Kyoto Prize Winner Explains the Benefits of Living in a Diverse Society
What are the benefits of living in a multicultural society? Why is it important that different age, ethnic, and cultural groups are recognized and valued in their community? How do our community bon
Originally published March 18, 2009 at 8:46 a.m., updated August 19, 2009 at 9:18 a.m.
What are the benefits of living in a multicultural society? Why is it important that different age, ethnic, and cultural groups are recognized and valued in their community? How do our community bonds affect our identity, and the decisions we make? Host Maureen Cavanaugh speaks to Kyoto Prize winner Dr. Charles Taylor about his research into the value of living in a diverse society.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. The Kyoto Prize, Japan's highest private award for global achievement, is sometimes referred to as the Japanese Nobel. Dr. Charles Taylor, philosopher and professor emeritus at McGill University in Montreal was the 2008 winner of the Kyoto Prize for Arts and Philosophy. He was honored for his work in constructing a social philosophy that explores the mutual benefits of people with diverse cultural backgrounds living together in one community. I spoke with Charles Taylor earlier this year about the benefits of a multicultural society. Here's that interview. Dr. Taylor, were you aware the scholars on the Kyoto Prize selection committee in Japan were familiar with your work?
DR. TAYLOR: No, I didn't really know that. I mean, it's known obviously in my own country and in some other western countries that we are – had discussed it but I didn't realize that it was known there and that they thought this area of work was that important.
CAVANAUGH: That's interesting. Do you think perhaps ideas and philosophy are as international today as, let's say, advances in computer sciences?
DR. TAYLOR: Yes. It's extraordinary because in a certain sense the philosophy is much more dependent, usually, on a particular culture, right. The problems that arise very often have to do with a particular culture and, I mean, its thoughts and so on. So very often the discussions have been within the given society or a given area of the world whereas science is absolutely international. But we've come to an age when people are beginning to recognize that we're having the same kind of problems everywhere so you find that the discussion has really become internationalized in an extraordinary degree.
CAVANAUGH: Yes, that is interesting. You know, when you see pictures from other countries and you think, well, everyone is of a certain race or of a certain cultural background, and you see the massive diversity that is everywhere these days in every part of the world, it really does change you mind about what's going on and what issues people have to deal with.
DR. TAYLOR: Yes. I mean, you think of Japan that it used to be, you know, a very, very unified society when the people always – the descendants of people who've been there for centuries but recently they have a problem that many western societies have. Their birthrate is dropping and they're wondering whether, you know, their – the future generations are going to be able to pay for the welfare state and the retirement of people who are there. Exactly the same kind of problems that are worrying all of western society, so they're thinking perhaps we're going to have to think of immigration and then we'll have to think of how we relate to – how you receive these people that come from elsewhere. So this problem that used to be completely off their screens is now looming.
CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Dr. Charles Taylor. He is philosopher and professor emeritus at McGill University in Montreal. More specifically, he is the 2008 winner of the Kyoto Prize for Arts and Philosophy. Now, Dr. Taylor, in reference to your work about the benefits of a multicultural community, here in America we traditionally think of our society as a melting pot where people from all over the world shed their distinct ethnic backgrounds and then merge into this concept of becoming American. Now does your philosophical theory find a problem in that?
DR. TAYLOR: Yeah, but I find a problem in that even as a description of what actually goes on in America.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, okay.
DR. TAYLOR: Yes, you know, I think that that melting pot concept was invented back in the very early 1900s. I think it was the famous playwright Zangwill who launched the idea, and the idea was you boil it down like in a melting pot and you all become similar and you shed your particularities. But that's never what's really happened. First of all, you know, there's – America started off as a white, Anglo Saxon Protestant country, and it's kept a lot of those features in its culture even though it's been evolved over time and a lot of new people have arrived. So it wasn't an equal meltdown for everyone that arrived, right. And then secondly it hasn't been the case that people have really shed everything in their culture. There remained important differences and they – The thing that makes America work is that those differences are thought of as a plus rather than a minus. See, the people have brought some other kinds of cultures, some other kinds of sensibilities and so on from their home culture to put into the mix. So it's not a mix in which everybody ends up looking exactly the same but it's a mix which generally people can end up living together and learning from each other and really appreciating that. Now that doesn't go all the way around because there are, you know, there are tensions but that's the ideal of a multicultural society and it's closer to the American reality than it is to the melting pot myth.
CAVANAUGH: Indeed. And as you said, there are some tensions that arise. It makes me think about some of the issues we are dealing and debating about today when it comes to an influx of people from south of the border.
DR. TAYLOR: Yeah.
CAVANAUGH: Mexican culture and into the United States. There is some people who really see that as a threat.
DR. TAYLOR: Yeah. And I think that this is a – this is something that's happened in the United States before and the great strength of the society is it's overcome it because the first wave of Irish immigrants in the 1840s were seen as a threat and there was even a party, the Know Nothing Party, that wanted to deny them their citizenship and then later there were waves of immigrants in 1880s and '90s from eastern and southern Europe, and they were seen as a threat. And there were people who were worried about too many of them being in America. And America managed to get over that. By meaning getting over that, I mean that these groups grow closer to American society and American society opened up and saw the value of integrating them. And now there's another wave, as you say, in the case of Hispanics but you get – If you cite American history it's a kind of déjà vu. You know, we've seen this before. We've seen this kind of fear before and we've seen, fortunately, a really positive resolution of it before.
CAVANAUGH: Now, your – much of your work, in fact, the work that's being honored with the Kyoto Prize is about the benefits that individuals receive in living in a multicultural society. Can you explain what benefits there are for a – for individuals in asserting their own identity and retaining their distinct background?
DR. TAYLOR: Well, I think that there are two kinds. See, that – there's a – You can put it this way as a negative. There's a cost. The real cost to people concerned if, in order to fit in and be a real citizen of the society, they have to put a big part of what they are either aside or cover it up or – or suppress it. And societies that demand assimilation—this has been the case in the past of many European societies—impose that cost on their members. But then from another point of view, the people that are imposing that cost are also losing something because they can be losing some really valuable contributions that are made by people who have another culture, another outlook, speak other languages than the common language which, in this case, is English, and so on and so on which immensely enriches a society. So from both standpoints there's a cost or a loss or you fail to, as it were, really take full advantage of difference in society when you try to suppress it and make everybody more or less homogeneous.
CAVANAUGH: And is one of the risks of that as sort of having your society stagnate?
DR. TAYLOR: Yes, definitely. I mean, there's a risk on one side of stagnation and there's a risk on the other side of, for instance, like fragmentation if you can't come to a very strong agreement on real fundamentals, what the basic principles are on which you operate. And the, you know, the successful resolution of these earlier ways of immigration in the United States has come about because they're – they've remade, if you like the social contract, they've remade the understanding around the basic principles on which America functions. But the danger of multiculturism could arise if people came who didn't really want to accept those principles, who wanted in some way to stand apart from them and then you'd get a risk of fragmentation. So there's a – there is a risk on one side of fragmentation and there's a risk on the other side of, you're right, a kind of stagnation, a kind of very, very unproductive homogeneity.
CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Dr. Charles Taylor. He is the winner of the 2008 Kyoto Prize for Arts and Philosophy. We're talking about Dr. Taylor's work about multiculturism in society. Right now, Tami in Oceanside would like to join the conversation. Hi, Tami.
TAMI (Caller, Oceanside): Hello, and good day to you, Professor, and good day to you, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: Yes, hi.
DR. TAYLOR: Hello, Tami. Yeah.
TAMI: One of the good aspects, I would say, about multiculturism as I was listening is I happen to be Mexican and I am now married to an American with descendants of Czech and Irish. And I feel very much, too, my, you know, different aspects of being Mexican and being Mexican in the United States.
CAVANAUGH: And, Tami, what does that give to your relationship?
TAMI: You know, it makes the relationship very unique and actually really strong because he learns from me and he learns from my culture and what it is that we need and how to make it and, you know, different traditions. And on that same note, I also learn from him and it's a – it's just an everyday learning experience that's never ending and it has made our relationship just, I guess, so much stronger. And that's – I guess that's the reason why we're together because we just – we saw that on each other, that uniqueness.
CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that call…
DR. TAYLOR: Thank you, yes. Yeah.
CAVANAUGH: …that comment. That's like a microcosm – excuse me, Doctor, of what you're talking about.
DR. TAYLOR: Yes, exactly. Exactly, that people can find in that kind of difference a mutal enrichment. And that's a very precious thing. It really is a magnificent gift.
CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering what you think about the election of Barack Obama, what that means to the health of multiculturalism or a pluralistic society here in America.
DR. TAYLOR: Oh, I thought it was wonderful. I mean, I must say, I'm an outsider, of course, looking in from Canada, but we were all tremendously excited by the election of Obama. I mean, for a lot of reasons. I think he's a magnificent thinker and leader, and I'm really very impressed with the way in which he understands and tackles the problems. But also, the symbolism of somebody of African descent becoming President of the United States was tremendously powerful because that's one relationship that hasn't always worked towards the best, the relationship defined by the difference of race which has turned sour in many ways in American history and it's very different from the wonderful overcoming of the differences with various immigrants that we talked about earlier. And you could feel that perhaps there's another – there's a step there that might help to heal that and bring us beyond that, and that was something that we all watched the inaugural speech, the inaugural moments and I thought it very, very moving and very full of hope.
CAVANAUGH: And, of course, your philosophy, your, if I can say, research into the topic of how multiculturism benefits the society is a global one and I wonder if I could get your opinion on how the election of Barack Obama impacts African culture. There seems to be a great number of African nations who were – felt validated by this election.
DR. TAYLOR: Absolutely. I mean, first of all, of course, Kenya but that's because his father came from Kenya. But it goes well beyond the case of Kenya. It's – There's a sense that they have which, I mean, it may be a little bit too overblown and too optimistic but a sense that they have there's somebody now in the White House that perhaps can understand them, perhaps can understand what they're about and so whereas with the – his predecessor, I'm afraid the opposite impression was created, that somebody who didn't really understand the outside world very well and really didn't have any idea of what their problems were and even looked at them a little bit askance. And so that has, I think, changed the whole atmosphere of international relations, the election of Obama. Now, I mean, there's a lot, a lot of just symbolism in that and we may come down to earth and find that there's still big political differences and that problems can't be solved that easily but it, nevertheless, has given us a new lease on life in the international world because America was so much at odds with the whole rest of the world under the previous eight years and it's somehow a great reprieve.
CAVANAUGH: And my guest is the Kyoto Prize winner for Arts and Philosophy this year, Dr. Charles Taylor. He is a philosopher and professor emeritus at McGill University in Montreal. Dr. Taylor, I was thinking about what I've read about your work and how a lot of it is defining ourselves individually as our social selves, how we relate to the larger community, that sort of back and forth dialogue we have from our own perspective and the perspective of the community. And it made me think that, you know, we have a history in the U.S. not just of the melting pot that we talked about a minute ago but of admiring rugged individualism, and that concept can still be found in a lot of our politics. What do you find lacking in that idea?
DR. TAYLOR: Well, I don't find anything lacking in that idea as such but if it crowds out the recognition that we only have the creativity we have because we've been brought up in a society, a society in which there's, first of all, law and order, a society in which we have these tremendous educational opportunities that you have with these magnificent universities you have in the States, a society in which those universities have been funded over years and have got the resources, cultural and other and so on, if we don't recognize how much we are, in a sense, the creation of this society and our media, then we become bad citizens. The rugged individualism expresses itself in purely personal gain, purely personal goals. And the kind of thing that we've seen produce the economic meltdown very recently is exactly what that produces. So there's something wonderful about the sense of initiative and sense of personal inspiration that you have behind rugged individualism but if it doesn't produce a real citizen, someone who recognizes the reality of their dependence on others, it can be very, very destructive.
CAVANAUGH: I'd like to take another call at this point. Josh is in Oceanside. Good morning, Josh.
JOSH (Caller, Oceanside): Good morning. Pretty much what I was thinking was concerning how we homogenize. We end up homogenizing our youth into this bland suburban culture. Back when I was at UCSD, my roommates were Asian. I, myself, am from West Africa, and we also had a couple of other Lebanese roommates as well. But we all had this very bland, suburban, middle class Southern California culture to us.
CAVANAUGH: Even though you had different ethnic backgrounds.
JOSH: Right, very different ethnic backgrounds. We were all first generation immigrants in a way. I was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia even though my mom's from West Africa. Yet pretty much we are all products of suburbia.
CAVANAUGH: Interesting. Dr. Taylor, is this the melting pot at work?
DR. TAYLOR: Well, yeah, that's something like the melting pot at work, that there's some subtle encouragement in certain societies, immigrant societies, to forget and to put behind you your origins. And particularly, I think, this is the case in the United States in regard to language. I've always thought that it's really a great gain, potential gain, that's been foregone by the subtle encouragement that I think I find in the U.S. society for people to, if they come from Russia or they come from Africa, to forget their earlier language, put it behind them, become purely English-speaking and so on. And that is, you know, a great loss of exactly those riches that, as you say, get blended out in the bland suburban culture. And so I think that there's another way of approaching that, which is another way of approaching the fact that people have difference, which is to encourage their maintaining that. And they've got to learn English because you all have to work together as citizens in a common language but they don't need to become unilingual English speakers. They can become, as you see in many other societies, where the norm is bilingualism or multilingualism. I think that's a way of really keeping something that's different, that stands out.
CAVANAUGH: That is the norm in Canada when it comes to the French speaking province of Quebec but does Canada also welcome other native speakers and encourage them to continue their language?
DR. TAYLOR: Yeah, I think they – it's – I mean, I think it's still far too little, far too little encouragement. But I think it's something that is less looked askance at in even, you know, fully English Canadian centers like Toronto. That is, the idea that one could end up as an adult, even though you're working fully in Toronto and fully in English, therefore, hanging onto keeping some contact with your if it's a Chinese language or Italian language or Polish language or whatever. And it's recognized, I think, more in Canada as a – even economically as a great advantage because we're now living in a globalized world in which we have to – our colony has to deal with all these other countries, and to have people who have these language skills is a great advantage. But I'm thinking, in response to your caller, of it more on the level of culture. If you hang onto – you have some kind of grasp of the native language, if you even visit again from time to time, you're perpetually given another dimension to your life than you get from your – the suburbs you're living in wherever in La Jolla or wherever it is, you see what I mean? And that's…
CAVANAUGH: Yes, I certainly do.
DR. TAYLOR: Yeah. And that keeps you open to something else and that means not only enrichment for you but I think it means an enrichment for your whole society.
CAVANAUGH: I just want to pursue this, oh, just a little bit longer because when it comes to different languages we seem to hear a lot about the costs to society.
DR. TAYLOR: Yeah.
CAVANAUGH: How, you know, how difficult it is to print up election forms or various notices in seventy different languages and so forth. And there is, of course, a big movement in this country of English only, you know…
DR. TAYLOR: Yeah.
CAVANAUGH: …to promote the English language above and exclusively perhaps. What do you think society loses when we do that?
DR. TAYLOR: Well, I think you lose precisely all the riches that are in these other languages. I mean, people – you see people mix up two things. The situation in the transition when the immigrant doesn't speak any English, right, and there there are a lot of costs in that. There are costs to the immigrant because they don't know their own rights. There are costs to the society because it can't function fully as a democracy if people can't, you know, for these people if they can't speak English. They're mixing that up with the situation afterwards where you could have people fully fluent in English and fully able to function but who've been encouraged to have another language, to keep another language. And what you lose is – I mean, there's lots of economic loss because you don't function as well in your international economic relations if you don't speak other languages. But there's a tremendous cultural cost. You know, my children grew up trilingual and they just, you know, they didn't regret it. They've learnt fourth and fifth languages and they've been able to flourish in different parts of the world and in different relations and they found that a tremendous, tremendous richness.
CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Dr. Charles Taylor. He is the 2008 winner of the Kyoto Prize for Arts and Philosophy. And we are talking about one of his major topics and that is the benefits of multiculturalism. Let's hear from Roberto in San Diego. Hi, Roberto.
ROBERTO (Caller, San Diego): Hi. Good morning. Great show. (audio dropout) my question. I had a – During election, I have a conversation with one of my best friends and he had a comment that actually made me think and I wanted to know his opinion, is that President Obama or then – President Obama had more chances of winning because he's African-American than Hillary Clinton because she was a woman. I would like to know, you know, any comments about that.
CAVANAUGH: Dr. Taylor, does your work involve gender at all?
DR. TAYLOR: Oh, yes. I mean, how can it – No one…
CAVANAUGH: How can it not.
DR. TAYLOR: …not involve – This is one of the big differences that we're definitely concerned with in our society and not homogenizing that difference and not silencing those voices, yes.
DR. TAYLOR: But…
CAVANAUGH: Yes, go ahead.
DR. TAYLOR: …the caller's question, I mean, I'm not – I don't know enough about American politics to answer that question. I mean, did I get it right? The idea was that Obama had a better chance because he was African-American than Hillary Clinton would have had because she was a woman.
CAVANAUGH: Yes, that was his – that was his point.
DR. TAYLOR: It's very hard to judge that. You know, we all thought beforehand – There's a famous thing called the Bradley Effect in American politics which is that people in polls say they're going to vote for an African-American candidate and then some of them don't do that when they actually get to the poll, right?
DR. TAYLOR: The…
CAVANAUGH: From the LA mayor Tom Bradley.
DR. TAYLOR: That's right, the LA mayor Tom Bradley was an unfortunate victim of that and it's called the Bradley Effect. But the Bradley Effect ended up not existing at all as far as I can see in the case of Obama. So there's something, some kind of barrier was removed there. Would that have been so in the case of Hillary Clinton? I think we've got to the point – I think you've got to the point in American society where that barrier really is beginning to melt away. I think – Frankly, I think if Hillary had won the nomination, she'd be the President of the United States today.
CAVANAUGH: Okay. Let's take one more call. Bill in Normal Heights, good morning, Bill.
BILL (Caller, Normal Heights): Good morning. I have a question. I think it's a bit of equity if the government has to produce every piece of information in every language for people coming to this country, then how are they going to be able to take responsibility if they don't provide something? So if someone comes here from Somalia and we have to produce it in Somali, then we have to do it in Eritrean, etcetera, etcetera. And then if someone says, well, I didn't get it, you can produce it in my language, there's a lack of equity. But if we have it in one common language for everyone, it's equitable for everyone.
CAVANAUGH: All right. Thank you for that, Bill.
DR. TAYLOR: Yeah, except that it isn't equitable for everyone because it de – it disfavors the people who can't – haven't got a good enough grasp of the language. I mean, the thing is that this is only necessary to produce this in the transition period when people are integrating, right. But there is such a transition period and it – society goes much better the more you can ease that transition and make it possible for them, and you do that by producing all these translations into other languages of what, you know, the regulations or – Or else, think of it at the level of school. You know, I know people, Chicago for instance, who work in schools where there's something like 35 other languages among the kids, right. And they really put themselves out and make a great effort to make sure that every parent really gets communicated with and learns what's going on. So it's not so much a matter of possible lack of equity if you miss a language, it's a matter of really, I would say, hampering the whole integration process by not reaching out in that way. And I think that you should think of it, rather than thinking of it simply in terms of equity, you should think of it in terms of how you can really, as it were push forward, the whole integration process, which will make a much more dynamic and unified society in the end.
CAVANAUGH: Dr. Taylor, I'd like to bring us back to the reason you're in San Diego and that is for the Kyoto Prize Symposium. What is the most gratifying aspect to you of winning the Kyoto Prize?
DR. TAYLOR: Well, I think it's the recognition, obviously, of myself, I can't deny that, but the recognition of this work, the work which many of us have been engaged on. There are many people in Canada but also many people internationally working out these issues of multicultural societies and what makes them work and what their dangers are and so on. And, you see, the Kyoto Prize is a very special thing. They try not just to recognize personal excellence or a large individual contribution of the scholar to whatever the field is, they think also of the future of humanity, of how someone's work can actually further the welfare of human beings everywhere and further the unity and the mutual understanding of human beings everywhere. So it's – I feel this prize is a recognition that the kind of work that I and others have been doing really is important and significant in that perspective, and that gives me great satisfaction.
CAVANAUGH: And I must ask you just briefly, do you see this work being generated into the real world?
DR. TAYLOR: Oh, yeah, I mean, definitely. We – This work, the issues that I've taken up, other people have taken up, are issues that come right out of our political lives. I've, you know, personally, I've been very heavily and deeply engaged in politics in Canada and the inspiration for seeing these as the problems and then working on them intellectually has come directly from the political scene, and then it's been fed back into the political scene. I was co-chair of a commission in Quebec on precisely these issues. We presented a report to the government and so on. So these are things that are – in the end, these are issues that have a direct relevance for the policies that we espouse and the policies that we try to stay away from.
CAVANAUGH: That was my interview with Dr. Charles Taylor, philosopher and professor emeritus at McGill University in Montreal who was awarded the Kyoto Prize for Arts and Philosophy last year. You've been listening to These Days on KPBS.