On diversity

by The Editor

SERIES: The Thing About is a weekly Business Day column designed to discuss democratic ideas, ideals, values and principles from a liberal perspective. At the social cohesion summit, President Jacob Zuma told the audience, “we have to build one national identity out of multiple identities”. It was a thought typical of nationalistic thinking, which routinely fails to understand diversity and its importance.

On diversity

By: Gareth van Onselen

10 July 2012

Inherent to diversity is difference and few things more powerfully motivate action. Whether that responsive impulse is to resist change and maintain the status quo or to promote something different and act to elevate its prominence, difference is invariably the catalyst. Indeed, difference forces self-appraisal. Faced with something new or innovative — or merely contradictory — one is obliged to assess how it relates to that which is already known or accepted and then to determine if it improves upon or might retard convention; or whether it should be recognised for nothing more than the fact it is different and thus interesting or curious.

Whichever, that necessary introspection is difference’s great contribution. And a diverse environment — one in which difference thrives — is all the more challenging and wondrous for it. Unsurprisingly, diverse environments therefore encourage competition and innovation, and progress and development in turn. In the other direction, it makes sense that when uniformity and convention define the public outlook, progress is stifled. Hostility towards difference is how knowledge is made subservient to ignorance and self-critique forced to defer to stubborn egoism.

That difference often necessitates changes means it is the enemy of many isms, nationalism and totalitarianism being at the top of the list. Not that their advocates would dare acknowledge that fact. Preferring rather to pay lip service to diversity, their real intent is always to engender conformity, “unity” being the euphemism by which they ply their trade. Diversity is difficult to control. It requires a certain freedom to exist, but that is anathema to nation-builders; whether retrospective or forward-looking, their inclination will always be to unify word and deed.

There is much comfort to be found in convention but, one would hope, it pales in comparison to the loss suffered when something new and better is suppressed by fear or pride.

An abbreviated version of this column first appeared in the Business Day. For more columns from The Thing About series, click here.

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