I am sitting in the food court of a mall. I am surrounded by white, black, Asian and Latino families, each minding their own business, engaging with members of their family as if they are in little cultural islands. Every once in a while a group of middle or high school kids walk by, often with kids from different cultures in the group, seemingly laughing at the status quo and confident in their cosmopolitan togetherness. The elders in the Asian or Latino families stare blankly at the passing scene, as if there is nothing in the scene that is an affordance for them to act.
What a scene! How commonplace now and yet how bizarre!
What is holding everyone here in the food court, all of us, together? What do we have in common?
One thing in common is obvious: the market. We are in a public space which is defined by each of us being customers. Each cultural island around me holds a window into a more lush world, their home, where people of that island are able to express other parts of themselves, parts which they trace to their “culture”. But here, in this public space, that is set aside.
The decor of the food court is new, modern. Everything is sharp lines and neutral. Nothing which suggests that any one culture is prioritized over another. The only things which openly depict any cultural background are the food stalls: Naples Pizzera, Panda Express, Chipotle and so on.
This is enlightenment universalism in action. A common public space achieved not through people reaching out and engaging with each other’s backgrounds, but through bracketing all such backgrounds. If feels like a space in which there is the worry that if there was any attempt at talking to each other deeply, about who they are at their core, it would devolve into a shouting match, and so eveythone is stone silent. Better to not talk than to fight. And the bright lights and the sharp lines of the Enlightenment secular space seem like the guards enforcing that silence.
How long can this silence last? How wholesome and pleasant it all looks on the surface. But the price for this silence here is paid with the cultures wars in the society, when people refuse to be silent any longer and want to lay claim to who they are. How can those arguments be solved when our only conception of getting along in a shared space is to live in the cultural islands?
There has to be another way: an alternate conception of secularism that fosters dialogue between the islands and so enables new forms of culture to flourish.
A part if me feels like John the Baptist: waiting for a person, or people, who will lead us beyond the dichotomy of private culture and public silence, and enable a shared, public, robust pluralism. Who will it be? When will that happen? Perhaps a kid here in front of me, playing with his french fries. He might grow up and help to find a new path for a new generation.