The celebration of diversity is of great importance to the UK . Purna Sen discusses the limits to the term “celebration” and the extent to which it should be used.
Diversity is a great word – it suggests mixture, and difference and heterogeneity. Some are lesbian, some are straight, some are black, some not, some in wheelchairs, and some with Zimmer frames. And is this something to celebrate? Yes, if all know dignity and respect for the rights of others.
I spent most of the 1980s promoting a respect for ethnic and cultural diversity in education. Along with others doing the same thing, we came to talk of the “saris, samosas and steel bands” approach where many of us were almost reduced to emblems of externally viewed cultures and known for that badge.
Did it lead to a greater understanding of each other? Perhaps in part. Did it lead to a greater respect for a variety of cultural and political histories? Perhaps in part, but likely less so. Did it somehow get tied up in a discomfort that accompanies a critical eye to each other’s presumed values? Yes.
What I mean by that is we came almost to a position of relativism, where each element in any tapestry of diversity is bounded and fossilised, such that critique of one by another becomes taboo and any culture can become seen as immutable. Celebration should not denote this but it can be closely allied to the absence of critique – as if to celebrate means never to note any problems.
One example of this is Female Genital Mutilation (FGM): can any of us outside cultures where this is practised, legitimately critique it? If I celebrate your culture can I say well, perhaps this is less than ideal?
Having worked on this, I understand why it happens and what its importance is. I know also that there is no homogeneous sense of the place of FGM and that there is a deep and wide hunger for change.
One problem with critique and critical engagement is that it can often be housed in a dialogue of superiority and inferiority, steeped in a history of an imperial civilising mission.
I absolutely don’t argue that this is inevitable nor is it a characteristic of all such conversations. In fact, the more the voices that recognise the imperfections of their own place, the more reflexivity brought to the debate and the more meaningful they can be. I just caution against the use of celebration as a term that may close down space for respectful, reflexive and critical mutual interactions.
I respect that you may have a different way of being or doing things but I may not always celebrate it.
Purna Sen is Deputy Director of the Institute of Public Affairs, Chair of the board of the Kaleidoscope Trust and an Advisor to Justice for Gay Africans. She has served as Head of Human Rights for the Commonwealth Secretariat and as Director for the Asia-Pacific Programme at Amnesty International.