Commentary: In praise of the Diversity Commission

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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

12 Replies to “Commentary: In praise of the Diversity Commission”

  1. The preamble about Nazi’s is a bit over-done. Everyone agrees that Nazism is bad, but few alive can take credit for ending it, and a Diversity Committee circa 2019 shouldn’t be put in front of that parade. I’d also like to add that Nazism was National Socialism (not communism) and that it was billed as an enlightened, scientific and moral movement against ignorance – it was the progressive movement of it’s time. No nation or race, including the United States, did what was needed to prevent the Holocaust (even the MS St Lewis was turned around). The Holocaust wasn’t even why we joined the war, and there was racial sentiments in the United States against Japanese and Italians that weren’t shared by Nazi’s. The Axis Powers were relatively Diverse in that they actually allied with races that the United States vilified and interned (again, internment policy was the product progressive ideology and the FDR administration). Racially speaking, Nazi’s were every bit as Diverse as the Allied Powers, maybe more so. Why this is clumsy is that Diversity and anti-Nazism are non sequitur and there’s a lot more nuance to that period. We’re romanticizing history and using it for it’s unintended purposes. We are the greatest nation, in my opinion, but not because we used Diversity to defeat the Nazi’s.

    I’ve been a social justice warrior for the gay community. I’m a late arrival, but I can tell that gay rights never was about Diversity (contemporary Diversity has more of an equity objective). The Gay Rights movement focused on equality-first. Interestingly, after the fact, measuring income and income mobility, education levels, gay men surpassed straight men in several aspects of equity – all without any centrally planned emphasis on diversity-first. Focusing on equity before equality is building a house on a bad foundation. The gay rights movement, and Jewish rights, are good case studies for how giving people equal treatment works over giving people equal placement.

    Don’t self-loath over having mostly white friends. I’m a white dude and will be your friend. Let’s be friends first, colors second.

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  2. I never read the book, but I’ve heard of it,
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Open_Society_and_Its_Enemies
    https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/sep/26/100-best-nonfiction-books-karl-popper-open-society-its-enemies

    According to the abstract, Open Society reads like a condemnation of both Fascism and Individualism. Diversity doesn’t seem to be a theme, so much as a criticism of Communism with an emphasis on “Open Society” (Socialism?). The book is frequently used to criticize capitalism but, back on the topic of Diversity which the book doesn’t seem to be about, capitalism is best means of cultural exchange known to man. I’ll have to give it a read, but I am guessing it is it’s own best criticism, like how Animal Farm was a precautionary tale about both Communism and Capitalism but undid itself by perfectly illustrating the mechanics of how Socialism naturally decays into Communism; the means of productions were seized by revolution but Boxer never was able to retire to his promised field and the pigs became fascists oppressors. There seems to be quite a few books written in the 40’s that long for perfect Socialism and lament it’s inevitable decay into Communism. If we could just do socialism correctly, that won’t happen [again]. Nathaniel’s precautionary tail of Nazi’s, if we divorce that point from contemporary objectives of Diversity, makes sense – National Socialism (Nazi) decayed into a fascists state. Free Market advocates often use books written by Socialists in the 1940’s (such as 1984) that lament fascism, as precautionary tails of how Socialism and Open Societies turn into fascist societies.

    The PhilosophiCat:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bX3SB4GtECE

    On Diversity, Multiculturalism is the bulk acceptance of other cultures and preserving them entirely. It’s Diverse by the numbers, but it also creates cultural enclaves like Native American reservations and Paris no-go zones that are in themselves monolithic and isolated, and defeat the purpose of important cultural exchange. Melting-pot societies are in stark contrast to that, in that good cultural aspects are taken and accepted a-la carte, while bad cultural aspects (such as child marriage) are rejected by the dominant society. Are we in favor of rejecting cultural aspects, or is capital D Diversity about accepting everything?

    Is this in the purview of the Edmonds Diversity Committee, Open society, Multi-Culturalism over Melting Pot, and Open Boarders (which is European Union’s use of The Open Society and Its Enemies)? That’s a big charter.

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  3. Thank you Nathaniel. You shared your thoughts and feelings openly and with respect. I admire the insight in your realizing that you don’t always feel comfortable with others but that it makes your thinking stretch. Again, thanks for your insights.

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  4. Theresa, perhaps it’s time to consider limiting the length of a writer’s comments. This could result in not just more succinct, but more lucid, commentary and a better experience for the reader. Sometimes the number of new threads introduced in a single (long) comment distracts from the topic at hand.

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    1. We have had this comment come up more than once and I have encouraged commenters who do this to write op-eds or letters instead — to no avail. I would encourage you to simply “ignore” commenters who routinely do this — that is precisely why I installed that feature.

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      1. I was Kavenaugh drunk last night when I wrote all that. It would have better to not of taken the Six Degrees to Kevin Bacon connection between the Diversity Committee and those ‘ol Nazis seriously, but I entertained the question. Nazis are an old hat. Thumbs up for reinstalling thumbs up-down.

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    2. If you don’t like the comment hit the “ignore”, easy peasy. But please don’t try to stifle “free speech”! Mr Richardson’s comments are welcome by myself and others. His facts usually set the record straight and/or add to the discussion. If this “distracts” a reader, it is not due to lack of brevity, but lack of agreement with the commenter. Thank you Teresa for the “ignore option”, now please bring back the “like” option (we don’t need the “dislike” option as apparently that hurts peoples feelings).

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  5. Thank you, Nathaniel, well said. I appreciate your sharing these thoughts and ideas. You have given us all something to think about. I have participated in events sponsored by the Diversity Commission, and appreciate all the important work the Diversity Commission has done to educate, energize, and enlighten our community.

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  6. Many folks make long comments and it is often for good reason. Most issues cannot and should not be limited to just sound bites or talking points. After all, compared to the averages Edmonds is older, richer, more educated and has more then average retired folks. It may well be time for us all to set back and THINK a bit about our community and figure out how we can do better on many issues. The discussion about gun storage, diversity, housing strategy, population growth, city expenses growing faster than revenues, and the whole idea of what is it we want to subsidize and how should we do it are vital to our community. Sound bites won’t give us the information to decide what problems we want to work on and what “agendas” we want to simply support or reject. It is time to listen, learn and then act for what we as a community want for our community.

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  7. Nathaniel has very kindly drawn my attention to this piece in My Edmonds News. As I live in the UK, I would not otherwise have seen it.

    I vividly recall that conversation, years ago, when we spoke about the potentially isolating effects of the internet. Alas, this wonderful invention – while putting all sorts of diverse people in touch with each other, right across the world – can also help promote the fragmentation of society into smaller and smaller groups, where any difference is resented, and all dissenters expelled.

    This fragmentation seems to get worse year by year. I’m sure we are richer when we have to rub shoulders with those with whom we may disagree quite profoundly. They are quite entitled to hold and express views I may reject. What I cannot accept is that any group has some sort of ‘right’ to silence dissent.

    Who was it who said, ‘Never let facts interfere with your prejudices’? I believe we all need to struggle, day by day, to distinguish between the two, and find the courage to reject prejudices and embrace facts – however hard or distasteful that may be.

    Thank you, Nathaniel, for what I found to be a powerful, stimulating and timely article.

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