In Defence of Diversity What is freedom today?
Essay by Ania Molenda
We give names to things, but we don’t give many names to relationships. Christopher Alexander
In Defence of Diversity
Coexistence combines the notions of difference, negotiation and territory. It describes a condition of living in the same place at the same time (Definition of coexistence according to the Oxford Dictionary). And even though it may not be explicit, coexistence presupposes difference. It implies a possibility of friction, but its positive connotation suggests a state of peace and stability.—Perhaps this is why it is easily forgotten that difference is a basic condition of coexistence. In social and spatial terms, we can either see coexistence as an active process of negotiation or as a passive one based on tolerance, even ignorance, and avoidance of difference. I will focus here on discussing how the latter has become dominant, and how we can flip the coin and see difference as something productive or even desirable.
Contemporary cities are without doubt places of coexistence. They are often praised as melting-pots, bringing together people of various cultures, religions, races, political views and sexualities. We often say that modern cities are cosmopolitan, and it’s meant to be a good thing; it suggests that the diversity of coexisting cultures contributes to the prosperity of the city. But the struggle to accept the idea of negotiation in modern cities has been an ongoing issue. Much more frequently, both social and spatial approaches towards coexistence have heavily relied on segregation and isolation that enable tolerance at a distance. I’d like to look at some of the dynamics that have ingrained this preference into contemporary western culture.
Individualism, which entered the western culture in a tandem with consumerism in the 70s, has become one of the dominant forms of defining human relationships and western culture in general. And while both celebrate difference, this is only as long as it represents commercial value. Marketing strategies split individuals into groups of interest for the sake of sales, so what connects them eventually are the things they buy. Those marketing profiles eventually become social groups, which are often described as modern tribes. They have a strong collective identity; however, it is not based on a common goal or a form of solidarity, but on the way they dress, the computer games they play or the TV series they watch (Ania Molenda, Collective Identity in the Contemporary City).
Enclosure of society into such groups makes them prone to manipulation and results in ever bigger fragmentation and friction between them. This friction, however, is not based on any justifiable reason. Rather, it is based on a norm that a certain group ought to adhere to. We see more and more that these norms translate into limits of cultural or social appreciation. Whether they are used for political or commercial reasons, these limits often originate from marketing strategies of persuasion. Before we know it, we treat them as our own way of looking at others and define the norms they have to adhere to. Without looking critically at these processes, we may find ourselves accepting opinions and norms which we do not agree with, but because they are presented to us as what we want they become somewhat automatically absorbed. The risk of this mechanism is that they close us off in homogenous circles of self-interest and separate us from the rest of society.
Similar processes of analysing social behaviour to those used by commercial practices are used by military practices, but for an entirely different reason (Mike Crang, Stephen Graham, Sentient Cities: Ambient Intelligence and the politics of Urban Space). Here they are intended to focus on abnormalities and unusual behaviour in order to manage the risk of a potential crime. This pattern of thinking often makes us look at difference as something potentially threatening. In order to not appear as a threat the difference has to be neutralised, remain hidden or kept away to avoid confrontation. Even if it may seem otherwise, the contemporary city largely focuses on this mechanism, promoting spaces of homogeneity and of avoidance of negotiation.