Expanding the Circle of the We: Why Cultural Diversity Matters

Reflections at the Occasion of the United Nations World Day of Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development

On 21 May 2021 the United Nations invite us to reflect upon the significance of cultural diversity for dialogue among people and sustainable development. Why should this topic matter and how does it speak into the realities of people living together?

We may have different religions, different languages, different colored skin, but we all belong to one human race. – Kofi Annan

Words that prompt us to see how diversity in all its facets needs to be thought together with unity so that diversity can never be manipulated to serve the interests of a politics of division, but remain at the core of an anthropological understanding that values and promotes interdependence, mutual respect and togetherness. In times of growing polarisation, extremist tendencies and violent populism, we are time and again reminded that diversity and the capacity to live out cultural diversity represents a right to be celebrated and protected.

My own sense and reflection on cultural diversity is grounded in the insight that it constitutes an important element for the vitality and survival of societies. There is no community that can live by itself, oriented exclusively inwards, perpetuating its cultural values and practices. Cultural diversity prevents the ossification of cultures: the presence of people from different cultural backgrounds and the experience of diverse cultural practices can safeguard societies from the fallacy of becoming self-content and static. Cultural diversity, in this sense, is an indispensable critical stimulus for societies to interrogate their common normative framework. It is thus not only the celebratory and folkloristic dimensions of cultural diversity that need to be highlighted, but more importantly the collective intellectual challenge it poses.

Cultural diversity invites to ask the uncomfortable questions: how do we want to live together and on which values and principles shall our common life repose on? Cultural diversity, therefore, needs to be freed from the political symbolism it is all too often attached to. When States declare themselves as proponents of cultural diversity, while introducing or reinforcing restrictive legislative measure that prevent the expression of cultural diversity, or when leaders misuse their position and authority to undermine the equal value of cultural articulation, culture as a key vehicle of human communication and dialogue is rendered a profound disservice.

Asking the difficult questions about cultural diversity also entails disclosing where cultural views and practices challenge us, where they seem to be incompatible with people's aspirations for and rights of freedom, integrity and dignity. The celebration of cultural diversity is therefore not an alternative to a societal normative debate. Both are intertwined and assist in perceiving the potential for societies and communities to innovate and grow.  

The recognition of cultural diversity as an intrinsic driving force for the inner renewal of societies cannot be understated. This is particularly valid for periods of societal transitions, for example after collective trauma and experiences of gross human rights violations. Jeffrey C. Alexander's seminal work on cultural trauma and collective identity (Id. et al. 2004) offers helpful theoretical avenues for exploring the understanding of cultures' potential to "expand the circle of the we" (J.C. Alexander, 2004: 1) by developing relationships of solidarity and shared responsibility.

Expanding the circle of we could also describe the contours of a fascinating learning journey. Societies, communities, institutions as much as individuals would be invited to not only celebrate their own identities against the identities of others, but more so to utilise cultural expressions as a vehicle to promote an intercultural dialogue based on shared values. endeavours to contribute to such a dialogue on cultural diversity sensitive to both differences and commonalities. Our new Academy online course programme on Interreligious Cooperation for Peace is composed of three parts, religious, cultural and ethical studies, with an incremental learning path, along which students will be enabled to discover that cultural diversity can represent a powerful instrument to build peaceful and equitable societies. is enriched by its global network of institutions and individuals in different regions, who bring to mind that cultural diversity belongs at the heart of a value-driven debate on how people, regardless of their cultural identities, can live together peacefully.

Amélé Adamavi-Aho Ekué
Academic Dean 

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