Same and Different

I have had from time to time the opportunity to meet and speak with the Hon. Ujjal Dosanjh, and it is always a genuine pleasure to hear his calm and measured words.

The recurring threats from Sikh extremists and others against Mr Dosanjh are troubling.  Through his many years of public service, Mr Dosanjh has spoken against violent extremism, at real and obvious personal risk.  No violence, no threat of violence, and no encouragement to violence is acceptable in our civil society.

In his recent comments regarding such threats, Mr Dosanjh cited a “distorted multiculturalism” as one of the problems, where misplaced cultural sensitivities sustain violent attitudes and ideals in the name of “tolerance.”

I do not disagree with Mr Dosanjh on this point, but I think it does bear some clarification of what the virtue of “tolerance” really means, in my view, in the context of multiculturalism and the value that multiculturalism brings to us.

There is a human tendency to fear and oppose what is different — not because it is necessarily bad, but simply because it is strange, foreign, or unknown.  Sometimes such things are indeed bad, sometimes not;  but this is due to the essence of what they are, not because of their difference.

The “toleration” that we consider a virtue here is about not rejecting things simply because they are different.  Equally critical, however, is that we must not accept things simply because they are different, either.  We must in each case evaluate a thing on its own merit, or lack of it, not on the basis of its mere difference.

While we must not use difference as a criterion for accepting or rejecting something, it is nevertheless important.  Difference helps us recognize the ways in which we live, act, and think against the backdrop of other places, other peoples, and other customs and cultures.  It brings into focus things that we might not otherwise see.  And, when we can see our differences, this at the same time highlights where we are the same.

Once we can see and understand these things, we can evaluate them and decide, each on its own merit, whether it is good or bad, valuable, useful, or not;  we can measure them against our core values, while even re-examining our core values themselves, and govern ourselves accordingly.

That is the value of multiculturalism.  Multiculturalism, in exposing us to differences, provides us an enriched opportunity to understand ourselves and others, and to adapt and improve our way of life.  It is in no way ever a valid excuse for accepting the unacceptable.  In fostering cross-cultural understanding, rather than sustaining or excusing violence, true multiculturalism offers us pathways from it.

True multiculturalism adds to the spice and quality of our lives, and helps us find common ground and common purpose within our own country and around the world.

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