A meditation about the common bond of life and how it relates to the recent tussle for ownership of the word ‘Allah’. This is an essay in three parts which will be published over three consecutive days. Comments may only be made on the third instalment. This first segment deals with the distinguishing the concept of different from diversity and how it relates to extremist thinking.
It is an undeniable, inescapable fact that diversity is inherent in Life. We can see this from the terrain, weather and environment of our world as compared to others in the galaxy, from the multiplicity of species and the diversity from many facets both within and without a particular specie of plant and animal life, from the diversity of basic molecular elements that science has identified.
We can see it in just about everything, especially ourselves. There is always some variance or variation to our thoughts, beliefs, lifestyle, dress, tastes, interests and others in all of us. Those variations are distinct to us and when put together create that which is unique about us.
Our error, subtle as it is significant, is in thinking that our diversity is indicative of an inherent, unchanging “differentness” between us. There are important though very subtle nuances between the concept of ‘diversity’ and ‘difference’.
That something is different from another suggests a fundamental lack of commonality between the two things compared. The emphasis there is on ‘differ’, which functions as a verb. Diversity, on the contrary, is a noun and suggests a common or shared origin from which differentiation flourishes. Pregnant in diversity is the concept of differences and differentiation which does not demand the different.
Science has now persuasively demonstrated that all life on earth descended from the mitochondrial Eve – that is a single organism that proceeded to differentiate into a plethora of other life forms as it evolved in different environmental conditions. This demonstration can be found in the discovery of the DNA, which is made up of four molecular elements in the genetic code that we humans share with all other life forms on earth. It is trite knowledge that chimpanzees share as much as 97% of the human genetic code whereas other creatures share less. Plants also contain DNA as well. It was recently reported in our newspapers that scientists have now mapped the soybean genetic code. They could only do that after they discovered DNA from our own bodies.
In that wider sense, our ancestors, our relations, our family is not simply our forefathers or even the great apes, but any other living thing you can imagine – the algae at the bottom of the ocean, fish, trees, hyenas, amoebas, lizards, flies, even politicians. Every living thing is related to one another because we all share the same basic building blocks of life – DNA. That perhaps explains why we share the same compulsion for life – that innate urge to live and flourish. The diversity of life forms on earth proves that life is to be found in diversity, not in the different.
But how did we humans get from diversity to “differentness”?
I am tempted to think that that sorry step lay in mankind’s ignorance, superficiality and general anthropocentric world view. Before the discovery of DNA mankind naturally had to build up a mythology about ourselves. Our myths were to help us find meaning to our existence. These myths were also our attempts to comprehend the seeming difference between us and all the other life forms on earth. We thought we stood apart and superior to all of them simply because we could talk, think, create music, weapons, for example, but more importantly we could manipulate all other living creature not simply for our benefit, but for profit.
Though we emerged from Nature, we thought we stood apart from her. The accumulation of these thoughts refined and heightened our anthropocentric world view and influenced our culture. Despite being mere bits of flesh on one of eight planets that revolved around the sun, in the Milky Galaxy which is in turn made up of millions of other stars, all that was lost in our narcissism. In our superiority we imagined the entire universe revolves around us. The sense of superiority coupled with our vanity reduced everything in our world into a playground of entertainment, indulgence and fuel to our narcissism.
On a personal level, human beings need to express themselves in that way that is unique and delightful to us. We express ourselves because we must. In doing so, we cannot help but differentiate ourselves from each other. Our uniqueness is found in that expression of differentiation. In asking, how are you different from me, we identify what is unique to me and therefore to you. We wear different clothes, use different languages, think and believe different things – this is natural and important. It is vital to our very identity.
The grave error arises when we think by differentiating ourselves that we are different from one another.
In that moment that you think yourself different from me, you could easily slide and spiral into forgetting and thereafter believing that we lack a commonality between us. And when you start feeling this or that our differentness is greater than our commonality, you will begin to think yourself superior to me by only your standards. When that sense of superiority seizes you, even partially, then disdain and contempt for me quickly follows. That is because I will come to symbolize all that is different and inferior to you. But I will stand as a reminder of your potential for, if not temptation into, inferiority. You will find an urgent need to reduce me to the point of annihilation to eradicate that painful symbol and reminder of your deep seated fear.
What fear is this?
It is the fear of annihilation of your uniqueness and superiority if you admit that commonality between us. That fear breeds a terror that you cannot quell inside you. So you expel your terror by externalizing it, in the futile hope you can eject it from your being. But you will find the greater the terror you inflict upon others, the more awesome the fear and terror grows. You intensify your expulsion of terror more extremely, always longing for that moment when it empties out of you so the inner peace you hope for flutters in and alights in you. But the tree of peace cannot be cultivated from seeds of fear and terror.
That is how the slide and spiral from the concept differentiation to different relates to the manifestation of extremism and terrorism. It stems from the fear of the other borne out of an inability to reconcile one’s self to the Other.
That Other is all of Life.