26 September 2012

Multicultural metaphors

A lot of Americans were brought up with the melting pot metaphor of American culture.

But social justice folks rightly criticize the assimilationism which that metaphor promotes. Expecting people to wholly surrender their own culture, submitting to an entirely homogeneous American culture, denies both the truth of American history and the dignity of the range of cultures. Proponents of multiculturalism often talk about the salad bowl as a better metaphor than the melting pot.

In a salad bowl, different ingredients are all mixed together to make one thing, yet each ingredient also retains its own characteristics. They aren’t blended into some bland goo.

I respect the critique of assimilationism there, but I have never liked this metaphor. As I said just the other day, this rhetoric suggests a virtue in the Preservation of Cultural Purity which has some troubling implications and doesn't represent how culture actually works, anyway, since cultures always end up overlapping and influencing each other.

My favored metaphor comes from Mark Twain, who is blamed clever and snuck it in to the third paragraph of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

The widow rung a bell for supper, and you had to come to time. When you got to the table you couldn't go right to eating, but you had to wait for the widow to tuck down her head and grumble a little over the victuals, though there warn't really anything the matter with them, — that is, nothing only everything was cooked by itself. In a barrel of odds and ends it is different; things get mixed up, and the juice kind of swaps around, and the things go better.

A carrot in a stew remains a carrot, but it takes on some of the flavor of the stew. The stew takes on some of the flavor of the carrot. The stew as a whole doesn't become a “bland goo”, but does have a character as a whole that becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

That sounds to me like the way American culture works at its best, the American culture I want to see us build.

I bring this up because artist and activist damali ayo, whom I really dig, just proposed another metaphor which responds to the question of American culture and race and the challenge of building a healthy whole that I find intriguing.

It's a Rubik's cube.

The Rubik's cube metaphor holds a few simple ideas:

  1. This is a really hard puzzle.
  2. The puzzle is only complete when all sides are whole and connected. 3) On the way to becoming whole, there can be a lot of disruption.
  3. There is a solution. We can be whole, connected, and at peace. Keep trying.

Humanity has been given a gift — our diversity. And in this gift lies a challenge, a shared spiritual lesson, a big opportunity for growth. It is a puzzle for the ages, one of the most amazing, memorable, challenging, and rewarding ones we could have been given as a species. It has lasted us generations. It is certainly not easy. It seems unsolvable. But we must try to solve it. It compels us, sometimes through the hope of a solution, sometimes through sheer frustration (much like a Rubik's cube). On the way to solving it, like the cube itself, we will become, as a whole, a better unit. Each part becomes part of a whole, and those wholes become part of a larger whole ... the world. It is possible. We have to keep trying to find a solution. Any one of you in a relationship knows how hard it is to mitigate differences between two people, and the joy that comes when you succeed. Well, it seems like humanity has been given this kind of opportunity on a species-wide level. So the joy in our success will be as broad as we are, but so will the work it takes to get there.

I quite like the way this metaphor frankly admits the challenges — we find building a just society difficult because, well, it is difficult — but also has an implicit optimism that a solution does exist. It also implies that we can find pleasure in the process of working toward a solution, that we can transmute the inescapable challenges themselves into a ground for satisfaction with the work. It also hints that the injustices we see result from a kind of complex machinery in society, which I find useful in avoiding the idea that these injustices devolve simply to the attitudes of individuals.

Given the limits of metaphor, I do see some things in it that don't quite work for me. The image of a single, clear “solution” which one can easily imagine but have difficulty actually constructing doesn't quite work for me; this hides the genuine contention of what constitutes a just society. The image of unscrambling the colors and separating them out has a valence that presents some serious problems given American history.

But quibbles aside, I like the metaphor. Pardon the pun, but I look forward to playing with it.


J'Carlin said...

I have always liked the metaphor of a gumbo that sits in a big pot on the back of the stove forever. At mealtime you throw in whatever you have handy, stir well, and cook it long enough for the flavors to blend a bit and serve from the top layer of the gumbo. The bottom layer is critical for essential flavors but you don't want to dip the ladle too deep when serving.

Conner said...

I'm afraid that it really is just too laden with imagery of segregation. With a Rubik's cube, the colors being intermixed is the whole problem, and separating them out into their respective ghettos is the whole solution.

I think that you'd spend more time identifying and disclaiming those implications than you would save using the metaphor at all, leaving it with negative explanatory power.

Jonathan Korman said...

Conner, that is indeed the "valence that presents some serious problems given American history" that I'm worried about.

Makarios said...

FWIW: In Canada, we sometimes refer to our multicultural society as a mosaic. I find this a rather agreeable metaphor--all of the individual bits and pieces combining to form a coherent whole.

Jonathan Korman said...

Thanks for that, Makarios.

That metaphor definitely offers a certain charm. But I hesitate over it for the same reasons as the "salad bowl"; it suggests that the individual members of culture are more distinct from one another than they really are.