May 21 is the United Nations’ World Day of Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development
The threat of coronavirus has stretched Western societies in many ways, and has taken them in different directions. It has first forced them to broaden their view of the relationships that are central in a good society. Previously, we had tacitly accepted the view that the most important and untouchable relationships have to do with the economy – growing the GNP, making profit and protecting individuals’ wealth.
When confronted with the threat to life and health posed by coronavirus, that assumption changed suddenly. When governments shut down the economy in order to distance people from one another, they stated clearly that our most crucial relationships were those to do with the health and life of the weakest members of society. In order to protect the whole community, people for the most part cheerfully accepted the limitations placed on their personal and economic freedom. They saw themselves as members of a community responsible to one another, not as individuals competing with one another.
At the same time, however, many societies, including our own, have experienced hostility to different groups in society. The crisis has narrowed relationships as some have been cut. In Australia, some Chinese students and families have been abused and attacked as if they were responsible for the virus. Social media, too, has developed patterns of exclusion. Some people respond to misfortune by seeking scapegoats who can be expelled from the society and so purify the relationships that constitute it. Instead of diversity of cultures, they seek an ideal purity and unity.
This year, the special day to celebrate cultural diversity is timely because we are now preparing to face many questions about what kind of a society we want to build as the virus is contained. These questions will test our openness to diversity in our relationships and our resistance to cries to perpetuate divisions.
During the early stages of the epidemic, people have felt that all of us were in this together. It would be a pity if we returned to endorse in our societies imagined divisions between leaners and lifters, contributors and consumers, white and black, Christian and Muslim, as if these labels marked the difference between good and bad, Australian and not-Australian. Our economic and political settings should not make these distinctions a ground for inclusion or exclusion, praise or abuse. They should see them as an index of resource and possibility.
At a deeper level, this day to celebrate cultural diversity reminds us of the strength that differences within a society brings. Each person brings to the community distinctive qualities that reflect the different relationships that shape their life. Deep relationships that are embedded in the variety of foods we eat, the range of languages we speak at home and abroad, the feasts we celebrate, the ways in which we pray and embody a generous life, the stories we tell and the books we read – all these are more than individual curiosities. They are a gift in broadening and deepening the network of relationships that shape a nation.
In the people we work with and in our staff at Jesuit Social Services we rejoice in the variety of cultural and religious background we include. Our diversity is a gift, as also it should be seen to be so in Australia.
Cultural diversity day points to the strength of a community that welcomes difference. The hard time that will follow coronavirus should also be a time to focus on respecting one another within our differences.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.