I recently came across an interesting, playable, animation that showed how a small preference for individuals to be among people who are like them will result in a segregated society. The illustration has two types of polygons – squares and triangles. If each square prefers to be in a square majority area and each triangle wants most of its neighbors to be other triangles, after many iterations of moving to a more comfortable neighborhood, we have clear segregation into triangle-majority and square majority areas. The point they are trying to make here is that a small, seemingly harmless individual bias can lead to a large collective bias. Their claim is that this segregation is bad for diversity and so we need to start demanding more diversity around us. However, I think there is more to understanding the effects of diversity and segregation in society.
Firstly, humans are different in many more dimensions than the polygons in question. Your preference on who you want around you depends on what you give importance to.
If money is important for you, you want to be around people who are more or less as wealthy as you. In fact, humans are so complex that some will want to be in a neighborhood that is wealthier than them so they can have powerful connections and others will want to be surrounded by poor neighbors so that they can feel rich and powerful! The businesses in neighborhoods thus segregated will find it easier to target their customers with set products and services that fall into their “affordable” and “desirable” range.
Those who give prime importance to religion will want to be around people of the same religion so that they can engage in religious studies or prayers together. They might also decide to settle around their common place of worship, where they may be able to play sermons or hymns on loudspeaker without causing much trouble. A person of a different religion will find it difficult in such a place, just as a very poor man in a rich locality or the other way round.
Similar segregation may happen in case of people who want to be around others who enjoy the same sport, work in the same industry as themselves, talk the same language, celebrate the same festivals, or are fans of the same superstar! If we look at it, people living in such a locality are not all alike – but being with others who share their primary concern or interest in life makes it easier for them to have that shared concern addressed. If only it was as easy for people to move around as it is for polygons in that game!
So, my first point is that such segregation is not necessarily bad, it can make life easier and more fulfilling for people.
If I choose where I stay based on a preference (which is referred to as a bias in the post on polygons), that doesn’t mean I shun all interactions with all others. I may stay in a place that makes it easier to practice my religion, marry someone from my caste, go to movie with a friend who enjoys the same kind of movie as I do, go for lunch with someone else who has the same taste, and practice Karate sparring with someone in my own weight category!
In each case, my preference for those who are like me helps me. This way, I can have a friend from a different religion that I go for a movie with or a friend at work who speaks a different language. In these associations, I can have a good relationship with people who are otherwise very different from me. On the other hand, if I try to force myself into an association with someone in an area where we are completely different, it might unnecessarily lead to conflict.
The issue of conflict is much more important when segregation is based on culture and religion, which determine our core principles and moral standards to a great extent. If I, with like-minded folks, were to form a residential colony of vegetarians, it is indeed segregation and there will be many who object to it because they do not understand why I anyone would object to living in a place where animals are cooked and eaten. There will probably be more who can appreciate why someone wouldn’t want to be where animals are slaughtered, but some may not understand even that if slaughter is a part of their way of life!
This is the second point to note, that segregation and association based on preference can lead to greater harmony between people who are very different from each other and thus is more conducive to harmony.
Now, the third point that I have has even more potential to be controversial. You may not agree, but I think segregation is what makes diversity possible. Take the case of race, for example. As long as the races remain segregated, they will each have their identity. But when that segregation disappears, we may end up with a population of mixed race where that diversity is lost forever. This is important in the case of other differences as well, such as culture and language.
Thus, if diversity is good, segregation can’t be too bad either. These forces reinforce each other and together make the world a colorful place to live in.