We live in a very diverse world. Not only is each individual unique but, as people from different parts of the world have come into contact, it has become clear that each culture has different priorities.
Do we have anything in common?
I was very fortunate to have been brought up in a multicultural and bilingual household and to have come of age in a Canadian city that celebrates its ethnic diversity. Travelling, studying and working on different continents also broadened my perspective, and I came to realize there’s a great deal that brings us together.
Individual and cultural differences simply add to the richness of our common humanity.
I recently uncovered some very old university notebooks from the year I spent studying in the Philippines. Given that my degree was in social sciences with an emphasis on cross-cultural studies, I was able to take some fascinating courses examining ethics and values on the other side of the world.
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What I realized is that while there were differences in language (including body language), traditions, interests and certain cultural norms, there were certain things upon which we agreed. We all valued honesty, integrity, respect, truth and love. We also recognized that when these principles were compromised we created problems for ourselves and for one another.
How one shows respect can vary between one culture and the next, but open-mindedness can help us gain a better understanding of one another.
Early in my career, I was in the bustling African metropolis of Kinshasa. When I walked down the street, strangers said hello to me. Having lived in Toronto and Montreal, I felt quite affronted by this behaviour.
I brought up my displeasure with Congolese colleagues. They were rather surprised at my reaction and said, “These people can see you’re not from here and they just want you to feel welcome.”
Needless to say, my perspective was broadened – as was my sense of humour.
There’s no superior culture in the world; there are just different cultures and different ways of interpreting our core human values. Unfortunately, it took us centuries of colonialism and two extremely destructive world wars before finally engaging in serious discussion regarding our commonality.
Global discourse began in earnest after the Second World War. In 1948, the United Nations published the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Other human rights documents have more clearly specified these common values, including the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child, and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The challenge the world faces is in honouring our fundamental values. It’s very easy to get caught up in superfluous differences between people. It can also be inconvenient to embrace our higher human ideals when they interfere with our short-term interests.
This is a dilemma each of us faces, and some deal with it better than others.
I’ve been privileged to know thousands of people from hundreds of places. I struggle to think of any whom I didn’t like, and hopefully most of them feel the same about me. There’s a common decency we all understand. In the end, everyone wants to be seen as a sacred and unique human with their own story. Everyone wants to be treated with respect.
If we can remember and prioritize these truths, we will find ways to move forward together. Doing so is essential to our well-being and perhaps even to our survival.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and works with at-risk students. For interview requests, click here.
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