The word “pluralism”, has a variety of significations and interpretations attached to it. Its utilization and relevance, extends to a myriad of social and religious discourses. And it thrives within numerous academic and professional fields. Given the wide range of applications and functions linked to it, the term itself provides an opportunity to adopt a pluralistic approach.
Of the many definitions, one is an offering by the Pluralism Project at Harvard. Its website states: “pluralism is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity”. It goes on to say that “mere diversity without real encounter and relationship will yield increasing tensions in our societies.”
Diversity in our world is a fact. However, pluralism is something that needs our concerted efforts. Having said that, pluralism itself acknowledges that it’s just one of the many ways to approach diversity.
~ A delightful attribute of our very existence and experience. As obvious as the colours in a rainbow or coloured candies in a packet of M&M’s. It can’t be missed; both in nature and human creativity.
Despite its natural occurrence, i sometimes think it’s introduced as a novel invention by savvy community leaders or angry activists looking to promote limited agendas. In these instances, it at best comes across as something contrived and constricted; at worst something divisive and hate-inducing.
And is there room for hybridity and creativity in the played-up versions of diversity? Where does the kid with four ethnically different grandparents fit? Where does the fusion artist go? What about the displaced migrant or refugee who doesn’t fit into any neat borders? Is it possible that many will feel alienated when diversity is limited to convenient chunks of well-intentioned yet impractical compartments?
We come in multiple blends of culture, gender, nationality, religion, ideology, interest, taste, talents, physical capabilities, types of intelligence etc. It will be great to allow flexibility and dynamism in managing diversity and not limiting the pluralistic powerhouse that it is.
Responding to Diversity
How then, shall we respond to our ever-increasing pluralistic world?
Do we ignore or downplay the diverse peculiarities, heritage, principles and beliefs of people of this world?
Do we just observe it? Or be critical of it?
Perhaps we can engage in charitable celebrations of diversity in exotic cultures, food, tradition and heritage?
Should we reinforce the boundaries of diversity to further accentuate it?
Or might we feel threatened by it?
There are many options and medley of choices, that may resonate for different people. That too, will be partly dependent on our own unique mix of the assortment of attributes that colour our views. My own preference, possibly based upon my own histories and inclinations, is to first see the resemblance within diversity; and then to fall gracefully into a recognition of pluralities and a remembrance of diverse histories.
Resemblance nurtures Diversity
Picture a dozen young professionals from around the globe invited to an international convention. The organizers have botched the accommodation arrangements and the participants have to hang out at the lobby till the mistakes are ironed out. Curiosity, fueled by the unfamiliar skin tones and facial features, compels these bright young people to actually look at the interesting others rather than take comfort in their familiar devices and gadgets.
It doesn’t take long for the friendly glances and smiles to morph into an impromptu mini convention of their own. Topics range from gadgets and devices, fashion, celebrities, TV shows, sports, books, science, ethics, family, friends, childhood, pets, romance etc. With shared millennial lingo and popular jargon of the times, they chatted on like old neighbors, with deep connection and comfortable familiarity.
Even as the popular themes of the day were enjoyed, they couldn’t help but notice the different priorities and values that cropped up in their friendly banter. “Oh, is that why you like it?” “Why is that feature important?” “Never saw it that way.” And the intriguing differences were lapped up as enthusiastically as the comforting resemblances.
Tears, laughter, solemn contemplation, admiration, and a feeling of deep comradeship and love. In seeing another who is no different than me and my own; and yet having to dodge a drone or run from gun wielding terrorists or learn to use heavy weaponry or has lived through severe food shortages and stringent rations or walked across scorching desert or had to fight for a right to education…
They are the same compeers who enjoyed the same zest for friendships, family, great food, adventure, innovations etc. And yet there are such similar beings living radically different lives. There springs empathy and compassion, and a lifelong bond is born; and with it, commitments to care and make a difference.
If the twelve had met at the convention proper, would it have created a similar rapport? They would be officially introduced as hailing from distinct geographical boundaries that are said to accurately reflect the pluralities in our world, in effect, a politically defined global diversity. Ceremoniously brought together as ‘ citizens of the one world’, they would take to the podium to educate the world of their nation’s peculiar predicaments. Will that evoke strong kindred feelings?
If I really believed these representatives to be a completely different genus of humanity, I may be tempted to say, “Yes, we’re all human. And yet you speak of stuff I don’t recognize. So it must be something you are hardwired for. You’ll be fine; you’re weather-beaten to endure your ‘searing temperatures’ or ‘freezing cold’. If I’m able to deal with my peculiar set of problem then so must you. You have my good wishes and prayers; and hope to see you another year at another convention.”
That hypothetical response may sound like an exaggeration and yet looking at some of the world’s indifference and even contempt for people from different countries, I can’t help but wonder. Sometimes even among citizens of the same land there is much apathy or even disgust for those from the lower economic or social divides.
So is it really an acknowledgment of diversity that is missing? Or rather the unity that can exalt and nurture that diversity? Diversity in these cases has only served to accentuate the lowliness of the others by classifying them as poor or out-castes. And diversity within religious sects, never mind among different religions, has caused many a tragic fate for countless who were seen as not worthy to be dignified as human. Here too, I feel, it’s the common thread that is missing; that benevolent bond that can lay the foundations for diversity to flourish without fear.
Diversity – a Reality
I feel that more often than not there’s apprehension towards speaking about our similarities. For I find there can be much boredom with the notion of Eurocentric whitewashing that has been popularized by years of widespread westernization; and tiredness from the clichéd spiritual oneness preached by some new age pundits that don’t always come down from their lofty seats to acknowledge the real life battles within the ‘one’ field.
It’s alright, though. We can dip a slice of strawberry, banana or apple in a yummy bowl of liquid chocolate and it will still taste very different despite the similar deep colour and glossy exterior! Any attempt to coat us with the same “chocolate” topping, will not dissolve our unique qualities.
In this age of high-speed internet based social networking, there is a definite landslide of fast-moving “chocolate” for sure. Both in its goodness and bitterness we are all dunked in this similar zest for speed, diversity, expansion, novelty, beauty, exploration, communication, justice, radical outreach, etc. Yet, happily, the differences are a given; no two same thumbprints! No two identical beings, nor histories, nor environments.
Unity respects diversity
Unity does not mean we see everyone as the same or even equal in all respects. We are different; and irrefutably so. What unity does strive for, is a similarly civil, respectful and dignified treatment of all people.
Unity emphasizes the underlying interconnection among all beings. It’s neither lackluster similitudes nor over-bearing in its tyrannical conformity. It highlights the intrinsic, connective human bond, even as it recognizes and respects the vast and complex differences within humanity.
Unity is not expressed as protecting all the different beliefs and ideologies, but more about recognizing and understanding the various human sentiments that gravitate towards these diverse beliefs and ideologies. I feel this to be an important distinction.
Some think that uniting people is about bringing them all under one umbrella of ideology, philosophy or religion. Even some liberal-leaning views may insist that others follow its lead. This is more akin to dictatorship albeit with liberal intentions. It’s not the same as the pluralistic unity that I muse on; where even liberty is not something that is forced on others.
Celebrating diversity is wonderful! But perhaps it’s also appropriate to celebrate the similarities; and simply recognize the unmistakable diversity and let it effortlessly charm us into its depths. Cause sadly from what I see, it’s the recognition of similarities that’s missing. The raw, flesh and bone similarities which are much more far-reaching than the whitewash of commercialization and the abstract oneness of spiritual theories.
I see people bleeding and crying in similar painful ways; all equally vulnerable to illness, disability and death; hunger and poverty is feared; grief, frustration, heartbreak, guilt, humiliation, anxiety; hurts just as much. I feel people desiring to speak their hearts; wanting to freely walk where they wish and looking up to see brilliant stars and not blinding bomb blasts!
I think the affection, spontaneously born out of the shared resemblance, can guide us gently into the deeper, far-reaching diversities of our global village. And the more obvious differences are enough to fuel the curiosity for that deeper excursion. We don’t need the more sly politicians to keep drumming on diversity and neither shall we be bullied by some radical activists nor guilt-tripped by simplistic spiritualists into a brainwashed acceptance of basic diversities that were never not apparent. Taking our cue for diversity from these standard-bearers, can only inspire in us a superficial tolerance for their clichéd stereotypes. My preference is for life’s rich tapestry of diversity to be honored in a more spontaneous and magnanimous manner.
Important, and yet by itself, tolerance can be just a shallow decency. It can even hinder an active engagement when it’s seen as an excuse to just observe. Tolerance doesn’t need an intimate nor updated knowledge of others, hence will allow us to hang on to all the stereotypes and outdated beliefs handed down by history and our own prejudiced misconceptions.
Tolerance is especially inadequate for top-down discrimination that are hierarchy based. I feel there is a greater need for deeper acknowledgment of our similarities in these scenarios. This will ensure that the “injustices” are not defined as such by just the more politically or economically powerful regions of this world. Another example of rank inspired inequality is when in some arenas, the social and legislative norms are seen to always override the various cultural norms or religious laws of people who may want to prioritize them. Likewise, the weight given to urban practices versus the rural traditions; it’s injustice via pecking orders.
Diversity has depths
The celebration for diverse food, tradition and music makes for a very interesting and exotic experience. But to meet with the resemblance of our human sisters and brothers, is to enable us to see how we are more privileged despite the sameness; how similar sensitivities of our human psyche are being exposed and made vulnerable to drastically different degrees of torment, shame and injustice.
My hope is for the more meaningful integration and transformation to take place and be given space to evolve. It needs to go beyond just a staged display of diversity with different coloured skin tones walking away with pageant crowns, or simplistic, multicultural posters with ‘oneness’ slogans. Sure, every little counts; but do we just settle for the little that comes from a constrained display of the greater diversities?
Pluralism is not Relativism
Relativism sees all views as context dependent and equally valid.
It sees no way to discern between various expressions of life because it considers discernment unworkable without an absolute vantage point. Since relativism denies the possibility of an absolute view, making sensible comparisons is seen as a futile attempt. It believes it can’t reach satisfying and useful conclusions.
Pluralism itself agrees that views are derived from, and related to other views. They don’t magically appear from nothing. However, for pluralism, that doesn’t preclude the possibility of intelligent discernment of views. So, unlike relativism, it doesn’t need to see all views as equal.
Pluralism doesn’t insist on a single best view or absolute truth. At the same time it does not deny the possibility of better views or even an absolute view. It encourages creative learning and active growth towards achieving these ends. I feel it’s less fatalistic than relativism.
Pluralists are dedicated to a multiplicity of ethical values. But, unlike relativists, they also pledge their hopes on the possibility of working towards more wholesome and beneficial values. Pluralism recognizes that there are numerous wellsprings of different types of value and moral claims. These are acknowledged for their incommensurability. But this does not make pluralists moral skeptics.
Pluralism does not preach; not even on pluralism. Yet in my poetic vision for pluralism, there is room for ‘pragmatic persuasions’. We can discuss our various perspectives rationally. There are bound to be overlapping consensus on the hopes and aspirations of different communities.
Despite the incommensurable nature of these different points of view, there are still many common concerns that are important to most people. We all need shelter, food and clean drinking water. Everyone I know likes to be treated with respect and kindness. Justice, equality, prosperity, order, solidarity and basic human rights are rarely regarded as unacceptable even if communities differ on their definitions of what constitutes them.
Pluralism requires the furthering of constructive dialogue to reveal both common grounds and subtle, yet rightful differences. These similar results and consequences, hoped for by most people, can be a uniting factor. With its help we can determine the values that have a more legitimate and convincing place among the multiplicity of values. The prevailing depths of diversities require us to put forward more efforts, both in quantity and quality. Our common values and shared goals can lend the impetus for those efforts.
Pluralism is not Liberalism
It’s important to note that pluralists are not restricted by the more common values. There are no overriding commitments to these. They see these values as only having the potential to contribute to judicious agreements and implementations of common principles. Unlike liberalists, they do not assume that even something like self-determination to be an overriding goal for all people. The pluralist sees it as one among many valuable aspirations. They recognize that the nullifying of individual preferences or orthodox pursuits, in favour of the common values, may not be the optimal choice. In some cases, the more unusual needs being snuffed out, can even reduce the ability to enjoy the liberal values of freedom and prosperity. Hence it defies the very purpose of this liberalist insistence.
Spaces for dialogue
The complexities in defining the basic principles and requirements of our human welfare can be discussed in our public squares which vary in size and complexity. From schools, places of worship, universities, non-profit organizations to community centers; there is a plurality of these spaces and opportunities for dialogue. Increasingly, it feels, we are also moving towards a single, concurrently running, virtual public square.
I feel we can no longer lead insulated lives based on our own cultures. The world borders are becoming blurred. The internet and media brings people together in virtual platforms and forums to speak and be heard on the issues of the times.
I think there is a need to be more sensitive to the world’s eyes and ears. We can no longer justify everything merely based on our own diverse way of living. I don’t see pluralism as advocating extreme individualism.
Tragic consequences and unfortunate incidents have occurred in our physical reality, when two or more radically different points of view meet in our borderless cyber world. Multimedia communication makes for almost immediate information sharing. Without the feeling of human solidarity, these fast-moving streams of diverse information can be misconstrued in negative ways.
One example, is when freedom to express artistic creativity, butts heads with orthodox views of respectful sensitivity towards religious sentiments. My view is that it doesn’t help to insist on either one of these poles of different perspectives. And I would not wish for power to be wielded by one perspective that is presumed to be the “right” one.
Rather, I feel, we can bring awareness to the common human needs that gave birth to the different actions and reactions; eg., freedom to express, and freedom to voice dissatisfaction and have it taken seriously. In seeing the similarities in the struggles and causes behind the seemingly alien intentions, we can perhaps make more informed choices around our responsibilities and responses towards our global neighbours.
Reciprocity of Diversity and Unity
Diversity, when seen for its intricate web of rich offering, is welcomed as an important contribution to our healthy and progressive evolution. Probed in a conscientious manner, we may see how very different the other is not just a beautiful addition, but a crucial necessity for the leaps to new heights desired in all areas of human endeavours. Penetrating insights into our complex pluralities can show us how diversity can inject robust vibrancy and prosperous dynamism to our unity. Our respect and appreciation towards diversity is strengthened by our common values and shared humanity. So too our unique contributions enliven and excite our united visions.
Productive dialogues and creative persuasions need meticulous study of the diverse potpourri of perspectives of our times. And our common bond can trigger the pivotal elements of care and deliberate reflections needed in these discussions.
And to sum it all up in poetic prose, I could say: Unity inspires hearts and diversity stimulates minds. Together they reciprocate to bring to fruition the hopes of pluralism.
It’s not a philosophical pronouncement, but the poetic touch helps me to liberate the play of pluralism in my own interactions and contemplation. My practice of pluralism is free to adapt, learn and grow from the many nuances of life’s grand diversity. Being pluralistic about pluralism helps me to appreciate it from many fresh angles. The possibilities are endless. I feel much enthusiasm for this multi-layered exploration and heart expanding adventure.