You often see it on bumper stickers today, or as a motto for a cultural festival at a nearby community center: “Celebrate Diversity.”
It has become a catchphrase used more and more these days to emphasize our differences as a positive, not a negative. For the first time in history, people are beginning to see diversity not as a dividing line or a point of contention, but as something to celebrate and admire.
Communities, schools, and businesses are making great efforts to diversify their neighborhoods, populations, and workforces, and families with diverse backgrounds are no longer a rarity. We’ve begun to realize, as our world grows closer and closer and boundaries break down, that the diversity in humanity is an asset and not a stumbling block.
Yet do we really understand what diversity is? Are we able to move beyond merely tolerating diversity or observing it from a safe distance to truly embracing and celebrating it? This essay looks at the challenges involved in developing a healthy attitude toward diversity and explores some of the advantages that diversity will bring, while reflecting on this hundred-year-old statement from the Baha’i teachings:
The diversity in the human family should be the cause of love and harmony, as it is in music where many different notes blend together in the making of a perfect chord. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 53.
It has long been the dream of people to live in a community where no hatred or discrimination exists, where there are no iniquities committed against people whose only crime is being different.
Toward this end many attempts have been made to legislate and enforce laws to make us accountable for hate crimes and acts of bigotry. These have had limited success because, while they may penalize perpetrators for wrongdoing, they cannot change hearts. The heart seems to be where the problem has to be addressed, because that is where the hatred and discrimination are implanted and cultivated, not on the streets where the resulting violence flares and rages. By the time hatred manifests itself in violence, it is difficult to stop. We are often so blinded by the fire that we are unable to see the cause of the flames. Our efforts to overcome hatred need to be redirected:
… above all other unions is that between human beings, especially when it cometh to pass in the love of God. Thus is the primal oneness made to appear; thus is laid the foundation of love in the spirit. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 119.
For the same reason that we aim a fire extinguisher at the base of the fire, discovering the root cause of hatred is essential to eliminating it. Contrary to what most of us may believe, fire extinguishers don’t put out fires; they put out the cause of the fire, smothering the oxygen and the heat that feed it. When the cause is gone, the fire goes out by itself.
It is the same for hatred and discrimination: We need to find a way of eliminating prejudice at its root, and address the cause rather than the effects. However, this cannot happen until we understand that the cause of the problem isn’t a necessary result of differences in culture, nationality, gender, race, sexual orientation, ethnic background, or any other manifestation of diversity and variety in the human family.
The problem is prejudice itself—the human tendency to make judgments without evidence and form opinions based on the assumption that one group of people is somehow superior to another, that one person is inherently better than another. This causes the fire.
The Baha’i teachings ask us all to address the root causes of our own prejudices by recognizing our inherent oneness:
As difference in degree of capacity exists among human souls, as difference in capability is found, therefore, individualities will differ one from another. But in reality this is a reason for unity and not for discord and enmity. If the flowers of a garden were all of one color, the effect would be monotonous to the eye; but if the colors are variegated, it is most pleasing and wonderful. The difference in adornment of color and capacity of reflection among the flowers gives the garden its beauty and charm. Therefore, although we are of different individualities, different in ideas and of various fragrances, let us strive like flowers of the same divine garden to live together in harmony. Even though each soul has its own individual perfume and color, all are reflecting the same light, all contributing fragrance to the same breeze which blows through the garden, all continuing to grow in complete harmony and accord. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 24.