Ethnocultural Empathy

Our society is comprised of people from an array of cultural and ethnic backgrounds. However, unfortunately, we are far away from being a successful pluralistic society. Although some integration happens spontaneously, a pluralistic society is one that acknowledges, allows and accepts the cultural diversity of its citizens. Multiculturalism is an ideology. The term refers to salad bowl or melting pot. Critics of multiculturalism often debate whether the multicultural ideal of nonthreatening, co-existing cultures that interrelate and influence one another, while remaining separate, is possible, logical or even desirable. It is argued that cultures who would previously have had a distinctive cultural identity of their own, lose out to enforced multiculturalism and that this will ultimately erode the host nations’ distinct culture.

In a political context, the term multiculturalism is used for a wide variety of meanings, ranging from the advocacy of equal respect to the various cultures in a society, to a policy of promoting the maintenance of cultural diversity. The politics of today limit an honest discussion of multiculturalism. Leaders will only express what they think their audience of the hour will want to hear. The heated debate about immigration reform has been ongoing for decades, and yet it continues with no real solution. I disagree with the idea that people do not need to integrate with the society in which they immigrate to. I do not think that you can set up your own little country inside of another, with differing laws and extreme values. Immigration should be examined and laws implemented in order to aid both the immigrants, as well as the host country. I think outreach action from communities to accept immigrants into their neighborhoods is crucial as well, in order to help them become and feel more integrated.

The Census Bureau predicts a shift in the composition of the U.S. population. With an estimated yearly influx of 1 million legal immigrants, there is an equal number of illegal immigrants entering the United States each year. The overwhelming majority of immigrants, both legal and illegal, come from the Third World. Another factor which will radically change the ethnic composition of the population — a factor given less attention by the Census Bureau — is the differential birth rates of the various groups involved. It is quite likely that, given current trends, the European American will find himself in a minority long before 2050. This would suggest that the United States of 2050 will be America Balkanized, an America without Americans, an America in which citizens will identify with their minority status and forget about the nation as a whole. This is due to three of the four major population blocs will constitute visible minorities: European Americans or Whites, African Americans or Blacks, Asian Americans or Yellows, and Hispanic Americans. These four blocs will be relentlessly political, locked in a struggle to determine how the increasingly scarce economic goods and natural resources are to be distributed to each group. Can a nation so wracked by internal struggle long endure? History suggests not.

The September 26, 2011 issue of Newsweek, on page 48, titled “Marry or else!” by Michelle Goldberg, there is a quote by former Associate General Counsel of the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service, James Walsh, who gives the opinion that the Balkanization of America is underway. I wonder, is this just fear-mongering? Walsh states, “Immigrants devoted to their own cultures and religions are not influenced by the secular politically correct facade that dominates academia, news-media, entertainment, education, religious and political thinking today,” He further states, “They claim the right not to assimilate, and the day is coming when the question will be how can the United States regulate the defiantly unassimilated cultures, religions and mores of foreign lands? Such immigrants say their traditions trump the U.S. legal system. Balkanization of the United States has begun.”
In an interesting decade-long study by Harvard professor of political science Robert D. Putnam, showed how multiculturalism affects social trust. He surveyed 26,200 people in 40 American communities, finding that when the data were adjusted for class, income and other factors, the more racially diverse a community is, the greater the loss of trust. People in diverse communities “don’t trust the local mayor, they don’t trust the local paper, they don’t trust other people and they don’t trust institutions,” writes Putnam. In the presence of such ethnic diversity, Putnam maintains that we act like turtles. The effect of diversity is worse than had been imagined. And it’s not just that we don’t trust people who are not similar to us, we distrust those who do not look like us.

I think the humane and moral solution to ease the fears, and thereby aiding in a greater understanding of all peoples on this great earth, has to begin with teaching individuals cognitive and behavioral ethnocultural empathy. This should be done at an early age. Once children understand the physical differences with other groups, they then are able to become aware of the perspectives, experiences and attitudes shared by other ethnic groups, and finally develop the ability to take the perspective of other ethnic groups. Using cultural empathy as a “learned ability” may prove to aid in conveying an accurate understanding and more peaceful interaction between the mosaic peoples of the world. Using cognitive, affective and communicative processes together, perhaps we can probe for deeper insights, find similarities, and help to accept our differences.

Traditionally, empathy is roughly defined as the intellectual ability to take the role or perspective of another person and/or an emotional response to another person with the same emotional display. Increasing research found that people usually hold different levels of empathy toward different individuals based on perceived psychological similarities, such as ethnics and culture. Particularly, people usually feel more empathetic towards individuals who are in the same ethnic/cultural groups as they are than those who are not.

Ethnocultural cultural empathy has been used in many other research areas such as racism, feminism, multiculturalism and ethnic identity, and is sometimes applied in cross-culture and/or cross-ethnics analysis. Degrees of ethnocultural empathy were reported to vary by demographics and societal factors. Previous research indicates that women are more likely to report higher level of ethnocultural empathy than men. Non-White individuals are found to have significantly higher levels of general and specific ethnocultural empathy than their White counterparts.

The doctrine of multiculturalism encourages passivity and limits intellectual discussion, and poisons perception. The mere idea that we believe that cultures should coexist without problem, does not eliminate the problems of coexistence. Blind rhetoric is not a substitute for solution to problems, so a more practical approach that is focused less on kind words and more on the best practical results, is the best. Pragmatism wins when it is at conflict with ideology, and different situations require different practical solutions. In my opinion Social integration and Social Blending is a superior alternative. But, can we create one culture that can embrace new customs?

Donna J. Heatherly