Karl Popper fled the Nazis in his native Austria and found safety in New Zealand during the war. In 1945 he found a new home in the United Kingdom, where he became a reader at the London School of Economics and in 1949, professor of logic and scientific method at the University of London. While in New Zealand, Popper wrote The Open Society and its Enemies — a book we stand in need of now more than at any time since its publication.
In The Open Society, Popper predicted the death of both Nazism and Communism on the theory that closed societies, those who adhere to One Established Way of Thinking, will sooner or later die of rigidity. Unable to adapt or innovate, they will sooner or later be unable to cope, and will crumble into the ash heap of history.
In 1973 Jacob Bronowski presented a BBC program called The Ascent of Man, a “science version” of Kenneth Clark’s wonderful Civilization series. Bronowski traces the development of science and technology, and program 11 of the series ends in the stark and brutal reality of Auschwitz, where Dr. Bronowski stands by a pond where, he narrates, ashes from the crematoria were dumped. He reaches down into the water, and brings up a handful of mud “[This] was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance and dogma It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave… In the end the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: ‘I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.'”
A number of years ago — rather more than I care to remember — my friend Robert Gage said that while it took us hundreds of years to understand the power of the printing press, we have only begun to scratch the surface of what the internet is and can do. One of the things it can do is allow us to live in our own bubble, in the echo chamber of People Like Me. We are thus able, if that is our leaning, to be even more isolated and intolerant that at any time in history, picking and choosing our “truth” and dismissing all else as “fake news” or “virtue signaling” -– all at the same time that the internet and widespread prosperity are also making us more diverse than at any time in history.
Diversity can do two things: It can enrich us, as Popper saw. Or it can frighten us, as Bronowski perceived. Knowledge can only be exchanged within a context of toleration, and respect of diversity — especially as we already live in a diverse society — is a path to increased knowledge, sometimes a difficult thing to take on board.
When I was growing up in Edmonds, I lived in fear. I knew I was gay from a very early age, though when I grew up the word — and the social construct — were still in the future. I remember siting on my bed looking at a pistol, thinking I would never be happy, always be alone, never by accepted. That is the dark side of the isolation that comes with a rejection of difference. I am wryly grateful to have grown up gay, because it has taught me what rejection of difference looks like from the receiving end.
I regret that I have few friends of different races. I do have friends of different religions and nationalities. I attend Seder meals most years, and in the context of the sort of discussion that the Haggadah always sparks, conversation ranges wide indeed. Last year we opened by stating our preferred pronouns. I find some of the discussion uncomfortable and challenging, as well as feeling awkward about some pronouns. But stretching is as good for the mind as it is for the mussels.
I have friends in many countries and can speak, haltingly, some of their languages. Anyone who is at all fluent in another language will tell you that we humans, even when we may look alike, yet differ in subtle ways that the working of language and idiom make clear. I have had to learn to accept different cultural assumptions and customs because these are my friends, and they are as “right” as I am. This has made it very hard to justify judgments about other people’s ways of life, and it has made my life easier and richer because I no longer care if you have a different accent, or celebrate different holidays. In fact, I believe I am stronger because of knowing your different ways. I only wish I knew them better!
A recent letter to this paper decried the Edmonds Diversity Commission. I want to reject that letter by saying that not only does the examination of diversity make us stronger and perhaps a bit wiser, it also opens doors to the alienated and isolated among us, be they LGBT, of a different race, or of a different religion. Embracing diversity can also be liberating to those who live in fear of difference. To say that we do not need to gain by experiencing diversity is to say that no one has anything to teach us. As Popper pointed out, that is the road to fossilization and collapse; and as Brownowski showed, ignorance and isolation produce the sort of “certainty” that leads to horrors.
We cannot afford to isolate ourselves. That is to live in fear and fester in resentment. The choice is ours to make. The practice of seeking out diverse views, and the strength it takes to take difference on board, can be hard and sometimes very uncomfortable work. Dr. Brownowski: “All knowledge, all information between human beings can only be exchanged within a play of tolerance. It is a major tragedy of my lifetime and yours that… all around [us] tolerance [is] crashing to the ground beyond repair.… the Principle of Uncertainty or, in my phrase, the Principle of Tolerance fixed once for all the realization that all knowledge is limited. It is an irony of history that as this was being worked out that there should rise… a counter conception, a principle of monstrous certainty.”
All praise to the Diversity Commission!
— By Nathaniel Brown