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A Paradigm for Pluralism
by Linda Naiman


During a visit to Canada recently, the Aga Khan observed, "Canada is today the most successful pluralist society on the face of our globe, without any doubt in my mind. That is something unique to Canada. It is an amazing global human asset. You have created a pluralist society where minorities, generally speaking, are welcome. They feel comfortable. They assimilate the Canadian psyche. They are allowed to move forward within civil society in an equitable manner. Their children are educated. And I'm not the one who is making the judgment. Look at the international evaluation of Canada as a country and the way it functions."

The Aga Khan's most pressing concern is the need for pluralism -- globally as well as in most developing countries -- and what he called a Canadian model.

What is pluralism?

Pluralism, as defined by Merriam-Webster is "a state of society in which members of diverse ethnic, racial, religious, or social groups maintain an autonomous participation in and development of their traditional culture or special interest within the confines of a common civilization."

Pluralism includes cultural diversity within a society.

Paul Winn, a director of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation says, "Pluralism works because of commonalties we share ­ food, song, dance and art. This provides a common ground for community building. Pluralism also works in Canada because we have laws that protect our rights to be ourselves; but it's not without responsibilities. We have to respect each other. If you want freedom of religion, you have to respect other people's religion. Canada has opportunities despite our isms -- bigotry, sexism and racism still need to be overcome."

How can we use the principles of pluralism in organizations?

1. Allow a kaleidoscope of perspectives

Mikhail Bakhtin, a literary and cultural theorist (1895-1975) who lived in Russia under Stalin's rule, offers some relevant insights. Bakhtin introduced the idea that a "multiplicity of perspectives would overcome all forms of dogmatism." In "Problems of Dostoyevsky's Poetics," Bakhtin noted that Dostoyevsky was the first novelist to create characters with different points of view -- different truths and ethical positions -- who didn't reduce this pluralism to monism (one perspective).

2. Embrace pluralistic viewpoints through dialogue

Bakhtin asserted the fundamental importance of dialogue "is to include many voices and many viewpoints while maintaining a playful and skeptical attitude that acknowledges the essential incompleteness of knowledge." Novelist Milan Kundera described dialoguing with a multiplicity of perspectives as "the fascinating imaginative realm where nobody owns the truth and everyone has the right to be understood."

3. Embrace the spirit of carnival

Bakhtin also believed that a carnival spirit ­ the ability to laugh at ourselves, and our ideas -- was an important part of dialogue. "Laughter is an interior form of truth that frees human consciousness, thought and imagination for new potentialities." He saw carnival in its traditional role, as a feast of renewal, change and becoming.

4. Build a foundation of understanding and hope

Paul Winn offers this advice: "Always start with the belief system of the community. Be sensitive to their position, their problems, their concerns, and build from there. Don't go into the community with your own rhetoric. You have to be able to listen to people and you also have to hear them. If you don't provide a base for understanding and hope, you don't have anything. As someone once said, "rioting is the last resort of the unheard."

How well do we really listen?

Here's a test. The next time you have a discussion with someone, tape it. After the discussion, jot down notes to recall the main points of your discussion. Play back the tape and hear how well you listened.

5. Defragmenting Vision

To break out of fixed positions, it's helpful to re-frame our world view: The cubists shifted our perceptions of time and space by offering simultaneous multiple views of the subject. David Hockney, a painter who has mastered the use of photographs as collage, said he assembled photos in the 1980's with the idea of defragmenting vision.

"For me this work is purely cubist in style and the Grand Canyon landscapes are also cubist paintings however not in the sense of pure cubism as in Picasso's or Braque's works. Still, the word cubism has been badly chosen. In fact it includes multiplicity and diversity as the era in which we live. Take television as an example. If there is one channel everybody will be tuned to it. Therefore there would be only one focus. When there are several channels, you are then in a cubist situation."

6. Use images and metaphors to show what you mean

Sometimes the best way to be understood and listened to, is to show people what you mean. Have members of your group draw the issues, especially whatever is undiscussable. This gives you a picture to talk about, providing an opportunity for listening and perceiving in a more insightful way.

Metaphors are useful too in revealing truths and art can expand our perceptions. Therapists for example often use the plot line of movies and novels, to illustrate a point they want to make to a client.

7. Find the unity in diversity

Establish a paradigm for pluralism, by finding unity in diversity through open-minded dialogue, sharing cultures, and keeping a sense of humour. In doing so you will foster a climate for community-building, innovation and wealth creation.


"Canada: A model for the world!" (The Globe and Mail, February 2, 2002)

"Paradigm for Pluralism: Mikhail Bakhtin and Social Work Practice" by Allan Irving and Tom Young, (Social Work, Jan.2002)


The Author


Linda Naiman BFA, is founder of Linda Naiman & Associates; a Vancouver BC consulting and training group at the forefront of transformational change in organizations. Linda works with organizations to awaken genius level thinking through the art and science of applying creativity, innovation, and visionary thinking to business strategy. She is currently writing "Arts at Work" with Arthur VanGundy on using the arts in business to teach leadership and management skills. Linda Naiman may be reached at .

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