Out of Touch With Diversity? Then Caux is the Place to Be
14 July 2006

Out of touch with diversity? Caux, the Initiatives of Change conference centre in Switzerland, is the place to be.

We are often criticising the powerful, and most of all the superpower of this time, the USA, for being insensitive to other people’s sensitivities. We think we know better, because we’ve seen it all on television and/or exchanged views about the problem on Internet? We are under a dangerous illusion.

The famous American Indian proverb says it with plain common sense: “Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his moccasins.” But this is not the way things are done in the 21st century.

When an African friend e-mails “I must go to university today”, I may think I know what it means. Do I really? Since I visited his place, I know first hand that he’s not going to jump into his car and drive 15 minutes before neatly parking near the entrance of his university, deliver his lectures in clean air-conditioned amphitheatres and go back home. What he is really going to do is to walk in the dust for a quarter of an hour (not more, because he is lucky to live near a main road), in order to reach a bus stop where after some waiting he will squeeze into a packed and derelict bus, which may bring him into the centre of town half an hour later, assuming it doesn’t get stuck or break down on the way; there, after an unpredictable waiting time, he will board another bus to take him to university, where he’ll arrive sweaty and dirty from the dust, after nearly two hour of uncomfortable travel. The amphitheatre will be packed and hot, and he will come back home at dusk. No TV program would bother to show that type of pedestrian daily life routines.

But there is more: we ignore the cultural diversity that exists on our very doorstep. A couple of kilometres away from our home at most, live other communities with completely different social codes and assumptions. Just to name a few randomly picked examples, there are cultures where women never eat with men, or where the hand is preferred to the fork when eating, or more significantly where the sense of honour and the sense of shame differ entirely from ours and sometime conflict with the demands of our civil society. Amazingly we travel to Agadir, Madras or Phnom Penh and even there, manage not to meet these cultures.

This is an unforeseen by-product of the Internet age. Search engines allow us to comb the web until we find alike minds. Those who resemble assemble, goes the French saying. We end up corresponding with, chatting with, dating alike minds. In this age of technology, travel and telecommunications, we are more than ever before able to avoid being confronted with the challenge of understanding different people. No wonder preconceived ideas are on the rise, no wonder the clash of civilisations seems a plausible scenario to some intellectuals.

When can we really meet different cultures and share openly what our respective hopes and fears are? A first step in the right direction could be to participate in the Caux conferences this summer. There you meet delegations coming from 40 to 50 countries to find solutions to their regions’ or to the world’s problems. They come ready to talk in an international setting, but already you learn a lot about respect, there is food to accommodate every religion and philosophy, there is deference for the essential customs of the international guests. Then there is the logical sequel, at some point you may get invited to a foreign country, because there is a need and you can help.

Another way to overcome the problem is to try and visit local residents when you are abroad. This has become one of my principles and I do it whenever possible. But I must admit, I am often visiting friends I first met in Caux.

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