The Psychology of Multiculturalism

I grew up in America, and now I live in Japan. America is a heterogeneous society with a diversity of races and cultures, while the Japanese have cultivated a homogenous society with just one race, culture, and language. For a long time, I wondered why America has made one decision and Japan the other. Why has America turned multicultural, while Japan remains an ethnostate? Over time, I recognized patterns. There are a lot of differences between America and Japan which seem related.

America is chaotic innovation at its best, and anarchic mush at its worst. Japan is orderly beauty when it works, and rigid stagnation when it breaks down. Americans mangle human nature in a quest to say that men and women are the same, while the Japanese remain steadfast in their understanding of gender differences. Americans strive to be colorblind, while the Japanese take race into account. Americans push back against generalizations, while the Japanese proliferate stereotypes. Americans throw all of their food on one big plate, while the Japanese meticulously separate each small component of their meal onto the proper type of dish.

A thousand observations about America and Japan boil down to the conclusion that America throws everything into the same pile, whereas Japan puts things in their proper place. America dissolves distinctions whereas Japan upholds them.

On the control panel of society, there’s a slider from radical multiculturalism to radical ethnostatism. Some societies are more multicultural and others are more ethnostatist. But what determines whether a society moves in one direction or the other? Of course there’s no central authority actually sitting at a control panel moving a slider one way or the other, so what are the actual factors governing which way society moves? Most important to note is that these are sociological trends, and it’s the underlying psychology of the average person that determines the sociological trends. Culture is ultimately an outgrowth of the thoughts and actions of the individuals involved. The outward state of a nation is a reflection of the inward state of its citizens. For every macro trend, we can discover a micro counterpart. Mind is a microcosm of society. As within, so without.

With that said, what kind of trend in the cognitive architecture of the individual results in the multiculturalism we see in America, and what kind of trend results in the ethnostatism we see in Japan? There must be a psychological slider in each person’s head that has a part in determining the position of the society-level slider from multiculturalism to ethnostatism.

I would argue that multiculturalism is an outgrowth of integration, and ethnostatism is an outgrowth of modularization. Dissolving boundaries in your mind will lead you to dissolve boundaries in society. Opening up the borders between concepts makes you want to open up the borders between countries. On the other hand, people with a compartmentalized mind will work together to enact a compartmentalized society. Segregating incompatible ideas from each other, such as your religious and scientific beliefs, is akin to segregating incompatible cultures from each other, such as Christianity and Islam. Ultimately, when the average person’s psychological slider is skewed toward integration, society becomes more multicultural. And when it’s skewed toward modularization, society will generally move closer to ethnostatism.

At the risk of coming off as esoteric, I would like to drill down to the fundamentals of the psychology involved. After we get the psychology straight, we can move onto talking about how this psychology manifests on a cultural level.

Consider that the human mind operates in terms of cascades of perceptions organized along lines of association. For example, we associate our workplace with our co-workers. If you visualize the building that you work in, you may transition to imagining one of your colleague’s faces. Not everything we think is a straightforward association with what we thought immediately beforehand, but our psychology does seem to operate largely as a system of association.

Most importantly for this analysis, I would like to point out that there’s a specific level of friction that exists for each possible mental transition to another. For example, someone who’s cynically judgmental may have a low degree of friction between seeing an overweight person and imagining the most embarrassing aspects of being overweight, such as the flabby skin they may be hiding under their carefully selected clothing. With that mental transition comes a feeling of disgust that then colors their perception of the person. But someone who’s more optimistically happy would have a high degree of friction between such a transition. They’d instead see the good in the person, and if you try to get them to imagine the flabby skin they’ll get frustrated that you’re trying to install such a toxic and judgmental pattern into their brain.

Another perhaps illuminating example comes from the structure of the English language. Although it would be perfectly possible for a language to construct every word for an animal and its meat from the same root (e.g., where you say the equivalent of “cow-animal” and “cow-meat”), in English there are often two separate and unrelated words: “cow” and “beef”, “deer” and “venison”, “pig” and “pork”.

This seems like it may be a reflect of a generally high level of friction in the minds of English speakers when it comes to the mental transition between looking at a piece of meat on one’s plate and visualizing the sentient being that they’ve had a hand in destroying for their own benefit. While a vegan might have a low level of friction between looking at a steak and imagining the graphic, bloody, and painful slaughter of a cow, most people avoid thinking that way because it would ruin their appetite.

If a language forces you to describe both the animal and its meat with the same root, you’d end up saying things like “pass the cow”. You’d constantly encounter an association trigger that beckons you to transition from looking at the steak to thinking about the cow that the steak came from. Such a language would promote low associational friction between those two spheres of perception. It would be harder to simply compartmentalize the two spheres away from each other. You’d have to either make peace with what eating a steak truly entails, or you would have to swear off meat entirely. On the other hand, a language which uses two distinct associational triggers contributes to high associational friction. English uses “cow” to trigger you to think about the living being and “beef” to trigger you to think about the food. The words are separate and unrelated, which helps you compartmentalize the two spheres.

Psychologically speaking, then, the integration of two spheres is where there’s low associational friction between the perceptions belonging to one sphere and the perceptions belonging to another, while the modularization of two spheres is where there’s a high level of associational friction. Either you tend not to connect the two spheres in your mind, enabling you to possess multiple mutually contradictory views simultaneously. Or you tend to propagate beliefs across the two domains, forcing you to iron out a satisfactory synthesis whenever you experience cognitive dissonance.

For a long time, there was a careful modularization between religion and science. People went to church, believed in God, and used religious thinking to make decisions in their daily life, but they also went to school, applied the scientific method, and thought rationally about natural phenomena. But in recent decades, there’s been a reckless integration of religious and scientific thinking, producing creationists (where religious thinking leaves its proper sphere and infects scientific questions) and atheists (where scientific thinking leaves its proper sphere and infects religious questions). A young-Earth creationist is an integrationist who gives primacy to religion. In denouncing evolutionary biology as a fraud, they apply religious thinking where only science suffices. By contrast, a militant atheist integrates all the same, but they give primacy to science. When they mock the creation myths of religion as if they’re supposed to be scientific hypotheses for the origin of the universe, they apply scientific thinking where only religion suffices.

When you throw religion and science into the same cage, they’ll tend to fight to the death. One will eventually kill the other. In that sense, creationism and atheism are two sides of the same coin. Creationism is where the individual takes religion literally and then the religious thinking overwhelms the scientific thinking in the battle for dominion over the mind, and atheism is where the individual interprets religion literally and then the scientific thinking overwhelms the religious thinking in that battle.

When religion destroys science, you get fundamentalism. While religious is properly seen as a system of narrative, mythology, and metaphor, the fundamentalists impose a literalist interpretation on the Bible. They lose their ability to think rationally.

And when science kills religion, you get scientism. While science at its best is dispassionate analysis of the phenomena of nature and society, the modern culture of science presents more like a religious community than a scientific institution. When you kill the prevailing religious dogma, you create a void in people’s hearts. And when science is the only respectable way of thinking, people desperately mangle science into a religious dogma. Scientism fills the vacuum. But then purely scientific questions that require objective analysis become hopelessly infected with religious fervor. No less than the fundamentalists, these people lose their rationality.

Religion helps us create community, social connections, and meaning. But when taken literally and put under the eye of scientific scrutiny, many religious statement will crumble to dust. When remaining steadfast to an empirical approach it’s difficult to retain belief in God, even if such a belief has pragmatic utility. On the other hand, science is a powerful tool for technological innovation and other purposes. But a religious mind will allow looseness in empirical rigor, which can lead to pseudoscientific conclusions on subjects which require the dry precision of scientific analysis.

How, then, can we gain the benefits of both religion and science without letting them infect each other? How could we return to the modularization of ages past, where people were careful to keep religion and science in their respective spheres? How can we cultivate a mind that’s at once both religious and scientific?

One possibility is to separate the different spheres into different languages. For example, in Luxembourg most people speak three mutually unintelligible languages: Luxembourgish, French, and German. Luxembourgish is the language of the heart. People use it for socializing with family and friends, and it’s usually not used as a written language. French, then, is used for written communication related to official business situations. And German is used as the language of the media and the Roman Catholic Church.

Although not identical to the idea of a split between religion and science, it’s nevertheless illustrative of how to create a modularized mind. It’s natural for the people of Luxembourg to carve out separate modes of thinking.

Consider also how Amish culture operates. Almost all Amish people are bilingual in Pennsylvania Dutch and English. However, the domains of usage are sharply separated. Pennsylvania Dutch dominates most in-group settings, such as having dinner with family and preaching in church services. By contrast, English is used for most reading and writing. English is also the medium of instruction in schools, the language preferred in business situations, and the language used to talk to outsiders. Finally, the Amish read prayers and sing in a yet third language: Standard German.

I would argue that this sociolinguistic system is part of why they’ve been able to survive as a separate people in America, without becoming assimilated into the mainstream of American culture. If you convince an Amish person of something in English, that doesn’t mean they’ll feel that way once they start speaking Pennsylvania Dutch. English is for them the language of education, business, and out-group interaction. For them any insight conveyed in the English language is bound to come off as dry, disconnected, and academic in comparison to what they experience in the social world of Pennsylvania Dutch. I doubt an atheist could preach about science in English, and then change any of their religious feelings once they go back to the heavily segregated social world of the Amish. This is the modularization that lies at the heart of any protection of culture.

I personally don’t have a modularization between religious and scientific thinking, but I do have a split between how I think when I’m using English and how I think when I’m using Japanese. I tend to be more analytical in English and more social in Japanese, although not all the time. It’s complex, but my personality isn’t the same in the two languages. I feel like having two languages with very different linguistic structures and cultural contexts allows me to carve out two partially autonomous modes. There are ways of thinking which mix like oil and water, so it can be useful to have multiple languages to work with.

Besides language, another way to modularize your life is with caffeine, alcohol, and other such substances. For example, I drink coffee only when I’m studying at a cafe, and I drink alcohol only when I’m hanging out with people. Coffee has a direct effect where it increases your ability to focus, but it also helps just to create the association. When I sit down at a cafe and smell the aroma of coffee, my mind begins to rev up for concentration on academic tasks. Alcohol also has a direct effect where it decreases social inhibition, but again it also helps trigger a certain mode. I associate alcohol with a social state, and thus it has the added placebo-like effect. I’m already feeling more social before the physical effects begin to do their work.

Basically, I’ve constructed into my mind two compartmentalized modes and tied them to separate psychoactives. For me caffeine is academic and alcohol is social. Drinking coffee puts me into a state where I concentrate on intellectual projects, and alcohol puts me into a state where I have fun with friends. Serious analysis and social fun are very different modes, so it helps to have substances which provide a foothold for switching between the modes.

Clothing, posture, and other tools help as well. One of the typical splits in society is between professional and casual. To trigger their professional mode, someone might put on a suit and tie, go to work, and then sip coffee while sitting up straight. And to instead trigger their casual self, they may put on jeans and a T-shirt, go to a friend’s house, and then drink beer while lounging around.

People also make use of tools like this in the moment. For example, if you ask someone to take something seriously rather than continuing to joke around, they suddenly sit up straight and place their hands carefully in their lap. They’re trying to trigger a code switch to the side of themselves that takes things seriously. Changing the position of your hands obviously doesn’t have a direct behavioral effect, but it can used as an organizational device for your psychology.

In the end, when you have two ways of thinking or acting which don’t mix all that well, such as the religious and the scientific, the professional and causal, or the social and the educational, the solution is to construct a modularization scheme to sequester each into its own mental partition. You create two internally consistent psychological modes, and then you tie them to different languages, social contexts, locations, fashion styles, etc. You pick what would work best with the mode you’re trying to trigger, but then you allow the association itself do some of the work as well. Wearing a suit and tie isn’t going to automatically make you more professional, but it still helps trigger the mode.

With all of those techniques for careful modularization in mind, consider what radical integration would be. You’d be a monolingual speaker who writes like you talk and uses informal language in formal situations. You’d work from home on your personal laptop. You’d wear jeans and a T-shirt all the time, whether you’re working or hanging out with a friend. Perhaps you’ve avoid alcohol and then just drink coffee all day, independently of what you’re doing.

In other words, rather than having multiple languages, you’d just have one. Rather than having multiple modes in that language, like speaking differently than or write or using different levels of formality depending on the situation, you’d just have one. Instead of having a workplace that’s separate from your house, you work and watch movies in the same room. Instead of wearing a suit and tie when you’re working, athletic clothing when you’re working out at the gym, and jeans and a T-shirt when hanging out with friends, you wear jeans and a T-shirt all the time. Instead of having different modes tied to coffee and alcohol, you drink irrespective of your current activity. You integrate everything together.

But what’s the problem with this type of integration? For instance, if you integrate informal speech with formal social contexts, you decrease the associational friction between thinking informal thoughts in formal situations. Rather than having a meticulously organized dichotomy of modes, where you tie informal speech to informal thoughts and formal speech to formal thoughts, you throw all the associations into the same pile. As a result, it becomes more natural to disagree with your boss in the same loose way that you may disagree with a friend. The duality of modes starts to break down. The orderly dichotomy gives way to a chaotic mishmash.

Now, it’s no coincidence that the stuffy old conservatives with a deeply woven modularization scheme are more likely to retain the compartmentalization of religion and science. They’re able to cultivate both a religious and a scientific way of thinking without cognitive dissonance. By contrast, the hip young liberals who engage in reckless integration in all facets of their life tend to also kill traditional religion with misplaced scientific scrutiny, and in turn cause themselves the irresistible urge to turn science into a religion. Signaling their allegiance to the Church of Science, they yell through the rooftops: “I fucking love science!” If we want to rescue religion and place science back into its proper role, we need to take a lesson from the stuffy old conservatives and re-modularize. The only way to defeat Team Science is to bring back genuine religion so the appeal of scientism evaporates. People need something better to believe in. Scientism flourishes only in a vacuum. The death of God begot the birth of science as a religion.

Going back to the comparison of America and Japan, consider that trend where Americans are becoming increasingly comfortable speaking to their boss informally. Outside of conservative institutions like education, medicine, and law, most people are on a first-name basis. In Japan, on the other hand, there’s still a strict hierarchy that demands rigorous adherence to specific levels of formality depending on the situation, and less people are on a first-name basis. Working from home is also more common in America, causal clothing is more acceptable at work, etc.

Americans are also more concerned with being authentic, while Japanese people are more comfortable compartmentalizing private thoughts away from public behavior. Americans integrate thought and action, where they feel like they’re faking it if they lie about how they feel or what they believe. The Japanese have a greater degree of modularization in thought and action, where it’s considered reasonable to simply follow the social script when you’re talking to people in public.

I was once cooking dinner in the common room of my apartment complex in Japan, and I was looking for a bowl to use for rice. A feminist from the UK happened to be there, and I said: “Where are the rice bowls? How are there no rice bowls in the cabinet?” She then responded: “Uh, a rice bowl is just a bowl with rice in it. Just grab a random bowl.” She was right that there were indeed other bowls available to use, but I was searching for the type of bowl that Japanese people designate for rice. This is again the Western tendency to throw everything into the same pile. Who cares what kind of bowl you use? Just put rice in whatever rice will physically fit in. The traditions tell you which type of tableware is designated for which type of food, but she didn’t care.

But what does this have to do with multiculturalism? Basically, it seems like nations with more integration are more multicultural, and nations with more modularization are more racially and culturally homogeneous. In particular, the West is highly integrated in both mind and society, while the Japanese are highly modularized in both mind and society.

Japan makes a clear distinction between natives and foreigners, while America works to dissolve that distinction. Japan puts things in their proper place, including the people themselves. China is for the Chinese, Korea is for Koreans, and Japan is for the Japanese. Whites and Blacks are forever outsiders in Japan, no matter how well they assimilate. You can get Japanese people to treat you like you’re a native at times, but eventually it snaps back to you being an outsider. America, on the other hand, throws everything into the same pile, again including the people themselves. Whites, Blacks, Asians, Arabs, and everyone else belong together. It’s not that Japan totally prevents people from mixing, but there are tight memetic controls on the flow on information. In America, there’s memetic anarchy in comparison. Japan erects a firewall between its culture and the culture of outsiders, while America tosses all sorts of random peoples into the same cauldron.

I should mention, though, that radical integration in the West is a relatively new phenomena. Before the 1960s, the West was still far more modularized. That’s probably part of why some people say that Japanese culture seems like it’s still stuck in the 1950s. Japan has maintained something that used to be a mainstay in the West as well.

So what changed? One hypothesis is that psychedelics had a hand in the cultural shift. The counterculture of the 1960s marked a significant shift toward integration, both psychologically and sociologically, and LSD was one of the iconic drugs of the era. Meanwhile, Japan maintains strict controls on LSD, lest they allow their culture to melt under its effects as well. Psychedelics seem to dissolve partitions, boundaries, and compartmentalizations. Everything starts to feel connected to everything else. In the wake of the tragedy of the World Wars, perhaps it was necessary to melt culture down and forge the liquid metal into a new shape. Maybe there was no salvaging the ethos that led to the deaths of a hundred million people. But I suspect that the counterculture went too far. Japan was brutal during the World Wars as well, yet they’ve found peace without the same dissolution of their traditions.

Ultimately, integration destroys culture and modularization protects it. But sometimes you need to burn off the dead wood of broken culture. The question is how to create a balance. The art of life includes knowing when to integrate and when to modularize. The West seems to be at an apex of reckless integration at the moment. The pendulum may begin to swing back in the other direction.