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Managing difference

Aug 08,2019 - Last updated at Aug 08,2019

Some things are easier said than done. One of these is coming to terms with difference.

What came to be known as the era of postmodernism, i.e. the one beginning roughly as of the second half of the 20th century, brought with it many radical shifts and changes.

Many of them are positive, such as multiculturalism, diversity and respect of difference. Some are negative, such as extremism, radicalism, racism, etc.

The latter are condemnable, of course, by all standards; and our lives would have been, and would be, much better without them, be they the practices of individuals or groups.

While the former, however, are seen as welcome developments and contributing to the ultimate good of humanity, coming to terms with them has not been easy and smooth as one would have thought.

In principle, most people in our society recognise the importance of respecting difference, for example, be it in opinion or in lifestyle.

Ask them what they think, and they mostly articulate the most tolerant and open-minded position imaginable.

In reality, however, we find difference often creating friction among either those directly involved, or those observing and commenting.

At times, in fact, friction escalates to the level of division and crisis.

Examples abound. People in our society quarrel over films, singers, concerts, festive events, food festivals, dress, political opinions, religious interpretation, articles, books, lectures, newspaper editorials, talk shows, shared posts or tweets, soap operas, football games, etc.

They pay lip service to dialogue and diversity at the conceptual level, but make a mountain out of a molehill in action.

Anything beyond their comfort zone or what is culturally acceptable to them is potentially explosive.

In general, this incongruous duality, perhaps even bipolarity, is attributable to the split between saying and doing in our society, which are oceans apart.

But it could also be understood in the context of people freeing themselves from the traditions of politeness or courtesy which governed peoples’ discourse and interaction for decades in our society, whereby the expression of difference or disagreement was suppressed so as not to offend or cause trouble

Now that people have become “freer” and “bolder” in expressing their opinions, and now that many customs and habits that compelled people to agree or act agreeing when in fact they deep-down disagreed have simply ceased to exit, airing of opinions has become an extremely risky and problematic business.

What added insult to injury, and contributed significantly to what is seen as the current mess in the state of public discourse in our society, are talk shows, which were brought when the new so-called “bold” private media outlets started to appear in the Arab world as of the 1990s.

Talk shows, which were, and are, more like wrestling arenas and fistfights than civil venues of constructive, sobre dialogue, have contributed to the havoc.

And so have social media, alas.

One way out is education.

Early in school, and at university, much attention needs to be paid to what difference means, and how individuals should deal with it.

A lot of things come to us naturally and spontaneously.

Some, however, need careful preparation, training and coaching.

Respect of difference is one of them.

Respect of difference is an asset and a must in today’s world, but a lot of people in other societies, as elsewhere, need the know-how and the means which enable them to manage difference more tactfully and wisely in actual, daily situations.

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