Soup vs. Mosaic


‘Celui qui aligne, comme je l’ai fait, ses multiples appartenances, est immédiatement accusé de vouloir « dissoudre » son identité dans une soupe informe où toutes les couleurs s’effaceraient.’

Amin Maalouf, Les Identités Meurtrières (1998), 1.2

[Anyone who sets out, as I have done, his multiple belongings, is immediately accused of wanting to ‘dissolve’ his identity in a shapeless soup where all the colours are blurred.]

The division between those who accept reality’s complications and those who do not has always troubled humanity.

There is value in each worldview. Acceptance can make us complacent, tolerating wrongs that could be healed; idealism can give people hope that things can be better and drive positive change. Some of those who argued against the civil rights movement in 1960s America stood in the first camp because accepting that things were complex suited them. The inspirational voices of Martin Luther King, and others, countered that, in truth, nothing could be simpler than to fulfil the constitutional promise that all citizens have equal rights.

But there is wisdom among those who urge caution in attempts to remake the world, particularly where revolutionary zeal minimizes the costs to be paid on the way.

Amin Maalouf, who writes so profoundly of his complex personal history and the unique identity that it has given him, highlights the fear some people express about losing their own identity. That fear can lead them to spin simplifying stories to prop up an idea of themselves they believe to be under threat (although nothing is actually harder to destroy than an idea). But fundamentalists of all kinds take comfort in splitting the world into two camps: you’re either for us or against us.

The image of a human ‘soup’ in which separate identities—expressed as colours—will be lost is an old one. It underlay the racial laws of Nazi Germany, the Segregationist South and Apartheid South Africa, among others states, all of which were designed to prevent the birth of ‘mixed-race’ children. In 1969, the year after Enoch Powell’s notorious  ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, Blue Mink reached no. 3 in the British singles charts with ‘Melting Pot’, a more optimistic vision but still using the same misguided metaphor.

But the soup image is nonsense, and dangerous nonsense at that. As Maalouf says:

‘L’humanité entière n’est faite que de cas particuliers, la vie est créatrice de différences, et si il y a  « reproduction », ce n’est jamais à l’identique.’

[Humanity as a whole is made up only of individual cases, life is a creator of differences, and if there is ‘reproduction’, it is never identical.]

People are irreducibly individual, particular and unique. They cannot be blended into a homogenous—or colourless—whole. But they can and do stand together, side by side, creating something new and beautiful: a mosaic. If we want a metaphor for how to imagine diversity in the world we would do better to think of a mosaic. That would truly mean accepting reality’s complex and wonderful particularity.

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