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This essay was inspired by a conversation in English with
a German-speaking Swiss banker at an international conference
in the French-speaking Swiss city of Geneva.

The question is this: how do we balance the seemingly conflicting forces of assimilation and differentiation? What do I mean by this?

Well, on the one hand, there are powerful forces at work tending to make us the same or at least similar. The globalisation of trade, the pervasiveness of food outlets like McDonalds and KFC, the ubiquity of brands like Adidas and Coca Cola, the cultural impact of American cinema and music, the trend to English as a global language, the power of the Internet - all these things mean that people around the world now have so much in common. Here in Europe the European Union is now 27 countries with many others - including Turkey - knocking on the door. The Council of Europe and NATO are even wider groupings now. China ia a member of the World Trade Organisation and Vietnam wants to join. So, in a sense, we are now one big global family.

On the other hand, people want to be different and to make clear their differences. So we see more emphasis on nationalism and regionalism - whether it is Scotland in the UK, Catalonia in Spain, or Lombardy in Italy - and religion is used as a 'badge' of distinctiveness - whether it is fundamentalist Christians in the USA, Muslims in Europe, Jews in the Middle East or Sikhs in India. We can see resistance to globalisation (protests against IMF meetings) and multinational companies (anti Wal-Mart campaigns) and a revival of interest in local languages and local cultural traditions. Politically we have witnessed the break-up of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia and pressure for more devolution in many nation states. Every country on earth has its minorities who want fair treatment and proper recognition and a share of power.

How do we reconcile these forces which seem so opposite? I would suggest that the answer lies in three fundamental principles.

First, we need to recognise that everyone has multiple identities [see footnote] and which identity comes to the fore at any particular time depends on the timing and the circumstances but does not deny the existence and validity of the other identities. So one can be French and a Muslim. One can be British and European. One can be black and a Conservative. One can be gay and a policeman. One can be a Manchester United supporter and a fan of the Jamaican cricket team.

Second, we need to have tolerance of and respect for the identities of others. America may be the most powerful nation on earth but it doesn't make the actions of its government necessarily right. British does not mean best. People should be allowed to live peacefully in our communities even if they have a different colour, or dress differently, or speak a different language, or worship a different God, or have a different sexual orientation.

Third, there can be no tolerance for intolerance. Those who deny equal rights to education, work or citizenship because of a person's ethnicity or beliefs; those who try to deny freedom of speech because they don't like some of things that others are saying about their religion; those who deny access to birth control advice or abortion services because they themselves do not support such facilities; those who seek to threaten the values and security of free societies through terrorism or subversion - all these people have to be opposed.

Footnote: To illustrate the idea of having multiple identities, consider how you would answer these questions.

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Last modified on 2 March 2008

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