Sunday, September 2, 2007

Immigrants and integration

“Proud to be mixed”

Fernando Lanzer Pereira de Souza

Is this the beginning of the end? Are we beginning to slowly fulfil the prophecies of Nostradamus about the Apocalypse, moving towards the destruction of the world through a war between East and West? Have we come to the point where cartoons in Scandinavian newspapers have the same detonation power as the terrorist actions of 9/11? Or is everyone overreacting? It’s not easy to make sense out of the headlines you see on the media these days. It seems very much that we are moving to increased radicalization of opinions, right and left, and mankind seems to be taking several steps back, rather than progressing towards global understanding and harmony.

In trying to resolve the “East vs. West” conflict, why not look at the South, for a different perspective?

I’m a Brazilian National living and working in Europe for over seven years. I have watched with concern the increasing debate around globalization, culture clashes all over the world, and more recently the clashes between “the East and the West”, notably in different parts of Europe. I’ve seen it in the media expressed as conflicts between Turks and Germans, Moroccans and French, Arabs and Europeans, Muslims and Christians, etc. It seems that as the European Union started enlarging its membership, a sensitive nerve has been touched. Many people oppose Turkey joining the European Union on the grounds that “the Turks are not European”. “They have a different culture from ‘ours’”.

In the first place, let’s remind ourselves that the European Union is not about culture. It is essentially an economic cooperation union, which is something quite different. Many Americans have made the mistake of forecasting the failure of the European Union because “you can never unify such different cultures”. Well, guess what? It’s not about the unification of culture, it’s about economic cooperation!

“Globalization”, a term used loosely to name many different things, is similarly not about culture, but rather about economic interdependencies. National and regional cultures will remain differentiated (actually, they tend to become even more differentiated then they are today). Many authors have pointed that out repeatedly, but I’ll mention just two: Geert Hofstede and Alvin Toffler, who’ve been saying this for over 30 years! Will somebody from the press please listen?

There are two different issues at stake here: one is economic cooperation, the other is culture diversity coexistence.

Economic cooperation should continue expanding. Trade barriers should continue to be reduced. Turkey should be allowed to join the European Union, as I believe the economic advantages of that outweigh the economic disadvantages. But there will be many discussions about that, and it will take time (years) before it is settled .

But let’s look at the cultural coexistence angle. This is the angle that touches people’s emotions, and it sells more newspapers.

I believe globalization will work out, eventually. Fighting against it is futile. Mankind has been evolving towards globalization since the Stone Age, and if we didn’t evolve towards it we would still be living in tribes and beating each other up with sticks. It won’t mean unifying cultures, but rather learn to coexist respecting each other’s increasingly different cultures.

When I look around me today, however, I suddenly realize that we haven’t evolved as much as I initially thought: we have larger tribes and bigger sticks, but the stereotyping, discrimination and prejudice is frighteningly similar to what it was more than 1,000 years ago. A picture in the International Herald Tribune, of a policeman on horseback equipped with a helmet and long stick, charging against a mob of protesters in Israel, looked straight out of Ridley Scott’s film “Kingdom of Heaven”, depicting the Crusades in the Twelfth Century.

I still believe in the benefits of globalization, but we do need to do something about the process and begin deliberately managing the changes, rather than consider ourselves victims of the process and restrict ourselves to defensiveness and resistance. We need to give globalization a different shape and form, or else it might actually not work, after all. Einstein once warned against “underestimating the stupidity of mankind”. Indeed, as a species we still have the capacity to be so stupid that we just might end up shooting each other to extinction, so we need to realize the threats and the opportunities involved, and we will need to make some courageous choices to manage change towards a positive outcome.

In the midst of the on-going debates, I’ve seen comparisons between the different “models” of cultural integration adopted by different countries in integrating (or attempting to integrate) immigrants in their communities. I’ve read articles on the way the Americans do it (I wouldn’t call it integration, but rather “become Anglo-Saxon or remain in a ghetto for generations”), the way the British do it (not very different from the Americans, which is not surprising since the American and British are much more similar than either would like to admit, anthropologically and philosophically speaking), the way the Germans do it (and the debate in Germany now seems to be whether their model of integration should change more towards the Anglo-American “love it or leave it” approach) and the way the French do it (riots in France speak volumes about how successful that approach has been to date).

Please forgive my Brazilian bias (we all have our cultural biases, no exceptions) and allow me to invite you to look at the “Brazilian model”. It can hardly be called a model, perhaps, because I don’t believe what happened in Brazil throughout the 20th Century was actually planned, but there are lessons to be learned from what happened there, and such lessons might make the difference between global evolution and global destruction.

Brazilian society is far from perfect, actually riddled with deep problems which should not be emulated. I am not advocating Brazilian society as an example, not at all. What I am saying is, let’s take a look at the cultural integration of immigrants in Brazilian society, and whether there is something to be learned from that un-planned process.

Cultural integration of immigrants was not marvellous in Brazil. There was also prejudice and discrimination against the “foreigners” who came. But looking back, it was smoother there than in the U.S. or in Europe. And there are less conflicts around it today than you find in the so-called “developed countries”. So, what happened?

The answer is: sex! (A very “Brazilian” response, I admit, living up to the stereotype of Brazilians as “sex maniacs”, expressed in Rio’s Carnaval parades). A more “Western European” way of putting it would be: integration happened at the basic cell-level of society, the family. Immigrants started marrying people outside their original “tribes” and forming new “inter-tribal” families, rather than sticking to the ghetto-restrained relationships.

People started breeding across cultural and ethnic backgrounds, and created a more integrated society (from an ethnical point of view). Brazilians today are not the cause of integration, they are the product of integration.

When a Syrian Muslim married a Portuguese Catholic (just an example) in Brazil, before WWII, cultural conflict was brought into the two families in a very concrete way. It was at first painful and disruptive for all parties involved, but eventually they had to cope with it. Initially the new couple was often ostracized by both families, and ended up having to face all kinds of discrimination in society. It was a long process to establish themselves as respectable in the communities they circulated in. This often took years and sometimes generations of strife. But the offspring of the new “inter-tribal” family were raised in a different family environment, no longer “pure” (as in “limited by”) the standards of a single tribe, but rather enriched by the combination of both. Often the arrival of a grandchild brought the two original families closer, setting again a different environment for the upraising of such grandchildren. Regardless of their background, grandparents have a tendency to become much more tolerant of what their grandchildren do than they ever were in regards to their own children.

This new generation of grandchildren typically grew up to again engage in “cross-tribal” partnering, marrying partners coming from (for instance) a Japanese background, Brazilian Indian ancestry or African-Brazilian origins. After four or five generations of this, you have a society which is much richer in terms of its diversity and much more open towards further integration than any of the original cultures ever was. Still plagued with multiple issues, certainly not free from discrimination and prejudice, but much closer to being fully integrated than anything you can see in Europe or in the U.S. today.

What could policy-makers learn from this? For one thing, stop trying to “force” immigrants into integration, stop telling them “you need to abandon your roots and embrace the values of your adopted nation!” It’s not that simple. Cultural integration is a two-way street. The culture of the “host” country is also affected by the presence of immigrants, and the sooner everyone accepts that fact, the sooner everyone can move towards the development of a “new” culture, a culture that results from the combination of both cultures (or multiple cultures) rather than imposing one on the others. Have faith in the (true) integration process, for the combined culture will be better than the ones who originated it. Such is the natural law of evolution, not only in nature, but in social and political terms as well.

A second thing is to promote the richness of the “new” culture. Diversity is good for you. Develop the capacity of people to perceive the differences among them as a stepping stone towards understanding the similarities which lie beneath the apparent differences on the surface. The way a mother expresses love for her baby may be different from one culture to another, but that powerful feeling is the same. A culture that can harbour many different ways of expressing love will be much more gratifying to its participants than one which accepts only one way of such expression.

A third thing is to promote cultural integration in the “family cell”, the simplest form of social organization. Foster mixed neighbourhoods, mixed schools, “sleep-overs”, social events which bring people from different communities together (rather than “the English Club”, the “American Society” or “the Catholic Charity Group”, which all exclude people who are different). Gather people around common values and efforts which transcend cultural background, such as disaster relief projects, environmental awareness programmes or sports (but don’t encourage ethnic-based competition such as “the Blacks versus the Jews”).

Ethnic groups will exist. I’m not advocating to declare “English Clubs” illegal or anything like that. People need to keep in touch with their past, but with their eyes on the future. Such is the nature of human beings. Children need comforting as well as encouragement to grow up and develop. Cultures work in a similar way. There needs to be room for tradition, for feeling safe in regards to your identity based on your past. But just as children need encouragement to grow and develop, cultures also need encouragement to learn and broaden their repertoire, through interaction with different cultures. Cultures need to form ideals and a vision for their future which transcends their past. Policy makers need to put the emphasis on this, rather than on keeping people locked up in history.

So, Policy Makers: encourage people to be proud to be mixed, rather than ashamed of it. Encourage people to be proud to be mixed, rather than to be proud of being “of pure blood”. Take a hint or two from the Harry Potter books. Strive to be remembered in the future as the ones who pushed society towards development, rather than as the ones who tried very hard to keep things as they once were.
Be very much aware that cultural integration is a very slow and often painful process. It won’t happen over night. It will meet resistance from the many conservative groups which exist in all cultures. It will require persistence and patience. But it’s worth it. The future of our planet, of our grandchildren, depends on changing the way we approach culture, and shaping a new global society that can be fair and just for all, respecting the past, but creating a future that lies beyond the limitations of any past culture by itself.

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