Estimated reading time 17 mins.
I live abroad, but I’m a proud Canadian. No, not in any nationalist sense just because “Canada!” but because of the values it stands for, which I believe to be good. I immigrated to Korea 17 years ago and make it my home, and I am happy to think the values and culture I bring with me are a boon to Koreans who deal with me (to the extent I understand and represent them well!). And as with my writing here, I hope to influence the culture for the better by sharing them.
But what does it mean for me to say that Canadian values are good? Such an evaluation presupposes a standard against which to judge values and, more, that one does judge values. And for something to be good implies that its antithesis, i.e., that which threatens or destroys it, is the evil or bad. To be good, therefore, necessitates strict moral discrimination and the subsequent defense of the good and denunciation of evil.
What seems to be a Canadian value these days, however (and more and more in Western society at large), is a refrain from judgment. The worst (and really only) sin one can be guilty of is to pronounce moral judgment on any culture, group, or individual—particularly cultures and/or groups. Imagine what it means to say that one culture is better than another. People recoil instinctively at the sound of that. Even in Korea, I came out at the start of one class and asked my university students, “Are some cultures better than others?” They looked horrified that they might be put on the spot to really answer and all cautiously shook their heads, looking around to make sure they were right.
But it is not instinct, not in any natural sense. Yes, it is an automatic emotional reaction, but emotions are only reflections of the ideas we already hold, and so our feelings tell us nothing about whether those ideas are true or false. It is imperative, then, that we check our ideas in spite of the discomfort we may feel.
And while I still believe Canada is one of the best countries in the world, it is getting harder to say why, because the values for which I admire Canada most, and for which millions want to immigrate there, are becoming blurred, distorted, eroded, and may soon become lost—if we don’t quickly and clearly define them.
What’s in a metaphor?
One way this confusion over values can be seen is in the longtime debate over which metaphor ought to describe the Canadian approach to immigration and incorporating various cultures: the melting pot so associated with American assimilation, or the mosaic or “patchwork” generally assigned to illustrate Canada’s policy of diverse cultures living side by side undisturbed, unchallenged, and unassimilated.
I’ve seen lots of simple characterizations of each metaphor used to either justify one view or to derogate the other. But to think clearly on this issue, one must define and uphold context.
A good start before interpreting the appropriateness of either metaphor is to see the concepts in their literal form. A melting pot is “a pot in which metals or other substances are melted or fused.” (To fuse means to “unite or blend into a whole, as if by melting together.”) Applied to immigration, a melting pot refers to “a country, locality, or situation in which cultural assimilation results in blending the heritage and traditions of previously distinct ethnic groups.” To assimilate means to “to take in and incorporate as one’s own; absorb,” and in the context of immigration, “to bring into conformity with the customs, attitudes, etc., of a group, nation, or the like; adapt or adjust.” Note the concepts of “blending” and “incorporation” for future reference.
A mosaic, by contrast, is “a picture or decoration made of small, usually colored pieces of inlaid stone, glass, etc.” and is “composed of a combination of diverse elements.” Taken superficially, there is nothing to object to in a society composed of diverse elements. Indeed, concerning superficial (i.e. non-essential) factors, diversity, as is commonly said, is a strength. But if one takes “element” more literally, in that it is “one of a class of substances that cannot be separated into simpler substances by chemical means,” we might begin to recognize a potential clash. But even putting that aside and taking “element” less elementally, just looking at synonyms for “mosaic,” we can see “patchwork,” “montage,” and “motley,” among others. The definitions of each of these words, in turn, highlight the “incongruous,” “disparate,” or “heterogeneous” nature of the components of the whole.
Master chef at work
Imagine your favorite classic dish. You know it’s good. Everyone knows it’s good. But a master chef believes that anything can always get better. Attempting to improve upon something everyone knows works to satisfaction every time, however, he might be inclined to heed the adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The warning here is that you might spoil a good thing, and there is truth in that. The master chef will proceed with great caution. He knows that above all, he must not include anything incongruous or disparate but rather must incorporate only things that he can blend without compromising the integrity of the dish, throwing it off, making it taste wrong, ruining it.
The master chef invites complementary ingredients, even some that might not appear congruent on the surface (recognizing seemingly mismatched flavors is what makes him a master chef), but he discards anything that is not in harmony with the essence, i.e., the unifying principle which makes the dish what it is. The additions spice it up, change its flavor, and what emerges is a “new take” on a time-tested crowd-pleaser. And it’s delightful, better-than-ever. Yet “time-tested” means that it is fundamentally the same. You don’t mess with that.
Blur your vision for beauty
A mosaic, by contrast, can only be said to be a unity in the shallow sense that its components occupy the same space or frame and make some kind of hodgepodge or makeshift shape. It is true that an artist arranges these things in a particular way as to give them a semblance of a unity, but it is only that: a semblance and not an actuality. So while it is an irregular “unity” of sorts, it is more essentially a multiplicity, an improvised combination of disparate things mushed together, often in stark contrast. Indeed, while we might see, for instance, Bob Marley’s face from a distance, if we observe closely, we see multiple discordant pieces which often clash and can even be ugly, if recognizable as anything at all. The integrity of such a piece is only a superficial one and the reality of its character is that of disintegration.
The things which have been invited to join the piece have not been changed or fused at all, but slotted in as-is, in full, without modification to blend with the whole in any way. No doubt, it has taken a skillful and delicate arrangement to create the pleasant illusion, but the mosaic’s facade of unity can only be upheld for a frozen moment. In a picture, its parts will never cross paths and mix. But for a dynamic nation whose living members must coexist in harmony, even one clash can spoil the peace. For such a nation to maintain its pseudo-integrity, without a unifying principle, the components must remain divided.
Does Canada aspire to be a united or divided nation?
United we stand: United by what?
Any entity, whether a soup, a picture, an individual, or a nation, cannot endure without its integrity intact. But to have integrity, one must first define one’s unifying principle(s).
So what is Canada’s fundamental principle around which people can unite? Canadian friendliness, benevolence, kindness, neighborliness, etc. are well-known, but while they characteristically add flavor, they are not essential or defining. Perhaps it’s a love for hockey? Try again.
What allows Canadians to enjoy any sport they like (or any activity, association, fashion, profession, etc. they value) while still feeling a kindly benevolence toward their neighbors—but what is so often taken for granted—is what can more broadly be called a Western value: individualism and its corollary, individual freedom.
It is not merely a matter of opinion that freedom is good. It is an objective value which can be proved by reference to reality and man’s nature—namely, that an individual, to live a human life, must be free to think, to act upon what he regards as true, and to keep the product of his thought and action. The political principle expressing a person’s freedom of thought and action is individual rights, which bounds others from in any way restricting them by physical force (or threat thereof). Strict adherence to this principle is what led Americans to understand that slavery is evil, leading to the abolishment of what had been common practice throughout human history in every place on earth prior. Appreciating that women are rational individuals with the same intellectual requirements as every man, this principle has led to recognizing their corollary same individual rights—in societies that are free.
Anywhere on the globe at any time, to the extent people are left free to use their minds to discover new knowledge and act upon it, they thrive to that extent by any objective measure of human well-being. If human flourishing is our standard against which we judge what is good or evil, then that which secures and promotes individual freedom is an unequivocal good and that which stifles it is evil.
Freedom isn’t obvious
Yet not every culture values freedom. When I came to Korea in 2002, my young students one day were telling me about (involuntary) military service, an approximately two-year period which every Korean male must spend in service to the country. (The duration is now in 2019 at somewhere starting from 18 months, but the principle of service is as yet widely unchallenged.) From my ignorantly benevolent Western worldview, I laughed it off, assuring them that it wasn’t true and that they wouldn’t have to do it when they grew older. On a break talking with other teachers, I asked about it and was horrified to have the Korean teachers confirm what the students had told me. “Did I come to North Korea or South Korea?” I thought.
It was the first clue I ever had that the value of individual freedom is not obvious. I mean, I knew that tyrannies existed in the world, but I thought that they were clearly evil regimes who understood but simply shunned the good. But here was South Korea, a country which in many ways was already more modern and developed than Canada, and so I assumed they knew that you couldn’t take two years of a boy’s life against his will if he would prefer to go to school, start a business, or anything else he might care to do with his own life. Imagine if the Canadian government demanded that you or your son go to the military for two of his prime years—and that this was widely accepted as normal?? Impossible. It’s real here, in this mostly free country.
To add a bit to the picture, observe how we love to make fun of Justin Trudeau, Donald Trump, or whoever we like. And more than just a little criticism, we ridicule them in ways that often go beyond what might be called civil or that might provoke anti-bullying campaigns if done against private citizens. But while the taste might be in question, our right to say it is never in question. In South Korea, while Kim Jung-Eun (North Korea’s dictator) is not in power here, I’ve learned that you can’t say much very critical of the government here—let alone make fun of them on comedy programs—regardless of who is the President.
(Perhaps today our own right in the West to say what we like is beginning to be questioned. And if so, this is very relevant to our subject here.)
But let me say emphatically that I love living here because I believe Korea on the whole is a free country that offers me the best opportunities to pursue my own values and flourish better than anywhere else in the world, given the full context of my life. Let me also note that I think Korea has developed and is thriving to the extent it has adopted more Western values including individual economic freedom and that I think it is on the uptrend in that regard. As Korea becomes freer economically, so it is beginning to recognize the value of freedom in all spheres of human thinking and action.
And more, I think that it is our own failure to deeply grasp and appreciate the value of freedom—and our subsequent lack of moral leadership in proclaiming it loudly and proudly as a superior value—which has left nations like Korea slower to change in some essential aspects. And more urgently and tragically, our moral cowardice in simply failing to assert our values has left so many individuals victim to tyrannies in the world.
Discrimination is good
“He’s a man of discriminating taste.” Most recognize this as a morally benign remark and don’t take offense. Moreover, it suggests sophistication, referring to a man who identifies the differences in fine, mediocre, and poor quality and is distinguished for choosing the best of things. He might travel his own country, appreciating the various cultures therein, and the world, with its boundless array of human lifestyles, collecting and adopting all the finest from each, enriching his home and his life with unique, fun, delicious, ingenious, time-saving, delightful, gorgeous, luxurious, or otherwise superlative goods and ideas from various cultures.
A person of much less discriminating tastes returns with a hodgepodge of trinkets and ideas, jumbled together in an incoherent pile in his home and in his mind, and is neither more sophisticated nor richer for all his experience and acquisitions.
And yes, this means that discrimination is good, most fundamentally in that one discriminates (judges) between good and evil. And from a human flourishing standard of value, one is righteous to say that some principles are better than others. When one comprehends the issue but abstains from discriminating and pronouncing moral judgment, whom does one empower and whom does one forsake? And then what is one’s moral status?
Undiscriminating “inclusion” is not virtuous. And we must be mindful that we don’t equivocate with such a term. Too often, it is taken to be a virtue out of context. It is not virtuous to “include” a playground bully into a children’s game. This only serves to endanger the honest children. If the bully wants to play by the rules and is sincere, then by all means join and delight us with some new skills! But until I’m convinced of their earnestness in valuing our game, I justly discriminate against bullies.
“Diversity is our strength?”—It depends
And this is what a free society’s approach to immigration ought to look like. It ought to say, in effect, “Bring all what is good about you, but leave that which is anti-freedom, anti-mind, anti-human life.” In a melting pot, a master chef can’t include just anything—in particular poison. Poison will kill a soup, and it will kill a nation.
But poison won’t ruin a mosaic. With every fragment kept separate and unblended, a mosaic is safe for the undiscriminating. It says, in effect, “Bring it all, including that which clashes with our core values and set it right down alongside all the others. We won’t judge.”
But of course, as said above, in reality one cannot keep the members of a society from mingling, nor would one want to. When we adopt the finest and best from various world cultures, we evolve to become lush with life-enhancing values, better than ever. And it is only within this context that the expression, “our country’s strength is in its diversity” is true. Undiscriminating diversity, by contrast, is destructive, as it only serves either to betray one’s core values or to confess that one doesn’t have any. There can be no “diversity” of standards or principles. One cannot incorporate reason with irrationality, individualism with collectivism, or freedom with oppression.
Culture is a choice
It is important to note before we conclude that while individuals are born into a culture, they are not bound to a culture. I think that many people today are averse to making moral judgments because we tend to identify individuals only in terms of their membership to a group and then ascribe the ideas associated with that group to said individuals. This is completely misguided and unsound, and it is the cause of much unnecessary guilt, controversy, and hostility among people. If we instead recognize individuals each as having an independent mind, it is much easier to be objective in judging their values and then to either condemn some while inviting others to join in what we regard as true and right, without reserve.
I do not hold Canadian freedom as a value because it is the culture I was born into. By that idea, each culture is equally good. I endorse it because it’s true and good. I might have been born in another country and come to write this same essay with the same passion for Western values. Indeed, many immigrants feel this way about Western freedom and do write and speak about it passionately.
For more proof that we are not products of our ethnic or geographical culture but of ideas we choose, observe that while many immigrants cherish and applaud Western values, many Western people reject and condemn Western values and actively attack freedom. Indeed, it is only by the momentum of our past heritage that we vaguely hold the idea of freedom and think, for instance, that it’s obvious that you can’t force people into military service. But the momentum is dying…
Unite and enhance
Our glorious heritage is one of earthly material prosperity, joy, and benevolence. This is the result of freedom. To any individual from any background who wants to contribute to and partake in the progress, please bring us your fashion, cuisine, architecture, inventions, ingenious methods, art, and any other life-enhancing, pro-human values. But leave behind all that is anti-mind, anti-individual freedom, anti-human.
This is the message we ought to be proud to project to the world. We must acknowledge that some cultures do not recognize freedom. And we must remember that many individuals born to those cultures despise and reject that which they have been born into. We must be confident in knowing that if human flourishing is our standard of value in judging what is good or evil, then science is better than mysticism, medicine is better than magic, allowing homosexuals to choose who they want to marry is better than stoning them. And we forsake those who flee (or dream of fleeing) such cultures seeking Western freedom and independence when we tell them that no culture is better than any other and that our way of life is just a matter of opinion.
But this doesn’t mean that Canadian/Western culture is better in all ways. Life would be awfully dull and impoverished if one only lived by and for things they already know and like, whether an individual or a society. Indeed, when we recognize that some aspect of another culture is better than our own, we adopt it and make it our own, becoming more sophisticated. This is what it means to have a culture rich in diversity, but this is only possible in societies that hold freedom as a supreme and inviolable value. There is not much diversity in North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran, or the Congo.
While South Korea might not understand freedom on some levels, still other cultures promote and practice any number of the following horrors: human sacrifice to gods and nature, barbaric rites of passage to uncomprehending young men, female genital mutilation, absolute subordination of women, child rape (i.e. “marriage”), “honor” killings, slavery, and a great many other oppressive customs a person of Western heritage would find abhorrent. And I would not stand smiling within my frame of a mosaic alongside any of that wickedness, no matter how pretty a picture it made from a distance.
We are not a multicultural mosaic, but a melting pot resulting in a united progressive culture which adopts, adapts, and evolves toward the end of human progress. Or we ought to be. I hope that I enrich Korean society by sharing my own culture. And Canadians might continue to grow richer if they—with discriminating taste—embrace individuals who want to promote and bask in freedom.