Nowadays organisations pay a lot of attention to the principle of Diversity & Inclusion and how to stimulate it. Leiden University is one of those organisations: in 2014 and 2015 symposia were organised on this theme. I think this beautiful, powerful principle is very valuable outside the context of organisations as well. It can help us to focus clearly on what is important in life and what is not. There is also an interesting connection to the field of law, as it expresses in a nutshell what all human rights are about.
For too long now we have widely believed in the opposite principle, which we could call ‘Similarity & Exclusion’. From the 16th century on, European rulers – including the Dutch – dealt with the tensions and conflicts of their ‘subjects’ by politically imposing unity on them. In the Netherlands, like in other European countries, these tensions and conflicts have existed since the dawn of history: between the indigenous Celtic/Germanic tribes and the Roman invaders, and much later between Protestants and Catholics. Of course they have always existed on a smaller scale as well: between town or city dwellers and people from the country, between people from the north side and the south side of a town, between men and women.
When the European states were (gradually) formed, these tensions and conflicts did not magically disappear but were only hidden behind the veil of a national identity, represented by a national flag – and of course a sentimental national anthem to artificially glue it all together. They were simply shifted to a higher level and projected across the border. This process has a long history. In the distant past this collective projection was made famous by the ancient Greeks, who labelled their non-Greek speaking neighbours simply ‘barbarians’ – people to be distrusted and to be kept at a safe distance. Josep Fontana has shown, in his very interesting book The Distorted Past, how this Greek idea about ‘barbarians’ continued throughout the centuries to play an important role in Western societies, constantly reappearing in different guises. Because of this long ‘tradition’ we might forget that originally (and necessarily) life has always been diverse – everywhere and on all levels. Thus we might wonder to what extent the very act of sticking negative collective labels on groups of people has actually contributed to the emergence of the tensions and conflicts…
The roots of culture
Although some politicians nowadays seem to think that ‘national’ culture can be protected by defending it against unwanted ‘foreign’ influences – under the guidance of Similarity & Exclusion – in reality culture has always been born from Diversity & Inclusion. It cannot be imposed but is always the result of a bottom-up development. Central to cultural flourishing is getting respect for and cultivating a genuine interest in people with completely different outlooks on life. This can only be achieved by practising empathy, which has the power to transform distant strangers into friends, competitors into co-operators (see in this respect my previous blogs on the relationship between crime and empathy). The great cultural developments have always manifested in areas where diverse outlooks on life existed side by side, did not threaten each other and somehow managed to fuse and grow to become something new.
The natural way
It is interesting that there is scientific evidence that the principle of Diversity & Inclusion is something very natural as well. Research by geneticists, biologists and ecologists has confirmed that every life form badly needs diversity to be able to grow. Without biodiversity evolution would have stagnated a long time ago. That is why it is not so strange that this principle also works well for us, for our social relationships and our culture. Perhaps these scientific insights could also help us to realise that the opposite principle, Similarity & Exclusion, is in fact something very artificial – and very dangerous as well at this point in history.
I already mentioned above there is an important connection to law as well. All human rights – freedom of speech, religion, and prohibiting discrimination according to race, sex, etc. – have always given expression to Diversity & Inclusion. They try to remind us of something very deep within ourselves, of our urge to connect with and get to know other people – people who initially appear very different from ourselves. When we violate human rights, we not only activate lawyers to fight for justice but also directly damage our own self, our potential to grow. Although legally they exist on a higher level than the national laws, in a wonderful way paradoxically they are much more intimately related to our individual lives.
The reality of diversity is all around us, more obvious than ever, whether we like it or not. Daniel Fairbanks aptly describes in his book Everyone is African his experience of the diverse human world while travelling on a New York train: ‘The people I saw coming in and out of the train were diverse, with ancestries from many places. Not only did they appear diverse, many were speaking different languages. I recognized Portuguese and Spanish, languages I speak fluently, and those speaking them had accents typical of the Azores, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Peru. I also heard other languages I did not understand, as well as a wide range of accents in English. The people on this train were probably a mix of local residents, tourists, business people and students. This sort of vibrant human diversity is now commonplace in major cities throughout the world’
So in our time, when deliberate polarisation of ‘ethnic’ groups and even whole countries seems to be on the increase everywhere, there is an important lesson to be learned. The time of imposing false unities is behind us. But unfortunately some of us haven’t realised this yet.