Diversity is a difficult philosophical concept which only makes sense within a liberal Western tradition that theoretically acknowledges and celebrates the right of any individual to be ‘themselves’ without being harassed or discriminated against by the state. This liberal definition of the person’s rights to hold their own religious, political and sexual opinions did not extend to minority groups just like Plato’s Athens and Cicero’s Rome only understood ‘diversity’ within the narrow parameters of a white male dominated society. The tradition of Western political thought is notoriously colour blind when it comes down to recognising the rights of non-white or non-European ethnic groups.
John Rawls comes the nearest to tackling the issue of diversity when, in his Theory of Justice, he hypothesises a ‘veil of ignorance’ and the priority given to the underprivileged and the excluded minorities in his model of what could rightly be called a ‘just’ society. Among the critics of Rawls, Michael Sandel suggests that as a major exponent of liberal political theory, Rawls fails to acknowledge that we cannot detach ourselves from our original socio-cultural identity and simply merge into an anonymous melting pot of equal contactors. Justice is, indeed, for Rawls, an ‘Archimedian point’, independent of all historical and social contingency.
This conception of justice is, for a liberal Western mind, a self-evident truth which implies and guarantees the fairest possible modus vivendi for societies characterised by cultural and religious diversity. A successful harmonious society takes into account the different interpretations of ‘the good life’ held by diverse ethnic groups. The resurgence of nationalist ethnic claims within sovereign states poses a real challenge and potential threat to existing national communities. No political thinker has yet found a universal formula or panacea to accommodate contrasting and too often conflicting views about how to achieve a degree of fairness and justice between groups historically estranged from each other by centuries of oppression and mistrust. History always seems to prevail over the best philosophical arguments.
However, some countries are prepared to face the burden of the past and recognise their former prejudices. Senator Obama, in his famous speech on race, delivered in Philadelphia in March 2008, gave a new sense of hope, not to Black Americans but to American citizens of all racial backgrounds when he renewed the pledge of the Founding Fathers to build, if not heaven on earth, at least, ‘a more perfect union’: ‘I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together – unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction – towards a better future for our children and our grandchildren.’