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Diversity 5: Hamsini
by Hamsini Shivakumar| New Delhi, India
Wednesday, 14 May 2014
tags: asia, culture, emergence, making sense
1. What one thing comes to mind for you first and most profoundly in relation to your personal history and the theme of diversity
Even as a child, I was a cross-culturalist. I loved geography and read about people in various parts of the world. I troubled my mother a lot whenever she told me the ‘cultural rules/codes’ expected in our Tamil Brahmin culture…I used to tell her, that other people around the world don’t follow these customs and practices and nothing happens to them because they don’t do these things that we are supposed to do…of course, this was only in those matters which I didn’t like or didn’t wish to follow. I had and still have a great curiosity about the various kinds of peoples that make up this planet of ours and have close friends from many cultures that are very different to mine. This is because I am hugely open-minded about genuine and apparent/visible differences and I look for the under-lying human truths of the shared experience.
However, “embracing and celebrating difference” is tough to practice (I prefer the word difference to diversity, the former being a real word that the man on the street would understand and diversity being a ‘coined’ word by policy makers hoping to give it life). I come from a country where ‘unity in diversity’ is one of the defining characteristics of our culture and motto as we are taught in school…interestingly I came across this phrase in Indonesia as well – the only other country using it. Hinduism is a religion that embraces diversity in its very fundamental principles and practices. And yet, nowadays, I find general levels of tolerance dropping and conflict increasing.
2. Give me (what feels intuitively like) an emergent example of diversity now where you are.
Actually, some of the roots of Indian (sub-continental) and Hindu culture are all about how to deal with difference – the peaceful acceptance of difference as THE GIVEN in society and ways to deal with difference to achieve a peaceful co-existence and to live in harmony. This starting point of difference as THE GIVEN led to defining a role based hierarchical social order; it also led to syncretism…an ability to create fusions of the existing and the new; an ability to participate in this world and that (sufi version of Islam for e.g).
However, the downside of starting with difference as THE GIVEN is the inability to see all as ‘equal’…a very confusing idea actually, when you think about it … we are all different and yet we are equal???? If we are different in ability and in accomplishments and in status and in form, then how can we all be put on the same plane … that we are equal…in whose eyes are we equal??? It is one thing to say, God loves us all equally, as does a parent…but even a parent knows that all his/her children are not the same at all…they are different and have different destinies…
But, having adopted a “liberal and humanistic constitution” and working in accordance with late 20th/early 21st century norms of empowerment through ‘rights’ (which I am also a votary of, by the way) … we are now in a situation of low tolerance and increasing conflict as each individual and each hitherto dis-empowered group is clamoring to be heard and is impatient to overturn centuries of discrimination as they now see it.
The old model of dealing with difference viz tolerance, patience and peaceful co-existence (within endogamous communities each of which follows their own way of life) is breaking down under the forces of individualism, ambition, competitiveness, assertiveness and ‘rights’. There is inter-group competitiveness … if Shiva worshippers can build tall statues of Shiva, then Hanuman worshippers can and must build a taller statue still…and so on…each group thinks my way is the best way and their way is the road to hell…which it is my duty to block.
We have not yet found a new model for dealing with difference that works for this new world in which we live. How to achieve ‘liberty,equality and fraternity’ of all, for all, on an ongoing basis. Meanwhile, new examples of syncretism and dialogue (the old values) continue to give us hope…
Speaking personally, the idea of a ‘rooted-cosmopolitan’ could be the 21st century poster boy/girl or icon of diversity. Not sure whether it will have mass appeal though…as in my experience, the instinctive pull of tribalism is too strong and the security of staying within the comfort zone of the familiar – viz people like me is overpowering. Super-market cosmopolitanism (safe difference via consumption pleasures) is an easy answer…but since it does not seek to go anywhere below the surface pleasures, it can’t offer much.
The other example I can give is of ‘Semiofest’ as an organization – the 4 co-owners are 2 women, 2 men, Indian, Colombian, English by adoption…of the 4 of us, I am a globalist who has always lived and worked in India, the other three are mixed in some manner or the other…it is a combination that works very well…embracing difference is our motto and we live it every day…