Op-Ed: Diversification without Disintegration – by Ameya Naik

 

His Highness The Aga Khan reflects on the challenges of developing a cosmopolitan and pluralistic society in the information age.

“…to remain empathetically open to the Other in a diversifying world is a continuing struggle of central importance for all of us.”

This piece draws from the 88th Annual Stephen Ogden Lecture, delivered by His Highness the Aga Khan – Imam of the Shia Ismaili community – at Brown University, on the 10th of March, 2014. This lecture addressed the potential benefits and risks from the changes brought to our world by advances in communication technology, including the potential for it to serve as a “centrifugal” force driving increasing fragmentation. His Highness noted that the existence of information per se brings one no closer to knowledge or truth, and indeed may even fuel growing knowledge gaps – which can translate all too easily into gaps of empathy. It will require a robust civil society, animated by the ethic of service and a commitment to pluralism, to develop a cosmopolitan society capable of deriving strength from diversity.

The rapid development of communication technology, and in particular of the internet, has been cited as development of great promise; many hopes are articulated for the future of an increasingly interconnected world. A student of history will see, however, that similar hopes were articulated about every preceding innovation in communication, even as far back as the printing press; many of those hopes were realised, yet many remained unfulfilled. His Highness suggested that it was the element of human choice and intention which would make the ultimate difference – “In the final analysis, the key to human cooperation and concord has not depended on advances in the technology of communication, but rather on how human beings go about using – or abusing – their technological tools.”

Certainly, these tools have empowered us with ever-increasing connectivity to a variety of information. This is precisely why one must be careful not to mistake ‘connectivity’ for ‘connection’ or information for knowledge; one is no closer to the truth merely by virtue of being able to access some version of it on a laptop. That access may indeed translate to more knowledge and understanding, but it can also mean reduced attention spans, impulsive judgments and a tendency to draw conclusions from fleeting snapshots of events. The scope for errors, inadvertent or otherwise, has grown proportionately – as has their potential impact.

A dialectic tension between opposed forces is typical of the complexity that marks our world today, and indeed frames the defining challenge of efforts to promote development: one-size-fits-all solutions are as ineffective as they are sadly common. His Highness formulated an eloquent answer to this challenge, explaining that “…progress is possible when the multiple, diversified needs of any society can be matched by multiple, diversified inputs.” Diversity is an asset in this effort, but diversity serves as a source of enrichment only when the bonds that connect peoples across their differences are strong. Otherwise, there is always the temptation to live one’s life inside a bubble of information, in “echo chamber” communities increasingly isolated from broader reality. Seeking comfort in simplicity is, after all, an understandable reaction to a world of complexity.

This regrettable reliance on simplified narratives has marked much of the media coverage of events in a number of Muslim countries available to citizens of Western countries. Events of the past decade are no more the norm in those countries than, for instance, the attacks of September 11, 2001 can be considered typical of US history; the unfortunate result of those attacks, however, has been that all those developments are viewed through a lens of instability, confrontation and fear. His Highness recalled the traditions in Islam, that all the world is descended from a single soul, and that the “People of the Book” (that is, the Abrahamic religions) would be friends in faith. How then does one explain the prevalence of notions of some inevitable clash between these nations? It cannot be traced to their theologies being irreconcilable, so perhaps it owes more to misunderstandings.

The notion of theology misunderstood – indeed, wilfully misconstrued, in the face of all available information – gains more credence when one observes that history, culture and art are obscured within the Muslim world, as much as outside it. This is most evident in the growing conflict between Sunni and Shia sects, a situation His Highness described as “an absolute disaster” developing from an incomprehension of the diversity inherent in Islam itself. Religious hostility and intolerance contribute to violent crises and political impasse all over the world. There has seldom been a more pressing need to work to replace fearful ignorance with empathetic knowledge, and to pursue a thoughtful, renewed commitment to the concept of plurality, to the essential unity of the human race.

His Highness noted that the success of democratic governance will depend on more than democratic governments alone, and identified a strong civil society as being central to the effort of building relations of confidence across different peoples and unique individuals. Difference can be a blessing, rather than a burden, where one engages with it in an atmosphere distinguished by a commitment to plurality, an openness to merit and an ethic of service. Together, these constitute the cosmopolitan ethic, so essential to productive interactions in our complex world. The handling of differences will always be a challenging task, seeking to balance the particular and the universal, and to reconcile values and interests, tradition and free will, the central and the regional, the urban and the rural – to enable democratic change while providing institutional continuity.

Again, no one answer is likely to present itself to these conundrums. It is difficult to predict what changes will occur in a given area, and how any one of these factors will respond to any actions we take. Given the information we have and the options available, we will be called upon to prioritize particular measures over others. The answer, according to His Highness, will lie only in competent, intelligent and nuanced analysis based on “empathetic knowledge”, conducted in the true spirit of enquiry rather than driven by dogma. Towards this end, while professional education is sorely needed in the developing world, a number of more abstract measures will be equally important. These will include the capacity to integrate knowledge, to nurture critical thinking and ethical sensitivity and to advance interdisciplinary teaching and research. Above all, we must teach adaptability, the ability for new learning in the face of new knowledge.

If one believes, as the Shia Ismaili tradition does, in the transformational effect of the human intellect, then the solution to these difficult global challenges – and indeed our source of hope – lies in the cultivation of such education, which cultivates that empathetic knowledge as well as the ethic of service to put that learning into play.

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