Many heterogeneous societies have already established the foundations for accepting and celebrating heterogeneous communities. Our Constitutions are one step in the direction towards this ideal. The rest of the work can be achieved through a shift in the way we perceive “difference” and can thus, ensure a peaceful heterogeneous society.
The idea of a peaceful heterogeneous society might sound near impossible, mainly because we tend to attribute “differences” in identities and worldviews to a kind of social malaise. However, it is through our strong shared group identities, that we unconsciously/consciously exclude people who do not fit within these identities. Through this “othering” which may manifest in behavioural tendencies, systemic and institutional practices, we create inequalities. Therefore it is safe to say that it is not difference nor heterogeneity that causes friction and unrest in societies, but the practices of marginalising certain identities.
The question of whether a peaceful heterogeneous society can exist where there is inequality is a fairly easy one. The answer is no. But the reason is not because homogeneity is a prerequisite for a peaceful, harmonious society, it is because of the inequalities that we forge as a result of our prejudiced attitudes towards what is “different”.
This may seem like an obvious issue to point out because we all know how marginalisation and discrimination occurs and how this can precipitate unrest. So it is important to bring these examples in history as well as in our present day lives, because if we all know how this works, then why and how could it possibly still be happening?
A historic example is Apartheid (legal segregation laws and practices) in South Africa, before 1994. One of the bases of segregating the population according to the different races was the fact that the races were different and if people who were different lived, worked or even ate together, “there would be friction”. And so the separate amenities were created in order to manage to this “difference”.
Currently, a similar attitude can be seen in the cases of xenophobia and anti-immigration sentiments and policies in South Africa and the United States, respectively. Nations that value cultural and ethnic pluralism demonstrate tolerance and acceptance of cultural difference. They view these “differences” as intrinsically valuable and not only valuable in so far as these differences can be instrumental or useful for the advancement of that nation. People are not seen as a means to an end – but are appreciated for their differences and are not ‘ othered’ on the basis of those differences. I believe that both South Africa and the United States of America fall into this category, purely based on the ideals to which they aspire to, however, in practice the case takes a different turn.
Despite the commitments that these respective countries have made to minorities and deviant identities in their societies, the pressure of assimilation still lurks. From this view, “different” identities are valued only in so far as they are able to be assimilated into the dominant culture, beliefs, practices etc. This perspective does not value cultural or ethnic differences intrinsically but values them on the basis of their adaptability to the norm and in reference to how far they have come in terms of “integrating” into the new society.
All hope is not lost, however. I have often heard people say that for as long as there are differences in society, there will never be peace. But I believe that for as long as there are competition and intolerance in society, peace will continue to be a distant goal. Competition is natural, but competition for dignity and basic human rights should never be. Once we get these right, we will realise that our perceptions of “difference” and who is deserving of these goods, is really where the solution to peace lies.