Julian Baggini: A Singular View on Diversity

This piece first appeared in Humanitie Magazine, Autumn 2013 edition 

One of my hobbies is collecting paradoxes that are no such thing, such as the ‘French Paradox’ that they eat lots of butter and don’t get fat. The truth is they eat buttery things quite often but in small quantities.

Paradox dissolved.

However I also like coming up with a few pseudo-paradoxes myself. I’ve called the latest the paradox diversity and to understand it just go to WOMAD the festival of world music and dance. Here you’ll find what appears to be a joyous celebration of difference, with acts from all over the world performing alongside each other. The crowd bask in the warm glow of feeling like truly open-minded citizens of the world.

(Yet) in several ways WOMAD is not about difference at all but sameness. All non western music is lumped together under the blanket label ‘world music.’ Most participants share the same multiculturalist values, very different from more patriotic traditionalists, and surely the real theme is how when we all come together, we find “we’re a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns,” as the old saying emblazoned on my HSS t-shirts says.

The tension here is between values we believe everyone ought to share and those we think it good that we differ on. It is not good to have diverse views on the legitimacy of female genital mutilation, for example.

It is good, to have diverse tastes in art music and literature. And in the absence of secure knowledge as to whether there is one best way to live, it is good that people try different forms of life. Diversity, is not an undisputed virtue. Too much of the wrong kind is as bad as too little of the good forms.

But what is the right amount, and the right kind? In a world of competing values, one of the main tasks of a democracy is to allow as much difference as possible while retaining sufficient unity to hold society together.

All the flash points of multiculturalism can be seen as examples of where this balance is unsteady or disputed. So is halal meat a denial of the universal values of animal welfare or an acceptable expression of cultural difference? Do faith schools respect the rights of people to bring up children according to their own beliefs or do they undermine the shared values we all need to live by? Do homosexuals have a right to live according to their sexual orientation at all times or do those who oppose same-sex relationships have the right to exclude them from their homes or businesses?

It is no coincidence that the most disputed questions hinge around religion, because our deepest values are to be found in our fundamental worldviews. To come to working agreements on these issues requires us to do much more than respect diversity. Indeed, it requires us to make a stand on what kinds of diversity we will not tolerate.

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