Claiming diversity’s promise

Remarks at a dialogue organised in conjunction with the Time of Others exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum, 16 January 2016.

The “Time of Others” exhibition is a product of as well as a set of reflections on the cultural diversity that is increasingly a mark of human society. And it is diversity that I’d like to talk about in these opening remarks.

At both the individual and social levels, we seem to have an ambivalent relationship with diversity. On the one hand, our daily encounters with difference are the main source of personal growth and societal development. It is not possible to learn without confronting the unfamiliar and challenging our old notions of what is correct or proper.

I would wager that practically every new year’s resolution we have set for a happier and healthier life – and at the societal or national levels, every major project for progress – involves some crossing of boundaries, adopting something from others and adapting it for ourselves.

Thanks to today’s ease of travel and communication, it has never before been so easy to engage in those boundary crossings and expose ourselves to the exciting possibilities offered by our diverse planet.

On the other hand, though, it is also human to hanker for the security of the familiar. Especially in a crowded and media-saturated environment, diversity can seem intrusive, beyond our control, and sometimes even threatening. The fear of losing ourselves in this crowd pushes us to retreat and hold on to what we most intimately identify with.

If we look at how various societies have dealt with the opportunities and risks diversity in practice, we’d have to be struck by their capacity to evolve through adaptation. It is usually not a case of wholesale adoption or wholesale rejection of difference, but instead an organic process of hybridisation.

This takes place so naturally that we often forget that what we today consider to be core to a group’s identity – the fundamentals of a religion or the symbols of a nation, for example – is itself the product of past encounters with difference. Purity is an illusion, blinding us to the historical fact and future promise of diversity.

Unfortunately, this illusion is actively promoted by powerful interests, especially political and religious leaders.

Diversity is something liberating and empowering because it opens up individuals’ minds to different conceptions of a good life and different means of striving for it. And it is precisely this potential that makes it inconvenient and uncomfortable for anyone who wants to exercise power over other people.

In an ideal world, you gain influence through the force of argument and example. But it is much easier to take the shortcut of identity politics – appealing to the visceral connections of nationality, ethnicity or religion.

Such appeals only work if the target population views that particular category of identity as supreme, taking precedence over all other identities that make up a human being – gender, class, village, language, and above all our shared identity as members of the human species.

Those seeking power therefore invest a great deal of ideological work to construct a pure and exclusive identity. The fundamentalism that Reuben referred to. Invariably, such projects involve symbolic or physical violence – through censorship and hate speech, for example – because effective in-group solidarity needs an out-group, an Other.

Which groups are targeted for such exclusion and vilification varies from place to place. But what’s uniform is the political impulse to manufacture and vilify others as part of campaigns to create myths of homogeneous communities, which are easier to mobilise.

The victims are usually minorities. But even members of a majority group should consider themselves cheated by such manipulation. It robs everyone of the right to enjoy freely the fruits of human diversity, to pick and choose ideas and identities that suit us and make us more fully human, and allow us to grow as human beings. We count on artists to remind us of that potential.