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|Thoughts on Helping Out ~ Embrace Diversity||<< Prev | Entry 2 of 10 | Next >> |
Among the reasons this topic sits atop my list of thoughts on “helping out” is my strong belief in the benefits of embracing diversity. As I’ll discuss shortly, there is a great deal to be gained by learning about and embracing our differences. In addition, the act of embracing diversity is something I feel few of us do well. The benefits that come via exposure to diverse cultures and ways of thinking do not result from mere “politically correct” acceptance. It is not enough to recognize and accept our differences – the true power comes in learning from them.
It’s probably worth establishing a few definitions. Diversity, as I discuss it here, represents the great variety of human characteristics – our languages, religions, ways of thinking, and points of view. Embracing diversity thus involves an attempt to understand, appreciate, and learn from that great variety of human characteristics. Embracing diversity is attempting to put oneself in the shoes of another. It is seeing things through another set of eyes. It is appreciating all that makes each one of us unique. “Variety is the spice of life,” the saying goes. Embracing diversity is exploring and fully accepting what that means.
Diversity is something that often scares us at first. We are naturally comfortable around people who share similar beliefs about life – with those whose religious, political, and cultural foundations are not unlike our own. Yet experience tells me we learn more by looking at those far different from ourselves. It often takes exposure to other viewpoints to recognize and acknowledge the flaws in our own beliefs. It often takes exposure to other viewpoints to see with greater objectivity the wisdom and value of our own. I find it ironic that with our most sacred and closely-held beliefs (e.g., religion and political ideology), we often discourage true exploration of disparate points of view. Aren’t these the very things we should scrutinize most?
I am a big believer in diversity primarily as a result of life experiences. In school, work, personal relationships and my exploration of the world, I have discovered a number of benefits that coincide with a decision to accept and learn from the world’s diversity.
First, embracing diversity – once you get over the natural apprehension – is fun. Diversity makes life richer. I mentioned it above. Variety – novelty – is the spice of life. Take religion as an example. One might grow up believing in one true God. Yet, what fun it might be to learn about a few of the 300 million (or more) Hindu deities! Appreciation doesn’t require belief, and you learn a great deal about the world and its citizens in the process of exploration. It’s also interesting to see similarities emerge between the religious beliefs you hold and those you initially deemed entirely distinct. (Did you know that Hindu's millions of deities are actually manifestations of Brahman, the formless and one true God? Would you have guessed that Hinduism is a monotheistic religion?) The more I explore various religions, the more I encounter similar stories being told with different words and symbols. Political theory is another example. Read the Manifesto of the Communist Party. Marx and Engels. Then find somebody (if you cannot do it locally, the Internet will provide some leads) with strident beliefs in the wisdom of the doctrine. Hash it out. Argue the logic. If you’re not scared of it, it’s fun. Beyond politics and religion, you have differences in culture: dance, music, language, food. So the fish might be raw. Give it a whirl. Tonal languages make you look like an idiot? Laugh along. My point is there’s a great deal more to life than what we experience in our immediate surroundings. Expand the boundaries. Embrace diversity. It’s fun!
A second benefit of embracing diversity involves what it can do to teach us about ourselves. Ironically, by looking at the world from another point of view, we gain clarity and wisdom about our own. We are forced to search and question our own beliefs. Put me in a room with like-minded people and dogma will persist. Throw me in with a group that’s different and weaknesses will be exposed. Embracing diversity forces us to learn about ourselves. We question who we are and why we believe and act the way we do. In the end, we discard what doesn’t make sense and become better able to articulate and defend what does.
Perhaps the most important benefit of embracing the “other” involves exposure and destruction of dangerous stereotypes. Look at history. Did the Nazis – did Hitler – embrace diversity? What about the Serbs, the Hutus, the KKK? With contact and exposure comes understanding; with understanding, compassion and respect. Consider your own experiences in life. Surely at some point you’ve concluded that “they” (Hispanics, Muslims, gays, the poor - perhaps Christians, heterosexuals, or the wealthy) are not so different from yourself. What caused this? Was it getting to know them, gaining exposure to their lives and points of view? Embracing diversity simply speeds up the process. Instead of waiting for the “black” family to move into your neighborhood, you’re getting to know that family (or several like them) on your own. Conflict (even war) is much less likely when dealing with people and systems we understand.
“When she was very young, Sofia had thought of priests as condemning and punitive. Whatever made me believe that? she wondered. Not knowing any priests, perhaps. That was the root of so much fear and hatred, she realized. Not knowing any...”
- in Children of God, by Mary Doria Russell
Finally, to make informed decisions today, we must know something about the world beyond our walls. Embracing diversity teaches us about that world and enables better understanding of the effects our decisions have on friends and neighbors. Many of today’s problems cross international boundaries, yet how often do we cross those boundaries when considering solutions? Historically, nations competed. Today, they must collaborate. By embracing diversity, we are able to leverage our collective wisdom and points of view. Ultimately, better decisions are made. I learned this lesson on the job – as a consultant. When you get diverse minds at work on a problem – people with unique wisdom and points of view – effective (and lasting) solutions are more likely. A related point here involves preservation of our world’s myriad customs, languages, cuisines, cultures, and natural treasures: We won’t save what we know little about. Only by understanding and appreciating the value of diverse cultures will decisions be made to preserve them.
Of course, decision making is not made easier when diversity is embraced. In fact, that’s the point. The process becomes more involved, more difficult – and because it does people are forced to think through, refine, and defend their perspectives and arguments. Diversity can make things more challenging – but it is primarily through challenges that we humans are forced to grow.
For the benefits of embracing diversity to be realized, we must learn from our differences. We cannot blindly accept every belief and behavior we encounter. The caste system in India is something about which I remain critical. By traveling in India and reading about the country’s history, I have attempted to understand how and why the system came about. Yet I still believe that remnants of the system linger today and generally have a negative impact upon modern Indian society. Embracing diversity does not imply wholesale acceptance of the world’s different practices and beliefs. If one merely accepts diversity, the “embrace” is shallow. We must be brave enough to argue our opinions – but in so doing must maintain respect, acknowledge our limited perspective and exposure, and be willing to admit that our opinions may be wrong.
With an understanding of what it means to embrace diversity and some awareness of the benefits involved, how then does one go about doing so in everyday life? I’ve alluded to several of these already, but I thought it might be helpful to provide a few tangible and (somewhat) succinct suggestions on how to go about embracing diversity every day:
- Be open to different points of view – in work, religious practice, and everyday life. Learn from others. Try to see things their way, and even when you disagree, look for something to learn. You can remain committed to Islam and still be willing to say, “Here are a few things Catholicism seems to do better.”
- Be wary of labels, and don’t reject someone or something merely because of a label. I see this done every day – at home and abroad. It’s by lumping people into imperfect categories that stereotypes are born. Treat all people as individuals, and give them an initial benefit-of-the-doubt (regardless of whether they can be lumped in with the Democrats, Muslims, capitalists, or socialists). You’ll be surprised how much you have in common with those who are, according to the labels, altogether different.
- Expand your circle of friends. Consciously look for others who are different from you in various (and significant) ways – and get to know them. Fill out the book club and softball rosters with people from other countries. Invite the staunch conservative to your meeting promoting a world-wide landmine ban. (Yep, I’m drawing on personal experience here, and the evening was far more entertaining and educational as a result.) Count among your closest friends people from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Your knowledge of the world will grow.
- Try new things. Ever thought about sitting in on a Buddhist religious ceremony? They’re fascinating and fun. Tired of dead and unemotional “religion”? Visit the nearest “black” Baptist church, and get ready for laughter, tears, and music that will move your soul. Read books you wouldn’t normally read. See films made in foreign countries. Explore. You cannot very well appreciate diversity if you haven’t experienced it. In much of the world today, you don’t have to venture far to explore other cultures, religions, and ways of thinking (not to mention other cuisines – if you don’t know what a masala dosa is, haven’t enjoyed good amok or fresh miang kham – well, in my book, you haven’t truly lived).
- Travel. And travel for reasons apart from work or vacation. Travel to learn. Visit a country you cannot find on a map today. Go with an open mind, and you’ll be surprised how quickly your understanding of the world expands.
- Vote with diversity – and others – in mind. Recognize that our world’s unchecked consumption is destroying nature and culture, and fight to preserve diversity.
- Do not fear differences. Be brave enough to explore. Some will disagree with me on this, yet I’ve found that (in America, at least), we too often steer our youth away from questioning things completely. Mistakes are too often seen as things to be avoided at any cost - when in fact they allow us to grow.
- Finally, be critical as well as appreciative. Be wary of deeming the grass more perfectly green on the other side of the fence. Work to incorporate the positive aspects of other beliefs and points of views, but be willing as well to acknowledge the flaws.
I have developed a Web site around a premise of promoting appreciation of diversity and awareness of our global community because I believe a majority of the problems hindering international cooperation today result from our fears and misunderstandings of one another. Only by embracing diversity will we chip away at the fears; only by embracing diversity will understanding grow. I worry about the future. Will America learn to be humble? Will it live up to the responsibility that accompanies its power? Will it learn that its decisions must be evaluated for their effects on the rest of the world? Will the rise of China and India bring about greater tolerance of religious and political views? Will we ever elect leaders promoting a stronger and healthier Earth rather than merely a stronger and healthier America (or Russia or China or France...)? Will we ever love our neighbors as ourselves?
Idealistic as it sounds, embracing diversity would improve communication and foster respect and peace - and our shared world would serve us well for years to come.