Why difference is important

by The Editor

ARTICLE: Every single person on this planet is different in some way unique to them. Most people have one of two responses to that: either it is the source of insecurity or pride. For those who feel uncomfortable with difference, comfort is found in conformity. That is no bad thing, but when those same people take that fear to an extreme level and try to outlaw difference in others, in order that everyone might be the same, that is not only a sure path to authoritarianism but to misunderstand the very value and wonder of difference itself.

Why difference is important

By: Gareth van Onselen

6 June 2012

Each human being’s experience of this world is unique. Singular because, not only is their life experienced by them in a particular way but, because of those things particular to them – their character, their ability, their attitude – the world responds to them in turn, in a distinctive and specific manner. These two things – one’s experience and one’s character – are the two cornerstones of difference.

The idea that each individual is different is often the source of much anxiety, certainly for those that take comfort from sameness and commonality. For if we are all different, they ask, on what basis do we relate? And if one cannot relate to others, the world becomes a harrowing prospect. And so, very often, in those societies and ideologies where homogeny is promoted, difference plays a prominent role: an omnipresent fear, against which people are encouraged to unite.

It is mistakenly assumed that the idea of difference – and, with it, diversity – is irreconcilable with that of sameness or uniformity. But this is not so. Contrariwise, the two enjoy a distinct relationship. Sameness is the benchmark by which one gauges difference, and that is its greatest attribute; likewise in the other direction. Each one without the other loses its value. Without being able to identify those things one has in common with others, it is not possible to determine in what ways one is different. And so the two ideas are not mutually exclusive, only difference is particular – a precise point of departure – and sameness is general – a generic point of reference.

For those that would advocate uniformity over diversity therein lies the problem: one cannot overwrite the specific with the general; to do so is to denude the particular of its very essence. Depending on whether it differs from the general in a subtle or profound way it might be easier or harder to warp the specific to a general mould but, make no mistake, either way, it is to try and change its nature. Throughout history, the cruelest societies have been those that have tried to forge a singular identity through force. Significantly, they have all failed.

A good litmus test for a society is this regard, is to pose the following question: “In what ways does this society require I suppress those things particular to me, in favour of those things ostensibly shared by everyone?” The less the appreciation for individual circumstance and the greater the desire for a collective identity, the more likely that control and not choice defines the order of the day.

Why is difference such a threat? Certainly the idea of alienation is an unpleasant one but, in the other direction, the idea that each person is unique, the potential source of great pride – a guarantee that one’s life and its consequences will be without precedent. The greatest threat, then, is when one fears not only being different, but the very nature of that difference: when those things particular to a person become the source of low self esteem.

And there can be no sadder state of affairs; for difference is the lifeblood of so many good and positive things: competition; progress; tolerance; choice; innovation. In societies where sameness is emphasized over difference, all of these things suffer as a consequence. Sameness might well appear to offer the benefit of safety, but that is just a pretence. It seeks to control difference. And that is to ensure its transformation into anger – something which, ultimately, cannot be suppressed.

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