Generative Difference: A Philosophical Primer
The basic relationship between what is alike and what is different is fundamental. We use this relationship to construct our identities, make choices, and understand who we are in an ever-changing world. Sameness/difference is a primary binary opposition that permeates and some would argue, structures our inner mental and experiential schemata. Crucially, in this relationship, sameness has been prioritized over difference for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Change is hard and slow. Consider how, in the contemporary West, we still live in a systemically racist society (where the fundamental frameworks of sameness derive from the straight white male ideal).
So what happens when we embrace difference, rather than trying to manage or empower it against the dominant norms of sameness?
One of the ways I’m attempting to answer this question is through Generative Difference. Generative Difference is a diversity of perspectives and life experiences that positively shape our ways of working, thinking, and interacting from the inside out. Generative Difference is both the way of enlivening difference and the forms of difference we aim to enliven.
Generative Difference is a term and concept derived from my recent academic work on identity, embodiment, and society — which you can read here and here — and entails a fundamental shift in the construction of knowledge and experience in the contemporary West. At Undercurrent, where I work primarily on strategy, culture, and talent, we’re using this lens to become more aware of how we embrace and use difference in our hiring practices, our attitudes, and our ways of communicating; enabling us to build the most inclusive and responsive team possible.
In a world of increasing uncertainty and change, we must become aware of the ways that difference is always already present in our lives. Those who have been marked as ‘different’ have a lot to teach on this subject and those who haven’t have a great deal to learn. By listening and learning with and through difference we can enable fuller and richer relationships, better innovation, and happier daily lives.
Difference and Sameness
According to French philosopher Gilles Deleuze in Difference and Repetition, the concept of difference, in the history of Western thought, has been treated in two troubling ways. It has been evaded, aligned, and repressed, while at the same time it has been fundamentally tied to identity, resemblance, and opposition as that which is unconstrained, impossible, and monstrous. Consider how the case for gay marriage is often staged in a politics that aims to show the world that “we’re just like you, straight people!” or how an open display of emotion has traditionally been associated with the ‘hysterical’ out of control (unconstrained) woman.
Difference has a had a bad rap for a long time. Identity politics has attempted to challenge this role of difference in society and has had many successes. The fact that Diversity, Inclusion, and non-discrimination practices even exist are a testament to this.
However, the way that these politics function is highly discursive — they rely on language and the visual representation of ideas and identities to do the work — which leaves little room for the embodied understanding of how it feels to live an experience of being labelled ‘different’. This can inadvertently create greater separation through the solidification of those ‘different’ identities, rather than create spaces of greater connection and understanding. When we understand difference as more than discourse or labeling, its creative potential can exist all the time in everyone’s lives. This is true even for those who don’t know how or refuse to recognize it. Recognizing is often a matter of scale, attention, and power.
Feminist philosopher Elizabeth Grosz explains that identity categorizations are one of the “primary means by which difference is converted, transformed from an active principle to a passive residue. Difference is diverted through identity, analogy, opposition, and resemblance insofar as these are the means by which determination is attributed to the undetermined, in other words, insofar as difference is subjected to representation.” One of the ways we work to feel like we’re in control of our lives is through the building of our identities. It is a taming of the myriad possibilities that exist all the time everyday. By identifying with stuff, we engage in a discursive practice that creates some order and while we have to keep performing our identities, since they’re not innate, that order keeps things pretty stable for us. It also means we miss out on a lot of potentials for feeling, thinking, and doing differently, and ultimately from experiencing more.
Here is the conceptual leap: Consider that the structures of sameness we have created in society (e.g. social norms like ‘real men don’t cry!’) in the attempt of ensuring more sameness (and therefore more order, stability, and predictability) are only possible because of the generative force of difference to begin with. We wouldn’t need the structures of sameness if those norms were innate. We wouldn’t need to tell boys that boys don’t cry if boys didn’t cry in the first place! What might happen if we just let boys cry and experience their emotions like we let girls do? It might not drastically change how masculinity is constructed overnight, but it may mean some men would grow up feeling like they could express themselves openly and without judgement. Having more emotionally aware and sensitive men in the world could generate a great deal of difference.
Rather than beginning with sameness as taken for granted, as the norms which we must strive to replicate, Generative Difference aims to get before and beyond the structuring-structure of sameness by recognizing difference as the force that enables any sort of structure/model/categorization to emerge. By divorcing difference from the opposition of sameness, difference can once again become an an active force, not merely a static identity trait that requires defining, managing, or seeking out in particular to meet a diversity quota.
Difference and Diversity
Quantum physicist cum feminist philosopher Karen Barad asks “What if we were to recognize that differentiating is a material act that is not about radical separation, but on the contrary, about making connections and commitments?”
This sentiment fundamentally guides my thinking and is a question I come back to time and time again. How do we not only recognize difference as fundamental to all lives, but as a way of and for connection, not separation?
When it comes to people the most important element that Generative Difference is trying to get at is a shift from diversity as the external expression of difference to an understanding, awareness, and anticipation of difference as a full, animating and connective life experience. That is, trying to be aware of how being different in our society is not something to overcome or a reason for separation, but rather an experiential reality that is always already potentially connective and creative for everyone.
Understanding difference as the opposite of sameness is limiting and outdated. For example, when a ‘diversity trait’ (e.g. person of color = racial/ethnic diversity) is merely understood as a marker or symbol of difference and separation, it is reduced — with the whole of the person — to something that can seemingly be easily identified and read. This in effect converts a living reality into a manageable sameness via categorization. The difference, which we recognize as being different, is reduced to a different kind of sameness, losing its power to generate a new.
Rather than fighting for acceptance of difference, we need to readily recognize that difference, rather than merely the dark opposite of sameness, is the thing which generates all possibility in the world.
The first step is a politics that enables difference to live and that teaches us how to recognize how it lives within our own lives. Rather than stopping at the person of color = racial/ethnic diversity identification, we need practices that enable something more like this to openly occur:
person of color = racial/ethnic diversity = various life experiences = different challenges and interests = new points of view, ways of communicating, knowledges, forms of expression, strengths, sensitivities and ideas.
Part of Generative Difference is learning how to actively build the practices of listening and being receptive to personal stories and daily habits that don’t match one’s own and learning to use those points of divergence to connect and create space for more shared experiences.
Through Generative Difference we are building a version of the world that is multifaceted, dynamic, and robust while assembling the forces of deep empathy, multiple intelligences, self-other awareness, open communication and responsibility — the results of which cannot be overstated.