The Beauty of Differences: Multiculturalism Through the Eyes of a Humanist

By Sébastien Lafrance, Crown Counsel Canada

The unknown. From prehistorical ages with the discovery of fire to spatial exploration with the discovery of new planets, the human race has always been fascinated by the unknown but, sometimes, has also been scared by it. We propose here a brief intellectual expedition into a few concepts and issues related to multiculturalism; a gold-digging journey unfolding some of the beauty, but also shedding some light on the darker side, of all of us, the human race.

Sometimes, the stars align, and give us comfort, as the recent penumbral lunar eclipse (shown in the picture below) where the Moon, Jupiter and Saturn align, that is felt like a warm hello from the cold outer space, as if this unique event was set up only for ourselves, humans, where the stars seem to tell us in a poetic manner ‘the Earth will never stop spinning, and everything will be fine’, even though we all currently experience, down here on Earth, worrying circumstances with the COVID-19 health crisis. In a not-so-distant past, aboard both Voyager spacecrafts launched through space in 1977 were two records that contain sounds and images, that portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth, including ‘Greetings in 55 languages’, which are intended for any intelligent extraterrestrial life form who may find them to know more about what is best in the human race (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voyager_Golden_Record#Track_listing). What may also be understood implicitly from the Voyager spacecrafts is that it gives a picture of the human race that is united in spite of the linguistic and cultural differences. Not 7,177 different space spacecrafts, representing each language currently spoken on Earth (https://www.ethnologue.com/guides/how-many-languages#:~:text=7%2C117%20languages%20are%20spoken%20today.&text=This%20is%20a%20fragile%20time,than%20half%20the%20world’s%20population), were launched into space but one, only one. This gives fruits to the imagination: “Imagine all the people living life in peace” (https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/johnlennon/imagine.html). Wendell Bell asked: “Can we humans learn to live in peace, while cooperating with each other to create a world in which individual freedom and social harmony are balanced and where human well-being is maximized?” (Wendell Bell, ‘The Clash of Civilizations and Universal Human Values’, Journal of Future Studies, Yale University, United States, 2002, at page 3: https://sociology.yale.edu/sites/default/files/clash_of_civilizations_jfs.pdf).

Credit: Picture of the lunar eclipse taken in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on July 5, 2020 by Hannah De Gregorio Leão, law student at PUC-Rio, Brazil

The history of the human race, at least until now, may unfortunately give a negative answer to that question where the Holocaust (https://www.un.org/en/holocaustremembrance/docs/FAQ%20Holocaust%20EN%20Yad%20Vashem.pdf), for example, remains the most horrific example of its darker side: the Holocaust killed in atrocious conditions millions of people mostly because of their ethnic origin, and because of the rise to power of a so-called pure race – as if such a thing ever existed in reality -, which concept was based on eugenic ‘principles’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugenics). In that context, the ‘stranger’, the Jewish population, personified, under the former National-Socialist regime in Germany, what was to be found not only different from the Germanic peoples (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germanic_peoples), but were also to be considered an inferior people (Untermensch: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Untermensch#:~:text=listen)%2C%20underman%2C%20sub%2D,%2C%20Russians%2C%20etc.).), who were to be exterminated. Against that negative and truly unacceptable representation of the Jewish population, it is worth repeating what Shylock, one of the main characters of the William Shakespeare play Merchant of Venice, says at Act 3 Scene 1 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shylock): “Doesn’t a Jew have eyes? Doesn’t a Jew have hands, bodily organs, a human shape, five senses, feelings, and passions? Doesn’t a Jew eat the same food, get hurt with the same weapons, get sick with the same diseases, get healed by the same medicine, and warm up in summer and cool off in winter just like a Christian?” In other words, are not we all humans after all?

Interestingly, let us recall that Benjamin Franklin (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_Franklin), one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, advocated for English-only schools in Pennsylvania in the United States because he was upset about German-speaking students. He wrote in a short essay in 1751 titled Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, at paragraph 23: “Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.” (https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-04-02-0080). This leads us to observe that there will always be a ‘stranger’ somewhere, the ‘stranger’ being someone who is deemed to be different from what ‘we’ mentally represent ourselves as ‘who we are’, the group to whom ‘we’ belong. Because there is always two sides to a medal, some may appreciate the positive contribution of the ‘stranger’ to the community whereas some may rather see the ‘stranger’ with a different set of eyes: “various local cultural groups sometimes do view the emerging global culture as a threat, because they fear that their traditional ways will disappear or be corrupted”, but as Wendell Bell suggests, “preservation of many aspects of local traditions is not incompatible with participation in a global culture” (Wendell Bell, ‘The Clash of Civilizations and Universal Human Values’, Journal of Future Studies, Yale University, United States, 2002, at page 8: https://sociology.yale.edu/sites/default/files/clash_of_civilizations_jfs.pdf).

Umberto Eco, the Italian philosopher, stated in 2019 when “Considering the Relativity of Beauty in Human History”: “once you set a criterion for beauty, a corresponding criterion for ugliness always seems to present itself pretty much automatically”

 (https://lithub.com/umberto-eco-on-the-elusive-concept-of-ugliness/). Beauty is then understood in opposition of ugliness; beauty requires and is the result of a comparison, then it could not exist by itself. In the same spirit, cultural or linguistic differences may then be seen – at least, when they are unknown – as foreign to a person’s Platonic ideal (https://www.thefreedictionary.com/Platonic+idealism) of what may be considered beautiful. Therefore, even if it is true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, that same eye may be trained, or educated, to objectively see and subjectively appreciate the various differences that exist in this world. Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant/), also stated that “only humans are capable of appreciating beauty” (https://science.jrank.org/pages/8445/Beauty-Ugliness-Function-Beauty.html), then should beauty be limited to what resembles or is like ‘us’; should beauty be limited to what ‘we’, as a member of one ethnicity, recognize as a part of our group; should beauty be limited to what does not frighten ‘us’ simply because the ‘stranger’ is different? The suggested answer is a vibrant ‘no’. It is also the opinion of the author that we, as human beings, should not only accept what is already known to us as individuals, but that we should also be open-minded to discover the unknown, the ‘stranger’. The differences that may seem strange or even scary to a person at first could eventually turn into an unforgettable experience that would change that person’s life forever. As an example, such a mindset could give a person the opportunity to enjoy, without prejudice, “the indescribable beauty of the Taj Mahal in India, to taste with appetite the bún chả of Vietnam, to smell the unique floral scents of Hong Kong, to observe the ruins of St. Paul in Macau, to enjoy the tranquility of the waters bordering the north of Australia, to hear the harmonious melodies of the gamelan in Indonesia, to be moved to tears by the architecture of certain monuments in Thailand, to be touched by the timelessness of the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, to be rejuvenated by Alishan National Park in Taiwan, to be stirred by the dynamism of Singapore, and much more.” (Sébastien Lafrance, ‘Nul n’est prophète en son pays: l’expérience polymorphe de faire connaître le droit canadien à l’étranger’ [‘No one is a prophet in their own land: the polymorphous experience of making Canadian law known abroad’], published in French: https://avocatshorsquebec.org/nul-nest-prophete-en-son-pays-lexperience-polymorphe-de-faire-connaitre-le-droit-canadien-a-letranger/). In a nutshell, the existence of multiculturalism, when consciously accepted, does not only exist in the abstract, in someone’s mind or in the laws, but it may – and should ideally – also be lived, in the real world, through all your senses.

Now, more specifically with respect to India, Professor (Dr.) Dominic noted that, “India is the best example of multicultural society where people speak 122 major languages and 1599 other languages. Unity in diversity is the beauty of India and the Indian Constitution assigns equal rights, privileges and duties to all people irrespective of gender, caste, class, community, language and religion.” (https://www.boloji.com/articles/49076/multiculturalism-in-india-a-wonder-to-the-world). Chief Justice S.R. Das in re The Kerala Education Bill, 1957, at paragraph 34,also observed that “[t]he genius of India has been to find unity in diversity by assimilating the best of all creeds and cultures” (https://www.casemine.com/judgement/in/5609aafee4b014971140b70e). Further, from a constitutional law point of view, “The Indian Constitution is, in a significant sense, a cosmopolitan constitution” by including “an amalgam of many sources and traditions” (Sujit Choudhry, Madhav Khosla, Pratap Bhanu Meht, ‘Ch. 1 Locating Indian Constitutionalism’ in Madhav Khosla, Pratap Bhanu Meht(eds.), The Oxford Handbook of the Indian Constitution, 2016: https://oxcon.ouplaw.com/view/10.1093/law/9780198704898.001.0001/law-9780198704898-chapter-1).

As a Canadian, the author cannot ignore either the resemblance that exists between our two countries regarding the existence of a cultural and linguistic diversity. Canada is “a multiethnic and multicultural country … which accentuates and advertises its modern record of respecting cultural diversity and human rights and of promoting tolerance of religious and ethnic minorities — and is in many ways an example thereof for other societies” (Syndicat Northcrest v. Amselem, [2004] 2 S.C.R. 551, at paragraph 87: https://www.canlii.org/en/ca/scc/doc/2004/2004scc47/2004scc47.html?searchUrlHash=AAAAAQAXIm11bHRpY3VsdHVyYWwgY291bnRyeSIAAAAAAQ&resultIndex=2). From a legal standpoint, section 27 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,adopted in 1982,provides that “[t]his Charter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation of the multicultural heritage of Canadians.” In addition, the Canadian Multiculturalism Act, enacted in 1988, also recognizes Canada’s multicultural heritage and obliges the federal (national) administration to consider, and to favor multiculturalism in its decisions; its preamble also “recognizes the diversity of Canadians … as a fundamental characteristic of Canadian society”. The Supreme Court of Canada also confirmed the protection of minorities, including linguistic minorities, as one of the four foundational principles of Canadian federalism (Reference re Secession of Quebec, [1998] 2 S.C.R. 217, at paragraph 79: https://www.canlii.org/en/ca/scc/doc/1998/1998canlii793/1998canlii793.html?autocompleteStr=Reference%20re%20Secession%20of%20Quebec&autocompletePos=1).

Far from being the grant of a legal status to a fairy tale, this is the acknowledgement by the judiciary of both States of the beauty and the importance of diversity in our respective nations. It is also the recognition that differences are not to be discarded or rejected with disdain or even fear but to be welcomed inside our nations. This does not mean, which would be a naïve statement anyway, that this is the end of some quarrels or tensions that may occur in the relations between different cultural or linguistic groups of our two countries, but it is a long-lasting formal step towards the direction of including the groups that are meant to form constitutive parts of the nation.

In this time of COVID-19 where many countries shut their borders for the safety of their citizens and where, in some of them, intolerance is on the rise, let us remember to not also close our minds to what the world has most beautiful: its differences.