A commitment to pluralism
No culture is a hermetically sealed entity. All cultures are influenced by and in turn influence other cultures. Nor is any culture changeless, invariant or static. All cultures are in a state of constant flux, driven by both internal and external forces. These forces may be accommodating, harmonious, benign and based on voluntary actions, or they may be involuntary, the result of violent conflict, force, domination and the exercise of illegitimate power.
In the light of this, the need for people to live and work together peacefully should result in respect for all cultures, or at least for those cultures that themselves tolerate and respect others. There are some cultures that may not be worthy of respect because they themselves are intolerant, exclusive, exploitative, cruel and repressive. Whatever we may be told about the importance of "not interfering with local customs," such repulsive practices, whether aimed at people from different cultures or at other members of the same culture, should be condemned, not tolerated. Even individuals from the intolerant cultures should, however, be left free to express their views, as long as their actions do not infringe on the rights of others who do not agree with them.
But for the rest, more than tolerance for other cultures is required. We should rejoice at cultural differences and attempt to learn from them, not to regard them as alien, unacceptable or hateful. Governments cannot prescribe such attitudes and behaviour as respect and rejoicing, but they can prohibit attacks on people from different cultures and their practices and they can set the legal stage for mutual tolerance and accommodation. They can outlaw some of the outward manifestations of xenophobia and racism.
Intolerant cultures become particularly pernicious when they become the policy of intolerant governments. Discrimination, segregation and exclusion based on cultural traits then become official policy. In these cases strong international pressures should be used to denounce and punish such policies, including all forms of racism, persecution of people because of their beliefs, and the curtailment of freedom of their own people.
The diversity and plurality of cultures has benefits comparable to those of bio-diversity. Pluralism has the advantage that it pays attention to the accumulated treasure of all human experience, wisdom and conduct. Any culture can benefit by comparison with other cultures, as it discovers its own idiosyncrasies and peculiarities. This does not imply cultural relativism: it is entirely consistent with an assertion of the validity of some absolute standards.
Liberalism, tolerance and pluralism incline us to find pleasure in the idea of a multiplicity of visions; the desire for objectivity, and universality, on the other hand, leads us to desire that truth be but one, not many. The logical and ethical difficulty about relativism is that it must also endorse absolutism and dogmatism; absolutism does not have to endorse relativism. Since many past and alien visions are intolerant, if we endorse them, in our tolerant, liberal way, we endorse intolerance. Notoriously, there is no room for the assertion of relativism in a world in which relativism is true. Cognitive relativism is nonsense, moral relativism is tragic. Without an assertion of absolute standards, no recommendation of this Commission would be possible, indeed no reasoned discourse could be conducted. Let us rejoice in diversity, while maintaining absolute standards of judging what is right, good and true.
The principle of pluralism, in the sense of tolerance and respect for and rejoicing over the plurality of cultures, so important in dealings between countries, also applies within countries, in the relations between different ethnic groups. These relations have become problematic in the course of development. As populations shift and their status changes, people turn to cultural distinctions embodied in their traditions to resist what is perceived as a threat to the integrity, prosperity or survival of their community, to the continuity of its culture or the transmission of its values. The mobilization that time and again occurred around a group's identity has led to a new "ethnic politics." The stakes include gaining control of (or access to) state power, achieving higher social status or gaining community security or a larger share of income and wealth. Where ethnic groups have enjoyed relatively equal shares of power and wealth, tensions can arise as soon as one or several of them begin to feel that their relative position is slipping. Such tensions, often inevitable as economic conditions change, have led to contention over rights to land, education, the use of language, political representation, freedom of religion, the preservation of ethnic identity, autonomy or self-determination. Whereas the world is made up of some 190 states, many of them are polyethnic, enclosing within their borders a large number of cultures and ethnic groups. Standard development models have paid little attention to this diversity, assuming that functional categories such as class and occupation are more important. It has become recognized, however, that many development failures and disasters (the civil wars in Nigeria, Rwanda and Burundi, the break-up of Pakistan) stem from an inadequate recognition of cultural and ethnic complexities. Ethnicity is a determining factor in the nature and dynamic of the conflict, as language, race or religion, among other features, are used to distinguish the opposing actors. All too frequently, state power has been assumed by one specific group, and state building has rendered many other groups devoid of power or influence. Where it is perceived that the government either favours or discriminates against groups identifiable in terms of ethnicity, race or religion, this encourages the negotiation of benefits on the basis of this identity and leads directly to the politicization of culture. The dynamics of this process are such that when any one group starts negotiating on the basis of its cultural identity, others are encouraged to do likewise. This process has often been cumulative.
New identities may also emerge. In Pakistan, for example, the economic and political privileges of one province have provoked a growth of "nationalism" in other provinces. Among the groups excluded from claiming such provincial identity was the numerically small but politically and economically visible group of people who had migrated into Sindh province from India after the partition of 1947. Elements from within the migrating groups who did not even share a language or ethnic affiliation in undivided India, constructed a new sense of "nationality" on the sole basis that their parents had been immigrants. Born in Pakistan, these youngsters now speak of the mohajir nation (mohajir is the Urdu word for migrant). At the community level, the political party representing their interests is active, finding jobs and resolving disputes. It is filling the vacuum between the state and a dislocated immigrant community that no longer has a coherent tradition to refer to.