When addressing the issue of differences, I suppose the logical starting point is to define the meaning of ‘different’. Unusual, not the same as somebody or something, separate and individual are all examples of how ‘different’ could be defined. However, in order to categorise something or someone as different, it must be necessary to identify what or whom they are different from.
Appearance, behaviour, language, accent, religion, education, employment, gender, sexual orientation – where to start is a difficult choice, but whatever we start with, one thing is clear: in order for a difference to be noticed, a norm or standard must first be established.
Norms can vary considerably. What is deemed to be acceptable or appropriate in one country, may be considered the complete opposite in another. Even within a country’s boarders significant changes can be seen by travelling a relatively short distance. Today, we sadly witness ever increasing civil unrest in countries as a result of religious groups fighting to eliminate differences and establish themselves as the norm within a given territory. We don’t have to search hard for examples: Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Sudan, Rwanda, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, to name but a few. More and more young people are identifying with and joining so-called extremist groups as a result of alienation within their own societies. The imposition by society of the concept of ‘fitting in’ and minimising differences must surely be held to account here. This intolerance and lack of understanding can rapidly lead to a feeling of isolation and injustice. So what can we do to address this?
Schools provide social interaction for children from a very young age. Here children are educated with regard to what is right and what is wrong. However, schools can also be key culprits in creating and accentuating differences.
One easy way to try to address differences is by masking them. To me this is equivalent to a manic depressive being prescribed anti-depressants without undergoing any counselling to address the bigger issues. It’s a quick fix.
Think about the following:
- Single-sex schools
- Religious schools
- School uniform
Each of these are about creating an environment in which the participants are placed on a more equal footing. They are made to feel part of an artificial community, which is secure within, but differs from the outside world. But, who is really different? This depends on the perspective taken: those within the group view outsiders as being different and those outside of the group identify those within the group as different.
As a student, I was always uncomfortable within educational establishments, as I found that rules imposed by schools and what was being preached by the teaching staff were often in conflict with each other. At my primary school, classes were mixed. However, at break time the boys and girls had separate playgrounds as we were supposed to engage in gender appropriate activities which conformed to the societal norms. In secondary school, our teachers segregated us and created more differences from day one: we had to wear a uniform between the ages of 11 and 16 but not in the sixth form (ages 16 to 18), students receiving free school meals had to stand in a different queue, we were put into subject sets according to our academic ability and only a minority of students were invited by the headmaster to take part in certain extra-curricular activities, such as the young Rotarians. Alongside this, we were being encouraged to be team players and work together as equals. This was incredibly challenging having already been told how different we were.
Both adults and children are quick to recognise what is different from their acquired norms: not only by identifying who you perceive to be different but also when you realise that you are the one who is different.
Finding yourself in a position where you are the different one can be very uncomfortable. Airing your differences may lead to you being labelled as argumentative, confrontational or not a ‘team-player’. You will certainly get noticed, but you may not get liked. Our desire to be liked, accepted and fit-in, may give rise to an internal battle. Do you risk voicing your opinion and making known your differences, with the fear of criticism, ridicule, abuse or persecution? Or do you sit in silence and try to conform to societal norms; existing in a community in which you feel increasingly alienated?
The concept of dealing with, and being sensitive to, differences has failed to be adequately addressed by society, whether at school or in the workplace. Legislation and enforcement agencies exist to attempt to counter discrimination. Some legislation extends to specific groups such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in the US and the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) in Switzerland, whereas other legislation, such as the Equality Act 2010 in the UK is more all-encompassing.
The UK’s Department for Education’s May 2014 guidance notes publication on the Equality Act 2010 helps to clarify the issues at hand. These guidance notes provide clear examples of what does and does not constitute discrimination due to differences in sex, race, disability, religion or belief, sexual orientation, gender reassignment and pregnancy or maternity. This not only relates to students but also extends to those with whom the student is associated, for example, parents. The notes also look in detail at the three areas previously mentioned which contribute to highlighting differences and potentially giving rise to discrimination: compulsory school uniform, single sex schools and religious (or faith) schools.
International schools, by their nature, attract students from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, which may often result in a wide range of norms being brought to the classroom. This offers huge potential for an educator to instill a culture of mutual respect, tolerance and understanding with regard to individual differences and for students to embrace these from an early age. It offers an opportunity for differences to be encouraged and celebrated rather than diluted or suppressed in order to conform to a certain model or way of doing things. However, even within culturally-rich International Schools, selection bias may be evident. High school fees, entrance examinations and academic profiling, could inevitably lead to the elimination of students from certain socio-economic backgrounds or with differences deemed to be less desirable which may upset the status quo of the school.
So, can tolerance and understanding ever genuinely exist, or is it just a myth that we all feel obliged to act out our part in?
Equality is about recognising that people are not the same. We are all unique and all different to each other. Equality is about embracing differences, it’s about tolerance and understanding, it’s about establishing a new norm, a norm that says no one person is superior to another simply because of race, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs or socioeconomic background. But equality requires change and those who dominate usually fear change the most. Let’s hope that this world of tolerance and understanding, of embracing all of our differences, this Utopia of equality, one day becomes a reality.
Until then, the next time you find yourself confronted by someone who is not conforming to your perceived norms, or maybe you are that someone, think about the words of Steve Jobs: ‘Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.’.
By Dean A W Marriott – Actor, and Director of the World Language Learning Centre at GEMS World Academy-Etoy