Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Cultural Diversity: a reason to celebrate

Cultural Diversity: a reason  to celebrate

In 2002 The United Nations  declared May 21st to be the World Day for Cultural Diversity. This year we commemorate the tenth anniversary of that declaration. But what does it really mean to “celebrate diversity”?

In his book “The clash of intolerances”, the Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo suggests the idea of embracing Cultural Diversity within a nation as a cause for celebration instead of conflict and division. His thesis is sustained by historical cases such as the Spanish “Convivencia”  ( 8th - 13th Century):

 “…While Europe languished in the Dark Ages, Muslims, Jews and Christians in Andalusia together formed an intricate social fabric having a closely entwined and culturally fruitful collaboration. (…)The paradigm of Cordoba shows not only the possibilities of a dialogical exchange, where people of different religions and cultures could live side by side, discerning common grounds and values without hating what—and who— they are not, but also the strength of the diversity of European identity—a strength that could encourage further border-crossings between Islamic and European civilizations in the South and the North of the Mediterranean. The Andalusian experience symbolizes the universality of the human cultures to connect with each other.”

The challenge of seeing cultural diversity within nations as an asset, as a cause for celebration instead of division suggests the idea of denying our own self-sufficiency and the intention of recognizing our own incompleteness. This approach highlights the construction of identities as a result of human interaction. In other words we do not form our identities in spite of our differences but because of them. I am thanks to my neighbor.
We’re empowered to construct social meanings through our interaction with our social environment. However, settling for what we already know (or think we know) without seeing and hearing different worldviews, represents not only fear but also lack of character. Stepping out of our comfort zone and accepting the challenge of having our own arguments being refuted by another person’s opinion is in fact putting our own beliefs to test. At the end of the day we may find ourselves in two scenarios. A we may reaffirm our beliefs by hearing others or B we decide our neighbor, who seemed so wrong at first, has actually proven to have a point and a somewhat valid argument and all of a sudden my “absolute truth” seems not so absolute anymore. In either case it is a win-win situation.

Most of today’s societies are multicultural societies. Try to find an homogenous country, mission impossible. Ethnic (and religious) minorities are a reality in every Nation-State. Global waves of massive migration due to the conditions of unemployment, poverty, and war, has emerged the debate regarding the increasing establishment of porous borders and on the other hand the question of policy in multicultural contexts. Such is the case of Europe, a continent that is still struggling with this phenomenon. Unfortunately the hegemonic paradigm in Europe is that of assimilation, that is, the idea that everyone must subject to a National Identity and that an expression of your cultural and religious particularities in the public space is not an option. Cultural assimilation leads to immigrants, for instance, hiding their true identities to try and blend with the crowd. A historical paradox I dare say. Precisely because what we think of today’s Western Civilization had its foundations in the Eastern ideas…what would it be of our western scientific progress if the Arabs hadn’t passed into us Math? And what about our the new discoveries in medicine…none of that would have been possible without the transmission of medical knowledge by pioneers as Averroes and Maimonides?

Voltaire claimed that the East is the civilization "to which the West owes everything". I believe the East and the West owe one another more than they can tell.

Exclusively because today’s societies are plural, Intercultural Dialogue is an imperative condition. We can only think of working out our differences once dialogue is an institutionalized practice.
Jahanbegloo: Cosmopolitanism and Diversity: Thinking Democratic Peace