Interviewed on September 5, 2014 by Adam Kahane.
Kahane: Is there something about Canada that you think is distinctive in the world today?
Shariff: Canada has developed a kind of civic intent to make diversity work. In our society, there is a broad sense that we’re not willing to indulge in the political opportunism of division in any serious way.
Like every country, we face challenges, difficulties, and sources of division, some of which are natural and some of which are open to exploitation. What’s interesting for us to understand is how our country responds to these kinds of shocks—and what it would look like if the same shocks happened in other kinds of settings.
The fact that the secular charter was debated in the Quebec election campaign, for example, where the stakes were high and the positions were clear and strong, and yet we just worked through it, is in a certain way shocking. It didn’t escalate! In some way, our institutional, cultural, historical, and political environment channelled everyone’s anxieties. To me, the expression of values that this event brought to light is unique in the world. It suggests something fundamental about Canada, which is that Canadian pluralism has very, very deep roots.
Kahane: Why is pluralism so important?
Shariff: In the world as a whole, the notion of homogeneity is quickly disappearing for two reasons. First, we’re more aware of our individual differences—our “selfness”—than ever before. Second, we have experienced demographic movements that historically were unheard of. These two factors mean that the idea of managing difference and being able to live in some kind of common framework might be fundamental for any society today.
Someone once told me that, for an individual, humility is the king of virtues. What is the king of virtues for a society—the virtue from which all other virtues and capacities stem? I wonder if the capacity for pluralism might be the source from which all others stem.
If you can build the social capacity to deal with pluralism, then you can deal with a host of other questions. You can’t sustain a vibrant pluralist society if you haven’t thought hard about the nature and structure of your economy. Large economic inequities or exclusivist or extractive institutions are incompatible with pluralism. So in order to underwrite pluralism, you need to have a certain kind of economic system. Political institutions and the ability to respond to the great diversity of human needs, aspirations, and identities are big drivers of pluralism. You can’t have political institutions that are bent on divisiveness or that pit people against each other: things will fall apart. And to sustain a pluralist society, you also need a certain kind of cultural life that balances unifying themes with lots of room for individual cultural expression and creative cross-cultural collaborations.
Kahane: Are Canadians actively aware of the importance of pluralism to our society?
Shariff: The last thing the fish talk about is the water that they’re in: it’s invisible. The scaffolding of Canadian society—this commitment to pluralism—is invisible to most Canadians. We don’t always understand it explicitly, and we might take it for granted, but it is embedded in us. We see it most starkly in Canadians working abroad. Canadians are able to operate in a lot of diverse and difficult places, and I think that’s because we have a certain sensibility for how things work in a pluralistic society.
Kahane: So pluralism is one of our untapped or underappreciated assets?
Shariff: I believe so, at least underappreciated by Canadians themselves, if not by others. There’s a danger both in Canadians not being humble enough and in being too humble about our pluralism. No one wants a bunch of arrogant pluralists running around; on the other hand, being too humble can serve as a way of devaluing an asset and somehow shielding you from assuming responsibility for sharing it. Of course, pluralism is not just a Canadian asset. It’s an asset in Canada or of Canada, but it’s also a global human asset. We’re just custodians of that asset for the world. What does it mean for us to use this asset with the world as a beneficiary?
Kahane: What would you want your epitaph to be?
Shariff: “He made a small Canadian contribution to the great issues of the day.” For me, the Canadian element isn’t a sloganeering notion; it isn’t about the maple leaf. It’s really about encapsulating a certain portfolio of ideas and ideals that this country has come to represent and using that as a platform for making a contribution to the world. Jennifer Welsh, in her book At Home in the World, said that we shouldn’t be a middle power, we should be a model power. She suggests that the best contribution that Canada could make is to be excellent at being Canada. So there’s a sense, I suppose, in which what we’re seeing is a Canada-shaped hole in the global puzzle.