language and region are not the only features that give a distinct identity to people. Sometimes, people also identify themselves and relate with others on the basis of their physical appearance, class, religion, gender, caste, tribe, etc.
In this chapter, we study how democracy responds to social differences, divisions and inequalities.
In the case of Belgium we noted that people who live in different regions speak different languages. In Sri Lanka, we noted linguistic as well as religious differences. Thus social diversity can take different forms in different societies.
Origins of social difference
We all experience social differences based on accident of birth in our everyday lives. People around us are male or female, they are tall and short, have different kinds of complexions, or have different physical abilities or disabilities. But all kinds of social differences are not based on accident of birth.
Some of the differences are based on our choices. For example, some people are atheists. They don’t believe in God or any religion. Some people choose to follow a religion other than the one in which they were born.
Social differences divide similar people from one another, but they also unite very different people.
We all have more than one identity and can belong to more than one social group. We have different identities in different contexts.
Overlapping and cross-cutting differences
Social division takes place when some social difference overlaps with other differences. The difference between the Blacks and Whites becomes a social division in the US because the Blacks tend to be poor, homeless and discriminated against.
Situations of this kind produce social divisions, when one kind of social difference becomes more important than the other and people start feeling that they belong to different communities.
Overlapping social differences create possibilities of deep social divisions and tensions. Cross-cutting social differences are easier to accommodate.
Social divisions of one kind or another exist in most countries. It does not matter whether the country is small or big. India is a vast country with many communities. Belgium is a small country with many communities.
Social divisions affect voting in most countries. People from one community tend to prefer some party more than others. In many countries there are parties that focus only on one community.
Three factors are crucial in deciding the outcome of politics of social divisions.
- First of all, the outcome depends on how people perceive their identities. If people see their identities in singular and exclusive terms, it becomes very difficult to accommodate.
- Second, it depends on how political leaders raise the demands of any community. It is easier to accommodate demands that are within the constitutional framework and are not at the cost of another community.
- Third, it depends on how the government reacts to demands of different groups.
Thus the assertion of social diversities in a country need not be seen as a source of danger. In a democracy, political expression of social divisions is very normal and can be healthy. This allows various disadvantaged and marginal social groups to express their grievances and get the government to attend to these. Expression of various kinds of social divisions in politics often results in their cancelling one another out and thus reducing their intensity. This leads to strengthening of a democracy.
People who feel marginalised, deprived and discriminated have to fight against the injustices. However history shows that democracy is the best way to fight for recognition and also to accommodate diversity.