Both cultural homogeneity and cultural diversity can exist at any scale of human association – from a school or university to an entire country. True cultural diversity is far broader than, say, the “diversity” pursued as a policy of left-leaning academic institutions. While some on the religious and political Right allege that this kind of “politically correct” diversity goes too far, my main grievance with it is that it does not go far enough. It is mainly a diversity of appearance, with precious little diversity of substance. While it is right to accept and productively interact with individuals irrespective of circumstantial attributes like race, ethnicity, or gender – as well as more active characteristics such as religion (or lack thereof) and sexual orientation (or lack thereof) – the “politically correct” form of diversity often stops there. The most important diversity exists at the level of the individual. It is a diversity of ideas, personalities, and ways of living – one that often defies tidy classification. While such diversity can certainly be helped by the presence of individuals with experiences from a variety of circumstances, diversity of form is not sufficient to achieve diversity of substance. In the United States, true diversity is too often stifled by both the religious Right and the “politically correct” Left.
The attitude necessary for true cultural diversity is one of cosmopolitanism – awareness of the immense variety among human beings – and toleration of differences, including those differences one would consider suboptimal, as long as those differences do not impose coercive harm on others. The attitudes of cosmopolitanism and toleration have their political corollary in classical liberalism, which recognizes and protects through law the right of every individual to choose his or her own ideas and peaceful ways of living. Indeed, the only intolerance that classical liberalism displays is an intolerance toward coercive intolerance. In the words of Ludwig von Mises, “Liberalism […] must be intolerant of every kind of intolerance. If one considers the peaceful cooperation of all men as the goal of social evolution, one cannot permit the peace to be disturbed by priests and fanatics. Liberalism proclaims tolerance for every religious faith and every metaphysical belief, not out of indifference for these ‘higher’ things, but from the conviction that the assurance of peace within society must take precedence over everything and everyone. And because it demands toleration of all opinions and all churches and sects, it must recall them all to their proper bounds whenever they venture intolerantly beyond them.”
The polar opposite of genuine diversity is cultural homogeneity. As I previously suggested, homogeneity among people can only be achieved through force. The natural diversity of human experiences is far too great for all people to converge on essentially identical ideas and ways of living in the millions of areas of life that humans regularly encounter. The very fact that different minds focus on different areas of reality in the course of their day-to-day activities implies that each of these minds will form a different view of the world, at least in terms of emphasis. No two human beings can ever agree with one another on everything, and most people will disagree with some their own earlier-held views. Some differences in ideas lead to differences in choices of outward behavior – but, while Richard Weaver’s statement that “ideas have consequences” is true, the consequences of a given idea are seldom, if ever, the same for all people. Left free, human beings will naturally form associations of immense and highly beneficial diversity. Only if their thinking and behaviors are restricted through external imposition, can cultural homogeneity arise.
The leaders of a culturally homogeneous society endeavor to supplant the free interaction toward which most humans are inclined, with regimentation in favor of a particular vision of “the good life” or “the good society” – be it a set of doctrines, a pattern of rituals, or the ways in which individuals may and may not structure their economic activities, family lives, and interpersonal relationships. Proponents of cultural homogeneity often appeal to “shared values” within a given culture and often seek to give those values a force beyond that of voluntary assent. Inevitably, they speak and act as if they have already identified the specific “right” thoughts, actions, and ways of living; furthermore, they hold that a unitary scheme of living is best for all. If this were merely their personal preference, it would remain within the range of mistaken but tolerable opinion. However, proponents of cultural homogeneity often recognize that they cannot have their desired world without overriding the preferences of others through the use of prohibitions and mandates. It is at that point that classical liberalism and cosmopolitanism must mount a staunch resistance to attempts to homogenize any society by restricting the liberties of individuals.
Below are just some of the reasons why cultural homogenization should be resisted by all advocates of liberty and rational individualism. I hope that the discussion of perils that follows will equip defenders of cosmopolitanism and toleration – what Karl Popper termed the “open society” – to stop in its tracks any movement to artificially restrict or eradicate peaceful cultural diversity.
Peril 1. Cultural homogeneity is always dictated by the leaders, not embraced voluntarily by the people in the culture. Irrespective of attempts to abstract away from people everything except some perceived essential similarity in religion, ideology, or nationality – human diversity is naturally too great for people to fit themselves into neat little homogeneous templates. Instead, the leaders and their propagandists who desire homogeneity have to try to make people fit these templates, by using force to punish the noncompliant. Leave people to their own devices, and different people – indeed, people who may strongly disagree in certain areas – will find ways to get along and profit from one another’s differences. This is the essence of the trader principle so eloquently advocated by libertarian thinkers. The desire for cultural homogeneity is, in essence, the desire for power by an elite few who wish to impose their ideal of the good life (or of the acceptable person) on others – and to be in charge of regimenting people to achieve that ideal. It is a lucrative enterprise indeed, for those who can rise to the role of arbiters of cultural acceptability. For the rest of us, it is slavery to enrich and privilege the self-designated elect.
Peril 2. Cultural homogeneity stifles progress and innovation. Forcibly conforming human beings to any predetermined template of conduct – other than simple abstinence from inflicting harm upon others – implies a necessarily static view of the world, a view that the ideal patterns of behavior are already known and optimal (despite the obvious evils, inefficiencies, and miseries of the real world). In such a world, where one must cleave to the “the cultural identity” – or else – there is little room for trying new ways to solve old problems and improve one’s quality of life. A culture where ideas and behaviors are regimented will not invent new technologies or develop economic arrangements that better cultivate human prosperity and potential. Where no deviation is permitted from the foreordained answer, discovery is foreclosed on from the beginning.
Peril 3. Cultural homogeneity tramples on the rights of those who seek a different path. Irrespective of how much the leaders of any society or subgroup may claim that they are really just articulating “values shared by all”, there will always be some people who disagree. Enforced cultural homogeneity offers them the pitiable alternative either to suppress their better judgment and conform – and yet remain suspected outsiders nonetheless – or to be punished through deprivation of opportunities at the hands of the elite at best, and outright physical harm to themselves and their families at worst. Since there will always be dissenters, and since the dissenters will suffer from the enforcement of lifestyle and ideological norms, the pursuit of cultural homogeneity will always inflict grievous harm upon actual human beings. Indeed, often those human beings will be harmed for no active choice of their own – simply because they were born into the “wrong” family, in the “wrong” part of the world, or speaking the “wrong” language. The abominable and violent treatment of undocumented immigrants in the United States is a prime example today of a story that, alas, has repeated itself all too often throughout history: the ruination of lives as a result of racist, ethnicist, and nativist bigotries.
Peril 4. Cultural homogeneity politicizes and perverts the dominant culture. Pursuit of cultural homogeneity corrupts even the cultural paradigm which is considered “pure” and desirable by the ruling elite. This is because, instead of developing spontaneously on the basis of the creative energies of those who genuinely embrace it, this dominant culture becomes dictated by the elites who enforce its dominance. In order to create new exemplars of that culture – be it in the arts, the economy, or in everyday interpersonal interaction – the participating individuals no longer have their own discretion. The question before them in advancing their own culture is no longer, “Is it sensible?” or even “Is it good?” Rather, at best, the question they must answer is, “Is it permitted?” More likely, the question they would wish to answer in a culture of enforced homogeneity is, “Will it earn me favor with the powers that be?”
Peril 5. Cultural homogeneity weakens the capacity for argumentation and critical thinking. In a homogeneous culture, one does not often encounter skeptics and critics regarding the dominant norms of that culture. Therefore, those norms become embraced by default – by virtue of not facing any challengers – rather than through deliberate, reasoning acceptance. This is a worse fate for genuinely beneficial norms than for arbitrary and unjustified ones – for the entire capacity of members of the homogeneous culture to rationally defend the beneficial norms becomes undermined. As John Stuart Mill eloquently expressed in On Liberty, encountering contrary ideas can only benefit the individual and the truth. If the contrary ideas are correct, then the individual’s understanding is improved. If the contrary ideas are incorrect, then the individual attains a better grasp of what they actually are, why they are mistaken, and how better to argue against them. A person who faces no opposition to his ideas becomes intellectually weak and brittle, just as a person who engages in no physical exercise gradually loses health and energy. A society, in which no serious opposition to the dominant ideas and norms is permitted, is an intellectually feeble and unhealthy society.
Peril 6. Cultural homogeneity produces anti-intellectualism, bigotry, crudity, and brutishness. In addition to producing intellectual weakness, cultural homogeneity inevitably generates a social element that is actively hostile to ideas and thinking. The individuals comprising this brutish element are typically not particularly bright to begin with – but in a sensible, free society they are relegated to roles where they have no coercive power and a potential to actually do a bit of good with what skills they may have. In an environment of cultural homogeneity, however, these individuals become enforcers of the status quo – appointed either by themselves or by the reigning authorities. These individuals exploit tribalistic desires to crack down on those who are different – using tactics ranging from mockery and humiliation to the infliction of physical injury and death. Even when their depredations are unsanctioned by the ruling powers, they are typically tolerated as long as “their hearts are in the right place” – that is, while their energies are devoted to stamping out dissent against the enforced dominant culture. Indeed, no historical enforcement of cultural homogeneity occurred without bands of thugs and boors to do the dirty work of power elites who, in seeking to maintain an image of virtue, would not wish to engage in it personally. In American political “discourse” today, these types of people are glorified by certain politicians of the pro-homogenization, populist Right as “Joe Six-Packs”.
Peril 7. Cultural homogeneity weakens and endangers the entire society. In population genetics, it is well understood that a genetically homogeneous group of organisms is much more vulnerable to changes in its environment which are particularly adverse to the sole genotype. However, a genetically heterogeneous population has much more potential to survive, since more variation in characteristics implies a greater probability of some individuals adapting and persevering. The same can be said of human societies. The many unforeseen and unforeseeable contingencies of human existence require a wide variety of character traits to overcome. Any given individual – in his or her personality, lifestyle, and system of thought – may be suited to addressing some of these problems but not others. The more different kinds of people can peacefully coexist, the greater range of problems can be solved for the benefit of all. Unlike biological diversity, which simply ensures that some members of the population will survive a cataclysm that kills others, cultural diversity can rescue everybody – because beneficial techniques, ideas, and habits, which can save any individual from the crisis, can be learned as they are needed. Under cultural homogeneity, only one “variant” of human being – or several “acceptable” variants, typically within a highly formalized and stratified system of prescribed relationships – can be preserved. This can mean ruin if a set of circumstances arises to which the “acceptable” strains are particularly vulnerable.
Peril 8. Cultural homogeneity is incompatible with truth and justice. If one genuinely holds that truth is objective and empowering if known, then a corollary of that belief must be that the objective truth should trump any socially held, intersubjective conventions. Another corollary must be that no individual, society, or culture is completely right – and, on some matters, all of them are completely wrong, at least for now. Since all human beings are fallible and all human beings have demonstrated the capacity to make mistakes from their earliest years, it follows that the sincere pursuit of truth requires all human beings to continually improve. To fix the ways of any culture or society permanently as mandatory norms is to abandon the continual, open-ended self-improvement required as a part of pursuing truth; it is to sacrifice truth to conformity and to presume (with evident falsity) that the dominant norms already embody the complete, “revealed” truth. Furthermore, justice, the treatment of each person according to the merits of his or her actions and in a manner conducive to human flourishing, fails in a climate of enforced cultural homogeneity. The principles of justice, as a subset of all truth, are also not revealed but must be discovered. To subvert the discovery process is to stall the expansion of what Adam Smith termed the “circles of sympathy” within which human beings encompass others. In unrestricted interactions among different and free human beings, the circles of sympathy will necessarily broaden as the humanity of “the other” becomes concretely visible and therefore readily apparent. A culturally diverse, cosmopolitan society has the best chances of approximating the universal justice of recognizing the inalienable rights of every individual. In a society where “the other” is restricted, kept out, or altogether eliminated, it becomes so much easier to demonize those who are different as evil abstractions, rather than actual living human beings whose close proximity renders their capacity for both virtue and suffering impossible to overlook.
While I have articulated the dangers of cultural homogeneity and homogenization in broad and general terms here, they can be found in many particular programs to limit individual freedom. Indeed, the threat of homogenization is timeless and appears in many forms today. The ideas needed to counter it, and to promote the flourishing of many kinds of peaceful people and thoughts, are likewise timeless but should be adapted to the particular situation in which liberty must be defended or introduced. As Mises eloquently reminds us, “Against what is stupid, nonsensical, erroneous, and evil, liberalism fights with the weapons of the mind, and not with brute force and repression.” I hope that the identification of perils in this essay can fortify the intellectual arsenals of many opponents of regimentation.