In talking about social diversity, it is hard to get away from its two unambitious cousins: harmony and tolerance. Both are good. But neither is good enough.

What we really need is literacy in how to conduct ‘constructive conflict’ and a bias towards proactively seeking out diversity.

When I sought to create a centre for “constructive conflict and diversity” earlier this year, I was asked the following questions: Is diversity just a race-and-gender thing? Isn’t harmony better than diversity? Can conflict ever be constructive?

Is diversity just a race-and-gender thing?

Race, gender and other broad bucketing of humanity provide us with visual shorthands. The headcount of ‘ethnic’ parliamentarians or female senior executives in a company is a numerical measure for diversity. It is a quantitative proxy – often approached through quotas – that can be tracked over time to measure ‘growth’ in diversity.

However, proxies and shorthands should not obscure the real goal which is plurality of perspectives and abilities at the level of the individual.

If a member of the minority has to be ‘homogenized’ in order to enter a community, that community does not become any more diverse. Diversity is a virtue in any ecosystem – whether a team, company or country. Having lived most of my adult life ‘as a minority’, this is personal for me. Inclusion and a celebration of differences is something that I almost take for granted – whether in my workplace or the immediate society that I live in.

Isn’t harmony better than diversity?

Diversity is valuable in fortifying the resilience of a system only if there is true diversification of style, background and approach. If a state of harmony is achieved through the suppression of differences and with a polite, superficial tolerance of each other, it defeats the purpose. Not only that, it potentially masks a build up of tension that might boil over precisely when cohesion is required.

Can conflict ever be constructive?

In a world of differences and in a world with limited resources, conflict is inevitable. What is not inevitable however, is (a) for every conflict to degenerate into an absolute imposition of one view over another and (b) for differences about issues to degenerate into attacks on integrity or identity. As is evident from the comment section of internet posts, arguments become personal in two iterations or less!

If you disagree with me, I will question your motivations instead of trying to understand your reasoning. If you disagree with me on any one issue, I will make sweeping judgements about your loyalty. In fact, I will make it binary – you’re either with me or against me. If you disagree with me on one issue, I will disagree with you on another issue, just to retaliate.

We find it difficult to compartmentalize topics of conflict or to isolate the topic from the person or her ‘grouping’. This makes us susceptible to instigation – a fact exploited by politicians the world over.

The conduct of constructive conflict can be an acquired skill. It is possible to immunize ourselves from the most incendiary and viral forms of conflict. It is possible to train ourselves to seek opportunity in conflict and make ourselves more diversity-literate.

We need something like a centre for constructive conflict & diversity to help address the emergence of creeping intolerance in previously-tolerant communities. While actual perpetrators of violence are few and far between, it is the indifference of a silent majority that concerns me most. Our attempts at subtle justification, our choice of words, labels and generalizations – sometimes unwittingly – inflict cumulative harm.

So what can be done? Interventions can take the form of early childhood education, active community engagement, group affirmations, awareness campaigns using the arts and comedy, professional training in private and public sectors … and much more.

All ideas welcome.

Published in collaboration with The Huffington Post

Author: Lutfey Siddiqi is an Adjunct Professor at the Risk Management Institute, National University of Singapore. He is a Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum where he is also a member of the network of Global Agenda Councils.

Image: A woman hands out anti-war decals during an anti-nuclear weapons protest rally and march in New York May 2, 2010.  REUTERS.