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Diversity’s drift in meaning


A tale told in the United States during segregation often pops into my mind. It’s about a bus driver who would seat passengers according to the colour of their skin — white folks up front, black people down the back. One day, his boss took him aside, explained how times had changed and how he, the driver, had to change with them. When the boss saw that the driver wasn’t catching his drift, he said, “Forget that there are black people and white people. From now on, act as if we’re all blue.” So the next time the bus driver ran his route, he announced to his passengers, “It seems there are no longer any white people or black people. We’re all blue now. So you light-blue people, sit up front and you dark-blue people, move to the back.”

Some ways of thinking die hard. We try to stifle them under new terms only to see them resurface, appropriate good words and use them for the same old shameful purposes. I think of this sometimes when I see how people use just such highly regarded words — ‘diversity’, for example — here in France.

That present-day French society is composed of people descended from diverse origins and who claim allegiance to diverse groups and cultures is now incontestable. I can only be delighted by this diversity, of course, and by the fact that it is recognised, and valued. But old ideas die hard, no matter how discredited. The blunt, simple idea of ‘us’ and ‘them’, of keeping the sheep apart from the goats, has deep roots in all human societies; it cannot simply be yanked out. And it hasn’t taken long for this old idea to make the new word its own and twist it to say the opposite of what was intended.

The shift in meaning of the word ‘diversity’ has been a subtle one. That a newly formed government reflects society’s diversity is an excellent thing. In a country where cultural, ethnic, religious and social frictions related to immigration are constantly in the media’s glare, it is in my view perfectly sound to make it one’s duty to include in every government people from different backgrounds.

Where we unwittingly veer off-course is when, instead of talking about a government that reflects diversity, we start talking about ‘ministers of diversity’ or ‘representatives of diversity’. At first blush, it seems like nothing to make a fuss about. And yet the meaning of the word ‘diversity’ here has been turned upside down. Because if three or four ministers are described as reflecting diversity, then what do the rest represent? Normality? Frenchness? Identity? This is no trivial thing. Rather, it is precisely the difference between an approach that brings us together and one that divides us.

To be convinced of this, compare the following two statements: “We are all different” and “Some people among us are different”. We can agree that these don’t mean the same thing. The first sentence means, “We all belong to the same community, even if each of us is different from the rest”. The second means, “There is ‘us’, and there are ‘others’”. In the first instance, the word ‘different’ brings us together; in the second, it divides us, since it demarcates ‘us’ from people who are ‘different’.

The word ‘diversity’ suffers from the same drift in meaning. To say that a government reflects the diversity of a nation is an idea that brings us together. To say that the government includes people who represent diversity is to dismiss those people and all who resemble them as foreign. It is exactly the opposite of what was intended.

It behoves us — writers, journalists and responsible citizens first and foremost — to resist the temptation of easy options, of ready-made turns of phrase that convey damaging prejudices. It behoves us to search for the right words that fully articulate coexistence and that help build a harmonious future.

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  1. #1 by Manuela G. on October 28th, 2009

    Mr. Amin,
    Although your name has become quite familiar these last couple of years, through your books (you are quite well known in Portugal), I’ve only just found your blog. It’s truly a pleasure reading such clear and thought-provoking posts. Thank you for taking the risk of becoming/feeling bound to the blogosphere. I, for one, appreciate it.
    Looking forward to your next posts, regards,
    Manuela

    PS: And thank you Alexander, for translating, my French is not so good and I appreciate the fact I can grasp the whole and exact meaning of the words and expressions used.

  2. #2 by Ammar Halabi on February 18th, 2010

    Dear Mr. Amin,

    Thank you for blogging.. It is a great portal for us into your thoughts!

    You post here brings to mind some questions on how to devise action once we are able to think out our values. It is that gap between our ideals and daily lives that prevents us to act according to what we would agree to be the good. It is however during the moments of reflection and self discovery through experience that we come to uncover the path to what we consider meaningful and important.

    So how could we be able to be better connected to what is meaningful, and in this case, a meaningful sense of diversity? How to be better able to articulate our ideals in our everyday action? How to be able to recognize inconsistencies in our lives and how would we better taking the initiative to act and debate to face these inconsistencies on diversity?

    I think one way is through immense social experience.. To get connected to and experiencing the other. In a global world mediated by technology this becomes a harder task as the question becomes about how to enable large communities to experience the other.

    I really appreciate your writings as they touch deeply upon such issues and provide a medium for thought and reflection. This blog in addition allows a social dimension.. a place of social activity where we can further appreciate the diversity of thought..

    Thank you!

    Ammar

  3. #3 by رنم on August 16th, 2011

    كلماتك نور في حياتي

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