By Francis Tuson

Conceptually, the idea of a culturally diverse world is both interesting and dynamic. Similarly, the idea of a monoculture world is dull and uninspiring. One must ask the question, however, “Does cultural diversity add to the differences that already exist between people of the world, and make the dream of global peace and understanding that much further away?”

As any study of history illustrates, people have a tendency to alienate and demonize ‘the other’. From slavery and apartheid to genocide, xenophobia and ethnic cleansing, people have committed a multitude of atrocities against those they saw as different from themselves.

On the other hand, the interaction of various cultures and peoples over the course of history has often encouraged broader thinking, stimulated trade and cultural development, and kept the interacting cultures themselves from stagnating.

Recent research suggests that oxytocin, ‘the cuddle chemical’ – the hormone responsible for the strong bond between mother and child, has a dark side. While it does promote positive feelings between people, it is quite clear that these feelings are only for those the person sees as within their group, and actually makes them more antagonistic to those considered ‘other’. This suggests a link between oxytocin and xenophobia or ethnocentrism.

Does this mean we are hard-wired for prejudice? No. The research shows that, as strong as these antisocial sentiments can be, the perception of who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ is very easily swayed. Someone who generally dislikes people of a certain race, will, when watching sport, often disregard the race of the players – liking or disliking them according to their team colours instead.

As an entertaining aside, I’ve often jokingly mentioned the desire for an alien invasion, as the existence of something so obviously antagonistic, and so completely foreign to humanity, may be the only thing that will unite us in a common purpose – despite all our racial, ethnic, cultural and religious differences, at least we’re all human…

There are certain questions that come to the fore when discussing culture. For example: how much cultural freedom must, or can, be allowed in a multicultural society? We often see in South Africa, debates take place over the constitutionality of polygamy, practising sangomas, and animal cruelty, offset with the desire for cultural freedom. Another pertinent, although impossible, question is, if we are to minimalize cultural diversity, how do we decide on an appropriate and fair global culture?

Until we live in a world without inherent social and institutional bias, including racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, xenophobia, and religious discrimination, many of the problems that exist in our multi-cultural society cannot be effectively dealt with and we cannot celebrate true cultural diversity in all the glory it deserves.

Join the Jesuit Institute in July for Winter Living Theology (a series of lectures and workshops) led by Fr Bryan Massingale, discussing this topic in detail. More details to follow.