Metaphors for Diversity

Byzantine-style mosaic at a church in Bucharest
Image via Wikipedia

Cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson once wrote, “There are few things as toxic as a bad metaphor. You can’t think without metaphors.” (A World of Ideas, 1989) Cognitive research shows that she is right. A whole network of conceptual metaphors operates mostly at a subconscious level to support all our abstract and theoretical thinking. So, if we can’t think without metaphors, then it reasons that bad metaphors could lead to bad thinking with bad consequences.

When it comes to debates about multiculturalism and diversity, have our underlying metaphors been helpful or problematic for us? What are the underlying key metaphors that shape our understanding and approach to these matters? In Canada and the US, two major metaphors have commonly been used to convey each country’s different approaches to cultural diversity: the mosaic for Canada and the melting pot for the US. Each metaphor has its strengths and weaknesses for engaging the reality of diversity.

Melting Pot vs. Mosaic

The melting pot image suggests an emphasis on the blending of cultures to create something new. This can lead to a lot of positive thinking about how the different cultures can learn from each other and adopt each other’s strengths, capitalizing on the commonalities and reforming each other’s weaknesses. It can lead to emphasizing change and evolution of cultures – the interaction between the different cultures changes all of them into a new hybrid culture as they melt and meld together. To use a cooking analogy, the different cultural ingredients are blended together into a delicious stew!

The problem with this emphasis is that not all cultures in the North American pot have equal flavours. The dominant mainstream culture’s flavour is so strong that it overpowers most other cultures’ contributions, unless those minority cultures can reach a critical mass and start asserting their flavours. Until then, instead of blending together, the marginal cultures are merely assimilated into the mainstream and their positive contributions lost or invisible.

In contrast, the Canadian mosaic comprised of different colourful pieces arranged into an aesthetically pleasing design seeks precisely to emphasize the uniqueness and preservation of each culture. Every cultural piece is unique, colourful and beautiful in its own right but when placed together with other cultural pieces, we find a whole more beautiful than its parts. This metaphor’s strength is its emphasis on the important, almost equal, contribution of each culture – every piece in the mosaic is necessary, otherwise the pattern is unfinished. And each culture’s uniqueness must be preserved – if a mosaic piece changes its color, the pattern as a whole will be disrupted. There are no suggestions of melting or blending; no hybrid culture but a collaboration of uniquely preserved cultures to form a beautiful arrangement.

But this image fails to recognize that cultures do change colors; cultures are not as static as a mosaic suggests. Cultural collaborations are not as neat as simply lying next to each other untouched or unaffected by the other cultures lying next to it. Cultures interact and change each other, whether they want to or not. Furthermore, who gets to decide what the overall pattern is supposed to look like? Does each cultural piece have an equal say to what the overall pattern will be or is the pattern already decided by the majority cultures? Or would the overall pattern be up for ongoing negotiations?

A Biblical Alternative?

I think some of these metaphors’ weaknesses are being played out in today’s debates on various multicultural issues. As a Christian, may I suggest a biblical metaphor to inspire and shape our engagement with diversity? In the Bible’s book of 1 Corinthians chapter 12, verse 12, the commonly believed author the apostle Paul wrote: “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ.” (Today’s New International Version) He was writing about a description for the church.

I believe this “one body with many parts” metaphor is more helpful for thinking about diversity. The body metaphor for a community emphasizes both uniqueness and unity. Each body part has its unique properties and roles yet cannot function independently without the whole. And even though all parts are not equal, all parts are indispensable; even “those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.” (1 Cor. 12:22) Applied to cultural diversity, this metaphor stresses the interaction and interdependence of different cultures for the common good of the whole.

As an example of how this influences my thinking on diversity: it suggests to me that no culture (body part) is so unique as to be untouched by other body parts (cultures). Each culture is already connected and affected by other cultures. There are no “pure” unadulterated culture. Every culture today is a hybrid culture—already and always changing and evolving. Hence, preserving ethnic or cultural purity in the name of multiculturalism is  a non-starter. The question is not: “How do we preserve our cultural heritage?” which subliminally means: “How do we make sure our culture don’t change and get lost?” The question rather should be: “How do we negotiate the inevitable changes and influences to our culture in such a way as to make it thrive and to positively influence other cultures too?” In other words, instead of resisting cultural hybrids or passively submitting to cultural imperialism, we need to critically engage and give some direction to the cultural exchange for the common good of the entire human race—the bigger body of which this cultural body part is a member of.

For me, this body metaphor combines the melting pot’s emphasis on interaction between the cultures to create a new united reality, yet preserves the mosaic’s stress on uniqueness and indispensable contributions of each cultural part. It avoids the pitfalls of assimilation on the one hand and of disunity on the other.

Of course, metaphors are not the be-all and end-all. They are merely a starting point and/or a framework for imagining or envisioning what something might become. Metaphors shape our visions, and our visions shape our directions, and hence, our decisions and choices.

I hope that all of us, Christians or otherwise, may reflect more deeply on the possible implications of this biblical metaphor for our thinking and approach to diversity issues in our world. At the very least, we need to reconsider our current metaphors.

(This post is adapted from an article of the same title originally published in The Catalyst, Fall 2010, Vol. 33, no. 2 – a publication of Citizens for Public Justice)

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