Junkfood Science: Our shared humanity

August 19, 2009

Our shared humanity

“Diversity” and “acceptance” have become politically correct ideas and appear in countless employee policy manuals and mission statements of nonprofit groups. As well-intentioned as they may be, they also hold a troubling side.

As we’ve seen, advocacy for stigmatized groups can disguise and foster prejudices of the very same group. Seldom recognized is that behind “diversity” and “acceptance” can also hide disturbing prejudicial and racist beliefs. Like all prejudices, they can lead to greater divisiveness, and be used as a technique to keep discriminated people even more oppressed and separated.

When it comes to acceptance of individuals who look and live in ways that are different from ourselves or who don’t conform to what society views as correct, our acceptance, even tolerance, of others is put to the test. If we look closely, our society really isn’t tolerant of those who are autonomous and independent. The evidence comes in how our society or social group defines “diversity.” We say we support diversity — but have we thought about what it really means?

Philosophy professor Bert Olivier at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, wrote a thought provoking article in the Mail & Guardian this week examining diversity. His article is a continuation of one he wrote last week on the importance of understanding what it means to be autonomous. That definition is critical to understanding his description of how today’s concepts of diversity and acceptance manipulate and divide us. As he explained:

Why is this important for understanding what it means to be autonomous? If all human beings are shaped by discourse — which includes not only the languages they use, but the actions they perform, too — the widespread hold that dominant discourses have on people’s actions can be resisted in only one way: a person has to claim for him or herself a different discourse, one of what Foucault (in his study of ancient Hellenistic, that is, Greek and Roman societies) refers to as “self-mastery”.

Importantly, self-mastery does not depend on “information” as much as on the difficult, painstaking development of the ability to distance oneself from those agencies that constantly tend to “infantilise” people, by treating them as if they are children, incapable of thinking and acting as (relatively) autonomous beings. Such agencies are all around one, even more so than during the Hellenistic era, given the “bio-power” that governments, the media, economic institutions like corporations and churches wield over people’s lives today.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking that it is easy to adopt a radically different discursive stance in the face of the dominant discourses that surround one and have shaped the actions of the vast majority of people on Earth today. It is very difficult, especially because it requires nothing less than systematically changing the way in which one thinks and — even more important — acts in society… that stands in stark contrast to everything that we have inherited from Christianity as well as from Western modernity (all of which, by large, exhort one to be “obedient” — whether to the church, the state, or more subtly, to the behavioural models promoted by the media — rather than to think and act “autonomously”).

Being your own self is hard. Being accepted, even while being different, is even harder. What does acceptance of diversity mean? “Diversity” is bandied about as if its meaning is self-explanatory, he wrote, but it’s not. As he explained:

Ostensibly “diversity” denotes first and foremost … diversity of people in terms of race and we should add — because these cannot be separated — culture. And to respect such diversity or differences is surely a good thing. But should we respect diversity for its own sake or is there something tacit, unspoken, behind the exhortation to respect diversity or differences in this context? Surely apart from the wonderful richness imparted to experience by racial, cultural (and natural) diversity, the tacit implication is that there is something more fundamental that makes diversity something valuable, not merely from a cultural perspective but also from a moral one.

And how far should we go in our respect for diversity? ONLY as far as racial and cultural differences? Most people would probably say no to this question because one cannot forget gender differences or disability as a mark of diversity, especially when it comes to different needs. But once gender differences and disabilities have been included, is that how far our consideration of diversity should go?

We mark our acceptance of diversity by choosing what we won’t discriminate against, such as race, gender and disability. And we itemize them in anti-discrimination and diversity policies, but does that really mean our society accepts diversity? How far are we willing to go towards acceptance of differences, beyond the aesthetic? Are all differences equally valuable?

As he walked readers though these questions, Professor Olivier pointed out: “Again we are confronted by the implication, that, at least at a moral level, there is something more fundamental than mere diversity that demands our respect, and that diversity, or individual as well as cultural differences themselves, should be judged in terms of this ‘something’.” He argued that if we truly accept diversity and do not discriminate against people, we should value diversity further.

[C]ategories such as race, culture, gender and (dis)ability are broad, descriptive categories under which innumerably many individual differences are subsumed. It is so easy — too easy — to stop thinking at that point where diversity of race, culture, gender and “able-bodied-ness” has been invoked for political correctness’ sake. In a sense, that was the mistake (a huge mistake) made by the architects of apartheid. I recall debates where, against my claim that it is wrong to discriminate (with detrimental consequences that is) on the basis of race, defenders of apartheid claimed that they were not “discriminating” but simply showing a respect for racial differences (that is, diversity). Hence the policy of “separate development.” They were merely (they claimed) creating the political circumstances where racial and cultural differences could flourish.

Needless to emphasise, such racially charged rhetoric hides a more fundamental “racism.”

Mandela recognized the limits of recognizing diversity in terms of race. “Here we encounter one of the most important considerations in the pursuit of (the valorization of) diversity,” wrote professor Olivier. The slippery slope is evidenced in today’s growing movement among advocacy groups to exclude, censure and create dissent and distrust of those who aren’t white enough or fat enough or disabled enough to understand their discrimination. Those who are privileged, must atone for their accident of birth. As he recognized in the apartheid movement, discriminatory charged rhetoric hides more fundamental prejudices. He cautioned:

In other words, today, too, one should be very careful in promoting the notion of diversity. Not to do it to the point where the shared humanity of all people, regardless of cultural and racial differences, is simply ignored. It is so easy to classify someone as NOT belonging to one of the categories of people who should be privileged and prioritised in certain ways in the current political dispensation (justifiable as such privileging may be to a certain degree, in view of past disadvantages) and then to discard such a person as not being worthy of the epithet “human.” Given the individual differences among people, the talents and abilities of such individuals are often much needed for making extant society a “better” one.

One sometimes encounters a view such as the one referred to above among those people who, given the past wrongs committed in the name of patriarchy, believe that men — particularly white men — should be sorry and apologetic about the fact that they are men. By implication men do not really make the grade as “human.” Such a prejudice overlooks the fact that the only way to improve society is to work towards a non-patriarchal society — something that cannot be done without men, that is, without changing men’s attitudes. But this means that they ought to be given a chance to do so. “Men” are unavoidably part of a diverse society. The same could be argued about any other group of individuals with a distinct “group-identity”, whether it is a race, cultural or religious group — all of these diverse groups should be recognised as adding to the diversity of society. Tolerance of any such group’s activities is therefore also required of everyone else, although it is important to acknowledge that the limits of tolerance lie in the ability of others to tolerate or be sensitive to one’s own unique difference. In brief: intolerance should not be tolerated.

We cannot afford to ignore that the “policy of separate development (apartheid) was ultimately irreconcilable with the very democratic tradition of the West,” he wrote. Racial differences came to be viewed as sufficient reason to exclude some races from the family of humans. Before we fragment ourselves into countless special interests as we look for concepts to define our differences, each intolerant of the other, we need to see that we’re overlooking the most fundamental concept of all. That is our humanity.

“We should not make a similar mistake again: the recognition and promotion of diversity and difference should not blind us to what we have in common,” he said.

© 2009 Sandy Szwarc

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