Around 300 members of the community crowded UTAS' Stanley Burbury Theatre this week for the 2012 Red Cross Oration titled: Diversity in Australia Today - a Conversation with Waleed Aly.
Waleed Aly is a broadcaster, author, academic, rock musician and former AFL mascot. His social and political commentary has produced an award-winning book and multiple literary short-listings, and appears in newspapers such as The Guardian, The Australian, The Sunday Times of India,The Australian Financial Review, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
He is the author, most recently, of What's Right? The Future of Conservatism in Australia (Quarterly Essay 37).
The evening began with refreshments and lively cultural entertainment in the foyer.
In conversation with Waleed was Dr Helen Durham (Red Cross, University of Melbourne).
"It's a great delight to be here and see so many people here wanting to engage in a conversation on diversity," she said.
Dr Durham said that dialogues on diversity often take the form of monologues or shouting matches or other formats that do not allow us to unpack the deeper issues.
"It's not an easy issue and I don't think anyone thinks they have the answer," she said.
Dr Durham asked Waleed about the definition of diversity: "is it more than hummus at barbeques and cultural music and dancing? How would you define as a starting point the concept of diversity?"
Waleed said hummus was a good place start.
"It's actually the site of quite a lot of conflict. Is it an Arab dish? Is it Jewish dish? Who makes the best? It is interesting that conflict gets expressed through chickpeas, if necessary.
"One of the ideas I often play around with – and here I'm going to state it in a much more forthright manner than I really mean- I want to submit for your consideration the idea that diversity is really just made up. It's not real."
Waleed said as a society we are diverse insofar as we tell ourselves we are diverse.
"That's really as far as it goes. If you look at human beings, there are so many ways we can choose to subdivide human beings.
"We can subdivide humans by gender, in which case there is limited diversity, there are two dominant categories and other categories that you might say are peripheral to most people's experience.
"Or we could choose not to recognise gender diversity and say there's not really a difference we're going to assign a value to between men and women."
Waleed said the same concept applied to racial and cultural diversity.
"At some point you can say yes, this person has black skin, this person has white skin and that's an objective difference… or is it?" he asked.
"At what point do we say it becomes a difference? It becomes diversity when we assign some kind of meaning to it."
Waleed also took a series of questions from the audience at the conclusion of the discussion.
Image: Waleed Aly in conversation with Dr Helen Durham at the 2012 Red Cross Oration.