Read the original: When Everything is Better, Why Hasn’t Anything Changed?
Since no one bothered to write any comments or challenge my thoughts on tolerance, I guess I am going to have to do it myself. Putting aside the idea that success is always running away from us, we still have to work toward some goal. And granting that love is a higher, though terribly impractical, ideal than mere tolerance, let me take issue with the idea of unity among people.
We’ve often heard calls for people to come together, for Democrats and Republicans to work with each other, for racial groups to put aside their grievances, for husband and wife to sit down and talk, for cops to just stop shooting people. But isn’t that a form of naivete, a lack of understand about the issues and differences between them, a underappreciation for the stakes, a preference for peace over justice and progress? Or if not naivete, then manipulation, a tool of oppression for the strong to dominate the weak or a ploy to fool the strong into ceding their rights? Yes, it often is.
And even if we assume that the motives are pure, is unity even something we want? America is a diverse nation, and we celebrate that diversity. It is one part of what has made America such an energetic, creative, innovative nation. Many different kinds of people and ideas and customs can flourish here. There is wealth in that varied experience and knowledge, in the willingness to accept what is new. We don’t want to get rid of that. As much as we talk about no one being able to agree, we wouldn’t actually want everyone to agree any more than we would want everyone to wear the same shirt. Sure, it might make some things easier, but it would be dreadfully boring, the death of something which makes life vibrant and joyful.
When we tolerate a person, a lifestyle, a custom, a religion, a subculture, or whatever, we leave it the same in deference to this ideal, that even those ideas we don’t like or follow (or are harmful) can serve to create the type of society we want to live in. We celebrate diversity, not only as a good in itself, but as a protection of our own ideals. A diverse group is fluid, able to welcome (or ignore) new people and ideas on the edges, whereas a monolithic group is rigid, excluding or oppressing obvious outsiders and changing only from the top.
The question is how much deference any group should be given. By leaving a subgroup alone, we permit and encourage enclaves of people with distinct customs, histories, ideas, and languages. It’s a way to display maximum diversity, to bring together many ideas, in a small space where everyone has a space but without losing or damaging any of it in the process. Kind of life a museum. A wing for this culture and a wing for that group, a hall for this lifestyle and a room for that idea. There’s a type of unity here; it all exists within the same building for the same fundamental purpose, and every once in a while the exhibits get rearranged. Anyone can come view it all and learn from it. Just don’t touch the artwork!
In this framework, the essential crosscultural relation is viewership. We observe and listen and learn from other groups for our own edification, but we don’t judge them or try to change them anymore than you would try to leave your mark on the Mona Lisa. This is even more important when one group has been abused and harmed. To preserve the society we must both correct the wrongs and maintain the cultural history, which can only be fully known from the inside, so the first step is always listening rather than to try to insert yourself into the situation and assert your own cultural ideas. The principle plays out even in very small groups. If your spouse has been hurt, the first step is always to listen and empathize with the pain, recognizing that you do not fully understand, before you defend or minimize or propose answers (if you must). Only then can you work together as one to heal.
It’s hard to deny that’s where we are in the case of African-American culture. We want to make things better for the individuals and yet also preserve the unique history of the group. Yet we don’t often listen and are quick to defend ourselves from charges of injustice or to assert our own solutions without realizing those solutions are a threat to group identity. If it were only a matter of economic justice, anyone could propose an idea with economic merit, but since this is about social justice, the answer can only come from within or it risks damaging what it meant to save.
Two problems come with this conception of society. The first is that it places the dominant culture (white, heteronormative, cisgendered, whatever else) in the role of cultural curator. Their role is to preserve other distinct cultures, which is patronising on its face, but it also means they don’t have a unique culture worth preserving themselves. Of course, their dominance means pieces of their culture are de facto preserved, though it is much more subject to change. There is such a thing as “whiteness,” culturally speaking, though it is a fluid concept and far from celebrated. People can join this group from any subculture (even if they aren’t pale skinned), but movement in the other direction is very limited. This is a position of strength with many advantages, as I think most people acknowledge, but there is one significant downside. If you are in this group, you basically never get to talk about culture. Your role is completely passive, to listen and observe, maybe implement some solution if you want to help. I wonder how much of the impulse to meddle and fix and defend ourselves is really an outpouring of the desire to have a voice, to be a part of a unique group is a society that values unique voices.
The second problem is that when we are all in our our separate enclaves, defining our own values, establishing our own cultures, telling our own histories, we are creating a society where we may live in the same country or the same city or the same house and yet it is impossible to really know other people from separate groups or to genuinely interact with them. Perhaps that is our fate as individual humans, forever isolated from our kind in body and spirit, but is it wise to make that the basis of our society?
This is where much of our institutional bias originates, at least that which was unintentional. If I am a member of the dominant culture in charge of creating and maintaining society-wide institutions, how can I create something that is fair and accommodating to everyone if I fundamentally can’t know the experience and needs of other groups? The only answer would be to put someone from each group on the team creating the institution, but to the extent that is feasible, how are they all going to agree if no one understands the others or can challenge them? And institutions are durable, so whatever is decided now may not meet the needs of some future group but will still govern them.
It also creates an intractable, unavoidable system of personal bias. If I am from one group and you are from another, we can’t properly understand each other, so misunderstandings, faux pas, and personal slights are inevitable, which over time can lead to confusion, resentment, and outright hostility. In this situation, is it safer to hire, to befriend, to marry, someone you can know and have a reasonable chance or understanding? It probably won’t be better, diversity would likely enrich your life, but it will be easier. The answer is to listen and learn, to be generous in our assumptions about what we don’t understand, and to take risks in the name of justice, but that gap between ourselves and the other can never be fully bridged, so there will always be cause for personal bias in the human heart between whatever groups we make. In a way this is just the normal course of human interaction made large. It’s why we so often give ourselves the benefit of the doubt but take no excuses from others.
So what are we willing to accept in the name of diversity and unity? If diversity brings beauty and vibrancy to our lives and increases our knowledge and experience but also causes misunderstanding and awakens bias, how much can we live with? If unity creates peace and justice between people but stifles change and justifies outward oppression, how much can we afford? Are the two mutually exclusive, or is there some conception of life and society which enables both to flourish?