Sorry, but I don’t see how the veil controversy has anything serious to do with fear of difference or the “inherently tribal” character of human nature, as Margaret Wente wrote this week in The Globe and Mail. I’m not even sure tolerance is the main antidote needed, as James Laxer suggested in The Globe yesterday. Instead, allow me to say a kind word for human nature with its inherent capacity to overlook and actually embrace both difference and diversity.

“In the presence of diversity, we hunker down,” said U.S. sociologist Robert Putnam. “The effect of diversity is worse than had been imagined.” I’d say he is exactly wrong, though I agree that “imagined” is a key term.

All nations are “imagined communities,” wrote Benedict Anderson in a 1981 book by that name, just reissued. What is noteworthy if not always noticed about nations, he argued, is how they unite vastly different people, almost all of whom have never met and never will, but who imagine, in a creative act of connection, that they share a crucial bond: nationality. They feel deep emotion over it that, in most cases, is positive, i.e. love, rather than hatred toward outsiders. They are frequently willing to die for it.

Nationhood readily spans chasms of race, religion, language, politics, status. Think of Canada, the U.S. and many apparently more homogeneous states, if you look closely. In the name of nationhood, people neglect or ignore all kinds of differences, once they manage to imagine their unity.

(As I write, I can hear Justin Trudeau on the radio saying nations are outmoded and damaging. Sorry again, but I don’t see the evidence.)

In other words, people are not so much inherently tribal, as inherently communal and collective (or should I say connective). Starting from birth, they learn they couldn’t survive without others; it is just a question of what gets defined as community, and how much is included.

In the modern world, most communities are imagined in this way: cancer survivors, youth, Leafs nation. None of it is basically about excluding those who are simply different, since differentness is pervasive in all groups, including families and tribes.

In light of this ability to overcome difference, it is hard to see why head coverings among a tiny minority of a small minority (in the U.K., three per cent are Muslims and five per cent wear veils) should excite rancour or fear. What we have here is a perplexing failure of imagination. If you can imagine someone of a different colour, language, sexual orientation, century or millennium as essentially one with you, a compatriot, what is the problem with veils? If it’s not about difference, what accounts for Muslim women in veils finding such lack of acceptance?

Consider it a matter of politics, not human nature. After 9/11, leaders such as George Bush and Tony Blair made worthy, apparently sincere attempts to distinguish between the few murderers who happened to be Muslim and the vast Muslim majority. They have now semi-officially given up the effort, by attacking the veil. It is like putting up a sign saying: We will no longer try to imagine Muslims as part of our community. This was probably inevitable once they decided to embark on old-fashioned wars against countries, instead of police actions against criminals. When countries go to war, they are driven to almost any vilification of the other side, especially if the wars start going badly.

In defence of this interpretation, let me note that the current round of the veil debate was launched entirely by politicians — Jack Straw and Tony Blair — deeply involved in those failing wars. I see no masses of ordinary folk suddenly freaking out over the veil. It was Jack Straw who freaked, when a veiled woman entered his office for a meeting. Had there been no 9/11, there would surely be no veil controversy at this moment.

I don’t mean that the inclusionary impulse reigns supreme. There are lots of reasons, good and bad, that people fear others; but difference and diversity are not main ones unless they’re part of another context. There is no reason to be anxious or fearful about the basic human capacity to tolerate difference. It is robust, and we should celebrate it.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.