On Diversity

This post addresses four questions:

1. What is diversity?
2. Is diversity important?
3. How can diversity be promoted?
4. How can an individual deal with diversity?

What is diversity?

At the simplest level diversity pertains to difference. If we restrict the discussion to cultural diversity we are referring to people who differ along any of the following dimensions: language, religion, moral code, social values, custom, tradition, dress, etc.

Thus we can make the statement that before 1947 Lahore was a much more culturally diverse city than it is today. The presence of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and Zoroastrians made it multi-lingual and multi-religious city. After 1947 it was transformed into a uni-lingual and uni-religious one.

Is diversity important?

This is not a simple question to answer. We can take a contemporary perspective to address it. In the globalizing economy it is increasingly believed that innovation and creativity are critical to success. Economies and societies that are unable to innovate will get left behind.

Professor Richard Florida has become well-known by applying this perspective to cities. In a series of books (e.g., Cities and the Creative Class), he has argued that cities need to be innovative to be successful. And he has shown that cultural diversity is an essential ingredient of innovativeness. Only when many different viewpoints, perspectives, and ideas interact with and challenge each other are new ideas created. When everyone is similar, creativity and innovation drop sharply.

Silicon Valley is the best example today of a creative and innovative urban area from which almost all the new technological breakthroughs have been emerging. It is home to the brightest people from all over the world. People of all religions, traditions and tastes are welcome there.

In the past, cities like Amsterdam became global leaders when they opened their space to the Jewish minority that was being driven out of almost all other European capitals.

We can apply the same perspective to Lahore. Before 1947, it was known as a leading cultural center of the entire subcontinent. Today, it is just another provincial city. Does the reduction in cultural diversity have anything to do with its decline? By comparison, Mumbai continues to remain a more vibrant and dynamic urban center but its diversity in under threat.

How can diversity be promoted?

Richard Florida has a very simple answer to this question. The only way to promote diversity is to be tolerant of differences. Silicon Valley and cities like San Francisco provide the tolerance that gives confidence to people outside the mainstream (in terms of religion, language, customs, etc.) to make their contributions without any apprehensions of censure or persecution. Such cities protect and nurture the differences that are the engine of their intellectual outputs.

This message has struck a responsive chord across the world as cities compete fiercely with each other in the global economy. Even an authoritarian state like Singapore, reputed for its suppression of differences, has talked about creating a ‘Bohemian village’ within it in order to attract foot-loose creative workers to choose to live in Singapore.

At the other end of the spectrum, there have been cities like Lahore and Istanbul that were important cosmopolitan centers at one time but have succeeded in reducing their cultural diversity to the bare minimum.

How can an individual deal with diversity?

Diversity is a double-edged weapon. Differences can give rise to innovation but they can also divide and lead to social tension. Unfortunately, there will always be individuals who will try to exploit differences for material or ideological gain. We can never do away with such manipulation. But how successful such efforts are depends on the ordinary citizen. Would the ordinary citizen allow himself or herself to be exploited in such a way? This is a choice that is open to the ordinary citizen.

Let us take an example. The electorate in the US is divided by race which has been a difference with very painful associations. It is inevitable that someone or the other will play the ‘race card’ in a close election. In the 2008 US elections we should expect to see the use of such tactics that exploit the fear of differences. However, it has been very encouraging to see the young generation in the US rising above such race-baiting tactics.

The Republican campaign has also tried to play up the fact that Barack Obama has an alien and hot-button middle name – Hussein. Once again, the young generation has refused to fall prey to such profiling. In an innovative response, hundreds of college students have officially adopted Hussein as their middle name as a sign of defiance and rejection.

So, how we deal with differences is up to us. We need not let others brainwash and manipulate us for their own ends. We can make our own judgments on such issues.

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One Response to “On Diversity”

  1. Mariam Says:

    Certainly a very important message we need to remind ourselves again and again and not fall prey to stereotyping: “how we deal with differences is up to us. We need not let others brainwash and manipulate us for their own ends. We can make our own judgments on such issues.”
    Only then we will learn and grow as individuals and as nations.

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