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Delighting in Difference – Part 1

Adapted from an article written by Mike Allen (gotherefor.com).

A recent viral video filmed on the campus of Washington University by the Family Policy Institute of Washington features a five-foot-nine inch white male asking others how they would respond to (what turns out to be) his increasingly ridiculous claims.

Early on, he asks how they might respond if he told them that he was a woman. Representative answers included, “Good for you” and “Nice to meet you”. He then asked for responses to his claim to be Chinese. While these answers did express an element of surprise, the general tone continued to be one of affirmation. What about if he claimed to be seven years old? Though his listeners wouldn’t believe him, most were happy to affirm his decision: as one stated, “If you feel seven at heart, then, so be [it], good for you”. Opinions were more divided on his claim to be six feet five inches: while most would question his clearly incorrect belief, they were more than happy for him to continue to believe that, with not one of them willing to tell him he was wrong. The video sums up by saying, “It shouldn’t be hard to tell a five-nine white guy that he’s not a six-foot five Chinese woman, but clearly it is.”

There are many aspects of the prevailing western worldview on display in that video, such as the common, but unfortunate, insistence that we mustn’t ever offend others by disagreeing with them. But to pick on one strand, why are we so quick to ignore actual difference? Because notice how the moment others are allowed to arbitrarily define their own difference, we must simultaneously ignore and ultimately devalue actual difference. Which is to say, there is more going on here than people simply wanting to recognize differences. Ironically, in their desire to recognize difference, they don’t acknowledge actual differences. So why is the acknowledgement of actual difference such a bad thing that we will pretend not to notice when clearly false claims are made?

Why are we so quick to ignore difference? What’s the motivation? Why has our world embraced this denial of difference? I remember witnessing this curious trend for the first time on Frontline, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s comedy series from the 90s. In one episode, an unassuming academic was branded a racist and likened to a Nazi for simply publishing a statistical study highlighting certain differences between races1. Now, in his defence, he was merely presenting what was verifiably true and was making no value judgements based upon those results. But even still, he endured ridicule for merely presenting the facts. Though the episode was fictitious and satirical, today it seems that the truth has become stranger than fiction.

Of course, we do recall times when differences were used to rationalize injustices. The Frontline episode made the link between the identification of distinct racial attributes and Nazi Germany’s horrific treatment of others based on race. Many more examples could be listed of evil perpetrated solely on the basis of difference. Perhaps it is in part because of this history that our world today is so sensitive toward difference: the identification of difference can be a precursor to inequality. Difference, therefore, must be denied. Yet as an overarching principle to life, not only is the denial of difference difficult to live by, it can also deny the good that God has built into this world.

1 ‘Heroes and Villains’, Frontline Season 2 episode 3. First aired on ABC TV 7 August 1995.