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Discussion Question for The Dignity of Difference

Question answered by Clark Plexico, President and CEO, People to People International. Some people have asked me why I think The Dignity of Difference is relevant to People to People International (PTPI).  Some say it is difficult to read and has no story line or characters with whom to identify.  Others are confused by the religious references.

Discussion Question for The Dignity of Difference

Question answered by Clark Plexico, President and CEO, People to People International

Some people have asked me why I think The Dignity of Difference is relevant to People to People International (PTPI).  Some say it is difficult to read and has no story line or characters with whom to identify.  Others are confused by the religious references.

I am fairly sure that I cannot answer all those questions, but what I can do is to tell you why the message of the book seems clearly relevant to the vision and mission of PTPI.  We live in a time and world that is anything but peaceful.  It isn’t just religious extremists murdering in the name of their god, or violent acts taking place in distant lands.  It is also a time of elementary school shootings in countries on almost all inhabited continents, and a time when it no longer shocks us to hear early in the morning that there have been nine people killed in four different locations in rural Missouri – the home state of our organization.

As Jonathan Sacks points out in this book, the single greatest antidote to violence is conversation.  But conversation, the heartbeat of the democratic process, is dying and with it our chances of civic, let alone global, peace.  The future will depend on our ability to understand and be understood by people whose cultures, creeds, values and interests conflict with ours and to whom, therefore, we must speak and listen.  The full title of the book is The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations.

Isn’t this really what PTPI is all about?  Shouldn’t we be listening and engaging in conversations with people different from ourselves as we endeavor to be a part of the process of bringing about Peace through Understanding?  That tagline of PTPI is not something that just happens – it is a process.  And as we put our vision into action by bringing life to our mission statement through programs, what we are doing is being a part of a conscious process of avoiding another clash of civilizations – of helping bring about ‘peace through understanding’.

As for the religious overtones in the book, in conflict zones around the world we are reminded of Jonathan Swift’s comment that we have “just enough religion to make us hate one another but not enough to make us love one another.”  What Sacks attempts to do in this book is to define what a religiously sensitive civilization would look like.  I would expect nothing less from a Chief Rabbi. After all, peace depends upon justice and compassion, and it is the responsibility of religious leaders (formal or informal) to speak out on both.

The 21st century ushered in the politics of identity.  Religion has reemerged as so powerful a global presence, because religion is one of the great answers to the question of identity.  But when we create an identity for ourselves we create an ‘Us’ and a ‘Them’ – the people not like us.  These divisions cause the dangers that we face today.  In the very process of creating community within borders, religions can create conflict across those borders.

In the words of Jonathan Sacks: “The glory of the created world is its astonishing multiplicity: the thousands of different languages spoken by mankind, the proliferation of cultures, the sheer variety of the imaginative expressions of the human spirit, in most of which, if we listen carefully, we will hear the voice of wisdom telling us something we need to know. That is what I mean by the dignity of difference.”

We live in a new age of globalization.  When I first went to work and live abroad in the Middle East back in the mid-seventies, not only was there no internet, Facebook, Linked-In, ability to share photos instantaneously around the world, or global cell phones.  Fax machines had not even been invented.  If I wanted to make an international call I had to make an appointment a week ahead at the national phone exchange and hope that it would actually be working the day I was there.  Even keeping in touch by mail was difficult because the stamps would be taken off the letters and sold before the letters ever left the country.  While some of these challenges still exist in certain locations, on the whole, the world is a vastly different place with Western “culture” becoming dominant and city after city looking the same.  These developments enhance our feeling of being part of something global, but at the same time something unique is lost.  if the dominant culture is not our own,  then resentments can grow.

Rabbi Sacks puts it this way:  “A global culture is a universal culture, and universal cultures, though they have brought about great good, have also done immense harm.  They see as the basis of our humanity the fact that we are all ultimately the same.  We are vulnerable.  WE are embodied creatures.  We feel hunger, thirst, fear, pain.  We reason, hope, dream, aspire.  These things are all true and important.  But we are also different.  Each landscape, language, culture, community is unique.  Our very dignity as persons is rooted in the fact that none of us – not even genetically identical twins – is exactly like any other.  If our commonalities are all that ultimately matter, then our differences are distractions to be overcome.”

This is why most people believe that when we come together we should emphasize our similarities and minimize our differences – as if those differences were trivial.  But this is not what happens in times of conflict, and we are seeing this all over the world. In times of conflict when emotions run high, there is no difference that is so slight that it cannot be turned into a marker of identity and therefore estrangement.  But through conversations about not only similarities but also differences we begin to understand the uniqueness of the many cultures that share this planet.

This being the case, what is needed is not just an emphasis on commonality – of what we share in common – but also an emphasis on our differences – of what  makes us unique and why no one civilization has the right to impose itself on others by force.  In Sacks’ theology this is why God asks us to respect the freedom and dignity of those not like us. In other words, we should not simply appreciate our similarities but also celebrate our differences.

I see a wonderful role for PTPI as the convener of opportunities to come together to discuss significant global issues from the perspective of our members and other interested parties.  With PTPI’s wonderful chapter structure, we are well placed to then be an ideas generator for how to effectively and sustainably work on these issues in locations around the world, and then share lessons learned and best practices.

While Sacks asks the question in connection with religion, we could ask the question in more general terms: can we make a space for those who sing a different song, hear a different music, and tell a different story?  If we believe this is an important part of the process of helping to bring about peace through understanding, then our programs and the opportunities for experiences that we create for our members should reflect this celebration of the dignity of difference.

My hope is that through this book, the book club, and in other ways, our PTPI global community can discuss these ideas and their relevancy to the vision and mission of People to People International.
People to People International’s Global Book Club is a way to connect with your global community. Global Book Club members communicate about valuable, international topics and gain unique insight and understanding of various cultural views in relation to those topics. For more information on People to People International, visit www.ptpi.org or PTPI’s Facebook Page. #globalbookclub 

The opinions expressed by PTPI staff and other book club members are entirely their own and are not necessarily the views of  PTPI or its Officers, Board of Directors and Board of Trustees.
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