We started our conversation with Norenzayan describing three of the benefits social psychologists and anthropologists have discovered about diversity.
“Diversity concentrates talent,” Norenzayan said. Cities, universities and businesses can advance when talented people gather together from diverse cultures.
In addition “diverse groups are more creative at problem solving,” Norenzayan said. Laboratory experiments show groups of varied people can imagine many novel uses for an object that a more homogeneous group sees in a limited way.
Thirdly, people in diverse contexts can learn the skill of interacting without polarizing. Norenzayan cited summer camps in which young Jews and Palestinians become friends, the prime route to cross-cultural understanding.
But there are potential downsides to diversity, which should not be denied.
The most obvious is that diversity can lead to self-segregation.
I have written about the startling degree to which ethnic Chinese, South Asians, Caucasians and others are forming ethnic enclaves in Metro Vancouver, a region that demographers call “hyper-diverse” since 45 per cent of the population is foreign born.
“People are less likely to get to know their neighbours if they live in diverse neighbourhoods. Contact diminishes,” Norenzayan said.
It’s happening at UBC, which is a predominantly ethnic Asian campus. “Asian students and non-Asian students self-segregate.”
Diversity “can unravel very fast”
….Canada is not on the verge of becoming like divided Lebanon. But that strife-torn country is a chilling example of how diversity can suddenly turn to polarization.
“People used to think of Lebanon as a model of a society that was very diverse,” Norenzayan said. Muslims, Christians, Lebanese, Palestinians and others tended to get along.
“But, in 1975, it unravelled very fast. So I don’t have any illusions.”
Although few can explain why Lebanon boiled over, Norenzayan said it “doesn’t take much to poison the well.” Certain events in Lebanon incited groups that once tolerated each other to turn to identity politics, inducing “a spiral of negativity” that continues to this day.
Even though most countries of the world don’t accept any immigrants, some that do, like the U.S., Britain, France and the Netherlands, have in recent years experienced a rapid rise of immigration-skeptical nativism.
Despite decades of official multiculturalism, Norenzayan worries many Canadians still think that being honest about cultural differences is the same as stereotyping. And the last thing any Canadian wants to be called is racist or xenophobic, however unfairly.
“The first thing to do is tell people difference is OK. It’s not prejudice to recognize people have different beliefs,” Norenzayan said.
Social psychologists, for instance, have found through experiments that most people in the West value independence, choice and self-realization.
But in Chinese and Korean cultures, research shows group cohesion and obedience are tied into morality.
“My Chinese students are extremely respectful of authority,” Norenzayan said. When he asks Chinese students to call him “Ara,” he says most “just can’t do it. They think it’s immoral. They believe deference to authority is a moral value.”
Another Asian value that Westerners don’t get, said Norenzayan, is purity.
While Hindu temple priests expect visitors to take their shoes off before entering as an act of purity, he said many Westerners think it’s just etiquette. But purity codes have powerful consequences throughout Asia.
“Cultural curiosity” recognizes differences
The more we explore diversity, the more we may find some cultural differences morally disturbing, depending on whether we’re liberal, conservative or in-between.
Even though we should avoid a rush to judgment, Norenzayan said a diverse society like Canada “has to make some choices” about how far to go in accepting some cultural differences.
I asked Norenzayan what he thought about Toronto Muslim Zunera Ishaq’s successful fight in 2015 to wear a face-covering niqab during her citizenship ceremony.
“I personally don’t agree with niqabs, but I don’t think there should be a law that bans them,” he said. “There are lot of things I don’t like that other people do. Where do you stop? If (polls show most of) the Canadian population doesn’t like something, do we ban it?”
When I responded that European courts appear to be making reasonable decisions to ban women wearing niqabs while working with young people in daycare centres or public schools, Norenzayan added he believed RCMP officers should likely not be permitted to wear niqabs.
He also felt strongly about polygamy. His former UBC colleague, Joe Heinrich, discovered that polygamist societies tend to be “more violent and more gender unequal.”
If Canada were to legalize polygamy, Norenzayan said, it would make the country “a magnet for polygamous immigrants,” which he thinks would be harmful.
Compared to many countries, Canadian multiculturalism is maintaining a certain calm. We’re often ranked as one of the world’s most “tolerant” nations.
“But we don’t really know why,” Norenzayan said. He emphasized we need to figure it out.
We speculated the country’s relative peace and good order could have something to do with our protected borders and general Canadian “civility,” which has long historical roots.
We also agreed Canadians’ overall acceptance of diversity flows from a highly selective migration policy. Most countries don’t allow any immigration, but those that do constantly adjust intake criteria, and levels, in search of the sweet spot that encourages integration.
Since Norenzayan has experienced how easily a hyper-diverse region can descend to tribalism, he feels more urgency than most about enhancing Canada’s relative harmony,
Instead of being “culture blind” and pretending no differences exist, Norenzayan says society needs to offer more Canadians a chance to experience positive contact across cultures.
I couldn’t agree more when he suggests the attitude necessary to make that happen is the genuine practise of cultural curiosity.