This week saw the second of a four-lecture series in Champlain College around the themes of diversity and community building.
Dr. Feyzi Baban, a professor of International Development, shared his thoughts and research on the difficulties in community building within diverse societies and nation states.
Dr. Baban notes that we have historically lived with difference; however, the contemporary world sees a unique expression of diversity and identity formation.
First, we tend to identify ourselves with singular identities along ethnic, religious, and national lines, just as we would express our eye colour or skin colour.
The difference is that we are not born with our ethnic, national, or religious identity, but that this is a learned component. Once we have learned this, it becomes a singular part of who we are, and yet, we do not reflect on this identity once it is established and see it as complete and unchanging.
The second aspect of contemporary ‘living with difference’ involves our interaction with others and the making of the nation. We see ourselves as members of an established society or community, and this defines how we relate to others.
Nationalism in the contemporary world is key to identity formation, especially in Europe; however, the concept of a nation is relatively new.
Dr. Baban notes that constructing a national identity involved the “violence of forgetting.” For a national identity to emerge, history, language, ethnicities, and kinship ties have to be forgotten and replaced with a nationality and the meanings attributed to being from a specific nation.
The third aspect consists of a counter-narrative to the homogenizing forces of identity formation. High levels of mobility and the influx of cultural others into nation states characterize the contemporary world. For example, Britain is home to a large South Asian community while France is home to a large North African community.
In other worlds, the world is characterized by a cultural plurality that has created increased tension.
Dr. Baban identifies two approaches to living with difference in the contemporary world: assimilation and multiculturalism.
The first approach, assimilation, attempts to replicate the process of nation state building by molding cultural differences into the overarching national identity. In other words, assimilation consists of a process of forgetting origins and learning national identities.
An example lies in the third-generation Turks living in Germany. The discourse surrounding this population from the ‘true Germans’ is that Turks refuse to integrate into the German national identity.
However, assimilation is difficult because with increased population mobility, people tend to connect to multiple places and do not forget. Another issue with assimilation lies in the resistance from those who do fit in to the traditional national identity.
For example, third-generation Turks in Germany, who have more ties to Germany than they do to Turkey, are still not seen as Germans by others.
In this sense, ethnicity plays an important role in preventing assimilation and in invoking otherness constantly. Such resistance to assimilation by both the cultural and ethnic others and those who fir the traditional view of a national identity reinforces the rigidity of national identities that are, nonetheless, a human construct.
When it comes to multiculturalism, otherness becomes a self-container and force of segregation. The Dutch model, for example, has a large Muslim community; however, they are segregated and not included into the definitions of what it means to be Dutch.
The reality is that many nations accept others, but do little to integrate them into the wider society and rather treat these cultural others as a self-contained community separate from the national identity.
However, Dr. Baban contends that today, there are everyday contexts that create instances of living together that are neither assimilation nor multiculturalism where interactions amongst cultural others take place.
He calls this transgressive cosmopolitanism and gives the example of the third generation Turks in Germany who have expressed this concept through films and storytelling.
For example, one of these third generation Turks, who is German, makes films in which aspects of his experiences as a Turk are also relevant and in this way challenges the static and singular conceptions of national identities.
It asks us to re-imagine what being a ‘Canadian’ means in the contemporary world in which living with difference has taken new, and at times, conflicting meanings.