If it is one thing I have realised it is that we are all different. We all come from different backgrounds, landscapes, places. We have different experiences and these experiences have shaped us into what we are, feel, say and do. My question is Why is it so difficult to accept difference?
One answer is that difference is often not even seen. It is not noticed. An observer only sees their picture, which is already filtered through their eyes and mind. That the other is different to that, substantially different, is often not seen unless there are clear physical differences (skin colour, gender, clothing, etc). In addition, the observer’s mind is wondering, their mental focus may be away somewhere else completely, their concentration is lopsided. The situation does not get sufficient attention. We are all busy, distracted, preoccupied. Vulnerable, indecisive. And so on.
Stereotypes come into play too. These are cognitive time-saving devices, shortcuts for our busy minds. We have a box already made up (stereotype) that we can fit in the contents presented to us (person). Saves us trouble, at least in the short term. The shortcut may be shortfall after all, which may come back to haunt or harm us later.
Another aspect is that seeing difference takes time. It also takes mental energy. It takes time and curiosity to want to engage and understand others. It is an effort as you will have to get yourself off the mental monkey track (read… Chimp Management, Thinking Fast and Slow, Predictably Irrational). It is a lifetime’s project.
If we do not care about others (other than yourself and your nearest family/friends), you essentially have kissed society good-bye. And that is the destructive part of a conservative political ideology. Disconnecting you from society, and starting a dog-eat-dog might-is-right existence. It’s not pretty. It’s certainly not the world I want to live in.
Why do I care about this question? It’s personal, naturally.
As always, as for everyone, it starts with a personal story. I have seen “too many” differences in my life not to care. Foreigner, woman engineer, cyclist in England, to name a few. In every identity, yes we have many, I was an outsider. Ranging from special to outcast. When I arrived in Newcastle in 1996, I spoke bare-bones English, and the thick Geordie dialect did not help me to connect at first. It was clear I was an outsider. Learning the English language I started realising how nuanced the intonation and the entire linguistics are. It’s a sensitive language. After over 20 years I have still no home for my own English. I hear “Where are you from?” a lot. People are interested – I seem to be different, but not directly geo-pin-downable. This raises questions, and sometimes eyebrows. I am Polish, Australian. You can start a conversation, easily.
At the same time as attaining some sort of sufficiency in the Geordie English I started working as an engineer at an environmental consultancy. My understanding of women in engineering professions was a different one from the one employed at the consultancy. Being a German engineer was fine (plenty of jokes there, eh, Fortschritt and all that) but being a woman engineer was a more difficult concept for some of my colleagues. The managers clearly could not place me, as in order to obtain an overdue upwards move had meant leaving companies. And I left, one after another.
With my engineering career developing I started cycle campaigning with Claire. There we were, cycling women and advocating the transformation of urban design. The national campaigning landscape had started to shift towards urban design (away from identity politics “I am a cyclist. Give me rights.”). This new focus helped, but I often felt marginalised in the national debate (as much as it was allowed to happen, anyways). Locally, in Newcastle, Claire and I were able to propose our own agenda based on radical urban transformation. Being in charge felt good, having control over a direction, a goal, a vision is transformative in itself… now we only needed to get the decision-makers to buy in (to be continued). The paradox politics only peddled pedalling so far.
Away from cycle campaigning, the dire existence of being a cyclist in England left some marks, of course. There is a tiny box cyclists are meant to be stuffed in, to be wrapped up and shipped off to an address far, far away. It is a lonely existence, even with all of us together in that box. Hence the shady tedious business with identity politics. The clucking together, the mandated solidarity, fickle as it is.
In conclusion, I am different. And I have explained my differences above. I am also different in many other ways, these differences intersect, grow grotesquely (English cyclist), wane (second language), ameliorate (German engineer). My example may be more extreme than others. But I would like to leave you with the thought that we are all different. In many ways. All colours of many a rainbow anywhere in the world. It would be wonderful if we – all of us – had more time, more courage and more energy to be more curious about the other. The possible discovery, the potential adventure! The personal growth!