Amid diversity and debate, we need to come together

Over the past few weeks, we’ve witnessed public discussion on a number of significant issues: gun violence, abortion, gay rights, race, economic policy. On none of them are we as a nation close to agreement.

And yet, we need to live together. The time is long past when we might exist as isolated communities in separated states, connected more in idea than reality. In fact, even here in Columbia, we are an incredibly diverse assembly of people.

That’s one of the reasons my wife and I are thankful to live here. There’s an incredible variety of people and perspectives, more like her native southern California than my Midwest and New England roots.

Of course, the mere existence of diversity doesn’t mean we handle it better, either here or anywhere else. But the more diverse we get – and that’s a given – the more our future depends on our ability to live comfortably with people of other views and backgrounds.

An example: The recent presidential campaign witnessed a number of incidents of the surreptitious removal of campaign signs from a residential lawn. The issue isn’t really that sign removal is wrong; it’s that the sign-remover wasn’t strong enough in his or her own beliefs to accept that someone else could believe differently without that difference affecting his/her life.

Long ages ago, when we all lived in self-contained units (nomadic clans, isolated villages), it may have been important to require uniformity of belief or practice in order for the clan/village to survive in a hostile environment. Diversity may have been unhealthy and insecure in such an atmosphere.

But we as a society left that, long ages ago. And in a complex world, we survive much better if we can take advantage of diversity – experiences that teach different lessons allowing us to respond constructively to new situations, for instance, or diverse views that, together, offer a more complete perspective on complicated issues.

Take the abortion issue, with the recent Roe v. Wade anniversary and ensuing discussion on this site. Both sides are passionate in advocating for their point of view. But someone recently called it “a discussion of the deaf” because neither side actually listens to the other.

A story’s been told about a British and a French soldier, sitting outside a café during a lull in battle. A puppy begged for scraps at their feet.

“What a cute little doggie!” remarked the Brit. “But it is le petit chien,” responded the Frenchman. And they argued what to call it, but nobody actually fed the dog.

The same thing happens with a host of divisive issues. We’d rather battle than solve something. We fear the supposed conspiracies of others and score points by demonizing the opposition, but actually feeding the hungry or helping the suffering gets lost.

The president has been sworn in for another term, and a new Congress will convene; our state officials are similarly poised to begin another period of problem-facing and (with any luck) problem-solving.

And in many ways great and small – in our workplaces and classrooms, in social settings and in our homes – we are faced with people who are different or who think differently.

But the truth is that your difference does not contaminate or corrupt me. We can hold different opinions without being enemies. In fact, we have to affirm the differences all around us – because if we do not, sooner or later we’ll find something “different” even in our closest friend or family member.

The only way to avoid difference is to be alone; the only way to enjoy the presence of others is to embrace their differences.

5 Responses to “Amid diversity and debate, we need to come together”

  1. Ryan Levi

    Great piece Steve. Something that I think we struggle with as a society is that we try to see the world, and the people in it, in black and white. Either you’re with me or you’re against. Either I agree with you on everything or we have irreconcilable differences. I have certainly suffered from this. The problem is that almost everything and everyone live in shades of grey and we must understand that we are far too complex to assume that anyone shares all our beliefs. You’re point about finding something “different” in our closest friends and family is spot on. We can’t allow discovering differences to tarnish existing relationships or stop new ones from forming. As a freshman at MU, I have met people with completely different world views than me and I have found some of my best friends in people who I disagree strongly with on several issues. Instead of being a barrier to friendship, our differences have provided endless topics for conversation and a new world view to consider for each of us.

  2. Kris Katarian

    It seems that our first impression of others is, how they are different from us instead of what do we have in common. That first impression often acts as a wall that keeps us from reaching beneath the surface to discover the “who” of another person.

    I have to place at least some blame on the bitter partisan politics that holds our country in a closed fist. Small groups of extremists are the loudest voices spewing venom. The worst of us gets trumpeted while the best of us act in quiet humility. The notion of disagreeing with destroying is lost.

    I believe that social change happens over generational periods. As each new generation is exposed to more people, places, and things that are different, they become more comfortable with said differences. The ubiquitous social networking, ease of intercontinental travel, and increasing diversity of cultures within communities give younger people familiarity, and familiarity breeds the possibility of friend rather than foe.

    Ryan, I’m depending on you.

  3. Kris Katarian

    Sorry, that should have been disagreeing withOUT destroying…

  4. Steve Swope

    Ryan, agreed. Showing my age – early in his career Billy Joel had a song about an “angry young man with his fist in the air and his heart in his hand.” Much later, however, he sang about “shades of grey wherever I go; the more I find out, the less that I know.” But it’s often easier and more comfortable to be black-and-white.

    Kris, agreed as well. Observers of society have known for generations that people who are exposed to different cultures – those who travel, for instance – are often more affirming of difference than those who are surrounded only by those like themselves.

    An additional thought: I think that some of our ideals carry unanticipated ends. For example, our nation’s belief in freedom of religion began when our population was almost completely Christian, with a small minority of Jews. It seemed a great and noble thing to allow the free expression of religion to others who were really not so different from ourselves.

    But when Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists and the non-religious started arriving (or becoming more visible), many people fell back on the “Christian nation” fallacy, because these others were “too different,” and they did not anticipate the extension of religious freedom that was the logical consequence of what they stated.

    I’ve seen the same thing around lgbt persons. People can say “we’re open and welcoming,” but there’s always something (a personality, a request) that isn’t expected, that provokes a knee-jerk reaction against someone/thing “too different.” It becomes a learning opportunity, on how much we’re willing to stand behind what we say.

  5. Nabihah Maqbool

    “it’s that the sign-remover wasn’t strong enough in his or her own beliefs to accept that someone else could believe differently without that difference affecting his/her life.”

    Insightful point-many times the people most resistant to both change and diversity is the one that has insecurities about themselves, and it comes out in an external manifestation.

    Really loving your articles on this theme Steve.


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