December 30, 2003
From Ed Chasteen
Answering the question: “What Do We Say?”
your questions touched a nerve. I’m getting responses by the hour. I am compiling them and sending them to all the folks in my e-mail list. This is exciting, a wonderful use of the internet.
- Is it possible for a society to become so diverse that it loses its cultural identity and distinctiveness?
- Is a degree of ethnocentricity essential to the preservation of a culture?
- At what point does liberty become license and absolutes (moral and otherwise) are replaced by relativism?
One question I have in response: If a degree of ethnocentricity IS necessary, which “ethno” gets to be “centric” in a multiethnic society? If the majority ethnic group retains that privilege, and if Euro/Caucasian-American retains majority status still, then more than a degree of ethnocentricity surely remains. And it is the impending loss of that majority status, hence ethnocentric privilege also, that may be particularly troubling to many Euro/Caucasian-Americans at the present time. Yes? Is that one reason we hear more and more questioning of the value of diversity and multiculturalism and tolerance? Is it a sense of dread (due to impending loss of majority status and privilege) that leads to fears of relativism and to calls for a moralism that appears absolute, unchanging and certain?
You are the perfect person to write to and ask your thoughts on something
that has started bothering me more and more in the last few months –
something that I am hearing about our schools and how kids are being forced
to “give in” to the “terrorists”. Some of these terrorists are kids like
themselves, many so young that it’s truly frightening to me, but a growing
number of the “terrorists” are people who would never dream that they could
be called nor thought of like that – teachers, administrators, school
boards and parents.
Bullying and teasing was a way of life when I was growing up – not
something I joined in on (that I know of or remember) or condoned. In
fact, I was a target of bullying and it breaks my heart when I hear stories
of young people who have been tormented, sometimes to the point of
committing violence on others and themselves. The suicide rate among kids
10 – 14 years of age has jumped 109% from 1980 to 1997. That is a
horrible comment on our society in a country that has everything to offer
to it’s young.
What really distresses me are some of the responses that some of this has
provoked in the adults who should be acting as role models, examples and
mentors to our young people. I was talking to a woman who has
grandchildren in one of our area pubic schools – NOT a private
school. This school is on the Kansas side but I feel sure that type of
thing is probably happening in MO KC area schools also. I have heard of
milder forms, but this seemed to be the most extreme example that I have
She was shopping for her grandson and was having a problem finding him
clothes for school because the kids are only “allowed” to wear navy blue or
khaki-colored pants and shirts. NO black or red or other colors because
those colors are “gang” or “goth” colors.
Is this the craziest thing you have ever heard???? To me, this is
teaching our kids lessons that make no sense. It’s teaching them that
their emerging abilities to make choices and to think for themselves aren’t
to be trusted nor exercised. It’s teaching them that adults have an
irrational fear of certain groups and things and have no idea how to deal
with them. I have to admit that I don’t pretend to know how to deal with
these sorts of things either, but banning clothing colors outside of an
“accepted list” does not sound like an answer to me.
Terrorism is everywhere in the world today. What’s really scary to me is
when it appears that it has infiltrated our own Midwest schools – grade
school, middle school and high school – to the point where the adults
running them and teaching our children are terrified of simple, every day
items like clothing. It’s no wonder that so many of our kids are screwed
up and come out of our public school systems with no skills, no dreams and
ambitions and NO idea how to make it in the world or even the hopes that
I’m not sure that I’m making complete sense while trying to write
this. It just hurts me to my very heart what we adults are doing to the
little kids that have so much light and promise BEFORE they go into our
schools. It’s not always the bullies and other kids who put those lights
out – it’s us, the adults who seem to put a bushel over those tiny bright
Sometimes the “terrorists” are us and I’m afraid that when children are
involved Ed, the terrorists do have more than just the power to
kill. They have the power to transform a promising young life into one
that trusts no one and who has every reason to trust no group – even those
WE have charged to help mold their lives. Most of this starts and ends in
the home, I agree, but when the educational system “gives in” to the
terrorists all around us, and the kids see that, what do we do, as parents
and grandparents, to counteract that? WE are the ones funding, voting for
and hiring these people. I can’t believe that the majority of parents are
going along with this type of thinking. That depresses me if that is the
Sorry this is so long. It’s just something that has been building and
bothering me more and more and your email just triggered me to write to you
First of all, no one can answer for you–and if they did–it wouldn’t be your answer. Just as you can’t answer for me. But, sharing thoughts can be a way to re-evaluate and rethink where we stand. If I am too old to do this and change my mind (if need be) then I am too old!
The first question is almost a catch 22. As I read it I thought of all the various cultures which make up our country–and how many of them have been diverse at first but then seem to blend into the whole. As this happens the things that were so distinct about the culture they brought with them is somewhat diminished but in a sense I see the traditions still being very important.
And, I think of various countries in Africa–some of which have dozens and dozens of different tribes who all speak a different language or dialect. What would be the answer to that question for them? And, I think of the Jews and from the time of Abraham the various attempts of God to keep them ‘pure’ so they could retain all of their distinctiveness. Yes, the pagan cultures around them crept in just as our commercialization and current icons creep into our lives.
In my childhood for a Protestent and Roman Catholic to marry quite often meant almost a disowning of the bride and groom. The sense of loss on the part of the parents was painful and great. Our son married a Roman Catholic and this union has been nothing but a blessing for both families. In a way some of the cultural identity has been lost to each party but a new distinctiveness and cultural identy has been born.
Yes, of course, a degree of ethnocentricity is essential to the preservation of a culture. But, this does not mean that liberty should become license and replaced.
Enough rambling. I am sure you will get some excellent responses from your list and it is my hope that you will share them.
I have some thoughts. A bit rambling, perhaps.
I believe it is important to recognize that cultures founded on a premise of
hate are not to be tolerated. So too much toleration of diversity can in
theory allow for toleration of radical extremism (such as practiced by the
Taliban, or other oppressive and genocidal regimes – including Islamic and
non-Islamic examples which can be found around the world). But the reach of
such oppressive cultures is self-limiting, I believe. It is true that certain
tyrants do impose their will for a while but ultimately people will not put up
My understanding of what motivates terrorism and anti-Americanism is that the
US global corporate and media empire is destroying local culture and making it
global and US-flavored. Along with the good (free expression, opportunity,
entrepreneurship, etc.) comes the bad (vice, violence, and the uncertainty of
change). Conservative cultures (such as some radical Islamists) react in fear
and concern that their power-structures, uniqueness, and diversity is being
lost – destroyed – by a greed-oriented culture of materialism, consumption, and
instant gratification. I don’t think that is the angle S.L. was looking at
when he replied (or maybe he was), but taking his words and kind of turning
them their head, it makes sense to me that there can be too much toleration of
cultural differences – when that toleration results in loss of one’s own
identity. I identify myself as “American” yet, what I see here in Antigua is
also “American” culture being imposed upon Antigua and I don’t like what I see.
It seems like the worst of what it means to be “American” is adopted
(materialism). The culture of US-dominated global corporate materialism
(capitalism, imperialism – whatever you wish to call it) is now so pervasive
and so powerful that the desperate and powerless are fighting back in the only
way they know how, which seems to be terrorism. Others are working
non-violently (in vain?) to preserve their uniqueness and diversity against the
rampant, all-powerful US capitalism force; and these efforts should be
encouraged, but I’m afraid they’ll mainly be curiosities and appear only in
museums and practiced at cultural festivals. (Looking at the march of history,
western European culture (supplanted by the US global corporate model) is
replacing what makes most of the world unique and different. For example,
English is rapidly becoming a universal language. Here in Antigua, a Creole
dialect is spoken at home, but when in school, all children and teachers speak
proper English. The world must speak English to participate in the
US-dominated global corporate economy. Here in Antigua, the youth have adopted
the US cable television version of global culture (fast food, hip-hop music,
bling-bling, sagging pants, NFL, NBA and corporate logos, imported consumer
products, etc.) Local traditional foods, dress, music, religion, etc. are just
not interesting to the youth. The older generation shakes their head and
shrugs their shoulders unsure what to do about it. Here there is less of a
back-lash against the US corporate culture, replaced more with jealously. Here
the objective is to get a Green Card and find a way into the US, land of wealth
and opportunity. So you won’t find terrorists with bombs on Antigua, but you
will find thieves desperate for a dollar so they can buy an NBA-logo dew rag.
In certain cultures tied to ethnicity—i.e., Scandinavian nations, East Asia, etc.; a society may become so diverse eventually that it loses its cultural distinctiveness. But I think of our country’s culture as being its diversity, its varying perspectives and viewpoints. Our culture is bound up in its multiculturalism. We lose our culture in this country when we lose our multiculturalism. When your friend and professor states that ethnocentricity to some extent may be important, which ethnicity becomes central? Do we lean towards the largest ethnic group, and as a result, do we eventually lean towards Hispanic culture (as it will probably be the largest “ethnic” group as some point in this country if trends continue)? Do we favor the “oldest” cultures and if so, do we argue that the culture of our founders should be most central? If the founding culture matters, then do we lean towards Indian cultures, as they were the first and rightful “founders” and “owners” of this land?
I do not believe that multiculturalism becomes relativism, as I believe most religions/spiritualities, and cultures, hold the same basic values and grapple with the same tough societal issues in similar ways. Ethnocentric ideals fall dangerously close to “groupthink” ideals, which may be as dangerous, if not more so, than relativism.
Just some thoughts (as I thoroughly enjoy discussing such issues).
I sent the above responses to S.L. He sent this response in return
“WOW! This is great! The responses you are receiving are stimulating and thought provoking, which is exactly what I hoped for. My only regret is that some of your respondents appear to think that my questions are positions I have taken. Such is not the case, although I may see some value in arguments both for and against positions that could be (and are) taken. I raised the questions, not in advocacy of a position, but because I feel they are relevant and worthy of discussion. If I may paraphrase your challenging statement regarding cycling (“If I don’t ride . . I can’t walk”), I would say, “If I don’t question, I don’t think, and if I don’t think, I die.” Keep the responses coming!”
One of the basic questions I would ask SL is “What culture are we trying to preserve?” The so-called American culture is a blend and yet a pluralism of many cultures — English, Irish, German, Polish, French, Swedish, African, on and on. If, in say 1800, the question of which culture should be preserved had been raised, which would it have been and why? The same question is valid today, I believe.
Rather than preserve a culture (which history suggests to me is impossible, cultures are continually changing and evolving) I believe we should focus on core values — are there certain values shared by the best minds of many if not most cultures — e.g love, peace, human dignity, personal freedom, meaningful employment of talents and energies, and the like? I believe we can find some common ground at this point which allows us to be different and share a common bond at the same time.
S.L.’s questions remind me of the debate that occurred during the 60’s concerning freedom and responsibility. Is freedom the same thing as liberty? Is the phrase, “I can do anything I want to at any time I want to” the ultimate definition of freedom or does freedom have the inherent attribute of being tempered by responsibility. If so, who or what is the responsibility tied to? I believe there is absolute truth and the effort to stretch the word tolerant to exclude absolute truth is ridiculous. Patrick Henry’s use of the term Liberty was defined by the unjust treatment of the colonists and did not stretch to the point of saying that he could do anything he wanted to. Therefore, there are absolute rules, laws, that “man” must live by. Jesus was asked, what is the most important law, He said, “Love the Lord your God with all your soul and all your might and your neighbor as yourself”. This I believe is the ultimate truth! There is good and there is evil. If we measure either against this truth, we can know what is the responsible decision to make.
Ed, your statement that the only power terrorists have is the power to kill is only true if you fear being killed. Therefore, creating fear is the only power they have. It is interesting that the current motivation for the current terrorists is to kill the infidels in the name of Allah but they themselves will be rewarded if they are killed in the effort. What kind of sense does that make?
I read an interesting statement the other day and I was reminded of it as I read some of your book and recounted your interactions with your grand daughter. I can feel the “Joy” in heart as you tell the story. The statement is “Peace is joy resting”.
May the peace of God go with you,