in the general public they will still be exposed to various American cultural influences.

However, there is a fine line between teaching cultural identity and xenophobia that one should be conscientious of. In my opinion, the importance of cultural education is on understanding and preserving one's history, not to divid society.


Frantz Fanon is the philosopher I associate most with this topic. In his Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth, he examines topics of cultural tension and assimilation.

He's perhaps most famous for his description of the psychological process of distancing oneself from negative traits by projecting them onto another group. Thus, "we are not ugly, stupid, lazy, greedy, violent, perverse," it is [the blacks, the Jews, the gays, etc.] who have all those traits. The end result is that people become unable to take action against the bad things of the world except by attacking those different from them, who they suppose to be the sole carriers and sustainers of all such traits. It's worth noting, as well, that there seems to be no group so homogenous that it cannot subdivide into an in-group and an out-group --in fact the worst conflicts often arise between peoples who are actually closely related by culture and/or blood. No one, ultimately, is safe in an environment intolerant of diversity.

We can, however, also hypothesize the converse, that embracing diversity makes us less likely to disassociate from our own negative traits, and that in turn makes us better able to actually respond to those in a positive and effective manner. (This last point is not actually found in Fanon --to a certain extent he was a prisoner of his own syndrome, in as much as he perceived violence as the appropriate way to engage with oppressors).

  • "No one, ultimately, is safe in an environment intolerant of diversity." -- My problem is actually the opposite one: a truly tolerant environment would in the long run eliminate diversity exactly because it embraces it. – Alexander S King May 24 '16 at 17:41
  • Human culture constantly mutates --unless human nature changes drastically, it seems unlikely that new diversity would not emerge. – Chris Sunami May 24 '16 at 17:50

To answer a point in the original question: what are the justifications for maintaining or protecting one's cultural and linguistic identity in the face of larger or dominant Cultures?

No justification is needed. One tends to stay with what they are familiar or comfortable with. It's more a general gravitation to, rather than a conscious choice.

However, that doesn't preclude the possibility of being exposed to other cultures, or the benefits of same. One of the greatest benefits is learning for yourself about those cultures.

I work in software development, which is a fairly diverse crowd. What I know about Arab culture comes from my Arab co-workers, which differs quite a bit from what is reported in the 'news media'. I had a co-worker from Bulgaria, who was most informative on the actual changes occurring in their society today.

I don't feel a need to adopt part of other cultures, nor would I want those distinct cultures to water down their heritage to 'better fit in'.

What a boring world it would be if we were all the same. What an insane world it would be if all we knew about other cultures came from someone with a profit motive in spreading alarm.

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