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Celebrating Diversity

An expanded version of this page appears in my book
"New Skins for Old Wine"



I have written this in response to the "Equal Opportunities" briefing pamphlet produced by Queen Mary's College,
Basingstoke, where I used to work.  This document is quoted in green. The purpose of the pamphlet was to initiate a process in which people would:
".... share ideas and develop .... activities .... [that] incorporate the theme of "Celebrating Cultural Diversity"  .... we are primarily keen to support any initiative which encourages .... respect and appreciat[ion of] other cultures and to develop an awareness of the variety and value of different cultural values and perspectives."
Before proceeding to plan action, it strikes me that it is necessary first to ask:

"Why should we value and so celebrate cultural diversity?"

Without an adequate answer to this question, no attempt to address the issue can succeed. In contemporary EduSpeak: there is a need to have a clear "Learning Objective" before planning a lesson. What is the truth that the activity "Celebrating Cultural Diversity" is meant to mediate? Is, perhaps, only a behavioural outcome intended?

Some wrong reasons for "celebrate diversity"

I am afraid that the usual motive for "celebrating cultural diversity" is political and pragmatic. It stems from a fear of what will happen if we don't. British society is now multi-ethnic, multi-confessional and multi-cultural. It is not underpinned by shared values. It has no "religion": that which binds together. It does not even have the equivalent of the "American Religion" of "Flag and Constitution Worship". It is uncool to be patriotic in Twenty-First Century Britain. British Society is therefore in danger of breaking up into its constituent parts. It is has no glue to hold it together. Already, the advance of the BNP in the North of England shows the danger of sociological fragmentation, fuelled by a misguided nationalism.
The response of most U.K. politicians has been two-fold.
  1. To enact or support the enactment of  increasingly illiberal immigration and asylum laws and regulations.
  2. To attempt to convince the electorate that different cultures and ideologies are no threat to "The British Way of Life". This is generally done by draughting in suitable community leaders to affirm their acceptance of: each other's traditions; the rule of law, and democracy.
"....we are primarily keen to support any initiative which encourages students to respect and appreciate other cultures and to develop an awareness of the variety and value of different cultural perspectives."
This seems to presume that
  1. The notion of culture is well defined.
  2. That only cultural diversity is to be respected.
  3. That all cultures have perspectives that are of value, with no comment as to how or why.
On the contrary, today almost any conveniently identifiable grouping is given the title "community", and the word "culture" associated with it. So for example, people speak of  The Asian Community (even though this is many disparate groups, not one); The Left Handed Community; The Working Class Community; The Deaf Community; The Gypsy Community; The Cycling Community; The Cross-Dressing Community and so on. Similarly, we have Working class culture; Suburban culture; Deaf culture; Afro-Caribbean culture; Muslim culture; Jain culture; Parsee culture; Sikh culture; Hindu culture; Biker culture; Transvestite culture; Youth culture; Internet culture. Some "communities" have associated "cultures", but not all. Some "cultures" have "communities", but not all. To deal only with Cultural Diversity is to exclude from consideration groups that do not have identifiable cultures. I suppose that "Women", "Left Handers", "The Young" and "The Aged" are some of the more obvious losers.
It seems to me that the question must be asked: "What makes a perspective valuable? After all, without knowing why a perspective is valuable, one cannot evaluate its worth! Is any perspective deemed to be valuable, just because it is a perspective? What about a Fascist or Stalinist perspective?

The rational basis for valuing diversity

The rational basis for valuing diversity is a firm belief in the value and utility Truth (the correspondence of an idea with reality), coupled with a humble acceptance that one doesn't fully possess it! This contrasts with the Spirit of the Age, which combines a rejection of the idea of Truth with the glib assumption that every opinion and view is equally valid and that none should be shown preference (except, inconsistently, that extreme right-wing views should be barred from consideration).
The contemporary mind wants to "celebrate diversity" not because it welcomes the challenge of difference, but because it wants to de-emphasize difference and so avoid conflict!
I have particular experience of an establishment's efforts to avoid controversy by trying to give equal value to contradictory views. I was once present at a technical meeting where it was seriously proposed that no ideas were to be criticized. The intention was not to facilitate creativity by first assembling a mass of variously outlandish "silly ideas" and only then subject them to the critical facility. The notion was rather that all ideas, no matter how implausible or incoherent, were to be accepted as equally valid. This was in the context that a particular project had been subject to a good deal of technical criticism and various senior members of staff had not enjoyed the process.

Celebrate the Individual, not Groups!

As Plato reports Socrates teaching: the beginning of wisdom is the admission that one is ignorant. Only when it is understood that one's present view is partial, and might even be mistaken, can progress be made. Often, an advance in knowledge is made by one person recognizing as an insight some idea proposed by another individual in another context. In the diversity of experience, invention and reflection represented by the One Human Race in all its variation and in all its individuals, lies hope for the future. As (Wo)Mankind struggles to survive, ascend and ever expand his/her knowledge: it is the various perspectives offered by the multitude of individuals, each living and thinking in their own context, that offer the chance of insight and understanding.
".... looking at anything from a variety of cultural perspectives is in itself a valuable and enriching process."
Disaffection of the young
It is largely an inarticulate intimation of this process that is leading to the disaffection of so many young people, today. Individuals need space in which to develop their potential. Freedom in which to try out their wings. Too often, contemporary society gives them hoops to jump through, rather than vistas to explore. Instead, we should be encouraging students to think critically, for themselves: to question and challenge orthodoxies and prejudice! It is misguided, it seems to me, to push the message that "anyone, of any background, is free to join the establishment". As Mill points out, it is the very existence of the establishment that has to be challenged, if it is not to become complacent, decadent and so die.

Error has no rights, but those in error do.

Rationally, every individual should be valued as a unique person, with particular talents, experience and ideas. Some of those ideas will be wise, some true, some false, some silly, some wicked. Respecting the individual does not mean respecting all of their ideas or behaviours. "Error has no rights", but each human person has the right to err. The freedom to make mistakes is a large part of the learning process, and it is important to tolerate the mistakes of others. This is not because these are good or valuable in themselves. They are not: they are mistakes. They must nevertheless be tolerated because they represent the unfortunate down-side of a process of transcendent value: learning. Of course, toleration of a mistake does not mean politely ignoring it, still less pandering to it. Respect for an individual believed to be in error will result in an attempt to convince them of their mistake by a gentle process of rational persuasion.

Lifestyles (of the rich and the famous?)

No one should be condemned or disvalued as a person because of their life-style. They should only be restrained if they positively and specifically harm, bully or incite the hatred or intimidation of other people or classes of people. The problem is who is to judge what is harmful and what is not harmful. The great issues of Divorce, Abortion, Promiscuity, Drug Taking, Homosexuality, Field Sports and Eating Meat come to mind. What of polygamy? What then of Jews, Mormons and Muslims and some African Tribes: whose religions or cultures countenance polygamy? Is the basis for deciding what is to be celebrated just what happens to be legal? It would seem not: smoking tobacco is legal, and yet cigarette smokers are systematically persecuted and marginalized. As a group, they are certainly not "celebrated". On the other hand, the Wills family made a significant contribution to Physics by endowing the Bristol University Department with money made by the selling of tobacco products!

Who and What is to be Celebrated?

If I "give up the pass" on the matter of individuals and ideas vs "group identities" and "cultures", as a battle bound to be lost, then I still must insist on asking: Here follows a list of various types of groups and conditions of (wo)men. It is not meant to be in any way complete. It should not be taken as representative of the groups that I believe should be affirmed and celebrated. It is a check list which one might use to clarify one's own ideas as to who are "within" and who are "outside" the limits of  "acceptable diversity", and who are deserving of celebration and who are not. I have purposefully included some provocative examples so as to provide a context for the others.
Nationalities, Ethnicities, Religions, Philosophies, Life Styles and Conditions
Marxist Leninists (followers
of the political philosophy of 
Marx and Lenin)
Adherents of Taoism 
(followers of the philosophy 
of Leo-Tse)
Adherents of Confucianism 
(followers of the political 
philosophy of Confucius)
Platonists (followers of the 
political philosophy of 
Socrates and Plato)
Adherents of Shinto 
(Ancestor and 
Emperor Worship)
Maoists (followers of 
the political philosophy 
of Mao-Ze-Tung)
Shiite Muslims : e.g. Iran/Iraq Japanese Chinese
Slavs Libertarians Tibetans
Manic Depressives Republicans Buddhists (of various types)
Crofters Monarchists Schizophrenics
Quakers Pedophiles Scottish
Transvestites Cornish Kurds
Communists Dyslexics Lutherans
Amish Football fans Blind
Ethiopians Abyssinian Orthodox Ancient Egyptians
Ancient Babylonians Contemporary Astrologers Ancient Celts
Practitioners of Wicca Ancient Persians Zoroastrians (Parsees)
Haemophiliacs Gardeners Spiritualists
Fell walkers Sikhs Indians
Aztecs Socialists Jehovah's Witnesses
Sufi Muslims: e.g. Egypt Cannibals Campers and Caravaners
National Socialists (followers
of the political philosophy 
of Adolph Hitler)
Objectivists (followers 
of the American Philosopher 
Ayn Rand)
"Moonies" (adherents 
of the Rev Moon's
Unification Church)
Motor Neurone Disease Night-Clubbers Iranians
Arabs (an ethnicity) Transsexuals Cyclists
Israelis (a nationality) Morris Dancers Wahhibi Muslims: Saudi Arabia
Semites (an ethnicity) Rock Climbers Greek Orthodox
Jews (a religion) Left-handers Mormons
Scientologists Hindus Polygamists
Punks (a music based lifestyle) Roman Catholics Paraplegics
Hill walkers Humanists Gypsies
Kleptomaniacs Mohicans Travellers
Those with Down's Syndrome Eskimos Homosexuals
Unitarians Deaf Goths (a music based lifestyle)
Australian Aborigines Theosophists (modern Gnostics) Sunni Muslims: e.g. Turkey
Anglicans New-Agers (of various types) Tongans (a nationality)
Afro-Caribbeans Practitioners of Voodoo Methodists
Midgets Haitians (a nationality) Those with Asperger's Syndrome
Creationists UFOlogists Psychics and Mediums
Women The Young The Aged
Those with AIDS Trekies (Star Trek fans) Physicists

Practical Measures

If the aim in "Celebrating Cultural Diversity" is to discharge a formal obligation, then the most close to hand examples and the easiest approach will be chosen. This will likely send out a message to our students about what we really think about the issue. On the other hand, choosing to address it more directly on a reasoned basis might produce objections from the students to the effect that: "this isn't on the syllabus and is a waste of our time". Moreover, trying to come up with specific challenging examples will be hard work.
INSET pamphlet examples
On the whole, the examples in the Equal Opportunities pamphlet (listed below) are of limited value.
  1. Looking at a range of work by a variety of writers from different cultural backgrounds.
  2. Looking at word derivation and the incorporation of words from one culture to another.
  3. Looking at a Japanese model of management philosophy and its integration into the practices of other cultures.
  4. Looking at the early period of English contact and colonization focusing on the English view of the Irish culture and religion as inferior. Highlight this with Cromwell's reconquest of Ireland following the Irish rebellion of 1641 where his brutal treatment of the Irish was justified on the grounds that they were in some way subhuman [a la Hitler and the Jews] before moving on to discuss the changing attitudes to Ireland in the l9th century which grew to recognize the validity of Irish culture and the nationalism and underpinned move to Independence. Could focus on present day attitudes as a conclusion.
  5. Looking at the colonization of America by the Spanish and Portuguese l6th - 18th centuries. Assumptions of European superiority and religious certainty which underpinned this expansion. The results were in many cases pretty dire for cultures that came into contact with Europeans. Opportunity to question European values and to celebrate these being destroyed. Obvious messages about today.
  6. Looking at recruitment practises in the police force to promote individuals from diverse racial backgrounds.
  7. Ways in which specific events or issues are reported differently from different cultural perspectives.
  8. Ways in which mathematical traditions and systems from different cultures can combine to lead to progress in particular ideas or concepts.
The first example just involves juxtaposing the output of various people from various cultures. No aesthetic criterion of "value" here is given beyond "exists". Perhaps some of the poems would be terrible! Similarly, the second example:  perhaps the cross-cultural incorporation of words into English is a bad thing. After all, the French strenuously resist this sort of change in their language! The third example begs the question as to whether the "Japanese model of management" arose organically from identifiably Japanese cultural values.

The fourth and fifth examples deserve a more detailed analysis.

The fourth example glibly presumes "the validity of Irish Culture", without explaining what gives "validity" to a culture. Was not the Protestant English culture that brutalized Irish Catholics just as "valid". Should it not be celebrated too? The tenor of the example is to deprecate the English and to praise the Irish. The whole Northern Ireland situation is very complex. On a point of fact, the "early period of English contact and colonization" was pre-reformation and mandated by the Pope. The basis of this was, supposedly, to establish some sort of law and order among the feuding Irish clans. It was certainly not based on any notion that the Irish Religion was inferior: it was recognizably the same as that of the English, after all! Should one celebrate the whole cultural spectrum there: from Fundamentalist Calvinism (and beyond) to Nationalist Marxism (and beyond), or only the nicer crowd in the middle who variously claim to eschew violence? Why?

The Jews were never criticized because of their culture, but only because of their racial identity. Largely, this was in reaction to the initial animosity of Jews towards Catholics, before the establishment of the Church under the Emperor Constantine. Once the Church had secular influence, the Jews were confidently condemned as intrinsically evil, utterly wicked and incapable of any good, because as a race they had "killed God". They were forbidden to own property and so forced into the practice of money lending, which was forbidden (as one of the gravest mortal sins) to Catholics. They were then resented for having a monopoly of this business: which monopoly the Church had itself forced on them! Finally, they were then blamed for all and any evil that beset society and accused of being conspirators against the interests of decent Christians. The answer to anti-semitism is not to celebrate Jewish culture, but to tackle the root cause of this wickedness. This would be done by exposing the incoherence of the idea that any ethnic group as a whole can be held responsible for any actions of any particular set of its members!

The fifth example follows the same pattern. Only the names have changed. For the Protestant English, read the Catholic Iberians. For the Catholic Irish, read the Indigenous Americans. Again, the value of the former culture (with its "assumptions of .... superiority and religious certainty") is not to be celebrated but rather questioned. The real, though limited and compromised,  concern to preach the Christian Gospel and to better the social, economic, technical and educational status of the indigenous peoples, as exemplified by various Jesuit missionaries, is passed over in silence. Only the unspecified values of the Mayans, Aztecs and Incas (which in at least one case, I understand, included human sacrifice on a massive scale) are to be celebrated. What, I wonder, are the "obvious messages about today?"

The wickedness characteristic of both cases was nothing to do with a denigration of culture, but much more simple. It was the unbridled pursuit of immoderate wealth and political ascendancy. The Irish and Aztecs were not degraded because their cultures was not valued. Rather, the individual Irish and Aztec was dismissed by secular, if not in the end Ecclesial authorities, as sub-human on a racial (i.e. a genetic) basis. This was because it was then possible to pretend that the political and economic outrages perpetrated against them were not immoral.

The sixth example isn't about Cultural Diversity at all, but rather about cultural engineering! More interesting would be to ask why: with what purpose and objective, the Police Force is seeking to "promote individuals from diverse racial backgrounds".

"The idea is not just to look at the ways in which subjects can celebrate different cultures and traditions by looking at the contribution individuals from different cultures have made to a body of knowledge or subject. It is also to use activities within subjects to suggest that the process of  looking at anything from a variety of cultural perspectives is in itself a valuable and enriching process."
The seventh example is intriguing. It would seem to be a way into exploring bias and prejudice. It would be invaluable to explore and criticize attitudes to the Holocaust from diverse perspectives, for example. The main categories of person involved were, I understand: Jews, Communists, Polish Catholics, Gypsies and Homosexuals. It would be be interesting to hear typical accounts of what happened from each of these perspectives (even if not all of them are accounted as cultures: after all, that didn't prevent the individuals in question being vivisected or gassed after being identified as persona non grata), as also from that of Nazi sympathizers and Muslims.

The eighth example is especially interesting. It suggests that cultural diversity per se has contributed to identifiable technical advance. Examples can be put forward in support of this thesis. Some suggest that "zero" appeared in Indian mathematics before that of Europe or Arabia because the idea of an absence being in and of itself a thing was characteristic of Buddhist thought. Others propose that "zero" appeared early on in Mayan mathematics because there was a pressing cultural need for it. Such propositions are, it seems to me, largely a matter of hindsight.

Clearly, any advance is due to some individual or group of individuals. Clearly, they are going to belong or be somehow associated with some (sub)culture(s). Hence it is a truism that various cultures have contributed to technical advances. However it can never be clear that anything about the cultures themselves was causal here. For example Turing, the founder of Cryptography and Computer Science was British, Middle Class and Homosexual. Turing did not invent his famous machine because he was British or Middle Class or Homosexual: but because he responded as an individual genius to the urgent demands and opportunities of his context.

Rather than facilitating progress, cultures tend to stifle technical advance by imposing socially acceptable ways of doing things! In an emergency situation, such mores tend to fragment, individuals are allowed "to think the unthinkable" and progress is facilitated. Sad to say, but War is a great force in favour of scientific progress. In more hum-drum times, the importance of cultural diversity is not so much in the coming together of the positive characteristics of various cultures but more the negative fact that cultures do not share the same taboos, conventions or myopias. What one culture makes unthinkable, another allows, and ingenuity and imagination percolates through the gaps.

The Gordian Knot

The celebration of diversity should not be concerned with how members of various (sub-)cultures have contributed to the establishment. Rather, it should seek to show how radical thinkers broke the mould in which they had been cast and achieved great things, not so much because of, but more often in spite of  their social and cultural context! The fact that specific individuals have already succeeded in overcoming perceived or real group limitations is a great motivator for others to achieve their potentiality, rather than being put down for who and what they are.

The individual should be celebrated, not their context. Taking this approach avoids the necessity of deciding what constitutes a culture and what doesn't. The focus is on the successful individual, whatever their context. The fact that they are left-handed, or a Hindu, or a transsexual is not generally going to be the cause of their success. All of these attributes should be mentioned in passing: the purpose being to communicate the idea that they are unimportant. None of them should be celebrated. There is then no need to decide whether the person's change of gender can safely be passed over, because that form of diversity is not cultural.


Huge thanks are due to my friends Lottie, Simon and John for their help in correcting and enhancing this document.

An article from the THES by Gary Day, principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

The rise of fundamentalist religious beliefs is a worrying trend, especiaily when such groups have the ear of Government. The other week, a Muslim student came up to me after a seminar and said: "You know that we believe that people should have their hand cut off if they steal?" I said I had heard something of the sort.

We had been discussing Timberlake Wertenbaker's "Our Country's Good" (1988). The play argues that the best way to reform convicts is not to flog them.but to make them suffer the far greater punishment of participating in amateur dramatics.

I loudly suggested that I might adopt amputation as a punishment for those who forgot to bring their books, but no one woke up. The student went on. Apostates, gays and adulterers should all be dispatched. It wasn't my place to say anything. My job as an employee of a listening university is to respect diversity.

But maybe that was the previous week's mission statement. So I took a chance and asked if she didn't think these measures a tifle harsh, although after contemplating the state of our front garden this morning I agreed that drunks should be thrashed without mercy. She intimated that it was not for us to question the word of God.

I am not a great reader of the Koran but I do puzzle over bits of the Bible. It would be nice if the Almighty could occasionally explain himself.

What on earth did he mean by saying "I create evil" [Isaiah xiv, 7]? TIhere's no doubting that, in the Old Testament at least, he had a decidedly nasty streak. As well as booting the Amorites, the Hittites and the Canaanites off their land, he also ordered Saul to "go and smite" the Amalekites and "utterly destroy all that they have and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass".

You wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of him, would you? But aocording to Christian Voice, we have. This is the organisation that persuaded a cancer charity to refuse money raised by a performance of Jerry Springer the Opera because it was "tainted".

When you hear such things you can almost agree with them that we have lost our way. Much needs to be done.

We can make a start by banning abortion, homosexuality and sex education, and by restoring corporal punishment and the death penalty, not just for murder but also, apparently, for adultery. If I have one tiny criticism of Christian Voice it is that they don't seem to have heard of the New Testament. You have to look hard for the word "love" on their website.

The rise of religious fundamentalism is a worrying trend. We have faith schools, we have plays banned and we have evangelical Christians who blame Satan when the exhaust falls off their car. And these are the people who increasingly have the ear of the Government.

It would be an exaggeration to say that there could be some kind of theocracy in Britain in the next twenty years, but it would be foolish to deny that the conditions for one are starting to emerge. Most of us would like to think that there is a God who loves each and every one of us, but there is no evidence for such a being. In fact, quite the opposite.

At this point, someone usually wheels out the argument about free will. But we didn't choose to have free will, it was thrust upon us. In any case, how can we decide between good and evil when half the time we can't even make up our minds what to wear?
Some religions are lucky because their God tells them how to dress, which is certainly more useful than being told to stone an ox if it gores someone to death.

Ah well, I suppose it's all a question of priorities. And, anyway, who am I to plumb the mind of God? The religious Right have a sttunted conception of the sacred. They make their holy books a barrier to knowledge a nd turn ignorance into a virtue.

A Muslim student once screamed at a colleague who tried to introduce the Big Bang theory that he was "dissing his religion".
We need to fight this attitude by insisting that truth needs evidence, that arguments should be logical, that morality is not simply a matter of applying rules, and that we, like the cosmos, are pretty complex things. Of course, that won't happen because we're all too busy servicing the economy. Still, we can always hope that human imperfection will bring us to our senses.

Feeling rather down about the views on punishment espoused by my student, another Muslim girl said: "Oh, you don't want to listen to this lot with the hijab. They're all slappers." I'm sure that's not true, but it restored my sense of perspective. ' .

I would be happy to come and talk to interested parties and/or advise on the issues raised in this document.
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