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Truly Celebrating Cultural Diversity
Oct 1, 1999

One of the most discussed phenomena in contemporary American sociological and educational circles is cultural diversity. In broad terms, this concept can be defined as the presence of multiple values, beliefs, views, and behavior patterns attributable to different cultures and groups; recognition of this presence; or communicating with those from other cultures.

Cultural diversity has two vital benefits. First, individuals from different groups and cultures get to know each other, which engenders respect and consideration for each one's beliefs, values, and ways of life. Achieving such a goal is a must for countries like America, which hosts many different cultures and groups. Such an understanding is becoming crucial for all nations, even for quite homogenous ones, as all are quickly becoming dwellers of the same global village. Humanity needs examples of successful multicultural societies. The second benefit is the exchange of knowledge and experience. This article elaborates on the second benefit.

Today, in many American-made movies and television serials (such as Kung Fu), we see a wise Asian man who is always calm, never panics, and brings such unique, humanitarian solutions to problems that the Americans on the scene are amazed. Although these are not real stories, they give the flavor of possible benefits to be derived from exploring different perspectives and philosophies.

The fact that all individuals living in the vast variety of societies found on our planet are human beings is often overlooked by individuals, communities, and even social science professionals, depending on the rate of their self-containedness. All individuals living in different societies are, without doubt, human beings; the differences separating them are merely external elements. Thus everyone, regardless of his or her society, experiences common problems; only the context changes. For example, a beggar and a king both feel anger at times. The beggar's anger may lead him to hit his wife, whereas the king's anger may cause him to engulf the nation in war. Another analogy is that of a pickpocket to a computer hacker illegally transferring funds.

Throughout history, human cultures and groups have dealt with the same characteristics and problems as we, the people welcoming a new millennium, are dealing with now. As contemporary cultures reflect inherited perspectives and philosophies, centuries-old cultures and civilizations may be invaluable resources for finding new points of view and approaches to our problems.

The emphasis placed on such a cultural exchange by both American individuals and institutions at all levels is not as great as that which has been placed on other, but less important, issues. For example, a typical American secondary school student's knowledge of world geography and foreign languages has long been inferior to that of his or her European counterpart. This indicates a lack of interest toward the rest of the world.

The same indifference can be observed in American nightly news programs, even on national television channels. For example, the "World Report" news programs usually give domestic news (unless there is a war going on in which America is heavily involved). Might such an ethnocentric view of the world stemming from being the sole superpower be responsible for this attitude?

Sometimes people living in a system, even a well-functioning system, cannot solve their social and individual problems because they cannot raise themselves above the flow of events. The most frequently used tool to solve any problem is power, especially if it is abundant and readily available. Power often is seen as the best shortcut to the solution due to the deceiving ease of its exertion, which also allows its user to ignore or to not consider its potentially serious side effects.

The power applied may be physical, economic, military, or technological, depending on the nature of the problem. However, its exercise is not always the key to the solution. A mighty lion caught in a hunter's net should have the modesty to request help from a tiny mouse, for the latter's sharp teeth may work where the lion's devastating paws cannot. One should have the wisdom to know a gallon of gas cannot attract that which can be attracted by a teaspoonful of honey.

A simple but enlightening example of how different perspectives can help to solve problems is given below. During the heated negotiations between two political parties for a coalition in Turkey, a simple but totally satisfactory suggestion by a Turkish newspaper columnist attracted my attention. The two parties, having an almost equal number of representatives in Parliament, could not share the ministries, for ministries have varying degrees of political weight. The columnist's suggestion was not inspired by a similar case from a contemporary democracy, but from a parable describing King Solomon's approach to a similar problem: Two heirs could not agree on how to divide their inheritance equally, because they could not agree on the value of the items to be inherited. King Solomon suggested that one heir divide the inheritance into two equal halves, after which the other heir would have the first choice. Thus, an ancient parable offered a practical solution to a conflict in a contemporary democracy. Whether his suggestion was considered or not is beyond our concern here.

One can find books of ancient and contemporary philosophers and different cultures in bookstores, but who reads them? The general public, especially the youth, should be made aware of these resources and directed to make use of humanity's historical experience. For example, various herbs used in some parts of the world for centuries to treat specific illnesses are now preferred over drugs developed in laboratories, for they are all-natural, non-addictive, and have no side effects. Obviously, cultures and civilizations have much more to offer each other than herbs. I wish that Americans would look sincerely for the wisdom that different civilizations and cultures have to offer.

Note: Since this article is intended to reflect a broad perspective, I gave no specifics about the methodology to realize the goals indicated and no thorough examples. Such examples in different fields, along with their methodologies, can serve as the content of separate articles.