The strength of social diversity
For good or for worse, for hundreds of years, the western world has put forward policies and practices that set the conditions for the multicultural societies in which we live today. The definition of territorial borders, mercantilism, colonialism, interventionism, trade, capitalism, war.
Our societies today are characterized by heavy concentrations of their population in urban areas. The World Urbanization Prospects of the United Nations estimate that by 2050 over 60% of the world population will live in urban areas. This will translate into the obvious: space, services and resources will be distributed among more people. We will be living closer to one another and our cities will be more culturally diverse.
But immigration towards the cities is not a new thing. It has been part of the story of the second half of the 20th century and a constant for decades. Most of us have been born in these very same contexts from the most varied backgrounds. We are all key nodes in a complex net of relationships that take place in a narrow space, in our cities and towns. And every boundary between each other, is artificially constructed also by ourselves.
What a paradox that despite begin all together facing the same challenges and being part of the same history, some times, in some places, with some people, we act as if we were not just like everybody else. As if we were not a product of diversity and a part of its very cause. As if our jobs, loans and pensions were not a consequence of it. As if we were granting “the other” the possibility to benefit from our wealth, from our kind generosity.
That is the beginning of an unnecessary setback for our modern societies. And one that has the power of jeopardizing our future. It poisons our language, our actions and our daily lives. We find it in the way we speak about us and in the way we characterise each other. In that sort of geometry of space that represents our stiff-structured world: left or right, for or against, Atheist, Catholic, Jewish or Muslim, victim or bully, local or foreign, cultivation of difference or assimilation, trust or suspicion.
Under this vision, the world is organized in an egocentric way: the “I” is the centre of time, place and meaningful values. And we treat differences between people as a challenge to our so-called “identity”. But this reductionism can only be, clearly, negative, as this sort of artificial boundary is by definition, confrontational.
And it also holds an intrinsic contradiction. The term "identity" derives from the Latin "idem" – "the same" – which denotes a relation. But unfortunately, strictly speaking, a thing can only be "the same" to itself. Logically speaking, A is identical to A. If B has any property that A does not have, then A and B cannot be "the same". We can track this sort of logical argument all the way back to the philosophy of G.W. Leibniz. But the point being made here is simpler. Under the claim of differences between groups of individuals by matters of identity, the "identity" of a thing is simply the set of all its properties. And since a thing is the set of all its properties, its identity is not something the thing "has" but it is the thing itself.
Obviously, when we speak of identities in the realm of the personal, professional, intellectual, ideological, collective, ethnic, cultural, national, political, we are failing to this principle. For we are talking about subsets of properties that define a person’s identities and therefore, there can be as many “identities” as ideas and needs and faiths and feelings and as many subjective elements we allow to incorporate into the equation.
The truth is that from the moment we are born, our personal identity is changing, incorporating new elements and dropping old ones. Interaction with others can leave lasting consequences to the way we perceive ourselves. A rigid, unchangeable identity seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Stereotypical self-perception and the perception of “the other” becomes more difficult, if not altogether impossible, once collective and personal identities are no longer conceived in terms of a few shared defining traits. Each individual can be perceived as legitimately choosing and constructing a personal and collective identity, not easily reducible to the "identities" that can be picked up from existing conceptual shelves and stiff stereotypical concepts. No one can be put in a predetermined and simplified box.
In this symbolic and discursive trap, we have lost track of the actual meaning of the “difference”. As products of our plural societies, and as products of the series of historic policies, practices and the events that have followed, our identities have grown more and more rich and complex. We feel it, smell it, hear it, taste it in our daily lives. We, as individuals with our own and unique identity, have to understand that our neighbour is not obliged to think, believe, talk and look like us. That the needs of others have the exact same status to our own. And that the only way forward is by re-establishing a common language that fits us all: our rich and complex personalities and identities built within these growing interactive world.
And for those that believe that this sort of argument is idealistic, there are thousands of data to prove them wrong. It is a fact that inclusive societies perform better in many ways, they have larger human capitals that stimulate the economy, better employment rates, better and less costly welfare systems based on better health outcomes, better taxing, lower public expenditure, more civically engaged individuals, and most importantly, better educated societies. All these indicators are largely collected by renowned organizations, think-tanks and universities: inclusive and well educated societies, those that make good use of its skills pool, are better performing societies in every economic sense.
Let us be smart, rational and historically consequent, and lets acknowledge diversity and understand that it is by its means that we will move forward successfully. Our social commitment today has to be strong: we have historically privileged our egocentric, tailor-made identity in detriment of other, millions of people that we consider not to be part of it, because we heave demonized difference, and favoured a false sense of identity that does not hold logically nor socially. That road has no future but in demagogic discourses and policies.
Inclusion is the future, and in our own interest it is the only way forward. To give everyone, every individual, equal starting points and equal opportunities. And it is up to us to build that future, staring yesterday.
Paris, September 2016