How Can We Heal Social Division and Conflict?
Simpatía balances our cultural differences and our common human nature.
Posted May 16, 2018
It’s a truism to say that we live in troubled and divisive times. Parochialism and nationalism seem to be on the rise almost everywhere. Many people appear increasingly liable to retreat into their in-groups, and to emphasize their differences from other groups, watching each other with mutual distrust and suspicion. It’s a disheartening picture, to say the least. Particularly this week of all weeks, in which May 16th is the inaugural UN International Day of Living Together in Peace. For right now this noble goal seems to be receding rather than getting closer.
Pluralism and universalism
But when I step back and look at humankind, I'm struck by two contrasting perspectives, both of which seem valid. On one hand, people across the world often do really seem very different from one another. Moreover, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. One can admire and celebrate this rich diversity, the kaleidoscope of varying ideas, philosophies, traditions, music styles, cuisines, fashions, and so on. Let’s call this the pluralist perspective. This stance is reflected in one of the tenets of the UN description for this day, which acknowledges that living together in peace means "accepting differences and having the ability to listen to, recognize, respect and appreciate others."
But on the other hand, I also have a very strong sense of us all being just human. We’re united by universal concerns, needs, and desires. People the world over want to be safe, to love and be loved, to be granted dignity, respect, independence. We could call this the universalist perspective. This stance is reflected in a quote by the Roman playwright Terence in 150 BCE, which I encountered through the teachings of Dr. Maya Angelou, who cites this as a pivotal influence on her philosophy of compassion and humanity: "I am a human being. I consider nothing that is human alien to me."
I’ve been wondering though whether these stances are necessarily in conflict? Is there not a way to reconcile them? There may indeed be. The philosopher Ken Wilber has advocated a position he calls ‘universal pluralism’1. This skilfully brings together both perspectives, honoring both universal similarities and cultural diversity. I’ve found this approach helpful, and have tried to bring it into my own field of positive psychology, where I’ve been interested in the notion of ‘positive cross-cultural psychology’2. Specifically, his stance finds a solution by differentiating between deep versus surface structures (both within people and within cultures).
"Deep structures" are needs and desires that appear to be universal, as outlined by theorists like Maslow3. Societies then develop deep structural systems designed to meet these needs, from legal frameworks (to meet safety and security needs) to religious and philosophical systems (to meet meaning and development needs). However, while these deep structures may be universal, they can be expressed at a surface level in an almost infinite variety of ways, by people themselves, and by the culture more broadly. Crucially, this does not mean a superficial cultural overlay, but significant differences in expression that fundamentally change how these needs are experienced and met.
For me, reflecting on the potential and the hope embodied in the International Day of Living Together in Peace, this perspective of universal pluralism has a lot to offer. We can respect and indeed value cultural differences, while not losing sight of our common humanity. It therefore offers a potential route towards some degree of societal harmony and accord. In that respect, it appears to exemplify a vital principle known in Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking cultures as simpatía.
Literally meaning sympathy, this has taken on a wealth of other layers and meanings. One expansive definition describes it as "the act of participating in the affective states, the joys and sorrows of others; compassion; agreement or fusion of the emotions; communion; natural attraction of one person for another, or for a thing; inclination; the beginning of love."4
In enfolding this wealth of meanings, simpatía is an excellent example of an "untranslatable" word (i.e., one lacking an exact equivalent in our own tongue). I’ve taken a great interest in such words, particularly ones relating to wellbeing (as a researcher in positive psychology). To that end, I’m creating an evolving ‘positive lexicography’ of these words, as I explore in two new books (please see bio for details). Such words are significant for many reasons, not least in that they represent phenomena which have perhaps been overlooked or underappreciated in one’s own culture, but have been recognized by another culture.
We, of course, have conceptually similar notions in English. Indeed, we too have the cognate sympathy, which like simpatía derives from the Greek páthos (which generally refers to suffering, but sometimes just emotion, plus the prefix "with"). But still, simpatía offers something of value to our lexicon over and above sympathy and other such terms (like harmony). For it seems to me – as an outsider, admittedly – to capture the spirit of universal pluralism.
That is, connecting with others and finding our common humanity should not entail total submersion in the collective, the abandonment of one’s precious individuality, and the erosion of difference. It’s about allowing and even celebrating our differences, but crucially within the context of an overarching sympathy that recognizes our common human nature. We are each liberated to play our own melody, but we can contribute to a vast, vibrant, coherent symphony. I realize that this might sound idealistic and naïve. But it’s still worth striving for.
 Wilber, K. (2000). One taste: Daily reflections on integral spirituality. Boston: Shambhala Publications.
 Lomas, T. (2015). Positive cross-cultural psychology: Exploring similarity and difference in constructions and experiences of wellbeing. International Journal of Wellbeing, 5(4), 60-77.
 Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-396.
 M. Bouquet, Reclaiming English Kinship: Portuguese Refractions of British Kinship Theory (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993), at 164.