Thoughts in Connection with the Upcoming Day of Diversity at the mdw
“Diversity as an opportunity” has long been a popular catchphrase. This concept is widely recognised as a society- and institution-shaping anti-discriminatory instrument with which to tackle the challenges that the 21st century has brought with it for the Western world. These challenges include new geopolitical realities, a new multipolar (dis-)order, global conflicts, pro-democratic efforts, non-democratic aspirations to authority, new communication technologies, the climate crisis, and a general reduction in clarity, to name just a few of the many aspects of our current context that require new ways of thinking. Diversity is a theme that is constantly present and apparently characteristic of the times in which we live. But even so, practices of social differentiation are by no means a new topic: throughout history, societies have grappled with issues of diversity and (in-)equality time and time again.
So far, so understandable. But what does any of this have to do with me? After all, we’re talking about Others, here. But what Others? How do I recognise them? Well…: they look different, behave differently, eat different things than we do, love differently, have different songs, might be from a time when I hadn’t even been born yet, and so on. My eyes and ears deceive me not: the Others are different!
One can’t argue against simply being different in and of itself. But the associated effects—along with the question of what this has to do with every single one of us—are another matter entirely. The term othering describes alienating discourses as a culturally anchored practice that is hegemonic and violent. Classifying human beings as different or foreign is generally done with reference to a number of well-known categories of differentiation: gender, ethnicity, social background, sexual orientation, generation, disabilities and/or subjection to barriers, and many other things. But these sorts of distinctions go hand-in-hand with the creation of distance and the formation of groups—we and the Others—which paves the way for demonisation and enemy-stereotypes. They give rise to and perpetuate power relations within society by allowing for delineation and exclusion. In this, individuals view their own characteristics as givens that go without saying, as positive and valuable, while they denigrate that which is other or alien.
Othering, however, needs to be understood as more than just an individual failing. Societal and institutional structures are conducive to inclusion and exclusion, which are reproduced by the individuals who act and interact within these structures. Responsibility, however, is always tied to the agency of the individual protagonists in question—for it’s individuals who uphold hierarchies or break or modify them, notwithstanding the general consensus as to how difficult it is even for those individuals who are critical of discrimination (due to their own involvement in the culture) to act in a non-discriminatory manner. We’re all familiar with this. We size people up at first glance—woman/man/in-between, white/non-white, young/old, (dis-)abled—and we decide in that very instant just what register we’ll use with them. What’s more, our 21st-century world offers us hardly any time to perceive a person (or, for that matter, a piece of music, a plot, a painting, a situation, a text) beyond these categories. So the theme of diversity is perhaps about more than “diversity management”—and, not and unimportantly, about creating spaces and time to see, to hear, to feel, and to experience. To perceive what’s around us, but also to make contact with our own selves. And to permit ourselves, beyond everything that might strike us as different or foreign, to also perceive what we have in common.
Due to the present situation, diversity unplugged. ein tag zum erfahren und querdenken […a day for experience and lateral thinking] will take place in the digital realm and seek to enable reflection on both current circumstances and the future.
André Blum, Nina Zschocke , Hans-Jörg Rheinberger und Vincent Barras (eds.), Diversität. Geschichte und Aktualität eines Konzepts, Würzburg 2016.
Edward Said, Orientalismus, Frankfurt a.M. 2009 (orig. 1978).
Gayatri C. Spivak (1985): “The Rani of Sirmur. An Essay in Reading the Archives,” in: Francis Barker et al. (eds.), Europe and its Others, Vol. 1., Colchester 1985.