Those of you who have small children might be familiar with the daily grind of watching the same children’s shows, over and over again. In our household there is no cable and no antenna. Instead, there’s a stack of DVDs, VHS tapes from the town library and red NetFlix envelopes, along with BitTorrent, YouTube and other Internet-based media.
Some of our daughter’s favorite shows are Sesame Street. At two years old, she likes the musicals more than the stories. So everyday we hear this particular Sesame Street lyric that seems to have been imbedded in nearly all of their programs:
My hair is black and red
My hair is yellow
My eyes are brown and green and blue
My name is Jack and Fred
My name’s Amanda Sue
I’m called Kareem Abdul
My name is you
I live in southern France
I’m from a Texas ranch
I come from Mecca and Peru
I live across the street
In the mountains, on a beach
I come from everywhere
And my name is you
We all sing with the same voice
The same song, the same voice
We all sing with the same voice
And we sing in harmony
Along with this song, We All Sing with the Same Voice, we see children of the early 1980s playing together somewhere on a Manhattan playground, of all different races, lip-synching the lyrics. And there I am on the couch, brooding, while my daughter mouths some of the lyrics, uncomprehendingly.
The song is innocent enough but it summons conflicts within me. Sometimes it’s really angered me although I believe it’s intentions are benevolent.
The song is a multicultural anthem designed for children. It’s not necessarily bad. It makes sense to propose to young children that on some level, all of us humans are the same. Our differences should be ironed over by concentrating on what we have in common. We all eat; we all love; we all get mad, get sick and can be happy. Children all over the planet run and play, work and sleep. All of them. So why pick on our differences? How can this world survive unless we see we’re all a part of the same human tapestry?
Being born in 1963, I grew up with that message, albeit before this particular lyric hit the airwaves in 1982. A world threatened by nuclear armageddon could use a little peace, love and understanding. This song embodies that kind of logical thinking.
So why do I wince at the television screen when I hear this song in 2006? It’s as though I want to like the song more than I can bring myself to do so. This ditty has put me in a sour mood some mornings, and I’ve had to think long and hard to understand why.
The assumption of the lyric, We All Sing with the Same Voice, is that we’re really all the same, deep down. True, we are the same species, flung across the globe. We all have two eyes, hair, and a lot of the same innate behavior. The message of the song assumes that because we’re all human beings, we therefore all have the same values. If anything about the past few tumultuous years has taught me anything, it’s that we don’t all have the same values. And while the song concentrates on bridging racial and ethnic divides, it completely overlooks the possibility that some human ideologies are not necessarily compatible with others.
Multiculturalist thinking tends to dwell on, well, culture — as well as race and ethnicity. But these forms of human identity are often focused by ideology. Ideology is very amorphous and contemporary, changing constantly. Unlike culture, it’s not necessarily rooted in antiquity, though it may appeal to history. Ideology is a collective vision — the ideal mental image of what defines common sense to the majority of people in a culture. Since it proposes the ideal, it changes form constantly, adjusting to the challenges of the real world.
We All Sing With the Same Voice makes simple common sense that we should overlook our physical and cultural differences and just get along. It sounds nice. I’m all for it. But that message is more than wholesomely simple. It’s simplistic.
Multiculturalism is often passed off as sophisticated. But it can also be unrealistically simple. It’s nice, perhaps positive, to have our kids say a prayer for world unity. But as adults, we should recognize that what we idealize as common sense is not necessarily the soil that we’re actually planted on. If we are inordinately certain that we have a global monopoly on common sense, we won’t notice that there are competing ideologies that make common sense out of our demise.