We hear a lot about equality and difference in our contemporary world, but what do these terms actually mean? How do they relate to each other and what place might they have in the way we think about ourselves as global citizens today? How can we balance our desire for equality with a respect for our differences, and are all differences created equally? When we try to think of a definition of difference, one of the first things that comes to mind is the contrast between diversity and difference. In the simplest terms, it is both easy and common to celebrate diversity as a good unto iself. Difference, by contrast, is often seen as a problem and as what divides us.
I’m here in the Stokes Croft area of Bristol, which, like many cities, often reminds me of this tension between diversity and difference.
This distinction has become increasingly commonplace in popular media discussions in the 21st century; for instance, much of the debate around Brexit hinged on these two terms. For those in the ‘remain’ camp, the diversity of people living in Britain was cited as part of what makes this country great. From passionate opinion pieces defending the diversity of our workforce and the widespread business and societal benefits this brings to the repeated assertion that creativity and innovation are built upon it, diversity became a recurring theme used both to set Britain apart as an exceptional nation and to highlight the important commonalities of all of its people.
At the same time, for the ‘leave’ campaign, the idea of difference was used as a tactic to gain popular support. Characterised by tabloid headlines warning of the ‘hoards’ of migrants bound for British shores; scaremongering stories of new communities unwilling to integrate; and UKIP propaganda suggesting that ‘British values’ (whatever these might be) are under assault, difference was mobilised as something to fear and something to avoid. Yet, it is not entirely clear when diversity becomes difference and what separates the positive, multicultural and inclusive idea of ‘celebrating diversity’ from the more problematic notion of difference and division. On an even more fundamental level, we need to consider whether this commonplace view of difference and diversity is even valid.
For the cultural critic Homi Bhabha, for instance, diversity is the problem, not difference. Bhabha argues that the idea of diversity suggests a vision of cultural identity which is clearly defined through discrete, observable and unchanging boundaries. This becomes problematic for Bhabha because of the way in which it leads to a concept of ‘authentic’ culture and identity, which can result in exoticisation, marginalisation and tokenisation of minority populations, who are defined through external labels rather than through their own agency. Instead, Bhabha proposes that we focus on difference, viewing it as a ‘contact zone’ in which two or more cultures meet and express themselves in a dynamic process of identification and creation. Difference, seen in this light, is not a fixed property or characteristic.
Rather, difference is something which is deliberately made and constantly changing, leading to the creation of hybrid identities and new cultural formations.
Recognising the power of difference to create, naturally leads us to thinking about equality. Like terms such as diversity, equality has become something which is unproblematically celebrated, seen as a goal and a desire. To become a just society, it is suggested, we need equality, which becomes an end unto itself. Yet, if we accept that we live in a world of difference, can equality ever truly be achieved? Can any two people, cultures or populations ever be truly equal? For many social theorists, the problem with equality stems both from its seeming impossibility and from its focus on sameness. Instead, they propose that we think more directly about equity.
If equality is the idea that everyone should be treated the same, irrespective of their circumstances, then equity is the idea that each group or individual should be given the resources they require to create a level playing field. Rather than suggest that we are all the same, equity allows us to recognise our differences and create new strategies to overcome their impact.
At the heart of issues around equality and difference is how we view ourselves in the world and how we view those others with whom we share it. Part of exploring equality and difference to face global challenges, then, requires us both to empathise with those who we can never know, while simultaneously recognising the limits of our ability to do so. Equally, this kind of thinking means that we have to critically examine the ways in which our world is made, from issues around which voices are heard on a global scale to the impact of our daily actions on our far-flung others.
This is a kind of mental balancing act, but one which is essential if we are to truly address our roles as global citizens in the 21st century and our responsibility to face its global challenges.