The Dignity of Difference*

by Arun Maira
* I have borrowed this phrase from “The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations”, the title of a book by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

Hunger, poverty, environmental degradation, unemployment, chronic disease, drug addiction, and war, for example, persist in spite of the analytical ability and technical brilliance that have been directed toward eradicating them. No one deliberately creates these problems, no one wants them to persist, but they persist nonetheless. That is because they are intrinsically systems problems—undesirable behaviors characteristic of the system structures that produce them.                                Thinking in Systems, Donella H. Meadows

Arun Maira, Former Member of the Planning Commission, Government of India © Arun Maira

Arun Maira, Former Member of the Planning Commission, Government of India © Arun Maira

Each of us is a small part of a very large and complex world. We are different from each other. We see the world differently too. We all want the world to be better, if not for everyone, then at least for ourselves. Collectively we are becoming troubled by the damage we are causing to our ‘commons’—our shared Earth and its environment. At the same time, persistent poverty, break-down of political order, and hopelessness in societies, are breeding violence and terrorism. It is dawning on us that we cannot take the view that, when others are sinking, ‘thank goodness the hole is not in our side of the boat’. People are risking their lives to scramble to our side of the boat. We are all in the same boat really.

We are each a part of a system, but we do not comprehend the system of which we are a part.

India is a complex and large component of this complex world. Incredible in its diversity. With a huge challenge before it, of creating good livelihoods and jobs for millions of people, and improving their health and education, to lift them sustainably out of poverty. Systems function well when their components are aligned. They become dysfunctional when coordination amongst the components breaks down. For India to progress faster to fulfill the needs of its citizens, Indians must overcome many internal differences. They must collaborate to shape their collective future. There must be a consensus amongst them about their idea of their India.

This essay is about the differences in the ‘lenses’ through which we, Indians and others, see each other. It is also about the fragmentation of world-views amongst scientific disciplines. It advocates an urgent need to cultivate disciplines of systems’ thinking and deep listening so that everyone can live together harmoniously and sustainably on our commons: Indians in India, and peoples of all nations together on the one Earth we share.

Our lenses

The term ‘Lenses’ is used to describe the different ways in which different people perceive the same phenomena. People see the world through lenses which are formed with their enculturation in their communities. Thus, Asians and Westerners see the world differently. Amongst Westerners, Americans and French people have different perspectives. And amongst Asians, Japanese and Palestinians would have different views of the world, as would Mongolians and Indonesians.

Lenses are shaped by where we come from and by our histories. They are also shaped by our formal education. Epistemology, the study of how we know what we know, explains some of the differences in the ways in which people see the world. The humanities and the sciences have different views of the world. C.P. Snow said they were two different ‘cultures’. The two cultures began to separate, particularly in Europe, since the 18th century, with the advance of more ‘scientific’ ways of knowing. ‘Lenses’ is a broader idea than epistemology. It encompasses the concepts of epistemology, and also the colors that our histories and cultures give to our ways of seeing things.

Our ways of seeing, and making sense of things are also influenced by our ‘ideologies’ and ‘values’. Conservatives, liberals, and radicals will see the same situation differently. Where conservatives see economic growth, liberals may see inequity. And where conservatives may worry about disruption, radicals may be gladdened by a movement for change. Thus our histories and cultures, our education, and our ideologies and values, shape the ways in which we see the world. All these together shape our ‘lenses’.


India is often described as an ‘incredible’ country on account of its diversity—of religions, races, languages, and geographies within it; as well as the many histories that have coursed through it, and inter-mingled in it, over thousands of years. This incredible complexity would make it difficult for anyone to define a singular idea of India. Add to that the diversity of ‘lenses’ of those who attempt to define India, which are shaped by where these people are from, from outside India or from within (and then, from where within), as well as by their epistemological bents, and by their ideologies. Clearly, the challenge of diverse people coming to an agreement about what incredibly diverse India really is, is very large.

A country is a living organism. What a country is cannot be known merely by knowing and measuring its physical properties, as one might know an inanimate thing. Living beings, which countries are, evolve. To understand them and to know them, one must know what they were, and understand how they became what they are. Therefore, to understand living organisms, whether human beings or countries, it becomes necessary to know their biographies and histories.

What is ‘our’ history?

The writing of the histories of countries is complicated by spatial and temporal questions. What should be included in the history of a country is determined by what its boundaries are, geographical and temporal. Thus, histories of ‘France’ are the history of everything that happened within the boundaries of France as they were defined in the nineteenth century. Histories of the United States are the histories of everything, political, social, and industrial that happened in the land from ‘shining sea to shining sea’ and within that country’s borders with Canada and Mexico that were settled two hundred years ago. The histories of Japan and China can be defined within borders that have not changed much for thousands of years. On the other hand, the writing of the histories of many other countries, whose borders have changed many times, is more difficult. What should be included in the history of that country? And how far back can one go, and should one go, to describe the history of that particular country when its borders have been changing over time?

This is indeed a challenge for historians writing a history of ‘India’. The renowned Indian historian, Irfan Habib, points out that, contrary to the notion that the history of ‘India’ goes back to the time of the Vedas, the Vedas did not mention the idea of India at all, and neither did the Upanishads that came later. In addition to the question of when the name ‘India’ actually emerged and was accepted by its people as the name of ‘their’ country, a challenge for historians of India is the changing boundaries of the geographical space within which they should describe the processes that have shaped India.

Countries take on names, and write their own histories, when they become political entities. Their histories are recorded in their archives, in documents mostly written by bureaucrats, diplomats, and court scribes. The boundaries within which various emperors and kings have ruled in the vast land from the Hindu Kush to Burma, and from the Himalayas to Kanyakumari, have changed many times in the past three thousand years. There have also been many kingdoms within this land at the same time. Whose history should be the history of ‘India’?

The first name of ‘the country’ was Sola Maha-Janapada (Sixteen Great States) according to Habib. It occurs in texts going back to 500 BC. The term Aryavarta, ‘the land of the noble’, occurs in some Dharma Sutras; and the Manusrmiti defined Aryavarta as the country between the Himalayas and the Vindhyas only. Whereas people within the space of the sub-continent may not have seen themselves as citizens of one country, and as ‘Indians’, outsiders did see the land of India as one vast country to whom they gave names that became the origins of the name ‘India’. It was the Iranians who first used the name ‘Hindu’, which is the Persian form of the name of the Sindhu river, that is the Indus river.

The point is that the idea of an ‘India’, a country situated in the land between the long ranges of mountains that ring it along the North and the seas to the South, is an idea with a long, wandering history. It is also an idea not yet settled. Temporal changes to this fluid country’s political structure, with the creation of two new, sovereign countries—Pakistan and Bangladesh—within the same geography, since 1947, make the reconciliation of an idea of ‘India’ in history with an idea of ‘India’ in the present, very difficult indeed.

According to the historian Habib, the first patriotic poem in which India is praised, India is loved, and Indians are acclaimed as a gifted people is Amir Khusrau’s long poem in his Nuh Sipihr written in 1318. He loved India for its many languages. He praised the Brahmans for their learning. He was proud to be an Indian—a citizen of an incredible, diverse country. Khusrau was not a Hindu. He was a Muslim.

‘We’ the people

The French Revolution of 1789 propagated two quite revolutionary ideas, according to Immanuel Wallerstein, author of World Systems Analysis. One was that political change was not an exceptional phenomenon, but normal and constant, albeit its pace would change with circumstances. The second, he says, was, ‘that “sovereignty”—the right of the state to make autonomous decisions within its realm—did not reside in (belong to) either a monarch or a legislature but in the “people” who, alone, could legitimate a regime’.

Both of these ideas have become widely accepted in the last century. The implication of their acceptance, Wallerstein says, was that, ‘it suddenly became imperative for everyone to understand what it was that explained the nature and pace of change, and how the “people” arrived at, could arrive at, the decisions they were said to be making. This is the social origin of what we later came to call the social sciences’.

These new ways of thinking about processes of political and social change lead to questions about who are ‘the people’ who are the agents of change, and how they form a shared identity. The shaping of a unique identity requires a recognition of differences, of who we are and who we are not. This leads to evaluations of who is better, which complicates relationships between peoples.

Hindus celebrating Ganesh Chaturth festivalWhose idea of India?

Asians resent the patronizing of Westerners who, through their own lenses, see Asians (and other ‘Southern’ people) as ‘less developed’. Asians have become critical of histories of Asian countries written through Western lenses. ‘Orientalism’, a branch of the social sciences, that grew within Western academia in the last century, has become discredited in Asian academia. Asians want to write their own histories, just as Westerners have been writing their own. So there is much rewriting of Asian (especially Indian and Chinese) histories now by Indian and Chinese scholars.

The writers of these revisions of history see their country through their own personal lenses, with their cultural, political, ideological, and epistemological biases. Therefore, these revisions of history become contestable too, by others within the same country who have different lenses. India is having two big battles simultaneously between different versions of its history: one between Indian and Western versions, and the other between Indian versions too.

Any attempt to create a shared vision of India’s history could be a fool’s game, for reasons explained before. It will create divisions within the people, which recent efforts to re-write Indian history are creating. However, a shared, aspirational vision of what India must become is necessary to align the energies of all Indians in shaping their future. A foundational element of this vision of India has to be, because it is a fact, that India is a conglomeration of many diverse people with different histories. While Indians cannot have the same lenses, yet they must acknowledge that other Indians also have a right to their perspectives of India. They must respect other Indians as being as Indian as themselves.

Ultimately, the idea of India must be what a billion Indians think it is. All of them will not see India in the same way. Their lenses, like those of the scholars who write about India, are shaped by their personal histories. Even though citizens of India have different lenses, there must be something common in their views of India, for it to become their collective vision of ‘Our’ India.

Indians must discover the highest common factors in their multiple perspectives and aspirations. Therefore, whatever be India’s past, those within India’s present borders must listen to each other deeply to understand who ‘we’ are and to shape ‘our’ future together.

Listening to others is not easy when what they say seems so wrong. It may seem wrong because others see the same reality through different lenses. Like the blind men around the elephant, each of us is convinced that what we see is the truth, which it may be. But it is not the whole truth.

‘Lenses’ again

Science is a discipline in search of eternal truths. Before the empirical, ‘scientific’ methods of discovering truths began to spread along with the so-called ‘Enlightenment’ in Europe in the 17th century, human beings had followed other ways to know truths, and continue to. One was the non-empirical way of philosophers. Another was the way of religions—of truths stated by God’s messengers on earth.

As scientific methods gained strength, they began to split away from the ‘humanities’. Two cultures began to diverge as C.P. Snow pointed out. Scientific disciplines are ‘nomothetic’ disciplines. Nomothetic scholars insist on replicable, and objective (preferably quantitative) methods, and they see their task as arriving at general laws. In contrast to ‘nomothetic’ scientists, humanists may be described as ‘idiographic’. ‘Idio’ is a prefix derived from Greek and means specific, individual, one’s own. Humanists see each instance of social reality as it is: each human being as a complex reality, and each social entity as a complex reality in itself. Ideographic scholars do not have the urge of nomothetic scholars to describe reality in computable equations.

Following the French revolution, with the realization that processes of political change and social transformation are not random, episodic events, but ongoing processes, a new field of ‘social sciences’ emerged to understand such processes. And just as the physical sciences have continued to split further into specialties—physics, chemistry, and biology, and into divisions within each of these too, the social sciences have also split into economics, political science, sociology, anthropology, and other specializations.

Each specialization within the sciences has its own lens to look into the one total reality that all are looking at. Each sees only a slice of it. Therefore, none can, alone, comprehend the whole. However, specialists find it difficult to understand each other. They use different jargons. Writing in peer-reviewed journals, they seek kudos from their own peers. Locked within their own conceptually gated communities, they mostly listen to each other.

The division of disciplines into two cultures, of nomothetic and idiographic varieties, has driven through the fields of social studies too. Some who study societies, such as anthropologists, have an idiographic world-view. They see, and describe, each complex reality as it is. Whereas others, like economists, have adopted a nomothetic world-view. They try to emulate the objectivity of the physicists. They see themselves as ‘scientists’ too, searching for universal laws and repeatable solutions in complex situations.

Systems’ thinking

We have epistemic differences in our ways of seeing the world. The ability to see systems in their entirety, with the rich and complex interactions amongst their parts, is being lost with the continuing multiplication and divisions of scientific specializations.

There are also cultural differences in the ways in which we see each other and the world. Imagine a grid, with epistemic differences along one axis and cultural differences along the other. Each of us is in a cell of this grid, seeing the world through our own narrow lens. We are unable to see the whole picture. We see the trees, not the forest. We understand parts, not the whole system.

As Robert Pirsig writes in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “If a revolution destroys a government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves…There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.”

Donella Meadows says, “Everything seen through each kind of lens is actually there. Each way of seeing allows our knowledge of the wondrous world in which we live to become more complete.

Our lenses have become fragmented. We need to recover the discipline of systems’ thinking, to understand relationships amongst the parts and amongst the people, and then to improve them.


Amongst those who study the complexities of societies, economists have attempted to go furthest towards the ways of physicists, to develop universally valid equations that are mathematically computable, and to produce repeatable policy prescriptions. To be able to do this, they have over-simplified human beings as being all the same, like atoms with the same properties. And, they search for a standard model that can explain the functioning of every society. However, reality is more complex and more beautiful. Moreover, human beings have aspirations in their lives for non-material things too, that cannot be bought with money, as the philosopher Michael Sandel explains so well in his book, What Money Cannot Buy. Such qualities are difficult to quantify and therefore they get excluded from mathematical models of economies.

The term ‘value’, which so far has had only a monetary connotation in economics, is now re-appearing in economics with its moral connotations too. Moral and ethical values, such as fairness and equity, are increasingly demanding attention of economic policy-makers. The global financial crisis of 2008, which main-stream economists could not predict, the sluggishness of growth since then, and the economists’ search for a ‘new normal’ are other signs that economists need new lenses to see the world, and that the discipline of economics needs a new paradigm.

The view of the ‘flat world’, that evangelists of globalization of finance and technology had held forth from Davos and Washington through the nineties and oughties, was too simplistic. The flat world view imagined a world in which increasing interconnection and trade would bring people together into a homogeneity that would value the same brands and that everyone will aspire for the same life-styles. It has not turned out that way. People with different histories and cultures see the world differently. They have different aesthetic and epistemic values, and may even have different moral values.

Technology is value free. The internet and wider digital penetration will not wipe away our differences. Nuclear technologies, internet technologies, drones, and rockets are used by both sides in conflicts. While technologies are advancing rapidly, the challenge facing us is growing more urgent: How on earth can we live together harmoniously?

Who are ‘We’?

India is an ancient country discovering an idea of itself. The United States of America is a young country born with an idea of what it wanted to be. The USA has a Constitution which describes the aspirations of its people. The preamble of the Constitution begins, ‘We the people’. However, defining who the ‘We’ are has been problematic for 250 years since the Constitution was promulgated. Native ‘Indians’ were not part of the ‘We’, even though they were on the land before the settlers who wrote the Constitution came upon it. Negroes, who were brought to serve the settlers, are not yet considered equally within the ‘We’, in spite of being granted some equal legal rights in the last century. In the run up to the next U.S. Presidential election, Donald Trump, the candidate of the Republican Party, which fought for the rights of Negro slaves, has declared that Muslims will not be permitted anymore to come to the USA, and that a wall will be built to shut Mexicans out.

Europe (including the UK), another Western bastion of democratic values, is shutting out refugees escaping economic deprivations and political persecution in Asia and Africa. European citizens find the cultures of the refugees too different to their own. They are finding it difficult to grant the refugees dignity with their difference. They want refugees and immigrants to assimilate: to shed their own ways and adopt the ways of Europe.

Conformity with the culture of those in power must not be required of all for us to be able to live together. Homogenization, and suppression of differences, should not be the solutions for creating harmony. For then we will lose the beauty of diversity. ‘How can we be different and live together harmoniously?’ This is the question confounding the USA, India, and European countries, who are proud of their commitment to democracy, and are struggling to create nations with an inclusive ‘We’.

Father and son talking to each other at sunsetListening

We must live, and we must let live. We must learn to listen to each other to live harmoniously together. We are losing the art of listening.

The quality and tone of public discourse in the modern world has become too shallow. TV and the social media have become the most ubiquitous means for public discourse. The objective of producers of TV debates is to increase the numbers of viewers so that more advertisements can be sold. Therefore, debates have degenerated into entertainment, with big fights between participants, that provide the public with hardly any education about the issue being debated. A dialogue, in which the participants listen to each other, rather than put each other down, is boring, TV producers say. Viewers will switch off; advertising revenues will be lost.

Debates on social media, if they can be called that, have even less listening and understanding of other points of view than debates on TV. The winners of debates on social media are those who win more ‘likes’ during the few hours during which the subject is ‘trending’ before it is replaced by another. So protagonists strive to be noticed amidst the noise, by continuously tweeting and speaking in short bursts, so that they can win more, touch-of- a-key ‘likes’ from people with very short attention spans.

A problem with the ubiquity of information, and with the huge numbers of channels and sites in the electronic and social media, is that people cannot watch and hear everything. So they must make choices of what they will pay attention to, and who they will ‘follow’. They choose those they like, and ignore those who have views they do not like. Thus, the ubiquity of information, which could be a public good, is perversely aggravating divisions in society. People are getting locked into their ideologically and conceptually gated communities in which they only hear people who think like they do. They are not listening to others outside.

When we combine our own perspectives with those of others who have different lenses, we become equipped to understand the behaviors of complex systems. The natural environment is a complex system of which humanity is a small part. Societies and economies are complex systems in which emotions, power, money, and materials inter-mingle in complicated ways. We must understand the behaviors of these complex systems, and our roles within them, better than we have so far, to enable us to shape a more harmonious and sustainable future.

The two disciplines we must develop urgently, so that we are able to live together on Earth harmoniously and sustainably, are the disciplines of systems’ thinking and deep listening. Perversely, we are losing both of them, with advances in scientific specializations and with proliferation of communications technologies.

Deep listening

We must listen to people who are not like us, and whom we may not like, to understand each other, and build bridges amongst communities with differences.

The first level of listening is to pay attention to ‘what’ the other person is saying, even if one does not agree. The instinct of a debater is to get ready with a riposte to prove the other wrong. Therefore, a debater stops listening even while the other is speaking.

Unlike a good debater, a good listener listens well to what the other is saying and also ‘listens’ to her own mind’s reactions to it. She notices her disagreement, and her desire to counter the other. But she stops herself, and goes into a second and deeper level of listening. At this level, she wonders ‘why’ the other thinks the way he does. And, rather than debate the other, she asks the other, with genuine interest, ‘why do you believe what you do?’. Thus she begins to inquire into another’s way of thinking. And begins to see the ‘lens’ through which the other sees the world.

From this second level, deep listeners come to a third, even deeper level of listening. At this level, the listener begins to notice the difference between her own way of seeing the world and the other’s. Thus she may begin to see her own lens. Our lenses are our ways of seeing and thinking. They are buried within the backs of our heads. We cannot see them with our own eyes. However, we may see them reflected in the eyes of another. Deep listening makes one aware of ‘who’ another is. Deep listening also brings self-awareness, of who I am.


 Arun Maira

June 2016