In the American Studies course that I teach at HUFS we examine various metaphors that have been proposed at one time or another as ways to understand American society. The most well-known, traditional metaphor is that of the “melting pot,” in which immigrants from various nations and cultures are melted in one pot, losing their distinct cultural heritage, traditions, and languages in the process of assimilation to emerge as distinctly “American.” This metaphor dominated for quite some time throughout American history. Then in the latter half of the 20th century, another metaphor appeared, challenging the assumptions of the “melting pot,” positing instead a “salad bowl” in which all distinct entities do not “melt” but maintain their own integrities while jumbled together. This metaphor is meant to celebrate the rich diversity of American society while rejecting the process of assimilation that melts away cultural differences. However, one other metaphor, which has quite recently emerged, is that of the “mosaic,” in which a variety of colored pieces of various sizes nevertheless fit together to form a whole picture. Though this more recent metaphor is novel and so not as well-known as the others, it is emerging as yet another, distinct way of viewing American society and culture. So, depending on whom you ask, any of these three metaphors may be offered as a way of understanding American society. The most common metaphor is still the “melting pot,” yet the “salad bowl” is getting more and more recognition, while the newest metaphor, the “mosaic,” is still mostly unrecognized and so would only rarely be mentioned.
In my opinion, all of these metaphors are, at the same time, reflections of stages of consciousness. For example, the metaphor of the “melting pot” is obviously a reflection of modern consciousness, technical society, and industrial civilization. In this metaphor, the American is one who sheds his/her cultural traditions, burning away the traditional stage of consciousness to become thoroughly “modern.” It is telling, too, that the imagery is that of the machine, and the emerging consciousness is that which has been manufactured by industry. The assimilation and homogenization of modern consciousness wipes away all traces of tradition and replaces it with man in the new, “modern” man, in the image of his machine.
On the other hand, the almost opposite metaphor, that of the “salad bowl,” appeared in the latter half of the 20th century as a challenge to the image of the melting pot. It is not coincidental that postmodern consciousness also appeared at this same time as a challenge to modernity. One of the main tenets of postmodernism is that of universal pluralism, which the salad bown imagery exemplifies with the tossed and jumbled up pieces all in one “bowl,” in tribute to diversity.
However, though the “salad bowl” is surely an improvement over the “melting pot” metaphor, it is still deficient in that the individual “pieces” are fragmented, isolated, and do not fit together but may, in fact, at times rub against each other to cause friction. Thus, the recently emerging metaphor of the “mosaic” is an improvement over that of the salad bowl and seems to represent the integral stage of consciousness. While respecting diversity through the varied colors and sizes of the “pieces,” nevertheless, the pieces fit together to form a beautiful picture of the whole. Since this metaphor is newly arrived and so represents a very small percentage of the population, it is a mostly idealized metaphor. Could the mosaic metaphor be a guiding metaphor for the future?