Tribalism, Pluralism and Respect

We live in a pluralistic society, the most pluralistic in the world, and it always has been. It’s been hard work to keep it going on an even keel, and failure seems close at hand in almost every age. Some two decades ago Arthur Schlesinger wrote about what he saw as the tribalisation of America. He recognized a trend in which the elders of various ethnic groups would, in the name of ethnic pride, set up barriers to engagement with one another that might lead to the dilution of ethnic identity. The largest and most frightened ethnic group was white European America, but others were not far behind, he suggested. The myth of American homogeneity had always been hard to maintain. That explains at least some part of why we’ve had such a history of blatant racism. The separation of black and white is the most obvious to us, but hidden in the back pages of history books are stories of national hysteria over Irish, Jewish, Italian, Chinese and Japanese invasions that would overrun us and destroy our traditional values. Those of northern European (Protestant) heritage did their best to demand that all others become as they were at the same time that they raised the frightening specter of out-of-control immigration. The full integration of all European immigrants took time, but it did happen. Ethnic pride and holidays still get celebrated but they are no longer seen as symbols of separation. The same is happening, more of less, with most Asians. But the black-white issue still haunts the nation, and we have a new target for irrational fear mongering – Hispanics, Mexicans in particular, especially illegal ones.

So how are we to learn to live with one another in peace? Schlesinger thought language and sex would do the trick. Every immigrant group, sooner or later, learns to get along in English, and there is nothing like a common language to link various ethnicities and cultures. But sex is even more important. Sooner or later young people fall in love outside the restrictions established by their elders and begin to produce a new “race” of men and women. Michner, in Hawaii, called this new race “the golden men.” All of that takes generations, generations often filled with hate and violence, so what can we do in the meantime? I think it has to do with understanding and honoring the cultures of those around us without the necessity of trying to make them our own. As Christians in the traditions of the Episcopal Church we take as a part of our Baptismal Covenant that we will “respect the dignity of every human being.” That does not require us to take on the traditions of another culture just to be nice. That never works. It’s always phony and is usually insulting to the other as well. But it does require us to do our best to know and honor those traditions, just as we desire that our own cultural traditions be known and honored. There is nothing like respect for setting a tone of civility that leads to conversation that ends in friendship. I wonder why we find it so hard to try?

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