Diversity brings contradictions

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Diversity brings contradictions

Yeom Jae-ho

The author is an emeritus professor and former president of Korea University.

We are living in an age of diversity. The 20th century epitomized by the relentless pursuit of economic growth was the age of mass production and consumption through specialization and scientific management. But such methodology of development dealt a critical blow to mankind — massive waste, pollution, and global warming, for instance — to the extent of threatening the very survival of the planet in the 21st century.

The change in industrial systems from digitalization forced the 20th century paradigm of production — manufacturing in small quantities — to shift to a small production of large quantities in the new century. A society controlled by a small group of elites also transformed into a diverse and individualized society. Gone are the days when three terrestrial televisions dominated the broadcast market in Korea, as more than 100 TV channels are competing now. You can read your favorite news online instead of waiting for morning newspapers to arrive at your doorstep. You can hardly call Korea a single ethnic society anymore. A new era of diversity based on differences and distinctions has emerged.

Diversity of values expands too. Pets have become your companion and even a family member. An increasing number of people think it’s better to live with those lovely creatures than living with children or a spouse. A new culture has appeared in which if someone decides not to get married, he or she receives cash from friends as a gift just as in the case of marriage.

People’s attitudes about sex have also undergone drastic changes as biological sex gives way to gender. Rachel Levine — Assistant Secretary for Health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and a former professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the Penn State College of Medicine — was the highest-ranking openly transgender government official in U.S. history. As a father, he had two children, but even the press calls him “her.” Identities of a sexual minority has been diversified into nine types beyond the traditional boundaries of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender.

The new era of diversity embraces divergent values ignored in the past. But unfortunately, an ability to accept diversity and emphasize with the new normal is declining at the same time to create a tricky period of contradictions. The recent trend of choosing — and accepting — a particular type of diversity while showing hostility toward others sounds alarms. Empathy toward others is losing steam as seen in the ever-deepening gender, generational, regional and class conflicts around us. When diversity is politicized, a society loses its ability for fair judgment and tribal politics replaces it.

Democracy prospers when differences with others are accepted. A community develops this way. If individuals or groups immersed in a certain ideology or value reproduce bigotry endlessly, democracy faces crises. When a society shuns healthy criticism and champions unconditional support for a biased belief, it impairs the value of diversity, as such a mindset helps reinforce belligerency and attacking instincts toward others.

Frans De Waal, a Dutch primatologist and author of “The Age of Empathy,” attributed the dramatic evolution of humans to their high-level of interdependence. Despite its innate selfish nature, mankind could develop a community for all primarily thanks to “enlightened selfishness.” Without an ability to embrace differences with others, a community cannot grow. Karl Popper, who underscored the value of moral relativism, famously said that one-sided historicism based on elitism brought about uncompromising radicalism and totalitarianism. “We can return to the beasts. But if we wish to remain human, then there is only one way, the way into the open society,” he said. A positive aspect of diversity is that a society should respect not only the values of diversity cherished by a minority but also existing values of a majority.

Crises of democracy come from a winner-take-all political system. A desire to take power by mobilizing a small number of extreme supporters pushes a community to the edge of a cliff. If a society falls into the trap of a merciless system without any sense of compassion, the community is doomed to collapse. Political leaders from both sides of the aisle must not forget that.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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