The Vitality of Diversity

Tuesday, May 30, 2017 - 4:30 pm

The Vitality of Diversity

Sartre famously said, “Hell is other people.” I wonder what Jean-Paul was doing just before he wrote those words. Enduring a business lunch where the main course was braggadocio? Or an employer-mandated pep-talk by a “motivational speaker?” Or any cocktail party, anytime, anywhere? If so, I feel his pain.

But as a generalization, Sartre’s definition of hell is a reach too far for me. My hell is much more specific. It’s a place populated exclusively by straight white males over fifty who have college degrees and financial security — which is to say, people like me. For me, variety is more, much more, than the spice of life. It’s a basic ingredient of a life lived fully and well.

At a time when so much of American life is driven by fear of “otherness” — by a false and toxic nostalgia for “the good old days” when “we were all alike” — let’s ask where we would be without diversity. What price would we pay if all our companions came from backgrounds akin to our own and looked at life more or less the way we do?

Mother Nature can help us answer that question, as I learned when I visited a friend who lives in rural Minnesota. We took a drive on the back roads, passing acre after acre of corn lined up in orderly, homogeneous, and mind-numbing rows. As we crested a hill, my friend broke the silence: “Check it out.”

There, afloat in the sea of uniformity called agribusiness, was an island of wind-blown grasses and wildflowers, a riot of colors and textures to delight the eye. We got out of the car and walked silently through this patch of prairie my friend had helped restore, dotted with the kinds of plants whose names make a found poem: wild four o’clock, bastard toadflax, prairie smoke, amethyst shooting star. After a while, my friend spoke again, saying something like this:

“There are more than 150 species of plants on this prairie — to say nothing of the insects, birds, and mammals they attract — just as there were before the pioneers broke the sod and began farming. It’s beautiful, of course, but that’s not the whole story.

Biodiversity makes an ecosystem more creative, productive, adaptive to change, and resilient in the face of stress. The agribusiness land around us provides us with food and fuel. But we pay a very steep price for that kind of monoculture. It saps the earth’s vitality and puts the quality and sustainability of our food supply at risk. The prairie as it once was has a lot to teach us about how we need to live.”

The parallels between biodiversity and social diversity seem clear and compelling to me. Here are just a few of them:

Diversity make our lives more vital. Regular experiences of “otherness” not only bring blessed relief from the tedium of endlessly recycling the same ideas with the same people. They also dial down the fear of “the other” that keeps us from feeling at home on earth, sapping our vitality.

People who wall themselves off from diversity in gated communities and “lifestyle enclaves” become increasingly paranoid that encountering the other will put them in harm’s way. But folks who have daily experience in “the company of strangers” learn that it just isn’t so. Up close, it becomes clear that people who look and sound different from me don’t have horns — and some have haloes.

In my early thirties, on vacation in a distant state, I took a hike in the woods while my young family enjoyed the beach at a state park. An hour later, I was hopelessly lost and in a panic, worried about the setting sun and my family’s well-being. I stumbled into a small neighborhood at the edge of the forest and began knocking on doors. Four times I was turned away by people who were clearly afraid of me and my breathless plea for help. At the fifth door, the gentleman said, “Hop into my truck. I’ll have you at the beach in five minutes.”

My Good Samaritan was black, the others were white. One story does not good sociology make, but I’ve seen that pattern play out time and time again, driven not by genetics but by social experience. The white folks who turned me away either had never been lost and scared or were afraid of someone who was. But in America — with its history of slavery, Jim Crow (old and new), and sundown towns — people of color learn early in life what lost and scared feels like, and the result is often compassion.

Diversity makes us smarter and more creative. People from different backgrounds know different things and have different ways of interpreting what they know. As we come together in a “dialogue of differences,” the collective becomes smarter than any individual in it. That principle applies to everything from practical problem-solving, to scientific inquiry, to speculating on the eternal mysteries: all of us together are smarter than any one of us alone. Ask any high-tech company whose creative teams look like a good day at the United Nations.

Homogeneity dumbs us down and gets us into trouble. I mean the kind of dumb that comes, for example, from knowing so few Mexicans, or so little about them, that we’re more likely to fall for the lie that many of them are drug dealers, rapists, and assorted “bad hombres.”

Recently, some Americans have been taking a crash course in the consequences of this kind of dumb. On February 9, 2017, the much-loved manager of a Mexican restaurant in a Midwestern town was “detained” without notice and taken away from his family and his community. Later that month, one resident who supports deportations of undocumented immigrants spoke for many:

“…maybe this should all be more on a per-case basis. It’s hard to be black and white on this because there may be people like Carlos.”

Right. But wouldn’t it have been nice if this gentleman and his fellow citizens had known enough Mexicans — or had had enough moral imagination — to figure out that whole “black and white” thing before Carlos was “disappeared,” his family devastated, and his community deprived of an exemplary citizen who had lived there for a decade?

Diversity gives us a chance to increase our personal resilience. And God knows some of us need it these days. I’m one of the many weary souls who is still laughing at a line Jon Stewart, late of The Daily Showdelivered just eleven days into the current administration:

“The presidency is supposed to age the president, not the public.”

I’m 78. But for a couple of months following the presidential inauguration, I felt more like 108, asking myself, “Really? Is this the way I’m going to go out, learning daily about a fresh assault on dignity, decency, democracy, and truth itself that makes me ashamed to be an American?”

I began to recover my resilience as I talked with friends who — along with generations of their ancestors — have been targets of such assaults since the day they were born, and yet have refused to be intimidated.

My Muslim, Mexican, and African-American brothers and sisters have developed a form of spiritual alchemy that all of us can practice. It transforms the dross of political evil into the gold of political activism, revitalizing us to be the engaged citizens we should have been all along. Resilience comes from seeing people I care about take the next assault on their souls not as a reason to give up but as a source of power to keep on keeping on.

Diversity ups the odds that we will enjoy the benefits of the human comedy. Cross-cultural misunderstandings are not always train wrecks. Some of them generate humor that’s healing and life-giving.

I once spoke at a Jewish Community Center built around a beautiful garden dedicated to the memory of Jews who had been murdered in the Holocaust. After sitting quietly there for half an hour, I met with the Center’s director and told him how moved I was by this powerful witness to the suffering and the resilience of the Jewish people. He told me that the Center also tried to witness to the importance of interfaith relationships, which meant, among other things, hiring a religiously diverse staff. Then he said:

“Occasionally this leads to some laughable and lovable moments. We recently hired a Gentile as our front-office receptionist. We told her that when we answer the phone, we say, ‘Jewish Community Center — Shalom.’ I happened to be in the office when she took her first phone call and said, ‘Jewish Community Center — Shazam!’”

The goodwill laced through stories like that give me hope that we can emerge from these dangerous days on the diversity front with our humanity intact.

I recently heard an interview with Pat Buchanan, a once-major political figure who has always longed to return America to the days when white, European, Christian culture dominated. Of course, he’s delighted with the current administration’s “success” in advancing an agenda he helped set in motion, and is unfazed by our president’s multiple flaws, unforced errors, and failures.

When the interviewer asked him, in effect, “Why is diversity a problem for this nation?,” this three-time presidential aspirant said:

“Well, maybe it’s preference. I feel more comfortable. I’m a homeboy, and I feel more comfortable with the folks I grew up with.”

So there you have it, the personal truth behind much of the high-flying “make America great again” rhetoric. Pat Buchanan and his political pals want this nation to provide them with a homogeneous — read “racist and xenophobic” — comfort zone from sea to shining sea.

Mr. Buchanan is my age, and I know enough sclerotic and scared old white guys like him to feel a particle of pity. But fellas, you need to get with the program: by mid-century, the U.S. population will be over half people of color. I urge those of you who cling to your dream of the “good old days” — good for you, anyway — to take a good long nap and dream on, dream on. The rest of us will stay awake and help midwife the rebirth of America, knowing that our national nausea in this moment is just another symptom that our country is pregnant with change.

Given careful tending, America can be like that restored prairie my friend showed me, with its rich diversity of life, its vitality, creativity, resilience, and soul-satisfying array of textures and colors. Every time I touch in with that memory — or step into that social reality — my mind is renewed, my heart expanded, my spirit refreshed, and I feel at home again on the face of this good earth.

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Contributor

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. His book On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old will be published in June.

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Reflections

  • Louis Schmier

    We truly have to acquire an unconditional and embracing Abrahamic “HI,” an “Hospitality Intelligence.”

  • TD

    Is there a word for “enthusiastic toleration”? I can somewhat relate to the Buchanan quote… we had a saying at our school: “Diversity should make you a little uncomfortable. Only then does it mean something.” The point was we could handle being uncomfortable!… that disagreeing while not being disagreeable gave great benefits… that we, simply out, we NOT all that.

  • Gabby

    Several years ago I did some consulting for a housing authority that wanted to know what research says about multi-income housing developments, settings in which people live in proximity to those who tend to have quite different cultural and education backgrounds in addition to different income levels. The focus was mostly on how such living arrangements affected the poor and their children.
    What the research revealed was that people in such developments are typically good about engaging in casual interaction with “the other” but do not typically seek any sort of deep connection. More clearly, people would visit with each others, particularly in the outside space, and would let their children play together to some extent, but they would not really integrate themselves in the sense of sending their kids to the same schools that their poor neighbors would or making the socioeconomically diverse environment central to their social lives. If the children were not attending the same schools, living in such arrangements made no noticeable difference for poor families except that the neighborhoods were more safe and the families felt better about that.
    I mention this situation because we need to be careful about being overly satisfied with ourselves for the casual contacts we have when we are in fact maintaining very significant separation. There can be a “field trip to the other” aspect to the way many people choose to live.
    Comparing oneself to a racist and homophobic other does not set a high bar.

    • Parker J. Palmer

      Hi, Gabby. “Comparing oneself to a racist and homophobic other does not set a high bar.” You’re absolutely right. Thank heavens that was not what I was doing!

      • Gabby

        Of course, Parker, I was not referring to you at all. I see you as someone who, on the contrary, really pushes yourself to do the most you are physically capable of doing.

        • Parker J. Palmer

          Thanks, Gabby, and back atcha!

  • Birrell Walsh

    Bless you, Parker Palmer, and might I ask a favor of you? I find your fine and attention-grabbing opening
    “My hell is much more specific. It’s a place populated exclusively by straight white males over fifty who have college degrees and financial security — which is to say, people like me. ” to have a serious problem.

    I understand that you underlined “exclusively,” but think please how you would feel if someone had written “black women” or “Asian lesbians” in this slot – and that they were writing about themselves.

    You would understand that a culture had made them hate themselves. You would encourage them to find a way to appreciate themselves, and to bring that appreciation into the potluck of cultures we have.

    The progressive left has really no path to self-appreciation for white males. It is their role to grovel, to describe themselves as the problem, and never (ever) to critique anyone else. If a woman or a person of color says something, they are to nod. If they question what they hear, they are racist and sexist.

    The goodhearted men who undertake this path of self-abasement do not turn out well, though, like anyone else who is self-despising. Thinking one’s identity is toxic is in itself toxic. And then grows a dangerous reaction, a kind of nationalism that says “I am perfect” and takes all the critiques from the left and reverses them. Surely you see that face in the White House today?

    So the favor I ask of you is not easy: please help us find a way forward into a just and multicolored society that does NOT require this self-hatred by white people and particularly by young white men who are forming their self-image. I think the first step is simple: don’t grovel. Examine what you say to see if it is full of apology and self-dislike.

    And as a progressive you have this easy test – would what you are writing be jarring if a woman of color wrote it about herself and her culture?

    Thank you for the excellence and generosity of your writing.

    • Parker J. Palmer

      Thank you, Birrell—and thank you, Robert—for your kind and thoughtful critique. I’m familiar with some of your good work as a writer, Birrell, and I thank you for it. I believe we have overlapping vocations, and it’s always good to find a fellow traveler on this road!

      I’ve reflected on your critique of my piece, and for the moment at least (I’m always open to changing my mind), I’ve concluded that I can’t agree with it. You note that I italicized the word “exclusively” as a way of underscoring the fact that my focus was the downside of homogeneity (and the virtues of diversity), not a condemnation of “straight white males over fifty who have college degrees and financial security.” But I think I did much more than italicize one word to make my point clear. The whole of the paragraph in question (of which you quoted only the first two lines) and the one right after it—the two paragraphs that set up the case I want to make—read as follows:

      “But as a generalization, Sartre’s definition of hell is a reach too far for me. My hell is much more specific. It’s a place populated *exclusively* by straight white males over fifty who have college degrees and financial security — which is to say, people like me. For me, variety is more, much more, than the spice of life. It’s a basic ingredient of a life lived fully and well.

      “At a time when so much of American life is driven by fear of ‘otherness’ — by a false and toxic nostalgia for ‘the good old days’ when ‘we were all alike’ — let’s ask where we would be without diversity. What price would we pay if all our companions came from backgrounds akin to our own and looked at life more or less the way we do?”

      At the moment, I can’t think of a way to be more clear that my issue is not rooted in self-hatred or hatred of my demographic. It’s rooted in the dangers of homogeneity of social experience—and it’s accompanied by my hope for more openness to diversity and its values across this land. There’s always a risk in writing provocatively to make one’s point. But at a time when we have a president who wants to “make American great again” by making it white again, I think provocation is justified—in the same way, for example, that the provocative language of the prophets and certain Psalms is justified.

      I tried your test, and came up with this, as it might be written by a hypothetical African American woman: “But as a generalization, Sartre’s definition of hell is a reach too far for me. My hell is much more specific. It’s a place populated *exclusively* by African American women — which is to say, people like me. For me, variety is more, much more, than the spice of life. It’s a basic ingredient of a life lived fully and well.”

      I don’t find any self-hate in that, only another version of something that all kinds of people feel: the limitations of living our lives almost exclusively in demographically defined “silos” or “tribes” or “lifestyle enclaves.”

      That brings me to the question you raised regarding self-hatred among white people in America—which I’m going to limit, for the moment, to the demographic group I focused on (again, straight white males over fifty who have college degrees and financial security, people like me).

      It’s not my experience that such people hate themselves, or spend much, if any, time doing the things you ascribe to them: “It is their role to grovel, to describe themselves as the problem, and never (ever) to critique anyone else. If a woman or a person of color says something, they are to nod. If they question what they hear, they are racist and sexist.” If, in fact, they do such things, I don’t travel in circles where that description applies.

      What I see, instead, among the demographic I described, is a lot of denial of white, male privilege and the white, male supremacy which is driven deep into this country’s cultural DNA—and some degree of resentment of “otherness,” sometimes openly expressed. That’s a problem I think we should all care about and push back against, because that’s part (to paraphrase you) of “we are perfect” nationalism and “the face we see in the White House today.” (I should add, just to be as clear as I know how, that to be a white male and to acknowledge white male privilege/supremacy is not, honestly done, an act of self-deprecation, self-loathing, or self-hatred, Instead, it’s an act of historical, sociological, and political honesty.)

      You mentioned young white men who are forming their self-image. I don’t work much with the K-12 age group, so if those are the young folks you’re concerned about, I have little or no relevant experience. But I do a lot of work with young men between the ages of 18 and 40.

      What strikes me about them and their age cohort is that they walk across lines of “difference” as if they weren’t there—and in their demographically mixed friendship groups and workplaces no one escapes critique. I shared your statement (“It is their role to grovel…etc.”) with some of the young men I work with, and they did not recognize themselves in it. They said, in effect, “Sure we have some struggles with identity, but they are mostly rooted in vocational confusion or frustration, and sometimes in issues related to gender and sexual identity, but not in general self-abasement or ‘apologizing’ for being who we are.”

      Well, it’s a big subject and there’s a lot more to be said! But now I have to get back to earning a living! Thank you again, Birrell, for the way you framed your critique with both civility and candor. It may be that we will never see eye-to-eye on this matter, but the fact that we can talk about it openly and honestly is what matters to me. I’ve long believed that “it’s more important to be in right relationship than to be right.” I hope you feel—as I do—that we are in right relationship even as we may differ on important matters.

  • Birrell Walsh

    Thank you, Robert – and I would be delighted if Parker wanted to do it.

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  • Cynthia

    Without diversity, life would cease to exist. It is the diversity, not only among humans, but among all life forms, that empowers each species to survive and thrive. I’ve said to folks over the years, “Can you imagine vast fields of flowers populated by white roses only?” In my view, God created each entity–and there are no two entities alike, no, not one–to be magnificently different, magnificently diverse. It is this diversity that gives life its richness. Without diversity, life would be dull–and actually non-existent–indeed! Thanks once again, Parker Palmer.

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