A constant theme in U.S. history is the entry of new peoples into the melting pot that is American life. Sometimes, the new ingredient to our cultural stew comes from outside our borders – such as when the Irish, by the millions, swept ashore in the early 19th century to seek a better life than the one they found at home. At other times the new addition bubbles up from inside as a previously overlooked ingredient, stewed in the juices of American culture, takes on a new, more interesting and independent form – such as when women fought for the right to vote in the early 20th century.
Today, two new additions to American life are being added – gays and Muslims. Of course, both groups have been part of the American experience since the beginning, but only today are they emerging as an identifiable part of the body politic in the way that women or the Irish emerged in earlier eras. In some ways, their experience as new branches of the American family tree is the same as prior groups. In others, their experience is entirely different.
For one, both Muslims and gays sit outside what might be called the “Judeo-Christian” mainstream of American life. Gays, for instance, have long been condemned by religious leaders and crusading moralists for their purportedly unnatural sexual identity; an identity that flies in the face of a simplistic Biblical literalism that brooks no deviation from a “normal” decreed by God. Indeed, anything that is not normal is, by definition, an abomination to be condemned and excised.
Muslims, on the other hand, represent an alternative form of monotheism that, unlike Judaism, retains its political, economic, and cultural independence outside the confines of the European West. The Christian West and the Muslim Middle East are, in essence mirrors of one another, and because their faiths are so similar – and dissimilar to the polytheism of Hinduism and the existentialist humanism of Asian Buddhism – they naturally see one another as competitors for the same philosophical and religious space.
Thus, whereas gays represent an internal other to Western cultural traditionalism – an internal threat that must be crushed lest it weaken and subvert from within – Muslims represent the competing external other that threatens conquest from without. To members of these communities in the modern United States, such outsized fear seems ludicrous. How could they, such a tiny minority forever surviving at the sufferance of the non-gay and non-Muslim majority, possibly threaten anything, let alone the cultural foundation upon which the country was built? Such beliefs simply aren’t rational.
Threatening the status quo
Yet to the true believer in cultural orthodoxy, such beliefs aren’t just rational, they are at the core of what makes the traditionalist tick. To them, the world is a Manichean one where good and evil are clearly defined and identifiable. Good is defined by the norms adhered to and celebrated by the group, evil by whatever threatens that status quo. Very often, the cultural challenges raised by newcomers can be so psychologically threatening that it provokes a violent reaction in those for whom any change, no matter how small, is traumatizing. It does so because the very existence of “the other” strikes at the very foundation of who cultural conservatives believe themselves to be and what their society stands for. If the outsider is not just permitted entry, but is allowed to become just another member of the community then community as such ceases to exist. “They,” in other words, have taken “our” community away. Little wonder cultural conservatives “want their country back.” Psychologically, they very much believe it has been stolen from them regardless of evidence to the contrary.
In the short run it is very difficult to overcome emotional reactions of this sort. Human beings are tribal, for better or worse, and such us-vs.-them thinking is honed deep into our nature by the forces of evolution. Evolution, however, did not just equip us to fear outsiders – it also equipped us with a host of coping mechanisms that allow us to overcome this fear and to form new relationships with strangers. Driven primarily by our sense of empathy, these psychological mechanisms can turn even the most hateful enemies into lasting friends and eventually, family.
How ‘others’ integrate into American life
Consider, for instance, how the AIDs epidemic drove gays to stand up and fight for their rights. Many came out of the closet to friends, family and wider society and suddenly people that held preconceived notions of gay people were confronted with gay people in the flesh. They had to reconcile the good things they knew to be true about a friend, coworker or family member with the bad things they believed to be true about homosexuality. Forced to choose between ideological positions and their lying eyes, most chose the human being they knew rather than the abstract principle they thought they did. The result since has been a tidal wave of support for gay rights and gay marriage, especially by young people.
Muslims, too, have forged empathic links with wider members of the American family in ways conducive to their continued inclusion. Like Japanese-Americans in World War II, Muslim-Americans have suffered discrimination and suspicion at the hands of a frightened public during a time of war. Though not rounded up into internment camps like Japanese-Americans, Muslims have nonetheless been subject to increased government surveillance and been the target of civilian hate speech and crimes for their supposed connection to our overseas enemies. Like the Japanese, though, Muslim-Americans have brushed off these insults to serve with distinction in our armed forces, intelligence agencies and diplomatic missions.
More broadly, both communities have gone down the well-worn path of integration travelled by other groups seeking inclusion into the American family. Businesses owned by gays or Muslims provide services and a point of contact for others in the community, and in America nothing colors over differences between black and white like the color green. Charity work, too, brings these “new” Americans into the lives of some of our most desperate fellow citizens – and wins immense goodwill, too.
Finally, most important, being open and welcoming to those who are curious has been vital. Ramadan, for instance, is a unique religious celebration that has become part of the American smorgasbord of ethnic and religious festivals that we can all celebrate and participate in. Pride parades, in many cities, now attract as many heterosexual tourists as gay activists. The key for both communities in overcoming prejudice and animosity from cultural traditionalists on the right, like that with other groups, has been and continues to be an openness and willingness to share. It works because no ingredient, no matter how exotic, tastes great by itself. It turns out that true flavor is only revealed when mixed in with others.