Can pluralism be taught?

Human conflict is unavoidable, but violence is not. By facing up to the ‘unacceptable’ we can learn to live with difference. 

Caroline Suransky
5 December 2014

Credit:  All rights reserved.

Last week, Dutch newspapers reported that a 49-year-old mother called Monique had searched for and found her 18-year-old daughter Aicha in Syria. Aicha had followed her boyfriend to the Middle East and volunteered in the struggle to establish an Islamic State. Monique brought her home. “I was desperate,” she said in a press interview, “the Dutch authorities know nothing about radicalization.” Aicha was arrested on arrival at the airport in Amsterdam.

Monique’s views are not unique. In the Netherlands where I live, fears of violent assaults by Dutch jihadists returning from Syria and Iraq are increasing. The war in the Middle East may be far distant geographically, but it is close by in terms of its impact and the images it creates. When the Dutch armed forces bomb ISIS targets, they may kill some of their own citizens in the process who identify more with the Caliphate than with their Dutch passport. The ‘global’ and the ‘local’ have never been more intertwined.

In this increasingly interconnected world, societies are becoming more complex and diverse—that is, more plural. Globalisation does not reduce societal divisions and inequalities. In many cases it accentuates them: between the poor and the rich, the powerful and the powerless, the religious believers and non-believers.

One response to these developments is to retreat into narrow or even singular national, religious and ethnic identities as a result of the fear and insecurity that come with change. This is understandable, but retreating into exclusive blocks of humanity is not an adequate response to the challenges that pluralism throws up. “The global other is in our midst” says the sociologist Ulrich Beck. That may well be true, but what are the implications? How can people learn to live with difference, and perhaps even value it?

One way forward is to make pluralism a central component of education.

That’s the rationale for the International Summer School on Pluralism and Development that was launched by HIVOS and the University of Humanistic Studies in 2004.  Held every year in alternating locations around the world, the school brings together an international group of social activists and graduate students for an intense program of lectures, workshops and dialogues on pluralism.

Since the launch, other universities and civil society organisations have joined, including the University of the Free State in South Africa, the Cross Cultural Foundation of Uganda, the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society in India, Gadjah Mada University in Indonesia and most recently the Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa, Canada.

The school is committed to the idea that, despite all the difficulties and injustices that come with ‘living with difference’, pluralism can enhance an ethos of democratic engagement. Differences can be a creative source of social change

Typically, participants arrive armed with pre-existing prejudices, so we start the process by encouraging them to voice feelings about ‘the other’ which are common in their countries.

Theresa, for example, is a women’s rights activist from Uganda. She opened her introduction to the group like this: “In my country many people think badly about Indians. They are arrogant and they only give jobs to their own people. They exploit Africans.” 

“That is shocking,” replied Vinita, a PhD researcher from India. “I have never heard of that. In India, people see themselves as victims of exploitation under British colonialism. We are not exploiters. Is that what you thought when you met me?”

Then we frame a dialogue between the participants around two further questions: where do such prejudices come from and what sustains them? To enhance the depth and honesty of these dialogues we try to create a safe learning environment in which people learn about pluralism in the classroom and simultaneously experience differences by living and working together.

This can be difficult. In our school we don’t automatically assume that pluralism means creating consensus. Democracy can’t be reduced to a question of procedures that mediate between conflicting interests, leaving aside the crucial role played by passions and collective forms of identification. The world is not made up only of rational, individual perspectives and values which “constitute an harmonious and non-conflictual ensemble” as the social theorist Chantal Mouffe puts it.

Human conflict is unavoidable, but violence is not. So long as spaces of democratic contestation exist, people can learn to act in an agonistic rather than an antagonistic spirit—as participants in a struggle between adversaries not enemies.

To illustrate what this means, here’s an extract from a Facebook conversation between Bart—a graduate student in Humanistic Studies from the Netherlands—and Samuel, a social activist from Uganda. They met each other in the summer school in 2010. 

Samuel: “What puzzles me is how some people are lately viewing gayism as ‘human rights’… Ugandans and Other African Countries say ‘Gayism’ is not a human right, yet the Western world … says it is...                                                                                

Bart: “There is no such thing as ‘gayism.’ There are gay men and women. It is more about the right to be who you are, the freedom to express your views and love. You don't have to fully accept or understand it in order to allow others to be free.”

Clearly, the two protagonists disagree about homosexuality. Bart struggles to accept that Samuel, who is a human rights activist, supports a legal bill in Uganda which criminalizes homosexual practices. In turn, Samuel finds it hard to accept that Bart doesn’t recognize the right of Ugandans to uphold their own cultural and religious values in the face of what he sees as Western interference.

Samuel: “I have no problem with the [Anti-Gay Bill], only that the issue of death penalty is extreme. It is up to our generation to uphold the values and norms of our societies like our great grandparents did for us. Let us also understand that this is not hatred of gay persons or whatever they are called, but the ACT [they engage in].”

Bart: “As a pluralist you should not be happy about this law.”

Samuel: “Pluralism does not mean that you embrace everything wholly or you compromise your values and beliefs. Does it?”

Bart: “One day you should explain to me how you can hold those views and still call me, an openly homosexual guy, a friend and be so kind. I honestly don't get it.”

There is something both painful and beautiful about this exchange—about what happens when people leave the comfort zones of their homes and identities. Yet that is where a pluralizing world will take us.

A young Dutch girl follows her dream and her Dutch-Iraqi boyfriend, and her mother comes to take her ‘home.’

Samuel meets Bart, who comes from a different set of values—a gay man who’s involved in what is forbidden in Samuel’s cultural environment.

A pluralist approach to these dilemmas has to challenge everyone to engage with the ‘global other in our midst.’ Only by facing up to the ‘unacceptable’ and stretching beyond our conscious cultural boundaries can we learn to live with difference. 

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData