Of diversity and hospitality

Hostis: Guest, stranger, enemy.

How can the unforgivable be forgiven? But what else can be forgiven? (Derrida, p. 39)

I want to, no, I need to, take a moment to reflect the current trend of “catering for student diversity” in higher education organisations. I do not wish to speculate the history of this strange movement of supporting different students, often assigned to the fact that there is pressure from the world becoming increasingly multicultural, or ponder why it might be upon us just now. Instead, I want to entwine it to some ideas in Of Hospitality by Derrida & Dufourmantelle. I believe the importance of such a work will continue to rise, if one is interested in any aways succeeding in building (online) communities in a university context.

When you are visiting an organisation, you acquire the role of a guest. A person might be assigned to host you, take you in and around the space where you are a stranger, often showing agreed parts of the organisation and the people. As a guest, you are responded by others in certain ways, which like magically almost everyone knows how to act.

But what happens when you become a part of an organisation? You are not a stranger anymore? Perhaps. At least you are not a guest? Perhaps. When does a person become a part of an organisation, taking part in certain kind of organising? Part of a group of people, agreed to be organised in certain ways.

Various stories we tell (and also study programs we take, also those informal ones) of hospitality define the roles and interactions during an occurrence of hospitality. The host submits to take and act the role of the host, navigating with the guest in the space, unknown for the stranger but known for the host. At the same time the stranger, the guest, accommodates oneself to not break the rules of the space and occurrence visited, and by doing that honors the almost sanctity of this often unspoken agreement. If the guest does not uphold this, the role of the enemy might emerge.

Who are university students? Are they strangers, guests, or perhaps part of organising and maintaining certain ways of being and acting in the university? When we examine the language of diversity initiatives, projects promoting student diversity, it is clear someone is trying to organise something for the students, deciding something for them.

In an educational institution, both the students and the staff have a choice of accommodating oneself to the existing ways of being and acting, trying to change them, or just deviating away from them, still staying in the community, but on the verges. When one is accepted inside an organisation, rules, policies and procedures are laid upon the person. Often the person is as if relinquishing the rights of acting certain ways while bound in a certain organisational space. Because of these particular processes and dynamics, how can promoting diversity ever be possible? Diversity might find spaces within small cracks, but what about as an organizational vision, as an underlying purpose? The appearance of this taking place can of course easily be achieved with words, but does the evidence from day to day interactions support them? Certainly not.

What has to take place in an organisation, in the way of organising, for hospitality of diversity to take place, or better yet, to be expelled? This is a crossroads. If a university is a place of hospitality, “catering for diversity”, it suggests a community where the roles of its members from students to teachers have already been laid out in certain ways that prevent a tolerant community.

The very idea of creating guidelines or instructions for the (more) permanent members of the community gives birth to a host, inviting the notion that the transitory members of the university are guests. In this very moment, certain possibilities of a community are lost, and other ways of acting introduced. The hosts will ‘help’ the guests to navigate the university’s context, and the guests will honor their status, or risking the status of an enemy. The guests will also start to execute certain rights assigned to a guest: during an act of hospitality, it is not expected from the guest to be an active agent, but the host will navigate, choosing the presentable parts of their common, but not collaborative, journey. Still, one of the odd rights reserved for the host is to make fun with the true members of the community of the guest’s incapability to act in that specific context – which is actually laid upon the guest by the existing host-guest relationship. The mission of the host is to show the guest around, but not in its true sense, as it would require connection, true openness and releasing control.

Why to examine diversity (diversus: opposite, separate, apart, diverse, different, hostile) and university (universitas: a whole) this way, and how might forgiveness connect to this? Derrida suggests that true forgiveness comes from forgiving something that seems to be impossible to forgive. This has everything to do with diversity, and how we recognize or accept the Other. When we interact with others, for example at work, who acting in certain ways, always carry out hostile acts against our identity, our only true home, ourselves, we have such moments wherein to forgive. If we can forgive these acts (which most of the time, if not all the time, are because of otherness), no matter if they are done on purpose or not, we are one step closer to accepting the difference, perhaps banishing the stranger. If we understand that the qualities the other person is constructed with, are at that moment what they are, we release new probabilities for interactions that form actual communities. In such a state, words such as retention, engagement and diversity become futile, they are not needed.

Special thanks to @KateMfD, as “she knows something about Derrida”.


Derrida, J., & Dufourmantelle, A. (2000). Of Hospitality. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Derrida (2002): http://youtu.be/CtcpwJCC6Co?t=52m44s