When we talk about the importance of a multicultural society, we often talk about the value of accepting and promoting diversity. However, the word diversity is an ambiguous term because it is essentially defined as “variety” or “difference.” Diversity of what, exactly, are we going to consider as part of the obligatory moral and ethical fold?
On first glance, the quick answer is diversity of people. However, this statement requires more elucidation; what type of differences are really talking about? If we are going to sum up an individual and compare them to others, can we really rely simply on the obvious outward differences of people for this function? Are we just essentially the color of our skin or the binary of our politics? Or are we more than that?
Skin color exists on a spectrum, but that linear axis is not sufficient to describe people. You can have a group of people with every shade of melanin but that does not guarantee that these people have diverse opinions, thoughts, beliefs, or backgrounds. They could, in reality, represent a single hegemonic viewpoint under the guise of colorful diversity. It really depends on what their voices actually say, or what ideas they end up representing. The “diversity” of a group is actually better thought of as a sum of multiple categories; the more categories of difference you have, the more complete the diversity.
Certain categories are ostensibly harder to represent than others, because they require deeper understanding of the lived realities of people. It is easy to represent color. It is easy to represent costumes and dress. It is harder to represent religion, heritage, and ideology. Despite the constant lip service towards diversity as a whole, people in various settings end up subconsciously reinforcing an expectation for people with different backgrounds and ideas to ultimately forgo portions of their identity and “assimilate.” It seems, from my own experience, that you can actually be a source of “too much” diversity.
If you go to a company lunch, there is a chance you may be served something with pork in it. Muslims (and observant Jews) cannot eat pork, because of their diverging beliefs from the mainstream secular culture. Some companies may accommodate, others may not be able to. But if you bring it up to people, particularly those who are unfamiliar with your beliefs, then there is a good probability that you will be thought of as an unnecessary nuisance or additional burden. People do not inherently view such variation from the norm with respect; rather, they question – why doesn’t this guy just do what everybody else does?
Such interaction becomes a sort of microcosm for the way Western secular culture has come to view the Muslim world at large. We become viewed as a people that refuses to progress, to march in step with the rest of the world toward greater enlightenment. In reality, our ideological differences force the dominant secular culture to take pause when it comes to its own lifestyle and beliefs. “This person doesn’t drink with us. Why? Could it be that are we doing something wrong, as a culture?” The implication is uncomfortable for those who have accepted things for what they are their whole lives. That self-doubt and discomfort needs processing, and the easiest way to deal with it is to reflect it back onto the ones who caused it to occur. Muslims are thus the best target for those emotions. We rapidly lose any hope for sympathy so long we play the role as the useful villain for the fears of the people around us.
It is no surprise that, in an effort to permanently assuage those fears about self and identity, a portion of society is re-awakening the discussion about cultural superiority and, yes, Nazism. People are disillusioned with the entire enterprise of multiculturalism because it is seen as a source of difficulty and confusion. People in the West no longer have a strong sense of who they are, what they represent, or what they live for, in relation to the rest of the world. So the weak-willed have reverted to the oldest, and simplest, tribal social bonds that they can identify. Diversity itself is to blame; “purity” of culture will grant us strength as a nation! (It is a complete and utter irony of history that, after the fall of the Third Reich, the same people who prided themselves in its destruction would, themselves, fall into that very ideology.)
Yes, true diversity forces people to encounter ideas alien to themselves. When this happens, people are forced to reconcile what they used to know with what they now know. It causes doubt, and it causes discomfort. But there is a strength to this interaction by virtue of its conciliatory nature. People seek harmony and certainty in the face of doubts. It is a mechanism that promotes arrival at ultimate Truths. But its function requires commitment and understanding that there will be challenge involved.
That commitment towards diversity was not really challenged until the current era. Due to how immigration worked, Western cultures just had to content with other Western cultures. It was easy to accept other White Christians, over a generation or two. Color difference is also more acceptable, despite the fact that some people retained subconscious trepidation. True ideological difference, however, is harder to swallow and causes societies to question their dedication towards diversity itself. You have to discuss things that cause people to live lives that fundamentally work different on a minute-by-minute basis. It’s way easier to just label it backwards and call it a day.
On the other side of the spectrum, a portion of society remains committed to the idea of multiculturalism. Many discussions are centered around how such diversity should be promoted. However, it often gets bogged down in the superficiality of it all; how do we give off an impression of diversity, rather than truly representing the voices of the people we want to include?
If you are going to go out and represent people, whether it is through media, government, or business, you do must do so in good faith and consideration for that constituency. It is a type of agreement where people grant you their identity in exchange for voice and authority. You thus have an expectation to represent people on their terms, not yours. If, on the other hand, you end up stereotyping people in a way that people reject, you ultimately lose that trust.
Depictions of diversity are essentially all about voice. The impetus for diversity was created because of the existence of groups of people who historically marginalized wholesale and silenced. It is a correction for the imbalance of power distribution in our society, as media is itself a large source of power as well as symbol of it. If we are going to claim multicultural acceptance and freedom for people of all backgrounds, that claim needs to be shown and represented in the cultural stream of consciousness that is American and Western media.
If we are going to double down on diversity, then the question is therefore how do we create authentically diverse voices in our media? The only genuine answer to this is by actually granting people from marginalized groups with differing ideologies access to the decision making offices. However, this privilege is often highly protected and requires inside advocacy before it can become reality. More likely, it is seen as too much effort for little pay off.
It is interesting to consider how efforts to create genuine diversity often fail. No doubt, intentions are good in most cases that actively try to promote diversity. However, reductive thinking and stereotyping ultimately does not benefit the groups than need representation. If I am going to be represented by someone else or a depiction of someone, then I have every right to expect accuracy.
Too often do people fail to depict the Muslim prayer accurately – an action that even 9 year olds can perform. But worse still are those depictions which betray the sense of self that the majority of Muslims hold regarding faith: so-called TV Muslims who show no difference in thought to their non-Muslims counterparts, Muslims who hold no hesitation to drink alcohol or engage in sexual relations, Muslims who do not actually have sincere faith or are shown to be hypocrites as a means to avoid discussing faith.
Most Muslims understand the struggle between fitting in to their American culture and the desire to remain true to their faith. Some may choose to abandon one for the other. But when it comes to diversity in media, a depiction of a Muslim who shows conviction, strength of character and principles at the expense of fitting in is unheard of. In fact, there is a cloud of stigma surrounding the entire idea of a “conservative” Muslim that practices Islam. It’s almost as if such an idea is subtly excluded from the conversation of diversity, on purpose.
Part of it is fear of Islam. The belief that practicing Islam leads to violence is quite widespread. But nevertheless it all ties back to the conversation: do we believe in a superficial diversity, or a complex, nuanced one? Do we represent only ideas that we choose to accept, or the ideas of the actual people we engage with no matter our personal tastes? You may not like what conservative Islam looks like, you may not understand it or desire to understand it. But for a billion people, the idea of a practiced Islam is a cherished one. If you are going to claim faith in complex diversity, then you no longer have the right to fall back on superficiality. You are obligated to include all aspects of the Muslim experience, not just the palatable Western ones.
Of course, many people have chosen to reject multiculturalism in its entirety, superficial and all. They have realized that the half-hearted effort makes no sense, and they have chosen to affirm their own voices at the expense of others. Really, I cannot blame them for their rejection because if you are not willing to to truly listen to people different from yourself, then there is no point in pretending to care. The question is, without the moral high ground of diversity, on what basis do you claim intellectual superiority?