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Universality Diversity Self-Identity

Updated on October 30, 2013

A relative idea of greatest importance

is that of identity or diversity.

G.W. Leibniz , 1704

Figure 1

There is a struggle to maintain a balance between these competing forces.
There is a struggle to maintain a balance between these competing forces.

Universality Diversity and the Maintenance of Self-Identity©

The topic of this article may appear to some as an example of contradiction in terms because it is looking at the relationship between Universality (The difference between Universality and universality will be explained later in the article), diversity and self identity. The idea of Universality demands commonality and consistency between people throughout time and geography. Diversity denotes the plurality of the population, and self-identity is concerned with the singularity of the individual. The claim being made is the three sides need to work in conjunction with each other for a person to be able to know their self. The image of a triangle used in Figure 1 is to show how each side is supporting the other two. The image is titled to show that all sides are essential to the integrity of the shape.

When the topic of diversity is introduced, some people are under the assumption that it means that they have to give up a part of their own sense of identity to accommodate the cultural differences of others. Therefore, it is not uncommon to hear questions like, “Why should I be the one to change?” Or, “Where are my rights in this discussion?” Or as Rush Limbaugh once stated on his radio show, “It is the left that prefers "celebrating diversity" to the glory of the American melting pot. There used to be a distinct American culture that everybody who moved here wanted to be part of.[1]

This particular challenge does not just resonate with white males; the objection originates from people of all races, creeds, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, and gender when it is perceived that they are being forced to make lifestyle adjustments to accommodate the introduction of a new culture. It is these voices against diversity, which claim to be the champions of the individual; however, what is rarely articulated is that a strong sense of self-identity is required before an appreciation of another can exist. This article will present three ideas concerning an individual’s perceptions of diversity: 1) cultural diversity is not an option, it is a reality of existence; 2) An awareness of cultural diversity is an opportunity to enrich and celebrate an individual’s self-identity; and 3) it is possible to maintain a sense of self-identity while successfully navigating in a multi-cultural diverse world.

The first side of the triangle to be discussed is the concept of “self-identity.” Simply stated, self-identity is how a person identifies himself or herself in relation to others. While this may seems obvious, there are multitudes of contributing factors that go into the creation of self-identity. The factors can be broken down into two groups (Figure 2) that are called Cultural Points of Difference[2] (CPD) and Physical Points of Difference[3] (PPD).

[1] Limbaugh, Rush. The Rush Limbaugh Show. Desperate Liberals Cry Racism. September 14, 2009. (Accessed April 23, 2012)

[2] Monroe, Mark. Diversity, The Art of Useful Disagreement. (accessed February 1, 2011)

[3] Ibid

Figure 2

“The first dimension is Physical Points of Difference (PPD), which deals only with the physical plane of human existence. Physical diversity consists of gender (to include sexuality), race, color, national origin (to include language), physical limitations, age, and certain aspects of religious beliefs (i.e. dress, action, and religious facilities)….. CPD deals with the non-physical dimensions of diversity or creation of ‘diversity of thought’. The difference between the two dimensions is that physical diversity is made up of characteristics like, race, gender, and physical capabilities. The non-physical dimension of diversity focuses on influencers.[1]

Part of the problem of understanding self-identity is people use all of these characteristics in constantly changing combinations to describe themselves. How the contributing factors are combined depends on the context that a person finds himself or herself in at a given point in time. For example, how a person relates to their gender or another person’s gender in relation to their national origin may be different from how they understand gender in relation to their religious beliefs. When a person is transitioning between multiple possible self-descriptions of themselves, it usually appears seamless to them, because most people see themselves in what they believe is their totality. A key to understanding why the shift between competing forces exists is the knowledge that the shift is a survival technique. People exist in relation to many different communities, each with their own set of expectations. The shift between competing factors has the effect of creating a constantly changing and evolving individual. This change takes place whether the individual or the society wants to acknowledge the change or not. So even within a closed society the individual is in a constant state of change and evolution.

The second side of the triangle is Universality, which is the belief in the commonality of people. There are two ways to look at universality, with either a ‘U’ or ‘u’. With the small ‘u’ it means a culturally based universality or commonality that takes the shape of folklore or tradition. Universality in this sense assumes that common traits between people are purely social constructions. These non-transcendental traits are most readily visible to someone external to the culture. Within the culture, the commonality appears to be a part of the natural order of things. It is the exception to the commonality that draws attention and takes on the appearance of being unnatural. Local commonalities may have the appearance of being transcendent, however, like self-identity they are in a constant state of change.

Universality with a big ‘U’ is a commonality or trait of humans that is transcendent of culture, race, or time. Therefore, the trait is true no matter where or when people are encountered. Many philosophical debates over the centuries have disputed the existence of Universalities and at times the discourse has become very heated. At the core of the debate is a very old, single question, which has not been effectively answered in all of recorded history. Is there an essential core to being human, or is a human a completely, socially constructed being? By social construction I am not suggesting that the physical or biology of mortals is a construction, rather the discussion is focused on the essence of humans or what it means to be human.

Too often this continuing discussion has been reduced to an extremist way of thinking about the world; it either is or is not, without a middle ground. This paper is supporting the notion that there is an essential essence to humanness, a Universal self; while the essence is transcendent, at the same time it is also constantly evolving. There are two points of Universality to consider. Our first Universal trait is nothing more than the need or overriding desire to understand the world that we find ourselves in. The second Universal trait that is key, builds off of what Descartes said in the Meditations, “Cogito, ergo sumor “I think, therefore I am” which he thought was the definitive argument to prove that he existed. As Descartes explained in the second Meditation, “I know that I exist and I am seeking to discover what I am, that “I” that I know.[5]” If humans know that they exist then humans have the innate ability to separate the, ‘I’ from the ‘not I.’ Person A knows that they are a separate being from Person B, and that they are separate from the world around them. This distinction is important because of the value judgment that is placed on the ‘I’ or the ‘not I.’ The value judgement is where the cultural construction mixes with the Universal creating a locally produced universal truth which develops a cultural self identiy.

The process a culture goes through to describe itself is very similar to how a person describes himself or herself. It becomes critical to understanding these first two Universalities. In a culture, there are defined roles that people play which are based upon their gender, race, employment status, social class, etc. The role that each person plays helps to define the community or culture as a whole.

Cultural self-identification is not something that is born overnight; like human self-identification, it takes time. However, with a social culture, the process is cumulative and the time required far exceeds a single human lifetime. A major factor to be aware of in the current manifestation of a cultural self-identity is the steps an infant culture took to ensure its survival. The remnants of the initial steps transcend the constraints of time. The groundwork for the identity of a modern culture that exists today had its lay-out centuries ago.

The third side of the triangle is diversity. The first step in understanding diversity is called cultural awareness. This involves recognizing and acknowledging the difference that exists between cultures. Recognizing the differences does not mean that you have to approve or disapprove of the differences. It is simply an acknowledgement of the variation without attaching a value judgment.

The next step is recognizing the potential points of controversy or contention. This move requires a vast enormity of work on the part of the individual. They will not only have to learn about another culture, they will have to learn the truth about their own culture. To completely understand the points of contention a person has to understand the underlying value judgments that make up their own culture. This understanding will help identify which factors are contributing to the existing tension. However, people are often hesitant to call their own belief system into question and many do not know how to pose the inquiry.

The overreaching definition of diversity, as it applies to people, is the interplay of cultural factors in relation to another culture’s interplay of actions. The action of each culture is driven by the way the culture and the person come to describe him or herself. The base definition is no more than the mixing of cultures. The interaction can be neutral, effective, or destructive.

The definition of effective diversity integration comes from two points of view. The first point is from the view of a larger entity[6] such as a country, culture, or employer that is tapping into every available resource and effectively utilizing their relative strengths. It is also ensuring that the larger entity is taking the steps that are necessary to ensure full participation of all groups in the future. This can mean many things, like access to educational opportunities. However, the opportunity has to be at an equal quality with the rest of the entity, or it is a false opportunity.

Effective cultural diversity integration from the individual perspective is a belief and faith by the people that they are or they can be a vital part of every level of the entity. They can see themselves reflected throughout the different layers of the entity. Without this second point, there can be no equality, or recognition of human rights, because the people do not believe in the idea. Without faith, failure and disenfranchisement become self-fulfilling prophecies. This lack of faith is usually based on a historical record of false promises and actions; once lost, this faith is very hard to regain.

[4] IBID

[5] Descartes, Rene. Translated by Laurence J. Lafleur. Meditations of the First Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, Collier Macmillan Publishers London. 1951. Originally published 1641. page 26

[6] An entity can be, but is not limited to a culture, nation, employer, or community

Figure 3

Imagine a person sitting in blissful ignorance[7] of the different cultures around her or him. They appear to be content to sit in their own mono-theological[8] society and not trouble the world outside that society. Why should this person go through all the trouble to engage cultural diversity? This question is asked with the understanding that effective diversity awareness is a lot of work and it can be a potentially scary process for most people to undertake. This fear comes from the chance that an idea or belief will be encountered that will place their ideas and beliefs into question. In addition, the process is not a quick one, and it is often riddled with setbacks and disappointments[9]. At the extreme and all too often, the price for the setback is measured in human flesh. However, history shows us that when diverse groups work together they can accomplish so much more. The reason why it is beneficial for cultures to interact with other is so they can build stronger societies. The list represented in Figure 3 is just a small example of manifested benefits of diverse interactions. The benefit is derived from the multiplicity of idea/methods applied to each area.

An interesting phenomenon can be seen in many mainstream American bookstores. In the history section, there are multitudes books that have titles like How the Irish Saved Civilization[10] or “Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America[11].” These types books, (at least the ones that are based on some sense of historical realities) when viewed as a whole, show that the advancement of human kind did not come from one group. The progressive evolution of human kind was only possible through the cumulative efforts of all human interactions. Each culture builds off the interactions with others.

[7' Like Stephen Colbert

[8] By mono-theological I am referring to a belief system in general not necessarily a religious system

[9] Sounds like life in general

[10] Chahill, Thomas. How the Irish Saved Civilization. Anchor Books. 1995

[11] Waisman, Charlotte and Jill Tietjen. Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America. Harper Collins. 2008

Figure 4

With all this being said, there are bridges (Figure 4) that can help cross the gaps that exist between groups and individuals. The bridges that are about to be discussed only represent opportunities for change and effective coexistence. No one bridge works in every situation, and there are going to be times where it appears that no bridge can be had. Remember that time is an element that we have no control over, but to undo years of socialization it takes time.

Education is helpful to building a base knowledge of others. The problem with relying only on educational systems for information is that an educational system has as its foundation the values of the society it is in. By its very nature, even the most liberal educational system will be skewed. When politicians attempt to interfere or control the information the formal educational system can become little more than a propaganda mouthpiece for the ruling body. An effective educational system gives the students the tools for inquiry. However, education alone is not enough to support understanding. There has to be some sort of physical contact or interaction between people to reinforce the useful education and undermine the stereotypes.

The simplest answer on the face of the earth is that the way to get beyond the barriers is to talk and listen to each other. Listening to each other through unfiltered ears rather than listening through the ears are engulfed in socially constructed realities. Yet, this remains the hardest thing to do. Because the communication is going to be filled with centuries of mistrust, misinformation, and misunderstanding that will have to be overcome. This is not a quick fix situation, and short-term set backs can limit the progression towards the long-term goals. The road base of the bridge is a willingness or openness to learn, without which change will be limited. The person has to be open to the idea that other or difference dot not necessarily mean bad or evil.

The key point being made is a firm awareness of others leads to an awareness of self. Why do I say this? How can I claim this? By becoming aware of others and the points of separation and contention, I am forced to look at myself. This is a scary thing; I must examine my belief systems to see which ones still add value, given the new information I have. Because of the fear factor, this may cause many people to withdraw from contact or fail to recognize others, thus limiting their own self-awareness. A strong sense of self aids in this process, because there is the “I” as a basis of comparison.

Awareness does not necessarily mean agreement. Just because a new idea is a challenge to an existing norm does not automatically mean that it is better, but discovery is always based on the challenging of existing ideas. This article is not advocating for the creation of a Utopian society. In 1651, a gentleman by the name of Sir Thomas More wrote a book, which was simply called Utopia. The premise of the book was based on the mythical discovery of the prefect society where everyone lived in complete harmony with each other and the environment. He introduces the reader to the fictional country by saying, “THE island of Utopia is in the middle 200 miles broad …… There are fifty-four cities in the island, all large and well built: the manners, customs, and laws of which are the same, and they are all contrived as near in the same manner as the ground on which they stand will allow.[11]” Sir More was not the only one that wrote on the subject-- there are libraries full of books on the subject of the utopian society. Evan the idea of a perfect society has caused some controversy.

To some Sir More’s idea of a utopian society was a wonderful dream to archive. “His fictional solution to these problems was a highly original strategy for managing the relationship between religion and government. This strategy featured a version of religious freedom that prohibited government from enforcing a complicated orthodoxy or infringing on what he considered the legitimate rights of conscience. At the same time, it allowed government to prescribe certain religious beliefs that More considered essential for virtue and to proscribe politically dangerous religious observances. More also showed how religious freedom causes all faiths, including Catholicism, to reject theologies that foster virulent religious pride. In Utopia, this plan curbed sectarian conflict and helped promote civic peace, scientific development, and economic prosperity.[12]” There is a logical structured order to the society, almost a sense of predictability.

My comeback to is, “Oh my God, how boring can it get!” It has been described as a place where human thought would be able to reach its peak and where difference was not an issue. I see it as a place that would promote stagnation of human thought and where diversity is non-existent, because difference is worked out of the society. The value of diversity does not come from people of the different types agreeing all the time. The value comes from the introduction of competing ideas and beliefs and how well the group works through those differences. Managing difference is the measure of effective diversity integration.

Going back to the discussion of the essential self, I need to find my understanding of the world and I can tell the ‘I’ from the ‘not I.’ In the Utopian schematic, I lose access to that. Also in the perfect society formula the value of diversity is lost. What the discussion needs to focus on is the evolution of humans and not revolution between humans to bring up of the entire race. Tension can be an effective catalyst for change; however, the danger is if it is left unregulated the tension can erupt into violence. Tension – not violence is the goal.

It is possible to maintain your self-identity. However, understand that even with a Universalistic view of the world, how people self-identify will be a continuous evolutionary process. The “self” they come to know and accept today, will not be the same “self” they come to know and accept. In W. E. B. Du Bois book, The Souls of Black Folk, he spoke of the need of Black people to find their identity, but his point applies to all people. “The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,--this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, for merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America; for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.[13]” The striving to be recognized as an individual and part of the society is the constant that makes people human. It is through interaction with others that we came to know ourselves and the world around us.

Warning: The only constant is change.

[11] More, Thomas. Utopia. 1516. (accessed February 8, 2011)

[12] Kessler, Sanford. The Review of Politics. Notre Dame: Spring 2002. Vol. 64, Iss. 2; pg. 207, 24 pgs.Religious freedom in Thomas More's Utopia. (Accessed May 13, 2012)

[13] Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folks. Barnes and Nobles Classics. 2005 (first published 1903). Page 9

© 2012 Mark Monroe


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