On reconciling differences

Whether compassionate or passionate, love leaps across the chasms and bridges the differences of hate

Myron Pereira, Mumbai

Updated: April 15, 2021 07:40 AM GMT

In India hostility and contempt toward Adivasis is widespread and acceptable. (Photo: UCA News)

As individuals, as a society, as a nation, we are different. Sometimes these differences are minor and are passed over easily — like habits of eating or dressing. At other times they are major and become the source of irritation and conflict.

There come times in a great and diverse country like India when the ruling powers, under the guise of unity, keep trying to force uniformity and conformity upon its people.

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This is why we ask: Do differences matter? Is diversity of value?

At different times and at different levels, this question gets thrown at us. Let's look at some of the issues involving differences in today's societies.

One of the critical questions in almost every society is the acceptance of homosexuality and other forms of sexuality.

For centuries, heterosexuality was the norm in most societies, and other forms of sexual expression were seen as deviant, restrictive and susceptible to either criminal or divine punishment.

While public slavery is rare today, discrimination against people of color continues

In fact, in most communities today, it is still the norm. So how accepting are we of gender differences?

What about those differences based on race or caste? Here, too, the record of history has been largely negative. Whole systems of slavery or serfdom were in vogue, based on demeaning people not like us — in physiognomy, skin color and language.

While public slavery is rare today, discrimination against people of color continues. In India, for example, hostility and contempt toward Dalits (formerly untouchables) and Adivasis (tribal people) are widespread and acceptable, sadly even in these times.

Then again, for centuries differences based on religion gave rise to violence, persecution and savage wars. To quote Bertrand Russell: More people have been killed in God's name than in the name of anyone else in history.

And while most countries in the secular and agnostic West have ceased to persecute others because of religion, the feudal societies of Africa and Asia show no such inclination. Hatred of those of other faiths is rampant, especially if those other believers are poor and weak.

So differences do matter, and secretly we all want others to be people like us. Societies thrive on being majoritarian — whether in race, gender or religion — no matter how much they talk of promoting diversity.

Why this is so usually depends on our perception of ourselves and how we see the others. Generally speaking, there are three ways in which this is done.

If the others are seen as a threat and a danger, then any difference becomes threatening and violent. Politicians are past masters at creating such threatening dangers and at dividing people into us versus them. Whether it's Hitler and the Jews, the Hindu Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Muslims, Donald Trump and illegal migrants, or whomever else, differences are exaggerated and falsified to become the pretext for violence, persecution and, tragically, genocide.

The disadvantage is the forced acceptance of a static, unchangeable order when society at large is dynamic and fluid

Differences of course needn't always be seen as dangerous. The others may be labeled as useful who provide us with desired services, nothing more.

In many societies — and here feudal India is a prime example — the others  are allotted a place and relationships with them are businesslike and transactional. 

The plus point here is tolerance. Show them their place and see that they keep it. Safety lies within these limits.

The disadvantage is the forced acceptance of a static, unchangeable order when society at large is dynamic and fluid.

Caste does precisely this — a fixed place, usually inferior, where the others are of use to me without being able to cooperate, much less to integrate with my own society. Eating together (commensality) or sexual bonding (intermarriage) are definitely taboo.

Thus caste, whether as a color bar (varna) or as familial bonding (jaati) is India's own contribution to the lexicon of apartheid and racism.

But there is yet a third relationship which transcends both hatred and usefulness.  It is love.

No matter where — whether among lovers who defy their families and their race, whether among witnesses who spend their lives in service, or whether among peacekeepers who sacrifice themselves to stop the violence — love reconciles differences.

Those who love in this way are legendary. They make of themselves signposts to a new and better society: Romeo and Juliet, Jacinda Ardern, Father Damien, Oscar Romero, Mahatma Gandhi, the names go on and on.

Whether compassionate or passionate, love leaps across the chasms and bridges the differences of hate. Love seeks harmony, reconciliation, union.

Love brings about attitudinal change, without which a new condition cannot last. It is St. Paul telling his friend Philemon to accept Onesimus, his runaway slave, no longer as a slave but as a dear brother.

In this world, however, love is necessary but not sufficient: law must always be there as a back-up. It is law which brings about structural change, political change, the power to enforce. In an imperfect world, it cannot be otherwise.

We began by asking if differences matter. We agreed that they do.

But how they matter depends on our perception of others, perceptions which are strengthened by the change of attitude which only love brings, even while they are also enforced and monitored by law.

Father Myron Pereira SJ is a media consultant based in Mumbai. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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