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Although history books bulge with stories of empires that combined separate cultures and traditions, the idea of deliberately fostering cultural diversity is quite new to much of the world. Where earlier examples might reflect simple pragmatism, diversity now is sometimes described as an end in itself both in governments and in some business settings. Its champions see that variety as a key to making societies and companies more resilient, productive and sustainable.

The United Nations cultural organization, UNESCO, said in 2001 that cultural diversity is “as necessary for humankind as biodiversity is for nature,” representing a shared heritage for current and future generations. Advocates cite evidence of the near-extinction of hundreds of languages to make their case that that heritage is threatened. David Crystal, a linguist at the University of Wales at Bangor, has argued half of the world’s languages could effectively die within a century, pointing for an example at the rapidly dwindling number of French citizens who understand Breton, spoken by a million people in 1900. Concerns about homogenizing effects of global commerce also color the arguments, with UNESCO’s Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity warning that “market forces alone cannot guarantee … diversity.”

Solutions to diversity problems are often framed as requiring both institutional and personal action.

UNESCO director-general Koichiro Matsuura wrote in 2001 of each person discovering “the plurality of his or her own identity, within societies that are themselves plural” and reflect multiple sets of value systems, lifestyles and traditions. That approach recognizes how each person can wear several hats in a discussion of diversity and discrimination. A single person could, for example, be a target of age discrimination, a promoter of homophobia and a role model for people coping with disability.

Legal And Societal Importance Of Diversity

In the United States, hate crime laws that increase penalties for crime inspired by certain types of prejudice, such as homophobia, represent an affirmation of the country’s official commitment to tolerance. A generation of civil rights laws and government policies addressing various forms of prejudice – age discrimination, sexual discrimination, racism – have also encouraged some level of a multicultural ethic in private business and nonprofit sectors, as well as in government. Human resource specialists, managers and business executives are expected to be mindful of diversity issues for the sake of their own careers. While compliance with anti-discrimination laws represents a minimum performance standard in these fields, a subset of managers embrace arguments that managing diversity represents a chance to reach new customers and improve employee satisfaction at little or no cost. In that perspective, workplace tolerance is just one step toward a more ambitious goal.

Cultural Diversity discussed at  YouDareToAsk.com and Dare To Ask

Despite high aspirations, just living the basic goal of tolerance and respect can carry daily dilemmas that people share and debate through Phillip Milano’s YouDareToAsk.com and his column, Dare To Ask. Questions and responses on topics ranging from racism to sexual discrimination posted by You Dare To Ask visitors can send Milano to esteemed or unexpected sources for insight.

Dare To Ask: Any way to know if cart users ever fake disability?

When a visitor posted a question about able-bodied people using carts and parking spaces meant for people coping with disability, Milano contacted Art Metrano, an actor in the 1980s “Police Academy” movie series who later had a spinal injury that made him pay new attention to disabled access. Metrano makes no apologies for telling able-bodied people to think twice about where they park.

“I’ve had many occasions where I stopped someone in the lot,” he told Milano. “Once I even stopped a guy in L.A. that I knew. I said ‘What are you doing with a handicapped spot?’ He was like, ‘I had an ingrown toenail removed.’ Now that’s stupid.”

Dare To Ask: Restaurants, recipes and religons

Some ethical choices are subtler, such as a restaurant employee’s question about whether to warn Jewish and Muslim customers that beef, chicken, fish and eggs were all prepared in the same pans there, and might compromise some faiths’ cleanliness standards.

Milano took the question to Sumbul Ali-Karamali, a lecturer on Islam who authored The Muslim Next Door: The Qur’an, the Media, and That Veil Thing. Her suggestion – “say, ‘In case it matters, I just wanted to tell you this is how our food is prepared’” – tried to balance a sense of decorum against experiences like she had as a middle school student discovering in mid-bite that the won tons she was chewing were pork.

At times, discussions started at Yforum.com demonstrate how far apart opinions remain when embracing diversity is weighed against other priorities.

Dare To Ask: Is racial profiling OK at airports?

Milano captured one of those divides in a pair of discussions about ethnic profiling for airport security that he held with conservative radio host Michael Smerconish and Parvez Ahmed, former chairman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Texts of the separate interviews were framed for readers in a point-counterpoint that included these arguments:

Smerconish: “Profiling is absolutely necessary. The FBI says Al-Qaeda is reconstituting itself . . . and their surnames aren’t Jones or Smerconish. There are still Arab extremists who threaten us. The common denominator of the 19 [Sept. 11] attackers remains constant.”

Ahmed: “If someone is suspicious-looking, yes, pull them aside. But if you simply see a person with a different color, or a beard, that’s diverting law enforcement from things of a genuine security concern. That’s counterproductive.”

Smerconish: “The blue-haired old lady out of Miami with a walker is undeserving of the same level of attention as Abdul flying in from Saudi Arabia. If that offends people, I’m sorry, but we need to use street-smarts and face the fact there are commonalities among those who threaten us.”

Ahmed: “Smerconish and others are exploiting our fears. . . . Law enforcement agrees profiling is the wrong way to go based on race. It should be based on suspicious behavior. The process now is so haphazard. Yes, I feel the stares. . . . If a local agent can detain you for hours because he didn’t like how you dressed that day, how have you been made safer?”

Smerconish: “Hey, when . . . bald suburban white guys like me start to threaten us, I’ll change my tune.”