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I want to ape Ming dynasty China for my setting. Key points are that there's a big empire, several centuries old, but hereditary transition of power is practically non-existent. Instead, the country's youth is taking imperial exams, and the ones with the best results can join the bureaucracy and serve in various government positions. Now rich families are able to drill their children better and will have proportionally better odds at landing good jobs, but there's still plenty of social mobility; and nobody considers power extending beyond the borders of one's home as something given by birthright.

The first difference with China is that the job on top is not hereditary either; the Philosopher-Emperor is a Plato-ish figure who is chosen from the wise people who have not become officers; the idea being that only someone not interested in rulership should be allowed to rule. And they're not a spiritual leader either, or a holder of the Mandate of Heaven, or something along supernatural lines. The position of Philosopher-Emperor is also considered meritocratic: someone gets it because they, individually, deserve it.

And the second difference with China is that the country is completely multicultural. Of course there's multiple cultures in China but the Han are by far the majority. Here, there's one culture with about 25% of the people, a couple with 10-15%, and whole bunch of tiny ones; a few hundred in total, all of whom have no native language in common. New cultures are occasionally subjugated and become part of the empire; and every now and then a different culture becomes the dominant one for a few centuries, about at the rate dynasties change in China. This extends to religion too: there's a pluralistic approach to divinity in general. There are too many gods to count (with new ones joining the pantheon when a new culture enters the realm) and no one agrees on which one is the head god - or if there even is one.

Multicultural countries have had quite a struggle throughout world history. Even in these enlightened times, ethnic warfare is common. One way to keep different people together is totalitarianism, but these are the Late Middle Ages; no secret police yet. And another is the concept of the divine right to rule - which is ruled out by the pluralistic religion. I'm not interested in making the empire into a democracy either.

So why has this empire not fallen apart yet? What reasons can tens of millions of people have for trusting in a system, without the threat of violence in this life, or of suffering in the afterlife? I would be interested in historical examples of multicultural societies that did not consider their ruler divine, but any reasonable suggestions will do; I'm willing to suspend my disbelief a little

Other factoids:

  • None of this has to be perfect. Some cultures are not as respected as others, the upper classes are rather corrupt and the philosopher-emperor is not nearly as wise as he used to be. The thing is that people can still believe they live in a meritocracy, and they don't have to be utter fools to do so. The empire just has to be stable for over half a millennium.

  • There is no 'state culture' (e.g. Han for China, Latin/Greek for Rome); there's just some cultures that are larger than others. Religions, languages, diversity is fine (perhaps even seen as moral). There is however a state philosophy/morality, supporting the whole ideas of meritocracy and pluralistic divinity. If a culture has a god who claims they are the only god, or believes in birth right, then they're laughed at. Of course that means that this is not perfectly multiculti, but as said it doesn't have to be.

  • The exams lean towards cultural agnosticity; they study a range of texts from different backgrounds. Honouring the many gods is also part of the curriculum - and so are skills such as calligraphy (there's only one writing system), mathematics/geometry, history, and the aforementioned state philosophy. The material can be called coloured by the ruling class but it is not solely about that ruling class; that's where my line is.

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    $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch Jul 30 '20 at 2:36
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    $\begingroup$ Is there anything that works against nepotism in this system? China tried this by requiring their civil service to be eunuchs. This also weakened the powerful noble houses. $\endgroup$ – NomadMaker Jul 30 '20 at 2:51
  • $\begingroup$ @NomadMaker there are various rules to prevent obvious nepotism (the successor of the emperor can't be a relative, a bureaucrat is not allowed to administer exams in their home province, etc) but the highest echelons of the government do end up pretty corrupt. It's not a perfect empire, just stable. $\endgroup$ – KeizerHarm Jul 30 '20 at 6:08
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In a word, yes. In fact, it's more common historically than you think.

Multiculturalism has become a political issue recently, but the way we are practising civilisation is far removed from history. Indeed, European empires didn't last very long compared to older ones precisely because they tried to enforce standardised customs upon a variety of far-flung subjects.

The sort of diversity we see in ancient civilisation was survivable because of the high degree of autonomy enjoyed by subject peoples. Essentially, emperors governed by asking very little of local aristocracy: accept my authority, pay taxes, send soldiers, and do as you like.

Romans didn't have much in the way of multiculturalism. Everyone wanted to be Roman, and as race as we understand it didn't exist, Rome was occupied by a variety of different Mediterranean peoples, who were accepted because they all wanted to be Roman too. This cultural uniformity enabled many different people to be at peace with each other.

The ancient Persians hired many mercenaries from across their empire, often to the point of bankruptcy. One of their favourite types of mercenary, somewhat ironically, were actually Greeks (even during wars with the Greek city states). Persian nobility often preferred Greek bodyguards. Similarly, in Muslim empires Jews were known to ascend to the most senior ranks of the civil service, most notably in Muslim Spain and Ottoman lands (Samuel ibn Naghrillah).

Religious diversity is also possible. Early Muslim Caliphates were cosmopolitan, because they enforced the protection of certain groups. Jews and Christians were regarded as "dhimmi" (literally 'protected person') which meant that so long as they paid their taxes and accepted the supremacy of their Muslim leaders, they would be left to get on with life. This even extended to having their own courts to govern local affairs by their own legal standards without interference.

In the Mughal Empire a similar thing happened, but the main difference was that a minority of Muslims ruled over a majority of Hindus, a group not usually considered dhimmi. However, many Mughal emperors concluded that actually Hindus were dhimmi, besides their polytheism, and that the jizya tax was more to do with Arabian history than Muslim theology. This contributed to an era of toleration where Muslim leaders sought debate amongst various religious leaders. Of course, it didn't last, largely because of the puritanical intolerance of a certain Aurangzeb, a name infamous even today amongst Hindus.

As you can see, there's many ways of handling the problem. But essentially, combining a legal concept of protection for minorities with a fairly relaxed attitude to regional governance, and a fair attitude to taxation (taking from surplus instead of total income), is usually a good start. This could be bolstered by a fashionable imperial culture, which encourages people to want to join.

People don't ask for much: usually they don't want trouble if there is sufficient law and order, infrastructure, and tolerance. If minorities are not excluded from becoming part of the imperial elite, all the better.

The problem with modern multiculturalism often stems from the legacy of a racist ideology which did not exist in the distant past. Sure, Romans took a very negative view of barbarians on the edge of their civilisation... but that prejudice didn't last if the barbarians wished to become part of the empire.

The irony is it's probably easier to do than you expect, because the history of European empire is unusually fraught, and so we have an unrealistically negative view of cosmopolitanism. If you can keep scientific racism and religious intolerance out of the equation it'll no doubt help.

In fact, this could be a realistic point of tension: the rise of religious intolerance often leads to conflict between groups who ordinarily are happy to coexist. The partition of India and Ireland are good examples of administrative incompetence, institutional prejudice, and religious fanaticism culminating in violence and division.

In contrast, the Mongol empire was known for its religious tolerance, partly because the shamanistic Tengri religion of the Mongols meant they didn't care for people outside of their tribal groups, because they understood their own faith as a personal relationship to the land of their ancestors. Missionary religions however have a tendency to create tension by insulting local traditions and threatening local power structures.

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The Roman empire had a small bureaucracy at first which expanded over time in classical Antiquity and in the Middle Ages in the eastern Roman or "Byzantine" Empire.

The higher positions in the government were usually reserved for aristocrats who would have been appointed partially because of their family connections and partially because of their merits and talents.

The lower positions in the bureaucracy would presumably involve promotions through merit, more or less.

In the Third Century (AD 201-300) during the Crises of the Third Century many common soldiers, most from the Balkan provinces, were promoted to officers and even to generals. And some of those former peasants then promoted themselves to Emperor by leading military revolts. In the fourth and later centuries that was less common but it still happened sometimes in later centuries.

Thus that could be considered a form of promotion by (military) merit to the top rank of society.

In the Roman Empire more and more provincals were made Roman citizens. Such provincals would have been more or less Romanized and so would represent both Roman culture and their ancestral culture to greater or lesser degree. In AD 211 basically all free born men in the Roman Empire were granted Roman citizenship, even though most of them were probably only slightly Romanized at that time. And a generation or two later a few of those new citizens managed to make themselves emperors.

And this was 1,200 years before the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453.

In the Roman Empire it wasn't common for people to rise to the top through merit, because it was wasn't common for people to rise. Most people didn't change their station in life. But of course some people did change their station in life, and sometimes that involved promotion by merit.

For example, a freed slave, Helvius Successus, in the Italian town of Alba Pompeia became wealthy enough to get his son Publius Helvius Pertinax (126-193), an education. Pertinax got an appointment as an army officer and got many military and civilian promotions, partially through merit. He became a senator and the governor of several provinces, and was consul twice. He became Emperor for a short time in 193, the Year of Five Emperors, before being killed.

So presumably there was some era during the history of the Roman and "Byzantine" empires where the bureaucracy and army were large enough, and the empire was multicultural enough, for there to be a multicultural and partially meritocratic government.

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    $\begingroup$ The position of emperor was neither theoretically not practically hereditary until the end of the 2nd century... And for about a hundred years, from Nerva to Marcus Aurelius, the empire actually found a way to elevate a suitable man to the position of emperor. But if empire is to really find long-term strategy to put a suitable man on the imperial throne it definitely needs strong institutions. The Roman empire never found those. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jul 29 '20 at 18:38
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    $\begingroup$ An important side note is that the Year of Five Emperors was during the time that the Praetorian Guard had usurped the Roman government by taking over the "who has merit" decision making process. Before Pertinax, all of the emperors had been of noble birth which was very important throughout most of Roman history, but the Praetorian Guards kept appointing and then murdering Emperors trying to find an candidate that they could control. For Pertinax to be appointed at that time in history shows that he was believed NOT to have enough merit to rule without the Praetorian Guard. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Jul 29 '20 at 19:51
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without the threat of violence in this life

Governments work through a threat of violence (follow the rules, or be punished).

That said, if by violence you mean internal wars and skirmishes among different groups, then take a page from Ghenghis Khan. He united his people against common enemies one at a time. People of different upbringings and cultures would follow him because there were spoils to be earned in wars by staying on his side. Even if it meant having to tolerate neighbours they hated. In the end it was probably one of the most diverse empires in history:

The Mongol Empire was one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse empires in history, as befitted its size. Many of the empire's nomadic inhabitants considered themselves Mongols in military and civilian life, including Mongols, Turks and others and included many diverse Khans of various ethnicities as part of the Mongol Empire such as Muhammad Khan.

There were tax exemptions for religious figures and, to some extent, teachers and doctors. The Mongol Empire practiced religious tolerance because Mongol tradition had long held that religion was a personal concept, and not subject to law or interference. Sometime before the rise of Genghis Khan, Ong Khan, his mentor and eventual rival, had converted to Nestorian Christianity. Various Mongol tribes were Shamanist, Buddhist or Christian. Religious tolerance was thus a well established concept on the Asian steppe.

Modern Mongolian historians say that towards the end of his life, Genghis Khan attempted to create a civil state under the Great Yassa that would have established the legal equality of all individuals, including women. However, there is no evidence of this, or of the lifting of discriminatory policies towards sedentary peoples such as the Chinese. Women played a relatively important role in the Mongol Empire and in the family, for example Töregene Khatun was briefly in charge of the Mongol Empire while the next male leader Khagan was being chosen. Modern scholars refer to the alleged policy of encouraging trade and communication as the Pax Mongolica (Mongol Peace).

Genghis Khan realised that he needed people who could govern cities and states conquered by him. He also realised that such administrators could not be found among his Mongol people because they were nomads and thus had no experience governing cities. For this purpose Genghis Khan invited a Khitan prince, Chu'Tsai, who worked for the Jin and had been captured by the Mongol army after the Jin dynasty was defeated. (...)

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks! I could have worded it better but with threat of violence I meant excessive violence, like Tito in Yugoslavia, or perhaps how Romans considered their culture supreme and the others in need of civilising. Regarding Mongols, could you really sustain an empire of pillaging for centuries? Militant empires seem short-lived. $\endgroup$ – KeizerHarm Jul 29 '20 at 15:38
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    $\begingroup$ @KeizerHarm Ancient rome lasted almost a millenium. Then the roman empire lasted almost another one. $\endgroup$ – The Square-Cube Law Jul 29 '20 at 15:42
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    $\begingroup$ The Mongol Empire was pretty short lived, so may not be a great example given the OP's time frame. Common enemies are only a solution as long as your enemy lasts. Eventually either you or them will fall, or a political accord will be reached. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Jul 29 '20 at 17:03
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    $\begingroup$ @KeizerHarm that's my view too, I think anything beyond that is semantics. I am onboard with governments and how many of them (but not all) use violence internally. $\endgroup$ – The Square-Cube Law Jul 30 '20 at 18:04
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    $\begingroup$ @PaulSmith absolutely all existing governments, as far as I know, use threat of violence for breaking the rules. It is called the legal system, and includes prisons. The fact that no government uses threats exclusively doesn't mean the threats are not there. And your right to property is codified as a rule. So are the rest of your rights. Legal systems absolutely do use rules, else there would be chaos with each person's individual interpretation of rights and their limitations. $\endgroup$ – Gnudiff Jul 31 '20 at 6:53
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Governments that to do not favor the ruling class and significant cultural diversity are mutually exclusive.

... the country is completely multicultural ... there's one culture with about 25% of the people, a couple with 10-15%, and whole bunch of tiny ones; a few hundred in total

... every now and then a different culture becomes the dominant one for a few centuries, about at the rate dynasties change in China.

Meritocracy does not favor the ruling class because it makes power hard to hang onto. So, every single leader will have a personal reason to subvert the meritocracy and replace it with something that will make maintaining their power easier such as a hereditary monarchy. The only way to maintain a meritocracy for more than a few years is to have a powerful doctrine, like a constitution, that the vast majority of the population supports without question. In other words, the commoners have to be more loyal to the unifying doctrine that forms the core of their meritocracy than they are to anything else to ensure that leaders have no temptations they can exploit to get people to give up thier freedom of vertical mobility.

When you have a lot of cultural diversity, tyrants find it much easier to get an otherwises unified population to give up on unifying doctrines in favor of their own egos.

What often happens is that they begin by celebrating people's subcultures. At first it seems like a good thing, people will organize parades celebrating what makes them special, month's will be devoted to their culture's history, national holidays will celebrate heros that represent their heritage, etc. The problem though is that it makes people start to identify as their subculture first, and as national citizens second.

This is ofcourse alway going to be followed by a natural push back. Now if you are a [your-subculture], it is no longer as important for your governor to be the smartest candidate, you want him to be a [your-subculture] too, because someone who is not a [your-subculture] can not possibly represent what makes you so special. When a [thier-subculture] becomes governor, suddenly the government stops sponsoring your religious/cultural events and starts sponsoring someone else's. These little slights will stack one on top of another which then leads to mass discrimination, which in turn leads to protests, riots, and even rebellions.

Once a tyrant had gotten culturally different neighbors at odds with each other, they no longer want to identify as part of the same group as their rivals. Suddenly, the meritocracy starts to seem like a bad thing because now people see it as a way for people of other cultures to take control and oppress them; so, they start to fear it more than they care about their own ability to rise in station.

At this point the tyrant starts to take on a more active approach. He will publicly condemn the riots that which he will privately help organize. He will blame minorities for all the chaos that he sows and claim he can make the empire great again by restoring cultural unity. He will offer to protect the majority from letting the minorities take over; so, when calls for the removal of the meritocracy, it will be welcomed by those who the tyrant promises to represent. By choosing the strongest subculture(s) to back, the tyrant is assured enough power to defeat anyone who opposes him. People will celebrate his victories over each minority, and they will ignore the abuses of his power that look like they are to subvert minorities, but that are actually to subvert the old supporters of the meritocracy.

This same general pattern has been repeating itself throughout history at a rate far too often to think that a culturally diverse meritocracy can last as long as you are asking about.

How close can you get?

The United States is probably the best model for a stable multicultural meritocracy you will historically get. It has lasted for hundreds of years with only a single civil war despite being multicultural. It also includes a lot of vertical advancement possibilities for its citizens of all socioeconomic backgrounds meaning it has survived a lot of the same problems you would see in a true meritocracy.

Features it has that will be important to your setting include:

  • A constitution including an enumeration of rights with an enforceable supremacy clause. Every year, legislators write numerous culturally biased laws that threaten the survival of a multicultural United States. However, throughout American history, these laws have been shot down over and over again because they conflict with the constitution. Because the constitution is in theory more powerful than any politician, or political party.
  • Multiple states with their own local legislations. The maintenance of states means that you can take cultural groups, lump them together, and let them rule themselves to a degree. The more power you give to statehoods, the more people are able to live out their own cultures in peace without having to push back against the federal government. It is also important to allow easy migration within your national borders so that like minded people can gravitate to thier own cultural epicenters. This means that most people can celebrate their subcultures without giving tyrants as big of a hook to create rivalry.
  • Strong checks and balances. No one person or group should have the authority to usurp the whole government. As the conflict between cultures ebbs and flows a majority party should never be able to gain enough power to unilaterally control the government. One area the US does this very well is in the 2 house system. The house of representatives is well designed to prevent a majority culture from being dictated to by the vocal minority, and the senate prevents a majority culture from steam rolling all of the smaller subcultures combined.

Things you may want to change about the US:

  • As per your requirements, you need to incorporate meritocratic testing. This should be very easy since the United States was founded under the ideal of being a meritocracy, but at the time the constitution was drafted, capitalism and elected leadership was the best solution to getting there that the founding fathers could come up with. If your nation had a similar origin story to the US, the same sorts of people would have been relatively easy to convince to adopt your system.
  • Give the federal government less power over personal liberties. In the US, cultures often come into conflict when federal laws written with one state's biases come into conflict with another. We see this in issues like the legalization of marijuana, abortion rights, or slavery where states are so clearly divided on the issue that it risks violent uprisings. The more power states have to write laws that supersede federal law, the easier it becomes for people to find a community were they can fit in and live out thier own cultural values without feeling the need to secede. So in the US, the order of supremacy is Federal Constitution > Federal Law > State Law, but if you invert it to Federal Constitution > State Law > Federal Law you will better support cultural diversity while still ensuring the power of the constitution to bind said cultures into one nation.

Things you can change in your own story to make it more believable:

  • Although a leader could rise up from any walk of life, it would be clear that 99% of people would not have a voice. This is a huge issue with meritocracies because it basically says, you are either good enough to rule or not good enough to be more than a slave to other people's decisions. This results in a lot more civil unrest than a culturally diverse democracy or republic. What you can do is balance free elections with meritocratic testing; so, you basically let the testing take the place of primary elections and then let voting decide which "merited" persons would give them a feeling of agency in their government. This also means that leaders will feel some pressure to do what is in the interests of the majority of citizens if they want to maintain power. This means appealing to more than one subculture in thier leadership style.
  • People always think in terms of 'us' and 'them' no matter how subtle or vast the differences between people are; so, to maintain a strong nation your people inside the borders still need to be more like each other than the people outside the boards to maintain an 'us' mentality. One way to do this is to nix your language idea. A single common language, even if there are many actually spoken, is a powerful unifying force. Another way would be to surround your empire by nations that have state religions in which case your nation may represent a confederation of states designed to protect its citizens from the threat of forced religion. I think if you did both, you Empire's long term stability would become far more believable.
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    $\begingroup$ Thank you for the expansion; that does make the answer more useful. The US in these times is not the most obvious example of a frictionless multicultural society, given the issues between races, political ideologies and whatnot, but that's just to further support your initial assertion that it's hard to have multiculturalism to begin with. $\endgroup$ – KeizerHarm Jul 30 '20 at 15:40
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    $\begingroup$ Your story could also be enriched by considering your nation to have a natural unrest cycle. You can either tell it in a time of unrest where everything seems at the brink of boiling over, or you can tell it after a period of unrest where people honor the bravery of the last generation who risked everything to make sure they had X-Y-Z rights. Either way it could make for some interesting plot points. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Jul 30 '20 at 16:22
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    $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki Your answer doesn't read that way. It reads like one is acceptable and the other is a subculture. I suggest you edit the answer so it says what you mean. $\endgroup$ – candied_orange Jul 30 '20 at 16:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Chronocidal So, I've done more research into the Pathian Megisthanes. The Megisthanes that did the electing of kings were made of two houses. One house was purely hereditary based on Parthia's original royal families and the other was made up of magi and wise men. While the wise men might have come from any background (I can't find how exactly they were chosen) the magi were believed to be a hereditary form of priesthood; so, while Pathia had elections, it seems to have just been nobility electing nobility. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Jul 30 '20 at 16:51
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    $\begingroup$ @candied_orange I see how modern cultural biases could make it read that way. Updated that part to be less specific. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Jul 30 '20 at 16:56
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The empire is a magocracy ruled by powerful magicians.

If you're basing this empire off of pre-modern China, then there's a fairly simple option for you to take: base your empire off of the various fantasy Chinas within the xianxia sub-genre of Chinese fantasy, where the empire is ruled by clans and/or sects of powerful magicians who cultivate their magical power by practicing magic-powered martial arts and controlling various power-boosting resources. If there's an Emperor, it's because he's the most powerful magician in the empire, and will live for thousands of years. Why does he deserve the position of Emperor? Because he's the most powerful magician in the empire, and he can personally kill anyone who tries to take it from him, along with their entire army of soldiers.

Why is it a multi-cultural empire? Because their magicians go out and conquer new lands to rule, pillage their magical treasures to strengthen themselves and their clans/sects, and then teach the locals how to begin cultivating their own magic powers using the same system of magic. Over time, the new culture gets absorbed into the empire as whole, with a few minor aesthetic differences.

Why the multitude of gods and religions? Because the most powerful magicians are strong enough to go punch gods in the face and take their stuff, if they don't transform themselves into new gods in their own right, so they're not afraid of them.

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The government is weak

Perhaps this is a cynical view, but I don't think very different cultures can coexist within the same political system unless they are able to live out their own very different values and be left alone. In other words, you need a central government that is extremely weak and matters very little to an individual's everyday life.

It could be that the "government" is just a diplomatic forum between the different nations, like the UN, whose pronouncements no nation has to pay attention to unless they agree with them. The difference is that your "nations" don't have geographic boundaries but have cultural boundaries, and the cultures govern themselves.

Another option is that the "government" has a strictly defined area of responsibility, for example, to defend the empire militarily. Its bases are all at or near the edge of the country, and its soldiers are volunteers. Sort of like the French Foreign Legion, these people of different cultures can work together because it's a very task-focused organization, rather than a general government. The leadership has no say in cultural issues like family law, religious practices, etc.

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