November 2022

In developing diversity competence skills we make space for difference

As the cultural environment is enriched by diversity and diminished by uniformity, so the glue that binds us together is honouring and understanding our differences, writes Congregational Leader Sister Patty Fawkner.

In response to the tragedy of 9/11, Jonathan Sacks, English Orthodox Rabbi, philosopher and theologian, wrote an award-winning best seller called The Dignity of Difference. It is a pity more attention and commentary was focused on the book’s subtitle, How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, rather than the lovely turn of phrase of the title.

Sacks believed that a post-9/11 world desperately needed to cultivate the ‘dignity of difference’. “The test of faith is whether I can make space for difference,” he wrote. “Can I recognize God’s image in someone who is not in my image, whose language, faith, ideals, are different from mine? If I cannot, then I have made God in my image instead of allowing him to remake me in his … God creates difference; therefore, it is in one-who-is-different that we meet God,” just as Abraham encountered God in the three strangers he welcomed into his tent.

Twenty-one years later, the ‘dignity of difference’ is a concept worthy of serious attention in our fractured world.

Not only regarding religion, but in relation to race, sexual orientation, opinion, ability – indeed, in all aspects of life. For just as the natural environment depends on biodiversity and is tragically depleted by the escalating extinction of species, so the cultural environment is enriched by diversity and diminished by uniformity.

It occurs to me that we need to nurture the dignity of difference as a virtue by cultivating skills of what we may call ‘diversity competence’.

I recognise six specific diversity competence skills.

1. Make space for difference

Following Sacks’ lead, we make space for difference. This will entail a movement away from a pragmatic tolerance of a ‘live and let live’ and ‘agree to disagree’ attitude, to an intentional embrace of diversity. Uniformity and conformity may offer a certain level of security, comfort, and sense of belonging. Yet, the real glue that binds any group together, from the global to familial, is honouring and understanding our differences.

2. Realise that it is judgements rather than differences that divide

It is not our differences that divide us. Rather, our judgements about these differences divide. Subsequent attempts to coercively force others to conform to our ‘superior’ beliefs, values and preferences inevitably leads to conflict. 

It seems a natural human trait to want to impose our beliefs and standards on others. We may do so through subtle persuasion or, in the extreme, by coercive control. A wise psychologist once said, “behaviour tells you nothing”. It is easier to change behaviour, but not necessarily another’s heart or mind. How many relationships have foundered precisely because one partner mistakenly presumed that they could and should change the other?

3. Cultivate new thinking

Diversity of opinion can readily lead to polarisation. In his book Let Us Dream¸ Pope Francis says that “our main task … is not to disengage from polarisation but to engage with conflict and disagreement in ways that prevent us from descending into polarisation. This means resolving division by allowing for new thinking that can transcend that division.”

4. Own my biases, blind spots and prejudices

It is helpful to acknowledge that in prehistoric times the fear of the different other was a necessary survival skill; it is hard-wired into our primitive brain structure. Canadian award-winning educator Shakil Choudhury, author of Deep Diversity: Overcoming Us vs. Them, believes that we are capable of growing in self-awareness of our implicit biases and blind spots through meditation, education, intercultural living, and active listening. Our plastic brain’s instinctive fearful response can be transformed to one that is more compassionate and empathetic.

5. Acknowledge but don’t obsess about my difference

Last month, I attended a lecture by popular psychologist and social researcher, Hugh Mackay, on his most recent book The Kindness Revolution. Mackay’s observed that the complex mix of my differences is intrinsic to who I am. However, he gave a cautious warning about obsessing about them. If I identify myself solely because of my difference, or if I privilege or label one aspect of my humanity within the complex mystery of who I am, I may end up discriminating and separating myself from others.

My ears pricked up when Mackay spoke about feminism. I have proudly called myself a feminist, and indeed I am. But where does that leave me in regard to the rights of gender diverse people? I take Mackay’s point that it may be healthier to advocate for ‘human rights’ for all rather than women’s rights exclusively. I note that people with disabilities have constantly pleaded for their abilities to be recognised along with an acknowledgement of their disability.

6. Work for the common good

Underpinning this perspective is the bedrock principle of ancient Greek philosophy and Catholic Social Teaching – that of the common good. The common good means respecting the rights and responsibilities of all people.

Unfortunately, we recognise this principle more often in its breach when, for example Russia invades Ukraine, when governments privilege tax cuts for the wealthiest sector of society, and when I take all the lollies in the bowl and leave none for my siblings. The common good asks that my decisions and actions consider the good of all.

Thus, I develop my diversity competency by making space for difference, by developing new thinking, by exploring my biases, not judging or obsessing about difference, and by working for the common good.  Above all, I develop my diversity competence by realising that “God creates difference; therefore, it is in one-who-is-different that we meet God.”


Patty Fawkner

Sister Patty Fawkner is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality.

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