Home > Musings on diversity > The Illusion of Universality

The Illusion of Universality


I was listening to the last of Robert Harris’ 20 Pieces of Music that Changed the World on The Sunday Edition on the CBC over the weekend and he made a point that illuminates the illusion of universality. He was talking about the physics of music, octaves, and the ‘perfect fifth’.

Wikipedia identifies the perfect fifth as “belonging to the group of perfect intervals (perfect fourth, octave) so called because of their simple pitch relationships and their high degree of consonance.[1] Perfect intervals are also defined as those natural intervals whose inversions are also natural intervals, where natural, as opposed to altered, designates those intervals between a base note and the major diatonic scale starting at that note (for example, the intervals from C to C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C, with no sharps or flats)”.

I confess to having no idea what that means, but the perfect intervals are physical phenomena ‘The idealized pitch ratio of a perfect fifth is 3:2 — meaning that the upper note makes three vibrations in the same amount of time that the lower note makes two”. Harris’ point was that although we believe that something so fundamental to our (Western) understanding of music, based on the physics of vibration, must surely be universal to musical systems – it is not. The Chinese 5-note tonal scale has no concept of  perfect intervals, nor does Arabic music.

How does any of this relate to diversity, you might be asking yourself, with some impatience and agitation? The mainstream (in Canada) is so Golden Rule oriented that we believe that despite our surface differences in food, dress, customs, and even religion, deep down we all want the same things from life; that our shared humanity trumps cultural differences. Unfortunately, when we operate from a Golden Rule orientation, we believe that if only we treat everyone as we want to be treated, everyone will be happy.

That belief is the basis of our workplace diversity policies. We believe that if we ‘level the playing field’ by putting transparent systems in place everyone will be able to participate equally. But for people from many cultures, the idea of approaching a supervisor or other superior to have a frank and open conversation about some issue that is bothering us or some behaviour (especially if the culprit is the supervisor him or herself) that we find offensive is about as appealing as open-heart surgery without anaesthetic, and about as possible.

In order to move from the mere fact of organisational diversity (which is merely a circumstance, not an achievement) to workplaces and organisations that recognise, welcome, integrate and harness the energy of diversity, we need to move from what Milton Bennett’s Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (the DMIS) calls the ethnocentric (or monocultural) stage of Minimization to a more inclusive, ethnorelative (or polycultural) orientation to difference.

How would that matter? More about the DMIS and moving from diversity to integration in my next post.

Categories: Musings on diversity
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