Building deep equality, one story at a time
Professor Lori Beaman is on a campaign to move the discussion of diversity away from the concepts of tolerance and accommodation, terms that make equality — and a fair and just society — a more distant prospect, she believes.
“The idea that we ‘accommodate’ other people carries with it an implicit hierarchy: the person who is accommodating is in a position of power,” says Beaman, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Religious Diversity and Social Change at uOttawa.
Beaman’s recent research focuses on what she calls “deep equality” as an alternative to tolerance and accommodation. This pioneering work earned her a prestigious Insight Award in 2017 from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), which cited the “breadth, depth and uniqueness of her research.”
“Deep equality is about negotiation of difference,” Beaman says. “It’s the way people work things out and make each other feel valued and included. It’s not how we can live together, but how we can live well together.”
While we tend to focus on problems and conflicts, the everyday instances of working out religious and cultural differences among ordinary people are considered “non-events” and rarely attract attention. But they are success stories that need to be told, she argues, because they offer important clues about how to model deep equality as an alternative to tolerance and accommodation.
To find those positive narratives, Beaman pored over the 900 submissions to the 2007 Bouchard-Taylor Commission that looked at the “reasonable accommodation” of minority communities in Quebec. She analyzed hundreds of interviews with young adult immigrants across Canada, as well as with Muslims in St. John’s and Montreal. And she reviewed thousands of legal cases, books and movies.
In all this material, she identified common threads in the accounts of seemingly mundane interactions. She uncovered deep equality flourishing in stories that were full of respect, humour, generosity, caring, neighbourliness, focus on similarities — “and love, even, which is not usually a word we use in scholarship.”
Beaman pursued this research as director of the groundbreaking Religion and Diversity project, funded by SSHRC and completed in October 2017. This seven-year, interdisciplinary effort brought together 37 researchers from 24 universities around the world, as well as students, policymakers and others, to address complex challenges related to diversity and social change.
Her research has also brought to light the dangers of focusing primarily — or solely — on religious identity in issues such as refugee resettlement.
“The way we conceptualized Syrian refugees was deeply concerning,” she says. “They were either Orthodox Christians in need of protection or Muslims who needed a mosque. That pushes them into identity corners that are not productive.”
This led, for example, to small communities without a mosque being ruled out as places that could host refugees. In doing so, “I think we’re laying the groundwork for division rather than inclusion,” she says.
Beaman’s research is now turning to the growing number of people in Canada and some other countries who identify as non-religious, meaning they are unaffiliated with any organized religion. This trend has profound implications for social institutions and issues such as palliative care, which require consideration of a wide range of worldviews, she says.
Ultimately, Beaman hopes the process of exploring these difficult but vital topics “will help to define the sort of nation Canada is — and should be.”
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