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.