Imagine how boring the world would be if there were only one type of tree or one colour of flower, if all landscapes were exactly the same, if all food tasted the same or if the weather were the same every day. It is diversity that makes life interesting and beautiful. Even though we may not enjoy all aspects of that diversity equally (give me sunshine over rain and strawberries over broccoli any day!), we still appreciate the interest and variety they bring to our lives.
So why is it that we struggle so much with diversity when dealing with members of our own species?
Personally I've been shocked by what seems to be a growing climate of intolerance throughout the world in recent times. I thought that we were a little more enlightened as a species these days and had left behind broad-based judgements and discrimination based on a persons race, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, political beliefs, or any other attribute of their physical form or personality, but sadly it appears not.
What is interesting when you really start thinking about it though, is that this aversion to diversity is much more prevalent and deeply entrenched in our psyche than we generally recognise. As disturbing as those who practise rampant discrimination towards whole sectors of society are, they are relatively small in number on a global scale. There are far more people in the world who don't practise that kind of discrimination than those who do. But what is far more widespread is a lack of tolerance at a person to person level of anyone who thinks and behaves differently to us.
As much as you might not like to think of yourself as an intolerant person I guarantee there is seldom a day that goes by when you don't get annoyed by someone, essentially just because they are doing something differently from how you would do it. Whether it is other drivers going too fast, too slow or failing to position their car correctly in a parking space, or shop assistants that talk too much or are too sullen, or flatmates that put the toilet paper on the holder the wrong way around, we all find ourselves being irritated by the behaviour of others when it doesn't match the way we think things should be done. So why is that?
One word: fear. Our society is built on a model of competition, and when you have competition you have winners and losers, and of course no one wants to be the loser! This creates a prevailing culture of fear throughout society. We spend all our lives trying to make sure that we're a 'winner' not a 'loser'. A big component of this is a need to feel 'better' than other people. So when anyone threatens our sense of security by doing something differently to how we would, or expressing a different opinion to one we hold, instead of wondering what opportunity for learning and growth might exist in a point of view that is divergent to our own we automatically go into defence mode, ready to prove why we are right and no other possibility is even worth considering. This can take any number of forms, from direct verbal or physical attack on the person to more subtle approaches such as making jokes at their expense.
Ultimately if we want a more enlightened and inclusive society we need to start by becoming more enlightened and tolerant individuals. In other words, the only way to change the world is by changing yourself. This starts with self-awareness, and recognising behaviours in yourself that while perhaps not exactly the same as the undesirable behaviours you are seeing in the world, share some core attribute or nuance with those behaviours.
If discrimination concerns you, then make sure that you are practising compassion and acceptance in every aspect of your everyday life. Of course you are going to disagree with the way that some people think and the way they do things, but you can learn to accept their right to think and behave differently to you and stop seeing it, either consciously or unconsciously, as a threat to you. I feel like this is something I have got better at in recent times, but I'm still far from perfect, so I'll definitely be continuing to work on it this year. For me it's about recognising as quickly as possible any time I'm allowing myself to be annoyed by other people's behaviour or opinions and bringing myself back to a place of compassion and acceptance. For me, pausing to take a few deep breaths to centre myself as soon as I feel things starting to go off track is a great way to achieve that.
I'd love to hear what plans you have for making your world a kinder and more tolerant place in 2017. Go ahead and comment below with your plans!