Recently I was with a group of graduate students thinking, amongst other things about difference. These people, principally want to become therapists and psychologists. We were talking about difference: tolerating it; accepting it; promoting it; suppporting it; and learning from it. I could feel there was a sense in the room that everyone was "singing from the same song sheet". People were agreeing that racism, ageism, sexism and other forms of discrimination were wrong. As a group we felt 'good', and together, in our sense that we were 'not like' those people that were ignorant and backward-thinking.
I developed a strong sense that we were all avoiding the difference that we found hard to tolerate and hard to understand. I suggested that there may be easy, every-day examples of how we were all intolerant or limited in our way of thinking. This was met with unease. I began with easy examples of my own: I dislike gossip and am intolerant of incompetance. Now, I could probably talk the talk and get anyone to a place where they felt that those two things were acceptable discriminations...but what if it was more than that. What if I started a social movement to outlaw gossip...and all the magazines and media circus that goes with it, as well as making it illegal at work?
It made me think long and hard about what we are trying to achieve when we talk about accepting and tolerating difference. I have been the subject of discrimination and have suffered the consequences of being hated for my choices and my parents' choices. I have felt left out and excluded as a result and have been angered by what I see as ignorance and thoughtlessness. But it helped me to see that these people were different and not people that I would easily get along with, as we didn't share much in common.
I have also lived abroad and have an experience of being different in Arabia (Abu Dhabi). I have to say that living there as a european, caucasian teenager was a seminal learning experience. There was no apology for discrimination, no attempt to even discuss equality between local arabs and everyone else. Everyone else was just not as important and didn't have the same rights. And the same was true for women. Hard as this was for women and foreign workers, there was an honestly about the situation and a transparency that was helpful.
I sometimes find that when I speak to people here in the UK in a context other than family or friends, there is an attempt to cover or conceal dislike and discrimination. It is as if we pretend we have cleaned everything up and made everything ordered and predictable, without thought about the cost of that. It is exhausting and it takes a long time to work out if you really have anything in common with the person you are talking to, or if you are going to find out down the line (when they are caught off guard) that they are particularly against what you treasure.
It seems as though difference has become a problem - something to 'work at', avoid, 'gloss over'. Perhaps in all the effort we have put in to not hurting people through discriminating against them, we have forgotten that it can be a blessing and a wonder to be different and to be noticed for that.
I am hugely grateful that I live amongst people, who generally, are polite and respectful, and even more grateful that I do not live anywhere where my difference could be met with people who then chose to stone me to death, strip me naked and beat me, or imprison me.
But I hope that where we have the luxury of being able to think and create things together (because we are not just surviving), we can be excited about difference and corageous in showing what we believe in and what we choose.
I would urge you to show your difference and celebrate how unique you are, and to be excited and interested in the difference between you and others. This brings a richenss and an opportunity for learning that you cannot get when all around you is the same as you. People who communicate differently to you, who value different things, who do things in a different way, could all show you something new, something that might enrich who you are, or how you do...
Be brave, go looking for difference!