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Who is afraid of Difference?

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

Swati Parashar | 24 May 2018

A Naga sadhu (mendicant) in Varanasi: The city enabled by ‘differences’ where even life and death coexist together. Picture credit: Swati Parashar.

A very productive use of my social media time this week was to check the twitter feed of the Dalai Lama. His Holiness tweeted, "I’m Tibetan, I’m Buddhist and I’m the Dalai Lama, but if I emphasize these differences it sets me apart and raises barriers with other people. What we need to do is to pay more attention to the ways in which we are the same as other people." This really got me thinking about the anxieties, fear and the discomfort with ‘difference’, which this tweet endorsed in my view. His Holiness is a delight to listen to, to read about and there have been hardly any occasions when I have disagreed with his views or not been inspired by them. On this occasion, I am puzzled.

Why is the recognition of the various aspects of his identity about emphasizing difference? Surely, he can be all of those he mentions without any conflict and without raising barriers with other people? And moreover, why is ‘difference’ (within the ‘self’ and with the ‘other’) non-negotiable and an obstacle to feeling empathy and compassion? Why can’t we live with differences and why must we be the same as other people? Isn’t real evolution about accepting and living with differences? Why does shared human experience have to negate differences or be even fearful of them?

These questions ofcourse go beyond the Dalai Lama’s tweet, as they reflect the larger public discourse and modes of ‘being’ in contemporary times. We use easy labels and lazy categories to first establish ‘differences’ and then to argue that it is impossible to work with or around them. This has enabled different forms of identity politics to crystallize into amorphous categories; intersectionality is clearly missing and multiple subjectivities have become extremely difficult to grasp. Consider the asylum seeker/refugee debate in the world that is based on the fear of the ‘other’. Ironically, this fear is also inducing the urge to find sameness with those different others who have now become more acceptable than the refugees. Hence, conservative right wing, anti-immigrant groups in Europe, for example, are found to be embracing ‘queerness’ and LGBTQ people, to be seen as liberal and progressive as compared to their idea of the conservative, homophobic immigrants (read mostly Muslims).

Some differences have been mitigated through the search for sameness, other differences are too difficult and just irreconcilable. This is also seen within feminist activism and scholarship, where certain kind of feminist politics is more acceptable than others. In social media debates and in our everyday exchanges we look for the comfort space where we can talk to people who are like us and think like us.

As a keen observer of politics and society in my homeland, India, I see the same trend. Gone are those days when communists and right wing ideologues could sit at the same table, could emerge from similar backgrounds and could even belong to the same family, with similar sets of concerns about postcolonial nation building. The urge now is to engage only with those with whom sameness is both possible and desirable. Throw in that midst someone with a different world view, with a different politics, and it becomes very difficult to even uphold norms of civility in that conversation.

I am always inspired by the prolific Indian postcolonial thinker, Ashis Nandy who has always been ahead of his times and whose grasp of the human mind is incomparable. He has consistently argued that living with differences, ambiguities and contradictions was at one time the way of life in India and other parts of the postcolonial world. This is now replaced by Western modernity that desires and promotes ‘sameness’, and statehood and citizenship that understand the language of cohesion, not of societal differences and diversity.

Inhabiting and performing complex human subjectivities has to be enabled in discourse and practice. We can start thinking about ‘difference’, differently and creatively in our classrooms, in our families, communities and in the digital spaces we occupy. To enable difference is to eventually feel compassion and empathy.

On another occasion, His Holiness, the Dalai Lama himself has said, “People take different roads seeking fulfillment and happiness. Just because they’re not on your road doesn’t mean they’ve gotten lost.”


Swati Parashar is an associate Professor at SGS. Her research and teaching interests are in critical security and war studies, feminist and postcolonial international relations, women militants and combatants, gender, violence and development in South Asia.


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