April 23, 2022

The diversity of diversity

From our overstocked archives

Sam Smith, 2019 – One reason I couldn’t get too upset about Joe Biden hugging people in a way that bothers some was because I grew up in a family of six and learned early in life that others don’t do and see things the same as you. I also have 17 nephews and nieces, including three who are Scottish and four Puerto Rican. There was even a time when my oldest sibling, then energy director of Puerto Rico, was trying to build an oil port there while my youngest sibling was fighting one in Maine. 

Other things taught me that my views and values were just a micromind in the world around me. In ninth grade I took what was then one of two high school anthropology courses in the country, spending a whole year studying people who thought and acted differently than me. I would become a journalist, a job that requires a lot of listening to others without telling them what you think about it all. And, as a writer,  I often felt a minority of one finding refuge in the printed word for thoughts that I would not hazard in casual conversation.

Finally, I went to a Quaker High School in Philadelphia, one run by a meeting that had opposed slavery as early as 1688. Quakers, however, were not only advocates  of individual rights but of the concept of reciprocal liberty, which is to say that I can’t have my liberty unless you have yours. As David Hackett Fischer described it in Albion’s Seed:

             The Quakers extended to others in America precisely the same rights that they had demanded for themselves in England. Many other libertarians have tended to hedge their principles when power passed into their hands.

As I put it about a decade ago:

 This is what diversity is really about. It is not about forcing your values on someone else. It is about sharing space with those of different values in a way that no one is hurt.

 This is not a new concept in American life, although it seems to have faded from view. As Thomas Paine said, “Where the rights of men are equal, every man must finally see the necessity of protecting the rights of others as the most effectual security for his own.”

Describing David Hackett Fischer’s discussion in ‘Albion’s Seed’ of the difference in the view of freedom within the American colonies, Leonard J. Wilson writes, “Their contrasting concepts of liberty are among the most visible today. The Puritan concept of liberty, ‘ordered liberty’ in Fischer’s terminology, focused on the ‘freedom’ to conform to the policies of the Puritan Church and local government. The Virginia concept of liberty, ‘hegemonic liberty’, was hierarchical in nature, ranging from the great freedom of those in positions of power and wealth down to the total lack of freedom accorded to slaves. The Quaker concept of liberty, ‘reciprocal liberty’, focused on the aspects of freedom that were held equally by all people as opposed to the unequal and asymmetric freedoms of the Puritans and Virginians. Finally, the Scotch-Irish concept of liberty, ‘natural liberty’, focused on the natural rights of the individual and his freedom from government coercion.”

The good thing about the Quaker notion of reciprocal liberty is that you don’t have to approve of the other person’s behavior to accept his or her right to engage in it.

America, at its best, knows that you don’t have to like someone or their beliefs to extend to them the same freedom to be right or wrong. As Walt Kelly said, we have to defend the basic American right of everyone to make damn fools of themselves.

For diversity to work, no one gets to approve its membership. It exists because that’s the way the world is.

The distinction is whether diversity is merely different or if it hurts someone. If it hurts someone – as with ethnic discrimination or the physical mistreatment of women – then society rightfully gets to call a halt to it.

And if we understood and practiced such a principle of reciprocal liberty we might feel much better about our land and about each other.

 Reciprocal liberty, however, tends to be strongest in strong communities. I notice it, for example, in my small town in Maine where I hear few harsh criticisms of others. Given our larger society, however, with atomization brought by social networks, identity politics, the rise of the extreme right, and the growing number of us living in non-communal large urban areas, it becomes easier to have real opponents rather than just people who differ from you.

Still if you want diversity to work, you have to keep in mind that most people are going to be different from you.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Am I the first to comment? A guy living in the Bayview of San Francisco. Yes there are a lot of different folks in the neighborhood. Black, Asian, Hispanic and even a few White folks. Most people are nice to each other and get along. But there is a lot of trash and there are people that actually shoot and kill each other. Where do they get that Idea? My sense is that some of rap music encourages men to use guns to settle disputes while also saying not nice things about Women. Who is making money off this I wonder? Just an Old White Guy in the neighborhood.